Revelation Rule #7: Revelation Speaks to Us Today

Sunday, October 28, 2018

(This post is part 8 of my 8 part series on interpreting Revelation faithfully. You can read the other posts in the series here.)

Revelation Rule #7: Revelation Speaks to Us Today.

For the past few weeks, we've been framing the book of Revelation as a form of "resistance literature" and discussing the various rules that come with interpreting such a work. In many ways, Revelation is like a political cartoon or a work of graffiti. It's a work of poetic imagery and prophetic nuance that protests Rome's rule.

Some of the most frequent questions I always receive are with regard to Revelation's relevance to today. This is understandable, as Revelation has often been misused and abused, particularly in the fundamentalist/dispensationlist camps. This extremely unfaithful reading of the text was unfortunately popularized by the Left Behind books series and movies. But as we learned from Rule #1, Revelation's meaning today is the same meaning that John intended for the original audience.

And this is where the prophetic characteristics of the book make interpretation tricky. Prophecy is often multivalent, and it can sometimes take on new meaning. Since this book is God-inspired, it's even possible that John could have written more than he realized. For example, when Isaiah wrote about "Immanuel" in Isaiah 7:14-17, he was actually referring to someone in his own context (probably Hezekiah). However, the Gospel writers saw new meaning in this prophecy after Jesus was born. While it did speak about Hezekiah, it also spoke about the Christ.

And that's the significant thing we must understand regarding prophetic words: any new meanings are only realized in retrospect; they are never (or very rarely) realized beforehand.

Here's how we tend to read Revelation, or any other prophetic works, for that matter today in the 21st Century: We turn our back on the past, facing/walking toward the future, trying to divine meaning for what we do not yet see. We don't think about the significance Revelation had for the past, nor do we think about its significance for the present.

Here's how the Jewish Christians would have read Revelation: They walked with their backs to the future, reflecting on how Revelation illuminated the past and continued to illuminate the present. Then, when they did reach a certain point in the future, they would analyze what Revelation would say about about the now-future.

This is how we need to continue reading Revelation: reflecting on its significance in the past and in the now. We have an 100% failure rate when using Revelation to divine the future, and what's worse, we miss out on what it can say to the present when we're so fixated on the future.

So let's take a look at the past and see how Revelation's words to the early Christians speak to us today as well. 

Throughout the course of Revelation, we see John use symbolic imagery to critique the following about Rome:
  • The sacralization of the state. Rome believed that she was given power and prosperity from the gods, and as such, she could do no wrong. She was chosen and exceptional. The violent wars Rome fought were mandated by the gods, and it was her responsibility to expand her influence and values to other people groups by whatever means necessary (Pax Romana).
  • The demand for unquestioned devotion. Rome urged all of her tenants to swear allegiance to her rule and often portrayed duty to the empire as a sacred responsibility.  The highest form of devotion was killing others during conquest or dying on her behalf. Devotion to Rome was a religious duty.
  • The mixture of culture with religion. Rome held to a fierce “God and country” ideology. Rome incorporated religious practices, creeds, and claims with her military, economic, and political identities. 
Do any of these sound familiar? That's because Revelation is a critique of all oppressive powers, especially powers that are deemed “sacred.”

In the book of Revelation, John never calls Rome “Rome”; he always refers to Rome as “Babylon.” This is significant. Revelation is not just a critique against the Roman Empire. Revelation is a critique against any and all idolatrous powers similar to those of Rome. In this way, Revelation continues to question and critique all expressions of “Babylon” that exist today.

This certainly includes my home country, the United States of America. In fact, I would not be too surprised if other countries, especially those who have been negatively affected by our military, political, and economic influence, read the book of Revelation and find parallels between my country and Rome. A few examples include our sacred myths of "providence" (America has been chosen by God and set apart from other nations), "messianism" (America has a special role in bringing salvation to other nations, particularly through the spread of democracy - Manifest Destiny), and nationalism (we are "one nation under God," thus equating patriotism with religious duty).

But we will never see any of these parallels if we walk forward while reading Revelation instead of walking backward.

Revelation may concern the future, but its primary concern is how to live today in light of the future. Through John's words to the early Christians, the book of Revelation teaches us how to swear absolute and complete devotion to the Lamb. It shows us how to worship the one who was, and is, and is to come. It challenges anti-God powers and rebukes believers who compromise their faithful witness. It reminds us that the state of the present world is not the end, but that God will one day intervene and redeem all of creation.

Revelation is not about a future escape from this world; it is about radical faithfulness while living in this world.

Turn around, friends, and listen as the book of Revelation speaks to us today in our own context. Walk backwards, trusting that the Lamb is the one who hold the stars.

He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.

Content But Never Satisfied

Sunday, October 21, 2018

A few weeks ago I was working in my flower garden and dug down to a pocket of water. We've had so much rain lately that the water hasn't had any place to go, so it's pooling into the hard, clay ground. The water was dirty and stagnant, yet my cat proceeded to lap it up. Judging by the gross state of the ground water and the rate at which he drank it, you would think that I had deprived this cat of his fresh water supply. But when I went inside to check, his drinking dish was filled to the brim. Clearly my cat is an opportunist. Or constantly in a state of survival.

I've been reading the book of Jeremiah lately, and this incident reminds me of a passage that I keep being drawn back to:

"My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water" (Jeremiah 2:13).

At first glance, this passage makes it sound like the Israelites are like my cat, abruptly abandoning their water source in favor of what's readily available. It seems like the Israelites one day went to the spring, looked at the water, and thought, "Nah. I'm good." But I can't help but to wonder whether abandoning God was much more subversive than this. Usually these things happen gradually rather than instantaneously.

Maybe the Israelites became complacent about their water supply first. Maybe they drank from the spring and, instead of thirsting for more and more of God, they became satisfied. Maybe they assumed that they had their fill and then slowly cut back from the supply. Maybe they were satisfied with that one big gulp they had in the beginning and felt no urgency to return for more.

Or maybe I'm projecting, because this is a pattern that I find myself in: being satisfied with that one amazing moment I had with God and becoming complacent about vigilantly returning to him.

We deceive ourselves when we think that we only need a little bit of Jesus to be satisfied.

We take one big gulp of Jesus and then move on with our lives, seeking out water from other sources. We have that one emotional encounter with God during worship, that one breakthrough during prayer, that one period of growth through adversity, and then we move on with a shallow sense of satisfaction.

Every time we think about our relationship with God, we pull up that "one time" in our minds and leave it at that. I had that amazing time with God last month, we think, so my relationship with God should be good for at least a little while longer. We put these little intermittent experiences on reserve in a water bottle and then seek out other sources of contentment.

But Jeremiah tells us: "Now why go to Egypt to drink water from the Shiloh? And why go to Assyria to drink water from the River? [...] You will be disappointed by Egypt as you were by Assyria" (Jeremiah 2:18, 36).

We can find fulfillment, even contentment, from these brief encounters with God, but they should never leave us satisfied. We shouldn't put them in a water bottle, ready to be picked up whenever we want to feel good about where we are with God. These moments of growth should make us thirstier for God's presence; they should stir our hearts to seek God's kingdom more vehemently. We should never be satisfied drinking from a water bottle when we can go directly to the source.

We can be content with how much we've matured, but we should never be satisfied with the state of our relationship with Jesus.

My prayer as I read through the book of Jeremiah has been that God would chase away my proclivity for complacency. I want to be content with the spiritual growth that is taking place, but I never want to become satisfied with where I am. I want to grow more and more as I keep returning to the only Spring who gives new life.

Toss that water bottle. Keep showing up thirsty. He will never run dry.

Revelation Rule #6: Use Your (Disciplined) Imagination

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

The one like a "son of man" from John 1:9-20

(This post is part 7 of my 8 part series on interpreting Revelation faithfully. You can read the other posts in the series here.)

Revelation Rule #6: Use Your (Disciplined) Imagination.

All of us can name a story that completely swept us away into another world. It may have been The Fellowship of the Ring, the Harry Potter series, or The Chronicles of Narnia. All of these books have the tendency to pull us into vibrant, fantastical environments where our imaginations run rampant with new possibilities. There's a reason why we dress up as these characters for Halloween or cosplay: we aren't ready to leave these worlds just yet. Once you finish a book like this you have what's called "book hangover."

Revelation has the capacity to produce "book hangover." In fact, it's designed to suck you in to John's visions. Revelation scholar Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza says it best:
"Exegetes and theologians still have to discover what artists have long understood: the strength of the language and composition of Rev. lies not in its theological argumentation or historical information but in its evocative power inviting imaginative participation. The language and narrative flow of Rev. elicit emotions, reactions, and convictions that cannot and should not be fully conceptualized and phrased in propositional-logical language."*

Don’t be afraid to immerse yourself in the narrative. Stare at the vivid colors, listen to the peals of thunder, smell the burning incense, feel the vibration of beating wings, join the faithful voices raised in adoration. Revelation is designed to be a sensory text, so go ahead and get swept away in it.

At the same time, however, resist the urge to stoke an overactive imagination. Anchor your imagination in the interpretive rules, particularly rule #1 (Revelation cannot mean what it was never meant to mean). If we let our imaginations run too wild, the Beast becomes the Pope and 666 becomes a micro-chip inserted into our skin. The first century Christians did not have the context to understand these modern things, nor did John intend for them to be interpreted as such. In the words of G.K. Chesteron, “Though St. John the Evangelist saw many strange monsters in his vision, he saw no creature so wild as one of his own commentators.”** Let's not add to the wild (and unfaithful) commentary already too readily available.

What kind of books have the tendency to sweep you away? Does thinking about Revelation as this kind of imaginative literature make it seem more appealing to read?

* The Book of Revelation: Justice and Judgment (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985), 22.
** Orthodoxy, 13.

Revelation Rule #5: Colors and Numbers

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

(This post is part 6 of my 8 part series on interpreting Revelation faithfully. You can read the other posts in the series here.)

Revelation Rule #5: The colors and numbers are symbolic.

A few weeks ago we discussed the nature of apocalyptic literature and how this literary type uses symbolic images to convey special meaning. In many ways, Revelation is art, or even poetry, and functions as a form of "resistance literature."

But what do the symbols mean?

And, as one well-meaning student of mine once asked, can they mean different things to different people the way that art often does?

First, it's important to note that the numbers and symbols used in Revelation are frequently used throughout the rest of Scripture. We see colors and numbers used symbolically in both apocalyptic literature (such as Zechariah or Daniel) and even in the book of Exodus. In other words, John isn't really doing anything new. He is using his own Jewish tradition, and because of this, his Jewish Christian audience would have a solid understanding of John's allusions.

Second, because of this rich tradition, we can have a fairly good idea about the symbols in Revelation, too. A good lens through which to think about symbolism is the world of film. Even though each movie we watch is written, directed, and produced by different people in different eras, they often utilize the same symbolic imagery. Light and dark symbolize good and evil. A character who wears gloves is probably hiding something. Even the direction a new character laterally walks into a scene reveals their character (right to left often indicates an antagonist).

Let's take a look at what some of the colors and numbers mean.


Royalty, extravagance
The "great harlot's" (Rome's) clothing (17:3-4) 
Purity, resurrection, victory
Clothing of the faithful (3:4-5) 
Death, evil
The dragon (12:3) 
Blood, violence, power obtained through violence
One of the four horses (6:4) 
Wealth, divinity (real or false)
The Son of Man's sash (1:13) 


In the ancient world, numbers were often qualitative, not just quantitative. This is a bit difficult for us in the modern world to understand, because for us, 3=3. The end. But in John’s world, the number 3 communicated something beyond mathematics. There was a symbolic quality about 3.

For instance, because the ancients thought that the world was flat, they described the world as having 4 corners. Thus, by using the number 4, John was communicating something that was universal or present within all of creation. It is something that carries to all 4 corners of the earth.

Here are some other common number meanings in Revelation (and in the whole Bible):

A group of things, divinity (Trinity)
The one who was, is, is to come (1:4)
Universal in all of creation
The heavenly creatures (4:6-8)
Imperfection, incomplete
The Beast’s number (13:18)
Complete, perfect
The stars in the Son of Man’s hand (1:16)
12 (and its multiples)
The fullness of God’s people (12 tribes of Israel or 12 disciples)
The woman’s crown (12:1)
1,000 (and its multiples)
A very large number (equivalent to us saying a million – their numbers didn’t go up as high as ours!)
Heavenly angels (5:11)

What other forms of symbolism have you seen in the Bible?

5 Practices to Help You Listen to God's Voice

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Last week, I wrote a little bit about my faith journey this past year and how I realized that listening to God's voice was an enormously transformative part of my spiritual maturity.

But let's be honest: This listening thing is hard.

Especially if you're an introvert like me who has a constant inner-thought life. Or if you're an extrovert who balks at the idea of a silent room.

So, everyone, really.

For the past few months, I've been taking some notes from the mystic and monastic writers to help me relearn how to pray.

Here's some of the practices I utilize to help me eliminate distractions and listen to God's voice. Once again, I am by no means am an expert and am learning how to listen little-by-little. Maybe by the time I'm 90 I'll be a professional listener, but for now, I hope that these ideas can help you in your pursuit of intimacy with God.

1. Find a place.
I've found that the best way to come before God's presence is to start with a specific space to meet with him. For me, this is my back porch each morning. It could be a specific chair in your living room or at your kitchen table. Wherever it is, there is something about having designated space that helps put you in an expectant state of mind. It's amazing how the position of our bodies can direct the attitude of our minds.

As you regularly meet with God in this space and become accustomed to hearing his voice, you'll gradually be able to meet with him on your walk, in the checkout line, or in a busy airport terminal. But don't start with these highly distracting spaces! As a kid who grew up in "children's church," I was constantly told that I could pray anywhere. While this may be true, "anywhere" may not be the best place to start, especially when it involves listening. There are too many voices vying for attention in the "anywhere," and until you know God's voice well, it will easily be drowned out. Learning to hear God's voice in the quiet helps you recognize his voice in the noise.

2. Spend time in silence.
This is probably the hardest part about listening. The good news is that you get it over with first! Let your brain wander and when thoughts, particularly concerns or anxieties, emerge, briefly reflect on them and surrender them over to God. Listen to what God has to say about them. Then let God direct your thoughts to his presence. Don't ignore your joys and pains, but set them aside for a little while so that you can enjoy uninterrupted union with God.

3. Reflect on Scripture.
Choose a short passage of Scripture to read with God. There's a time to study Scripture, but this is the time to simply meditate on God's Word. Keep the passage brief. Slower is better. Less is more. This isn't a race to read the entire Bible in a year - it's an opportunity for God to speak to you right now. As you read, notice what words or phrases stick out to you. Re-read the passage, maybe even several times.

4. Listen.
Quiet your heart and listen to what God has to say through the Scripture passage you just read. Present the key parts that stood out to you and allow God to guide your thoughts. Think about how God can use his Word to align you with his will.

5. Give yourself lots of grace.
The bad news: You will not be perfect at listening. Your mind might wander. You might get restless. You might even hate it at first. But the good news is that God will give you lots of grace.

Since God gives you grace, you can definitely give yourself grace, too.

The fact that you're even showing up and trying is "winning." So don't give up. Be persistent. Keep showing up, no matter how hard it might seem. In the words of the monastic father Brother Lawrence, “For many years I was bothered by the thought that I was a failure at prayer. Then one day I realized I would always be a failure at prayer; and I've gotten along much better ever since.”

What struggles do you have with praying? What practices have you found help you cultivate an intimate relationship with God?

Revelation Rule #4: It's All About Worship

Monday, October 1, 2018

(This post is part 5 of my 8 part series on interpreting Revelation faithfully. You can read the other posts in the series here.)

Revelation Rule #4: Worship is a major theme.
"Holy, holy, holy
is the Lord God Almighty
who was, and is, and is to come."
(Rev. 4:8)
If you had a traditional upbringing in the church like I did, you may have sung some hymns based upon Revelation and not even realized it: "How Great is Our God," "Holy, Holy, Holy," "O, For a Thousand Tongues to Sing," "Worthy is the Lamb," "Agnus Dei," "Victory in Jesus," "Crown Him With Many Crowns"... these are just a few.

You might even recognize a few modern worship songs as well: "You are Worthy," "Lion and the Lamb," "The Earth is Yours," "We Fall Down," "Break Every Chain."

This is because worship is a major theme in the book of Revelation.

Last week we discussed Rule #3, where understanding the circumstances under which John was writing greatly helps us understand Revelation. Briefly put, the Roman Empire in John's day was caught up in a dangerous, blasphemous ideology that asserted Rome's status as a sovereign, divinely-appointed nation and her emperors' status as gods. In John's world, Rome demanded ultimate allegiance and even worship. Worship was political. Given this cultural background (Rule #3), it only makes sense that Revelation would be filled with songs of praise and liturgical readings.

It is precisely because worship is a political act that Revelation calls God's people to declare her allegiance to the only One who is worthy.

Revelation is counter-worship. Through its hymns and doxological (praise) responses, Revelation counters all the false claims the Roman deities made about their sovereignty and power. John shows God's people how to publicly worship by returning honor and praise to the one true God.

Much of Revelation centers around the Throne, where Jesus, the slaughtered Lamb, is glorified for overcoming death. The reign of God begins now, not somewhere in the distant future. For John's listeners, this would have been incredibly good news. Caesar may have his little throne, but God is ultimately the one who has divine power.

And because of this, Jesus, and Jesus alone, is worthy of our worship.

When we worship, we don't just give God honor; we strip strip honor from everything that is not God. By declaring Jesus "worthy," we are declaring that everything else is "not worthy."

Worship is a declaration of where our ultimate allegiance lies. It reminds us to resist yielding to powers that are intrinsically anti-God. And it invites us to into the story and mission of Jesus.

 What worship songs inspired by Revelation have you sung? How do you think that understanding Revelation as "counter-worship" helps our interpretation of it?

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