THE REVELATION OF JOHN, or THE APOCALYPSE is a treasure trove that yields its riches with some difficulty, largely because of the ways in which so many readers have approached it over the ages. There are many ways. If we look in its symbols for clues to current and coming events, then we join nearly 2,000 years’ worth of fearful, hopeful but often mistaken proof-texting. Or we could take the approach of the Eastern Orthodox churches, which look to John’s Revelation for clues to worship, as well as to current and coming events. That approach I recommend, for this is a book about dueling systems of worship, each with inverse, mirror elements of each other. One system worships the Lamb, the other, the Beast.
The Lamb we know: Jesus. Who is the Beast? To answer that, we do well to consider that John’s Revelation had to make sense to its original audience, as well as to readers and hearers in the centuries between its composition and now. So, we should cast a doubting eye upon predictions of gunship helicopters and digital magnetic bar codes. They may fulfill or express some of the types and idolatries listed in the book, in spirit at least, but so might Conquistadors and corrupt papal politics in the 16th Century. Every age, every saint, and every sinner can see themselves in the types and conflicts of John’s Revelation, and rightly so.
Back to the setting. Internal clues, like the number 666, the number of the beast (the sum of the numerical value of the letters for the Emperor Nero’s name) and the beginning of the persecution of the churches, such that its author would be exiled to Patmos, put the composition sometime in his reign (until 68AD) or beyond. Others put it toward the end of the First Century, with the Reign of Domitian, when persecution of Christians first started to become systematic, as did Emperor worship.
Roman Imperial and official Emperor Worship is the antagonist, The Beast, of John’s Revelation. It was well underway, in localized and incipient forms, even before Nero, but it would soon become an organizing principle of the Empire. Much of the worship language of John’s Revelation reflects this language, while turning it on its head. Instead of worshiping a Beast who goes forth to kill, and sends soldiers out to die for him, John and his friends worship the Lamb, who was slain, and who “with his blood purchased a people of every tribe, tongue and nation.” The peaceful, non-violent self-sacrificial Lamb rules history, that is, he is worthy to open the seals.” So will be those who “wash their robes in the blood of the Lamb,” that is, who trust him even to a martyr’s death.
The violence, disasters and tribulations that afflict the earth and its people should not be read only as newspaper headlines (though they often are), but as counter-propaganda to that of the Imperial Cult, which typically boasted and promised that under the reign of the divine Emperor,as long as we remain loyal, say our prayers and offer our incense to him, nature and the nations will be at peace, and offer prosperity. But don’t think that John is just turning Roman emperor worship on its head. The problem is that all such idolatry turns the true order of the universe on its head. We live in a spiritually upside-down world.
Who and what constitutes The Beast today? For a very good take on how John’s Revelation speaks to recurrent themes and issues in all ages, check out J. Nelson Kraybill’s work in Christianity Today some 12 years ago, at http://www.ctlibrary.com/ct/1999/october25/9tc030.html Bruce Metzger’s Breaking the Code, also does wonderful job of locating John’s imagery and issues within its First Century context, what John meant and how his original audience would most likely have understood him.
But all this is as much a matter of church life and pastoral care as it is of understanding history. With the Beast seeming so successful in all his endeavors (“Who can make war against the Beast?”), with all the privileges that come with worshiping him (socially and economically) and with persecution stirring its ugly head, it was easy then, as now, for Christians to lose heart, focus and faith. Add the false teachings and the rejection by mainstream Judaism of the new Christian movement (and to an unfortunately growing extent, vice versa), and John had legitimate concerns for the seven churches of Western Turkey (chs. 2-3) in his care, even from his island exile. In the warnings and promises to the seven churches in Chapters 2-3 you will see germinal elements of the images and elements of subsequent chapters.
Some readers come away from John’s Revelation fearful. If our hope is in the systems and people whom the world trusts and all too often worship, such fear is justifiable. John’s Revelation exposes the unsustainable fragility, the idolatry and the immorality of it all But John’s purpose is to give his readers hope, and courage to face everything from loss of enthusiasm to loss of property, status and even life, for their courageous stance against the worship of The Beast, and for the worship of The Lamb.
SO, WHAT’S WITH THE SEVEN SPIRITS OF GOD? (1:4, and elsewhere in John’s Revelation) Do we worship a Nine-ity instead of a Trinity? Seven is the number of fullness and perfection in John’s Revelation. We’ll see versions of it, as in 6-6-6, the trinity of humanity, and therefore a tragic departure, “falling short of the glory of God.” Or the three and a half year, or day, events, which tell us that there is more of the same to come. The number of seven is associated with the One Spirit of God in Isaiah 11: 1-3, in which the Spirit resting upon the “shoot from the stump of Jesse,” that is, Jesus, will be the sevenfold Spirit of wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge, the fear of God, and delight.
PSALM 147 is a hymn of praise that enumerates the signs and blessings of shalom, or peace: the return of the exiles, the prosperity and fruitfulness of the fields, joy for the broken-hearted, the rhythm of the seasons, and security for the city. In fact, the usual human guarantors of security, the war horse and the warrior (v. 10) are of no help. Rather, humility, reverence, trust and the law of God are the key to shalom and security.
PSALM 148 invites humanity to take our place as priests in the orders of creation, calling the other elements of creation, earthly and heavenly, to join us in the praise of our common Creator. Among Israel’s neighbors, any of these forces and elements named, moon, stars and sun, etc., would have been considered gods and objects of worship in their own right. But such is the revolutionary nature of Israel’s monotheism that it redefined our relationship to heaven and earth, not as the slave of such things, but not its detached exploiter, either. From Ps. 148 and other such psalms we get the glimpse of the spiritual nature of all creation vis a vis God. But we are not invited in on that relationship in any other ways beyond to cherish, respect and steward creation, as well as to orchestrate God’s praise, in contrast to what primal and neo-primal (New Age) religions say.