(This is the second in a 30-day series of thoughts on the Bible’s Book of Revelation.)
In exploring what the mystifying Book of Revelation is about (and not about), let’s consider first what John the author of Revelation was about. (And I’m assuming here that the same John who was the beloved disciple was the writer of Revelation; there’s much disagreement about that in Revelation scholarship now, as there’s scholarly disagreement about so much in the book. More to come on that.)
I see him as being about three things:
Now, if you’d never cracked a Bible before and you opened it to Revelation, you could be forgiven if you read it and surmised that the author John must have been sick in the head.
You might wonder what kind of fevered mind came up with this seeming hodgepodge of bizarre and sometimes violent images and so much language about harsh judgment.
You’d probably miss the book’s point that a bloody but redemptive Lamb has triumphed over evil. The “triumphant Lamb” of Revelation will be a topic on another day in this series.
For now, it behooves us in exploring the weird and wonderful world of Revelation to remember that John–known as “the disciple whom Jesus loved”–was always an “insider,” a member of the inner circle of Jesus.
Granted, he was such a high-strung young man when he walked alongside Jesus that Jesus nicknamed John and his brother James “Sons of Thunder” (Mark 3:17). The gospels show John to be an aggressive and puffed up disciple.
Yet John was the disciple Jesus chose to take his place as the son of Mary herself after the crucifixion. Jesus has always been The Great Transformer, the savior who transforms lives and personalities. The thunderous disciple John was transformed by him into an early church leader who was all about the aforementioned faith, hope and very much love.
A reading of 1 John–one of three epistles the transformed John wrote after the resurrection–shows him as the leader of struggling churches to be deeply concerned about faith. This is underscored in scriptures like 1 John 3:23:
“And this is his (Jesus’s) commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he commanded us.”
John was the loving pastoral leader who wrote in that first epistle of his that God, simply defined, is love:
“God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected in us, that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world.”
We are in this sometimes bloody, violent world of crushing forces, the same worldly empire that tried to snuff out Jesus forever and that would snuff out all of us for our faith.
Remember I said that John is also so very much about faith:
“For the love of God is that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith.
“Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” (My italics for emphasis; see 1 John 5:3-5.)
John wanted to convey the same message to persecuted Christians he was writing to in Revelation that he had conveyed to Christians in the scriptures from his first epistle above. That message being that as Christians, we can and we will conquer the world with our love. Jesus came and showed us the way.
As Christians, John says we are world beaters, conquerers over evil. But like Jesus, the only weapons we need are the spiritual weapons of prayer, worship, hospitality and all the other weapons of God’s love to overcome.
Those were very encouraging, hopeful messages written by John to Christian faith communities that were utterly powerless. Members of the first churches were vulnerable to death, torture or imprisonment for putting their allegiance to Jesus ahead of allegiance to the Roman emperor.
As the writer and theologian Virginia Stem Owens once noted, John was writing in Revelation to Christians who were punished and persecuted as much for not believing in the divinity of the Emperor as they were for simply believing in Jesus.*
As I noted in yesterday’s post, John in Revelation is encouraging weary Christians who might be tempted to lose all faith and hope under oppressive regimes to keep faith, hope and love alive.
In Revelation–which he wrote from the Greek island of Patmos where he was imprisoned himself for putting Jesus above the allegedly “divine” emperor–John is amplifying the Good News of Jesus Christ, who loves us in spite of our flaws and failings.
The Jesus in whom we can put our hope.
So the second takeaway from Revelation (See yesterday’s post for the first) is this:
2.) John the author of Revelation was not a harsh, violently judgmental man but rather a pastoral man and church leader abiding in faith, hope and love. And the Book of Revelation itself, in the end, is about maintaining faith, hope and love in a messy, violent world ever in need of God’s healing powers of love, grace and tender mercy.
*(See Owens’ introduction to Revelation in The Life With God Bible: New Revised Standard Version. More on the always interesting Ms. Owens here.)