When I was just out of divinity school and living in Indianapolis, I met a group of guys who invited me to an evening Bible study. Most of the guys were pretty laid back, but one seemed suspicious of me. I could tell he was concerned about my progressive approach to the Bible, and that I might not be taking it seriously enough. One night when he was in charge of leading the study, he got out a boom box and handed out the words to Johnny Cash’s song, The Man Comes Around. It’s about the Book of Revelation. It begins with a crackly recording of Cash’s voice, saying, “And I heard, as it were, the noise of thunder One of the four beasts saying, ‘Come and see…’ We sang the song together, which repeatedly quotes vivid passages from the Book of Revelation, and I looked around at these new friends of mine and I thought, “Holy…Moly.”
It turned out that the Bible study and the friends were harmless and fun; even the suspicious guy was mostly just kind of old school and was concerned that I wasn’t married. And he was right that I was pretty academic in my reading of the Bible; over time I’ve come to a greater appreciation of readings of the Bible that are less academic and more spiritual in nature. We are meant to be swept up in the beauty, power, and mystery of God’s Word; and sometimes our need to make sense of everything gets in the way of that.
When it comes to the Book of Revelation, though, I have come to believe that both are important. If you have a little bit of patience, the parts that many of us may find bizarre or even frightening can actually be explained rather easily. I want to take some time with that this morning. And there is a point that goes beyond academics: There is beauty, power, and mystery in this book for those who are willing to pay attention.
If you want to understand the Book of Revelation, the best place to start reading is at the beginning. That may seems obvious, but isn’t it striking when you think about how much Bible reading takes place apart from that simple strategy. So let’s start at the beginning.
In chapter 1, which we read to you this morning, the author introduces himself and his situation: “I, John…was on the Island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus… I was in the spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice…saying, “Write in a book what you see and send it to [these seven churches]…” It is in these two verses that much confusion over the Book of Revelation is easily resolved.
In the first verse we learn that the author of the book is a man named John. We learn that he is on the Island of Patmos, which we know was a Roman penal colony—a prison. And we learn that he is in prison because of the word of God. John has been locked up by the Roman Empire; he is being persecuted for his religion. This is the first important piece of context.
In the second verse, John tells us more about his situation, he says that he is “in the spirit on the Lord’s day.” Another translation says, “It was Sunday and I was in the Spirit, praying.” As John prays, he hears a voice telling him to write down what he experiences as he prays, and to send it to seven churches. Letter writing was common among the early Christian communities—it makes up the majority of the New Testament. And for John to say that he had a vision and wanted to share it is no more remarkable than any of you who have awoken from an especially vivid dream and tried to make sense of it by telling your spouse or your therapist. This is what we do.
A simple page turning, a reading of the chapter headings through the remainder of Revelation reveals the following: Most of the 22 chapters of this book are made up of seven shorter letters sent to each of the churches described in chapter 1, and then there’s a concluding message at the end. That’s the context. It makes sense, it is not complicated, and it doesn’t have to be frightening.
The seven letters and the message within them follows a common theme, and I like to teach it using an example from chapter 17. We did not read chapter 17 at length because it is quite long, but if you choose to read it yourself, especially out of context, you will find 18 verses full of strange imagery and you may at first find yourself throwing your hands in the air and saying, “What in the world was that???” Let me break it down for you.
If you read chapter 17 slowly and deliberately, and if you go back to your sentence diagramming skills from elementary school, highlighting the nouns in one color and the verbs in another color, a deceptively simple story begins to take shape.
There is a whore riding on top of a beast that has seven heads. John tells us the seven heads are seven mountains. Her name is Babylon. Here I need to ask you for some help: What is the significance of Babylon in the Old Testament? (Answer: Babylon defeats the Kingdom of Judah and destroys the Temple in Jerusalem. It is the worst period in the history of Israel). John is a prisoner of the Roman Empire because of his faith, so what city is the Babylon of the New Testament? (Answer: Rome) And, aside from Cincinnati, history buffs, what city sits upon 7 mountains? (Answer: Rome)
Continuing: the way this simple story is told, Babylon makes war on a Lamb, and the Lamb wins. My second set of questions is even easier: In the New Testament, who is the Lamb? What are Lambs like?
John’s vision, the vision he wishes to share with the seven churches to whom he is writing, is that the Empire is making war on the Lamb, but the peaceful Lamb will win in the end. And what does it look like when the Lamb wins? For the answer to that question I point you to the second part of our reading from chapter 21:
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
‘See, the home[a] of God is among mortals.He will dwell[b] with them;they will be his peoples,[c]and God himself will be with them;[d]4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.’”
This is but a short sermon and plenty of questions still remain—I will raise two: the first one is: Why didn’t John just say what he meant? Why all the imagery? For this, I direct you to the example of African American Spirituals: “Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home…” Is this a spiritual message alone? (Answer: Of course not, spirituals included subversive instructions and hope to escape to the north out of the hands of white slave masters.) “I looked over Jordan and what did I see…?” Why does John write in code? (Answer: Because he has a subversive message for his Christian friends, and he is sending it to them in a letter he writes from a Roman prison.)
The second question I wish to ask you is the most important one: “Who is the Roman Empire in our world?” What is the Empire in your life? What is the destructive, oppressive, and evil system that has you in a prison from which you wish you could escape? What in this world is keeping you from Jesus Christ and from the new heaven and new earth he has prepared for you? Is the Empire our broken political system and the wealthy donors that make it possible? Is it our military-industrial complex, or our broken and wasteful food system? I wonder if there is a more personal empire that is dominating your life and keeping you from the presence of God? Maybe it is addiction to a drug or a drink, too much work or too much materialism? I wonder if you have made an idol out of your phone or your to-do list of your children’s reputations. Everyone has something in their life that has them oppressed, that keep us from the grace-filled living God wants for us. Bob Dylan said it as good as anyone, “It may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but [everyone serves somebody]…” Who do you serve?
This is the spiritual part of the Book of Revelation. We must pay attention it, it is one of the most important messages in Scripture: Who do you serve? What Empire has you in prison? The basic plot of Revelation and the mysterious images within it can be explained, but do not make this book a brain exercise alone, because it is also written to your heart. God wishes to free us from the empires that oppress us and to direct our lives so that we can experience a “new heaven and a new earth” where “mourning and crying and pain will be no more.” Finding that world for yourself is not a matter of the brain, it is a matter of faith. So do not make the mistake of simply making the Book of Revelation a frightening mystery or an intellectual puzzle. It is a spiritual invitation, a vision John has shared for all of us so that we can live in faith, and find our home with God. Amen.