Summary: Even with its outrageous characters and weird scenery the Book of Revelation does have relevance for us today. We can look around us and name some of the beasts that plague us – terrorism, global warming, severe drought, rampant consumerism,and so on.
I have a love hate relationship with the telephone. Real phones I mean not these mobile ones with which I simply have a hate relationship. On one occasion when I was just beginning in ministry I answered a phone. On the other end was a voice of a man who wanted to come and discuss the Book of Revelation with me. Usually when people want to talk about the Book of Revelation it is to convince others that the world is in a hopeless situation and that very soon – and they often have a date- God will bring everything to its end. Expecting nothing different this time I reluctantly agreed to a meeting.
The book of Revelation is the most misused and least understood books of the Bible. I claim no deep wisdom in unlocking its secrets, but I thought at the time I knew enough to be able to help this enquirer, or put him straight if he was a fanatic who was coming to share his insider knowledge on the timing of the end of the world.
Not knowing exactly what to expect I went over some of the things I had learnt about this colourful and yet dangerous book. The Book of revelation was not meant as a guidebook to the end of the world. It was written during a time and for a particular audience. It time was a terrible time of persecution. During the reign of the emperor Domition, about the AD 93, Christians were being executed for refusing to worship the emperor of Rome. Domition has been described as both cruel and mad. Revelation was meant as an encouragement for those who were suffering under his regime.
The writer wanted to pass on what had been revealed to him: God will triumph in the end, even against the evil Domition, hold fast and be faithful. But how do you communicate a message when just refusing to worship the emperor was seen as a justification for death? Any attempt to write in a way that challenged the persecution in plain language would not get very far. If these words were to gain wide circulation as an encouragement for the faithful they would have to be written in code. The code in which it is written is called ‘apocalyptic.’ Apocalyptic is special type of language used by the prophets to speak of the final triumph of God over all that is in it. Ezekiel and Daniel use this type of language and there are echoes of it in the gospels when Jesus talks of the end times. It is typically filled with imaginative and highly symbolic characters and plots.
The writing of the book of Revelation came out of a pastoral need for a particular time. But it found value beyond that initial time and place. God’s Church continued while emperors and their states came and went. So too the Book of Revelation was found to be an inspiration to the faithful long after the persecution of Domition. Our reading comes this morning is a great example,
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away."
This new heaven and new earth only come after terrible a battle in which the Lamb of God defeats the beast:
And I saw a beast rising out of the sea, having ten horns and seven heads; and on its horns were ten diadems, and on its heads were blasphemous names. And the beast that I saw was like a leopard, its feet were like a bear’s, and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth. And the dragon gave it his power and his throne and great authority.
One of its heads seemed to have received a death-blow, but its mortal wound had been healed. In amazement the whole earth followed the beast. They worshiped the dragon, for he had given his authority to the beast, and they worshiped the beast, saying, "Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?"
The reference to Rome and the emperor in the image of the beast would have been obvious to the 1st century Christian reader but that has not stopped people applying the image of the beast to any force or agency they feel is oppressive.