Since this is our last Sunday on Revelation, I wanted to begin to touching on some of the items in Revelation that often get attention out of the context of the book but that haven’t really fit in anywhere to the sermons we’ve preached. We’ll start there, and then I’ve asked Pastor Kristine and Matt, who have been preaching and teaching on this book with me, to offer one final word each on something that they’re taking away from this study. I’ll wrap up the sermon by offering some last words on the very end of Revelation. So, we’re getting ready to land this plane. Let’s get started!
First topic: Should we speculate or worry about the end of time? I remember one of my pastors when I was in high school saying, “You should read with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other hand,” the implication being that you’ll see signs of God’s work in the world written between the lines of the news itself. Perhaps America’s most famous and beloved evangelist, Billy Graham, used to make end times predictions. In 1949, shortly after the news broke that the Soviets had a nuclear bomb, Graham preached the end and salvation with urgency. “Russia has now exploded an atomic bomb. An arms race…is driving us towards destruction!…I am persuaded that time is desperately short,” he shouted. A year later he switched his prediction from five years to two years before the word would end. Nuclear war was the Battle of Armageddon happening right before Graham’s eyes. And while nuclear armament is a threat to life, Graham’s prediction did not come to pass.
Throughout time people have wondered about the end of the world. I find that our work should be less focused on the end and more focused on living faithfully now. Biblically faithful living actually leads to the world being a more livable place. God’s given us this creation to cultivate. That’s our job. It’s not hoping for an escape pod out of the mess. Besides, Jesus himself says in multiple gospels that “no one knows about that day or hour, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Matt. 24:36). If Jesus doesn’t know, surely we don’t. So, let’s stay focused on faithfulness and not worry about the end.
Next topic: 666. As a child in the 1980s, I can remember the Satanic panic that was all over the nation and the church. Heavy metal bands would often use “666” in their artwork to show how edgy they were. I even remember watching a Christian documentary called “Hell’s Bells” back in my childhood church that sought to expose all of the Satanic influences in heavy rock music. They saw 666 in Led Zeppelin’s “Zoso” logo. They found back-masked lyrics in bands like Queen, subliminal messages that encouraged kids to do drugs. (Even as a child, I remember being a) scared straight for a little bit and b) really liking the music and c) wondering how these filmmakers, who were so scared of this music, spent enough time with it to come up with all these wild theories.)
In Revelation 13, the section where the dragon and beasts oppose the woman who births their opponent, Jesus, we encounter this verse, “This calls for wisdom: let anyone with understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number for a person. Its number is six hundred sixty-six” (Rev. 13:18). So, what is 666? It’s the perfectly imperfect number. 777 is perfection. Seven is completeness, and to repeat it three times is ultimate completeness. 666 falls short by one three times. It’s ultimate imperfection. Additionally, in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, the letters of the alphabet had numerals assigned to them. There is actually graffiti in a latrine in Pompeii, which was destroyed in 79 A.D. by a volcano, reads, “I love her whose number is 545.” Figure out the numbers you figure out the name. Interestingly, it appears that 666 could refer to the Roman Emperor Nero, the letters of whose name “Neron Caesar” add to 666. It is very much in line with John’s thinking to identify the Roman caesars as partners with evil.
Next topic: The mark of the beast. In that same chapter we read, “Also, [the beast] causes all…to be given a mark on the right hand or the forehead, so that no one can buy or sell who does not have the mark, that is the name of the beast or the number for its name” (Rev. 13:16-17). This is related to the power of the empire to control commerce. It’s come up in the popular imagination today when our credit cards got chips or even some who thought the Covid vaccine was the mark of the beast. Let me be clear: It’s not. The Romans caesars issued coins with their image and title on them. Engaging in the commerce of the empire was a way of marking allegiance to Caesar.
There’s so much more that I just do not have time to get to — Armageddon, tribulation, pre-, post-, and a-millennialism, dispensationalism, to name a few. If I kept going you’d probably start to picture me as going off the deep end, so I’ll stop.
For years I’ve been reading Peter King’s “Football Morning in America” column. He always ends that column with a section he calls “Ten Things I Think I Think,” meaning, here are some things he believes to be true right now in the NFL, but that he could be wrong. Given how challenging this book is, I’ve asked Pastor Kristine and her theologian husband, Matt Bruce, to help with some closing words on Revelation. So, without me rambling further, here are some things we think we think about Revelation.
Pastor Kristine — First I’d like to say thank you, church for hanging in there with Revelation. Many of you have enjoyed exploring the meaning of the symbolic language while others have said: “This has been cool, but I’m ready to move on.” And I get that. We really have to get into a different mindset when reading Revelation because we don’t read Apocalyptic literature. This is why Bruce Metzger wrote that we need to read Revelation with a “disciplined imagination” and I recognize that that can be hard to do.
I have enjoyed digging deeper into how to understand the symbolic language of Revelation. While many in modern times have incorrectly interpreted Revelation by taking the language literally, John’s original audience knew not to do this. They understood that there wasn’t a real 7 headed beast or to expect fire and hail to rain down from above. The key to reading Revelation is to recognize its symbolic language so that we don’t take the symbols themselves literally. We are, however, to take literally what the symbols represent.
Revelation’s fantastical imagery help us understand that God is present even when it seems like God is not. The Holy Spirit is still at work in the midst of broken systems that allow injustice. Specifically, Rome, which is represented by all kinds of monsters. But those monsters are all defeated. In the midst of our world ravaged by all kinds of plagues and monsters heaven still comes down. The new Jerusalem will be fully established here on earth as it is in heaven. Death, mourning and pain, all consequences of evil, will be no more. Until then we get glimpses of heaven when Christ breaks through our darkness and the darkness of this world.
One of those glimpses is knowing what is to come and that in itself gives us hope. The chaos we live in isn’t it. We know this because in the imagery of Revelation, all symbolism of what heaven or wherever God fully dwells is orderly, peaceful, and wonderful. All imagery of evil is disorderly, chaotic, and frightening. Christ’s resurrection defeated evil, but because we are still waiting for Christ’s return evil is still present. Revelation reminds us that even though evil is present and at work, this does not mean that God has abandoned us or watches us destroy each other with indifference. As it said in the first chapter of Revelation: God is the same yesterday, today and forever. Our lack of faithfulness never results in God giving up on us, because God is faithful to us yesterday, today and forever.
Dr. Matt Bruce — So Troy asked Kristine and I to briefly share some things that we have learned or which have affected us during our study of Revelation this Winter and early and Spring. I would say there are two things that stand out.
The first – and I am cheating a little bit here – is more of a general comment on the Bible as a whole: I’ve been struck by just how much I have learned, just how much is in this crazy book that is Revelation that I had never seen, never understood before. But the Bible as a whole, not just weird and difficult books like Revelation, rewards those who read and study it over and over again. No one will ever master it or have it all figured out – it is God’s Word to us after all. My professional life is focused on the study and the teaching of the Bible and Christian history and theology, and every time I come back to a particular book of the Bible to really focus on it, I am amazed at how new it seems, it just never seems to get old if we are willing to let it speak to us instead of assuming we’ve got it all figured out. God always has something new to tell us. So whether you are someone who really enjoyed the time we’ve spent in John’s Apocalypse and wouldn’t mind staying here a while longer (by the way we’ve got a few more weeks in the Adult Ed class after Easter yet! – you are most welcome to join us) or if you one of those who is ready to move on, I hope that you are not done with Revelation, but will come back to it and see what else it has for you sometime in the future.
Second, I think the thing that most impressed me this time as I have worked through the book of Revelation is its clear message of how Christians are to live in the world. Once you get past all the terrifying images of blood and destruction and realize that these are symbols, signs that point to deeper realities and not predications about what God is going to do to destroy sinners at the end of time, this message emerges about what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
John presents this message in rather black and white and terms, for throughout the book he basically asks his readers: “What team are you on, Team Lamb or Team Dragon” and then he explains to us how people on either team operate. Team Dragon is self-centered and self-seeking; it looks out for number one. Team Dragon seeks power and control. Team Dragon seeks to dominate others, especially its perceived enemies, and either force them to do things its way or it seeks to utterly destroy them. Team Dragon plays a zero sum game, and it is a game that is all too familiar to us for it the same sort of that that we see in the polarized state of our politics, be it national or local, and we even see it in churches – though I have yet to really see it here at First Pres, thank goodness – when churches fight over social or theological issues. Team Dragon seeks to win at all costs, and when it is losing, when it is backed into a corner, it goes scorched Earth and seeks to destroy everything. For John, the ultimate example of Team Dragon is the Roman Empire, which sought to bring peace to the world through conquering it, dominating it – peace through violence was the Roman way.
Team Lamb on the other hand, and it is rather obvious which team John thinks we should be on, for after all the Lamb is Jesus and the Dragon the devil! Team Lamb is other-centered. Team Lambs seeks to serve. Team lamb is all about neighbor love. It eschews violence and domination. Of course for John the ultimate example of neighbor love is Jesus. Throughout the book of Revelation, John lifts up Jesus as the example for us to follow and his message is a profoundly counter-intutive one. If you want to be victorious, if we want the Kingdom of God to be established on the earth, the way to do this is not through power and domination, but through suffering, through turning the other cheek, through refusing to give into the temptations to use power, and domination, and violence to make sure that your vision, our way of doing things, comes out on top.
All the imagery of destruction in Revelation, the plagues, the hailstorms of fire, etc., are not what God is going to do to the world in order to judge it for disobeying him. It is rather what will happen if Team Dragon and its ways and works in the world are allowed to reign. And John’s message is directed to the church, in both his time and ours – will we adopt the playbook of Team Dragon and become just one more group trying to achieve power over others, or will we follow Jesus? It’s a hard word, I admit, but the alternative is all of the violence we see in the news today, be it in Ukraine, or protests in France, or school shootings in our own back door.
Back to Pastor Troy — So, let me conclude with three brief things I think I think. We all know and experience evil as real. We have felt the effects of sin, whether it’s something we’ve done to ourselves or done to others. But in our technologically savvy and modern world, we’re ready to attribute evil to psychology, mental illness, or even circumstance. And it is, but it’s more. Revelation attributes evil to the forces that oppose the way of God, including Satan. These forces are formidable and dangerous, but Revelation shows that they will not triumph. Evil must be and will be dealt with.
This hit close to home for me a few weeks back when news of a mass shooting came from Michigan State, where my daughter attends school. Now, I am a peaceful person, but while this gunman was on the loose, I wanted this violence to be dealt with definitively. As a Christian, I’m supposed to pray for my enemy, but in those moments I just wanted this guy dead and gone. What he was doing was evil, and the consequences of his actions were horrific for that community.
But here’s the catch. Did you notice that never once in the entirety of Revelation does God tell John or his churches to pick up arms and fight? Evil must be and will be dealt with, but God is the One who deals with it. So, what action should Christians take? They pray. Multiple times John relates that the prayers of the saints are present in God’s throne room. They also stand up for what is right, even at the cost of their lives. These faithful martyrs have a future glory that is better than life. The promise of Revelation is that God is dealing with and will some day fully deal with the wickedness of the world. Our work is to yearn for that day and to live in a manner that resembles the future that is unfolding in God’s reign.
Second, this book is filled with strange scenes, lurid imagery, and unfathomable violence. Reading it could cause us to wonder about the very nature of who God is. So, when we read hard parts of Scripture, we have to hold them in tension with what else we know about God or Jesus from the rest of the Bible. Throughout Scripture we encounter Jesus from many angles. We see him through the eyes of four gospel writers. We see him in Paul’s writings. We catch glimpses of his coming in the Old Testament. When confused, look to Jesus.
As I studied Revelation, I kept reminding myself of that reality. The Jesus who healed lepers, welcomed the outcast, extended patient grace to disciples, and who died for the sake of the world, is the same Jesus present in Revelation. This book is a vivid telling of the work the reigning Christ is up to after the resurrection. It’s a word of hope to people wondering why things aren’t better. It’s an encouragement that God holds all of history together.
Which brings my to my final point. Scripture is clear that history is heading to a good end. History is not a series of endless cycles with no point. God’s story has a beginning, middle, and end. God speaks the creation into existence with words in Genesis. In God’s wisdom God has allowed the evil that has twisted the goodness of that creation to exist. At the right time, Jesus came into the world to show us God’s way and to make a way for good to triumph over evil. And some day, when all things are ready, Jesus is coming back. He’s going to make everything — and I mean everything — right.
Our texts today are a glimpse at that. The text from Revelation 21 is one I almost always read graveside. It’s a reminder that all of our grief and pain will some day find wholeness. God is making a new heaven and a new earth. It’s a realm where there is no division between God and the creation. Heaven and earth are in blessed harmony. That’s the sure promise of God for eternity.
The actual title of this book is not Revelation. In Greek it’s “The Apocalypse of John.” We’ve come to associate the word “apocalypse” with apocalyptic events — earthquakes, 9/11, and the like. The word actually means “unveiling.” John unveils what is going on in heaven while things seem not to be so good on earth. Through deep saturation in the Scripture and like a great dramatist, John offers us a vivid picture of God’s ongoing drama.
It was a word to the churches trying to survive the violence of Rome. It remains a word to the church today, striving to give allegiance to God over all other things and holding forward God’s promise that history is heading to an end where heaven and earth are renewed and all manner of things shall be well.
I’ll give the last word to John himself. These are the closing words of Revelation and the whole Bible. “The one who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen” (Rev. 22:20-21).