The Book of Revelation is the Jurassic Park of biblical interpretation. Two thousand years after it was written it can still startle the living daylights out of a casual reader—or even a lifelong student of the book.
I got ambushed in 1989 when I taught my first course on Revelation in Montevideo, Uruguay. My students engaged John's apocalypse with such intensity that the fearsome Beast of Revelation 13 seemed to snarl out from the pages of our Bibles. Our strategy for sneaking up on the Beast was different from most popular readings of Revelation. Instead of reading Revelation primarily to predict events in the modern world, we followed an approach familiar to evangelicals for most books of the Bible: we tried to relate Revelation to circumstances of the author's own time. We wanted to explore the Beast's first-century habitat before stalking it in the twentieth century.
Making our way through a jungle of history books and ancient texts, we found footprints of the Beast all over the first-century world. The trail of evidence took us through a library of ancient Jewish apocalyptic books, most not in our Bibles. We learned that Beast in those writings typically was a nasty nickname for a great political power (see Daniel 7, for example). We noted further that the Beast of Revelation has seven heads—which are seven mountains on which a whore called Babylon is seated (Rev. 17:9).
With that clue, the trail was hot: ancient pagan writers such as Virgil called Rome the City of Seven Hills. And Jews, after their failed revolt of A.D. 66–70, called Rome Babylon because it destroyed the temple in Jerusalem just as the real Babylon did in 587 B.C. We had located John's Beast, and it was the Roman Empire that had turned blasphemous by calling the emperor divine. John believed the Roman Empire had become so violent, so oppressive, and so idolatrous that Christians were told: "Come out of her, my people, so that you do not take part in her sins" (18:4, NRSV). People of the ancient world were so awed by Rome's power that they asked, "Who is like the Beast, and who can fight against it?" (13:4).
Now, in modern Uruguay, I put the same question to my class: "Who is like the Beast today?" Uruguay recently had emerged from a decade of military dictatorship, and several of my students had been imprisoned and tortured. The answer, in that context, seemed obvious to me.
There was a pause—and then a thoughtful student said, "For us the Beast is the great power from the North. Our military dictators were trained in the United States. They cooperated with the American empire and got rich from it. Companies and policies that shape our economy come from the United States. Your coins say 'In God we trust,' but actually you trust in your weapons and your dollars."
"You're in bed with the Beast," my student was saying. Hard words to hear from a fellow believer. Isn't America, after all, a Christian nation? But John of Patmos had the chutzpah to say that any earthly power can warp toward blasphemy, violence, and arrogance. Don't confuse loyalty to any government or human society with loyalty to Jesus. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.
Let anyone who is alert also note that sincere Christians interpret Revelation in different ways. Contents of this article could cause mild indigestion if you have only held a futurist view of Revelation (believing it to describe events entirely in the future). I largely take a preterist view (emphasizing how Revelation may be describing circumstances of the first century; see Directions, p. 86). But the Word of God cannot be tethered to any one school of interpretation. In the end, I want parts of several methods of interpretation. I believe that much of Revelation describes the first century—but the Holy Spirit enables us to see a new layer of fulfillment and application for our future. If the Beast appeared as Rome in the first century, he will appear in some other guise today. And the grand finale of Jesus' return, Satan's demise and New Jerusalem splendor surely remains in the future—even if we already experience a "first installment" of the End in the transforming power of the Holy Spirit (2 Cor. 1:22).
Wanted: influential subversive
No wonder many modern Christians ignore the Book of Revelation: the prophet of Patmos is hard to understand! Who was this guy who confronted a superpower in the first century and warns believers of every epoch not to get into bed with the Beast?
WANTED FOR IMMEDIATE ARREST: John, influential leader of followers of Jesus of Nazareth in the province of Asia [Minor]. Likely to have agitated small enclaves of the notorious sect called Christians in the following cities: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Philadelphia, Sardis, and Laodicea. Self-styled prophet. Not necessarily the same John who was one of twelve original disciples of the founder of the sect. Probably Jewish (but he writes in Greek). Possibly a refugee from Palestine during the treasonous Jewish Revolt [A.D. 66–70]. Well-versed in the Jewish scriptures. Wanted for disruption of the peace, slander against the Roman government, impiety to ward our gods and the Emperor, and traitorous allegiance to another king.
By the time John put pen to paper on a place called Patmos, the Roman Em pire apparently had lowered the boom. John says he was on that isolated, tiny island "because of the word of God" (1:9). It's a stretch to believe he went there on an evangelistic tour. Rome sent troublemakers into exile on tiny, God-forsaken islands.
But if the Romans thought Patmos would be God-forsaken, were they ever wrong! "I was in the spirit on the Lord's day," John later wrote, "and I heard be hind me a loud voice like a trumpet … " (1:10). Perhaps today the voice would add, "fasten your seatbelt," because the Spirit of God was about to take John on the visionary ride of a lifetime:
First, a face-to-face encounter with the risen Christ—who gives messages tailored to the circumstances of each of the seven churches in Asia Minor (chaps. 13). Then through a skylight John went into the heavens to the very throne room of God (chap. 4). From there, a fast-forward survey of physical and spiritual plagues about to rain down upon the earth—first marked by seven seals, then rerun as seven trumpets, then run again as seven bowls (chaps. 616).
Interspersed with the cycles of seven is a stage full of unforgettable props, backdrops, and marvelous characters. But this isn't Hollywood, mind you. John is giving us theology in pictures, and he has an absolutely serious message to convey. Instead of using logical argument and deductive reasoning like Paul the apostle, John uses pictures and narrative to convey his inspired message. Think symbol. Think metaphor. Think poetry. Don't get trapped with wooden literalism—unless you really expect to get to heaven and find that Jesus is a sheep (5:6).
Wake up! John called to first-century Christians in Asia Minor. You are compromising faithfulness to Jesus in order to fit into a pagan world. Wake up! Rome is a Beast that takes its power from Satan and receives worship that belongs to God (Rev. 13). Wake up! This city and its empire are full of violence and idolatry. God is about to call Rome and its allies to judgment.
It is the menagerie of props and characters that carries most of this message in Revelation. Real spiritual and political entities make their appearance as a Lamb, a woman clothed with the sun, a dragon, a beast, a whore, Babylon, and the New Jerusalem. John was a gifted artist and storyteller, but entertainment was not his goal. He was a pastor trying to help Christians of his day be faithful to Jesus at a time when some were scared by the Roman Empire and others were lulled by its charms.
For two thousand years the church has wrestled with the rich imagery of Revelation, sometimes with comic or even tragic results. Sixteenth-century Protestant Reformers, for example, called Roman Catholicism "Babylon" or "the Beast." The Vatican returned the compliment. The Branch Davidian group in Waco, Texas, drew heavily from Revelation to construct a terminally twisted cult. Christian bookstores today are full of novels and pulp theology that use Revelation like a deck of tarot cards to forecast the future.
Finding one's way through such a jungle of interpretation is daunting. But here is a guide for navigating your way toward understanding and applying its message:
1. Revelation made sense to its first audience and was not a giant puzzle that would only be solved two thousand years later.
With other New Testament books, we learn all we can about the original setting and how the author addressed that situation and then seek meaningful parallels and applications for our lives. John did not direct his message to believers in some distant time and place, even though Revelation may have rich meaning for us today. No, John wrote to seven real congregations in seven real cities in the Roman Empire. He names those cities in the order a real messenger would encounter them on a circuit ride around the region. He expected listeners in first-century churches to make sense of his message.
If you're smart, John tells his contemporaries, you'll figure out who the Beast is: "This calls for wisdom. If anyone has insight, let him calculate the number of the beast, for it is man's number" (13:18, NIV). Both Greek and Hebrew used letters of the alphabet as numbers, so every word had a numerical value. Modern students of Revelation have noted that the name "Nero[n] Caesar," in Hebrew, adds up to 666.
The case isn't completely closed on the identity of the Beast as Emperor Nero (A.D. 5468). But Nero's hand fits the glove. He was the first emperor to slaughter Christians, having blamed them for the great fire of Rome in A.D. 64. Probably both Peter and Paul died in his short, vicious persecution. Nero kicked his pregnant wife to death, neutered and "married" a boy named Sporus, murdered his own young mother, delighted in being treated as a god, and committed suicide after the Senate pronounced him insane. Even though John probably wrote Revelation 25 years after Nero died, he may have pointed to the deranged Nero as the epitome of everything wrong with a corrupt empire.
Some—but not all—of the judgments in Revelation may have started in John's day. The white horse that rode out to conquer (6:2) might represent the far-flung conquests of Rome. The fiery red horse (6:4) could represent the bloody war between Rome and the Jews in A.D. 66–70.
The black horse with a rider holding scales (6:56) might represent the way the empire warped the economy of client states. A voice interpreting the black horse says, "A quart of wheat for a day's wages." That was a very inflated price. Rome converted farmland of Asia Minor to produce export olive oil and wine for Rome. From Roman sources we know this created a shortage of affordable grain for the native population, sparking food riots. The cry, "Do not damage the oil and the wine!" (6:6, NRSV) may refer to the way Roman policies hurt the local economies of the seven churches.
Three cycles of seven judgments in Rev elation move from bad to worse, ending with the cosmos itself coming unhinged. It is not clear whether John thought all these horrors had to happen. It is possible that his vision gives a ghastly preview of where the world will end if mortals do not repent (see 9:2021; 16:9, 11). The plagues of Egypt gave Pharaoh some reality therapy, with the hope that he would repent. The plagues of Revelation—which sometimes mimic those of Exodus—might have the same purpose. God is not a sadist, and perhaps John hoped the world would repent before all the horrors of Revelation became reality.
But even manmade plagues in our era do not often lead to repentance. Until the love and power of God change human hearts, ordinary men and women will continue to inflict untold suffering on the world.
The twentieth century has seen empires act in ways that brought down apocalyptic catastrophe on peoples of the earth. Hitler's blasphemous ideology brought ruin to Europe, and especially to the Jews. Mao's "Great Leap For ward" and collectivization of the Chinese economy brought starvation and death to millions. In my own Mennonite denomination, I have met survivors of Stalin's purges who still weep as they tell of their fathers being taken off by government agents, never to be seen again.
Plagues brought on by the American empire are harder for us to see. They include violent "kings of the earth" armed by America because they served our economic and political interests: the Shah of Iran, for example, or General Pinochet of Chile. Even Saddam Hussein was armed by the United States—until he turned against the West. Today Western nations maintain economic sanctions against Iraq, bringing catastrophic suffering to that country. By some estimates, 500,000 Iraqi children have died in recent years for want of food and medicine.
2. Revelation is part of a larger library of Jewish and Christian apocalyptic literature, and it makes little sense without some understanding of that type of writing.
If you read a telephone book as though it's a novel, you are likely to be confused. Something like that happened to Revelation in the history of the church. John wrote his apocalypse at a time when such visionary, trip-to-heaven symbolic literature was common among Jews. Dozens of similar apocalyptic books, both Jewish and Christian, survive from the ancient world. They are all part of an apocalyptic genre, and share common characteristics.
In the two centuries before Christ, many Jews came to believe that history was hell-bent. Like a parade of steamrollers, a series of pagan empires dominated Palestine in the years after the Jews came back from exile. First it was Alexander the Great, then his Greek-speaking successors, and finally the colossal Ro man Empire.
In the face of such bleak developments, some Jews abandoned faith in Yahweh and accepted pagan gods. Others had visions in which they came to believe that the reigning political powers of the world were in cahoots with Satan. They believed God would soon enter the fray of history with a Messiah ("anointed one") who would destroy corrupt powers and inaugurate the kingdom of God.
Books written by these devout people usually are grouped together today as apocalyptic literature—from a Greek word that means "unveiling." Apocalyptic authors used symbolism (beasts, angels, thrones) to unveil the truth that God still was in control of history de spite the apparent power of wicked rulers. Typically the authors had concern either about persecution or about God's people being drawn into idolatrous accommodation to pagan society. The books had a double edge: heralding hope for persecuted believers, and giving a wake-up call to those who didn't realize how much they had compromised with evil.
One way to understand the apocalyptic genre is to think of it as a kind of sanctified political cartoon—not that the literature tries to be funny. But political cartoonists routinely represent entire nations or historical entities with colorful characters. The Republican party is an elephant and the Democratic party is a donkey, yet a presidential election is a horse race. Russia is a bear, the United States is an eagle. We are sophisticated enough to look for the underlying meaning, and not take the political cartoons literally. But what happens when someone who has never seen a political cartoon tries to interpret one?
There is a similar problem when modern readers, who understandably have had little exposure to Jewish apocalyptic thinking, try to interpret the books of Daniel or Revelation. We are tempted to interpret them as literal history or as long-range predictions. So, for example, we might think that the Beast of Revelation 13 actually puts a physical "mark" on human foreheads (13:16). It is likely, instead, that John intended his readers to understand the mark as a metaphor for spiritual or political allegiance—just as the Book of Deuteronomy instructed Jews to put the commandments of God on their foreheads (Deut. 6:8).
Likewise, we might be tempted to think John predicted some physical mark on the forehead in our generation, and try to figure out if he means a computer chip being installed under our skin. With such a wooden interpretation, we imagine we are spiritually safe by resolving never to have a computer chip installed on our foreheads—and we miss the subtle ways in which our society gets us to cooperate with Beastly violence and idolatry.
3. The central thrust of Revelation is a call to faithfulness in the beguiling context of pagan Roman society.
A ferocious beast in apocalyptic literature usually represents a major political power (see Daniel 7). The only logical suspect for this part in the first century was the Roman Empire. That great city and its minions loom large in Revelation, appearing variously as Beast (13:110), Harlot (17:118), or Babylon (18:124). John says the Beast, like Rome, was "given authority over every tribe and people and language and nation" (13:7).
Although John portrays Rome as vicious, there is relatively little evidence in Revelation or in other ancient sources that Roman authorities actually persecuted Christians late in the first century. The common belief today that John wrote during a time of widespread persecution probably is wrong. Revelation names just one martyr, Antipas (2:13), and makes only passing reference to "those who have been slain because of the word of God" (6:9; see also 20:4). Rather, Revelation anticipates widespread persecution of Jesus' followers.
John's immediate concern is that some Christians had compromised their faith and were too cozy with a pagan world. From his vantage point along a maritime trade artery in the Aegean Sea, John could watch a steady stream of merchant ships carry the wealth of the world to Rome:
Woe! Woe, O great city,
where all who had ships on the sea
became rich through her wealth!
In one hour she has been brought to
Earlier in the same chapter, John mentions merchants of the earth who "grew rich from her excessive luxuries" (18:3). It is then that he calls the faithful to "come out of her." Apparently some Christians were involved in commercial or political ties with an empire that John considered evil. It must have been possible for believers to remain secure in society if they participated at least at a minimal level in pagan religion and emperor worship.
Jezebel at Thyatira (2:2025) was apparently a teacher who urged Christians to accommodate in some way to pagan practice (see 1 Kings 16:3133). Likewise, Balaam at Pergamum (2:14) probably advocated some compromise with pagan expectations (see Num. 25:15; 31:16). Both Jezebel and Balaam likely are sarcastic nicknames for fellow Christians who had abandoned radical loyalty to Jesus in order to fit into an idolatrous culture.
What nicknames John would slap on modern Christians in our own pagan world? Academics like myself are tempted in university settings to tone down our confession of faith so we fit better into a postmodern mindset—or at least say "Jesus is the way for me, but perhaps you have another way to God." Spirituality among Western Christians often is narcissistic self-fulfillment rather than radical discipleship. Spirituality for many baby boom ers boils down to this: What's in it for me? John might say we worship our own souls rather than the Creator.
Or, John might say we worship the power to coerce. When I was a missionary in England, I asked a senior government official there about that country's massive arms sales to developing countries—triggering Beastly violence in those societies and diverting vital re sources from pressing human need. The official had a three-part reply: (1) Weapon sales are not my direct responsibility in this government; (2) There are some regimes to which we will not sell; and (3) If we don't sell the weapons, someone else will. John of Patmos would not sit still for such a rationalization. He would say, "Come out of her, my people, so that you do not take part in her sins" (18:4).
4. The emperor cult was the flash point that alienated John from Rome and alarmed him about the church.
It is hard for us to grasp today how grateful many people across the Mediterranean world were for benefits ushered in by Rome. The decades preceding 29 B.C. (the beginning of the reign of Caesar Augustus) were rife with civil disorder, international war, and economic collapse.
Caesar Augustus, the first Roman emperor, succeeded in uniting "all the world" (see Luke 2:1). At last there was international law and order. The Roman navy eliminated piracy on the seas, allowing maritime trade to flourish. Superb new roads appeared, along with an efficient legal system. Travel and business expanded dramatically. In most provinces, middle- and upper-class people benefited from cooperation with the new imperial masters.
Some of Rome's subjects in the East decided Caesar Augustus was divine. By popular demand, the provincial council in the area of the seven churches of Revelation established a religious center at Pergamum in 29 B.C. to honor Roma and Augustus. John called this regional seat of idolatry the place "where Satan's throne is" (2:13). Roma was the goddess personifying Rome, and John casts her as a whore in Revelation 17. The provincial council ran a contest to devise the greatest honors for "the god" (Caesar Augustus) who now ruled the world.
Not to be outdone, in 9 B.C. a patriotic group at Pergamum put up a stone that expressed gratitude for the "savior [Caesar Augustus] who put an end to war and established peace." Caesar "exceeded the hopes of all who had anticipated good tidings [euangelion]." That's the Greek word we translate as gospel.
The following inscription served as the ultimate "pledge of allegiance":
I swear by Jupiter, Earth, Sun, by all the gods and goddesses, and by Augustus himself, that I will be loyal to Caesar Augustus and to his children and descendants all my life in word, in deed, and in thought . …
Augustus was deemed "son of a god" because his adopted father, Julius Caesar, was thought to have become divine at his death. Businessmen promoted this extravagant patriotism because they benefited from the security Rome provided.
By the time John wrote Revelation, at least 35 cities in the province had climbed on the emperor-worship bandwagon. John thought emperor worship was sure to be a growth industry—except for faithful followers of Jesus: "All inhabitants of the earth will worship the beast—all whose names have not been written in the book of life belonging to the Lamb . …" (Rev. 13:8, NIV). Christians would have to choose their allegiance: Lamb or Beast?
The total loyalty John gave to Jesus in the first century makes me wonder about where I put my trust today. Harvey Cox recently rattled me with an article entitled "The Market as God" (Atlantic Monthly, March 1999). He argues that we give economic supply and demand a godlike role in society: "The Market, we are taught, is able to determine what human needs are, what copper and capital should cost, how much barbers should be paid . …"
We let the Market determine that we shouldn't much worry if some people in the world (you or me, perhaps) have plenty of food and two cars—while others starve. Relying on the Market for such life-and-death matters means we are serving some lord other than Jesus.
5. The emperor cult so penetrated political and economic institutions in John's day that it was difficult for conscientious Christians to find a secure place in society.
The emperor cult at Ephesus expanded in A.D. 8990 when the city erected a magnificent new temple to the reigning emperor. Inside was a huge statue of emperor Domitian, perhaps 25 feet tall. The city celebrated by hosting the Olympic games and by issuing a coin that made Domitian look like Zeus.
Across the empire, emperor worship penetrated political and economic life like a cancer. It became difficult to succeed in business or government without somehow participating in the emperor cult. Having "priest of the imperial cult" on your resume became important for promotion. Coins needed for commerce carried images of the emperors as gods and proclaimed them to be divine. All of this may be what John had in mind when he said "no one could buy or sell unless he had the mark [of the Beast]."
Christians, by virtue of baptism, spiritually had a seal (7:3) or God's name (14:1) on their foreheads. Likewise, those devoted to Rome engaged in emperor worship ceremonies and idolatrous oaths that placed a spiritual mark on their heads and hands. A vast priesthood of the imperial cult emerged—probably what John refers to as the second beast that made inhabitants of the earth worship the first Beast (13:11–18).
There are few governments in the modern world that are so evil that Christians must categorically oppose them as John did with Rome. But Christians in every country must think through how and why we engage in expressions of political loyalty.
Not long after I moved back to the United States after six years in England, I attended a meeting of a local civic club in Indiana. There was prayer before the meal, after which the club members repeated a promise of commitment to honesty, international understanding, and fair business practice. Finally, everyone pledged allegiance to the U.S. flag.
Having been raised in a Mennonite community where we did not show that kind of loyalty to a nation—although we respected and prayed for it—I have never saluted the flag or said the pledge. So I stood quietly and thanked God for all that is right and good about this country. I prayed this powerful nation would use its enormous resources for the good of all humanity, not just for Americans.
When the meal started, a friendly voice at the table said, "So, you're English?" No, I answered. "Oh, you must be Canadian." Then I realized that others had noticed I did not say the pledge of allegiance. "I love this country," I started, "and I'm grateful for opportunities and freedoms I have here. But I am first of all a Christian, and I have Christian brothers and sisters around the world. My citizenship is with anyone who follows Jesus, and it's hard for me to pledge allegiance to anything else."
I'm certain that other Christians at the table could have told me of ways they give costly loyalty to Jesus. And I increasingly recognize ways in which I bow to gods of consumption, racism, and privilege. But that moment of being on the spot clarified something about where my deepest loyalty lies. There is much that is noble and true about the United States. But sometimes this nation will kill thousands elsewhere on the globe or otherwise act Beastly in order to maintain its place and power. Should Christians ever give blanket allegiance to such a mixture of altruism and violence?
6. Worship of God is Revelation's answer to a pagan society held together by idolatrous allegiance.
"You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power . …" (4:11). Such words sound to us like the routine language of hymnody. But these and other words of praise in Revelation were part of an alternative political and spiritual allegiance that eventually got Christians into trouble with Rome.
In heaven, John witnessed worship of the only One who deserves complete devotion: 24 elders fall down and lay their crowns before the throne; prayers of the saints come to God as golden bowls of incense; millions of angels sing praise to God, along with "every creature" in the universe (5:614).
Such images of choreographed worship provided an antidote and alternative to ceremonies of the emperor cult. An ancient Roman historian tells how a ruler named Tiridates of Armenia bowed before the throne of Emperor Nero in front of a huge crowd at Rome. Tiridates declared, "Master, I am thy slave. And I have come to thee, my god, to worship thee as I do [the god] Mithras." When Tiridates sat beneath Nero's feet, the emperor proclaimed him king of Ar me nia and placed a diadem upon his head. Parallels with the heavenly court are startling. God, too, is seated on a throne (Rev. 4:2). Twenty-four elders with crowns bow down in worship (4:10) in front of a huge audience (5:13).
It was not just kings who bowed to Caesar. On the emperor's birthday, and on other empirewide celebrations, people in all the provinces worshiped their ruler with processions, decorated houses, feasts, choral performances, prayers, incense, and sacrifices. Public squares were filled with residents who showed their allegiance in orchestrated rites. Pressure for Christians to participate came not primarily from Roman officials, but from friends and neighbors who thought everyone should show gratitude.
Rome was not the last political power to put enormous pressure for allegiance on its subjects. Haile, a college friend of mine, was born and raised in a nomadic Muslim family in Somalia. When he was a teenager, Somalia was taken over by a Marxist government. Haile was a good student, and the government planned to send him to East Germany for university training.
Not long before he had that opportunity, Haile became a Christian. His friends were appalled, since he was now at odds with the official policy of his atheist government. He would have no future in the government or in his career.
Fearing for his safety, Haile fled Somalia and ended up studying at a Christian college in the United States. He picked up conflict-mediation skills and went back to Somalia soon after civil war broke out. Instead of taking up arms, he served on a peacemaking team that moved between warring factions, trying to build bridges.
Then in 1992 Haile was in a house attacked by the warlord Idid, and Haile's leg was shot off. He went for 11 days without proper medical care, and he expected to die. It seemed almost a miracle to me when Haile appeared in my office in Indiana a couple of months ago. "There was no 'halfway house' in Somalia during the years of Marxist rule," Haile said. "If you were a Christian, you had to be willing to die. We were sheep among wolves and had to depend on God." The church went underground, and worship was its life blood.
7. The New Jerusalem is already breaking into our world.
Reading the last two chapters of Rev elation is like arriving at an oasis after a trek through a blistering desert. Unfortunately, many modern Christians think the New Jerusalem passages point entirely to the future. Much of what John describes in the Holy City is yet to come, but the Christian view of history sees the future kingdom of God overlapping with the present, and the New Jerusalem depicts that future reality breaking into the present world. John does not feature the New Jerusalem as the place where believers go when they die. Rather, it is a heavenly community becoming tangible on earth among people who call Jesus Lord.
Jesus taught his disciples to pray, "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." He expected his followers to live changed lives now, not just in some future age. Pharisees once asked Jesus when the kingdom would come. He replied, "The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed. … For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you" (Luke 17:20–21, NRSV). Paul said, "If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!" (2 Cor. 5:17). These and other New Testament texts indicate that a restored creation is already beginning to break into the present.
Parts of Revelation appear to be a handbook on present-day citizenship for the New Jerusalem. In the face of a powerful empire that acts like a Beast, John portrays Jesus as a Lamb. Disciples of Jesus are those who "follow the Lamb wherever he goes" (14:4), engaging a fallen world with the same vulnerability and love that Jesus showed. There is no indication in Revelation that followers of Jesus use force to defend themselves or to bring in the kingdom: "if you kill with the sword, with the sword you must be killed. Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints" (13:10).
Believers need community to remain faithful to Jesus, and John's sketch of the New Jerusalem is packed with insight for the life and mission of the church. The Holy City is "coming down out of heaven from God" (21:10). Salvation is a divine activity, not a result of our plans and efforts. The community is built on Jesus and the apostles (21:14), underscoring the unique authority of Christ and those who first knew him. The New Jerusalem is big enough to encompass John's entire world—about 1,400 miles in every direction (Rev. 21:16).
The new community taking shape among followers of Jesus will have fabulous wealth, symbolized by an array of jewels on the foundation (21:1821). But in contrast to ancient or modern society, wealth is shared by all. The New Jerusalem is a welcoming and accessible city: the gates are never shut, and even the kings of the earth bring in their splendor (21:22–25). Inclusion of these kings is startling, since they were promoters of the emperor cult and adultery with the Beast (chap. 18). God's grace is greater and wider than we can imagine.
Nothing oppressive or impure will survive when the reign of God comes to completion. Satan will be bound for a thousand years and then summarily defeated (20:1–10). People who will be excluded appear to be those who persist in the kind of unholy allegiance that some people gave to Rome. Reference to "the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters" (22:15) may point to those who "commit adultery" with Rome, who approve the execution of believers, or who engage in emperor worship.
Despite somber warnings, Revelation is framed with grace and invitation. At the beginning of the book Jesus says, "If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me" (3:20, NIV). A "river of the water of life" flows out from the throne of God in the New Jerusalem, and trees nourished by that water produce leaves "for the healing of the nations" (22:12). The book ends with an invitation: "Whoever is thirsty, let him come … let him take the free gift of the water of life" (22:17).
A call to holiness in the present
Of all books, perhaps Rev elation is the one where it is most crucial to understand the life setting of the author. Because Revelation is poetry and metaphor, it is inappropriate to "nail down" a precise meaning for every image. It is possible, though, to discern overall contours of what the book meant to the first readers. Then we listen to what the Spirit is saying to the church today through the same images.
How would John of Patmos view the huge profits made on Wall Street while much of the world lives in poverty? What does Revelation say to a society that slaughters a quarter of its babies in the womb? What would John make of the killing of 100,000 Iraqis in order to protect Western access to Middle East oil? How would he view rich countries demanding debt repayment from impoverished nations?
Evangelicals have been distracted long enough with debates about the sequence of Christ's return, the Tribulation, the millennium, and the New Jerusalem. Jesus warned against such speculation and instructed his followers to get on with mission work (Acts 1:7–8). The main intent of Christian teaching about the future is to call God's people to holiness and bold allegiance to Jesus in our present life and witness (see 1 John 3:23).
Fortunately, Revelation is not the only biblical guide for how we deal with government and society. Paul was cautiously optimistic about the validity of Rome, perhaps before Nero went off the rails. Paul said the ruler is "God's servant to do you good" (Rom. 13:4). Christians are not anarchists. Nor do we categorically declare most governments entirely good or entirely evil. Parts of almost any political, economic, or social structure will be serving God. Other parts will be fallen. We need Holy Spirit guidance, deep roots in Scripture, and counsel of the faith community to discern the difference.
It's a jungle out there.
J. Nelson Kraybill is president of Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, Indiana. He is author of Imperial Cult and Commerce in John's Apocalypse (Sheffield Academic Press, 1996), and On the Pilgrims' Way: Conversations on Christian Discipleship During a Twelve-Day Walk Across England (Herald Press, 1999).
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