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.

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