Our five week study of Revelation with the small rural congregation I serve a few times a month is over, and I’m glad to see it go. It’s my least favorite book in the bible. In fact, least favorite is saying too much. I do not care for it at all. There is so much in the bible worthy of deep study, and, if we are Christ centered, none is more important than diving into what Jesus is reported to have said and done in the light of the prophets who preceded him.
As far as I’m concerned, Revelation is a side bar, a distraction, but a powerful one for many. Its fantastical visions and images captivate imaginations, titillate fears, and challenge the ability to distinguish what is real from what isn’t.
Some believe that, because it is the last book, it must be the most authoritative, the final word so to speak, the book against which all other books in the bible must be measured. Some believe that it reveals the blueprint for the end of time, and it is ignored at one’s peril. Some have been persuaded by popular books and preachers who literally scare the hell out of them, or into them, through artful use of the book’s visions. In spite of Christ’s repeated assurance of salvation, they are certain that people they know are destined for eternal punishment in hell, and are fearful that they also may be headed that direction. For some, there is a lingering suspicion that all this stuff about how much God loves us is just a game of godly gottcha.
So they entered the study of Revelation with wide eyed anticipation that it might unlock some great secret of the universe, an inside scoop on what God is up to, a code to tell them when the world will end, and, maybe most of all, to confront once again the thundering threats of damnation that some idiot preacher had nailed onto their hearts during their formative years.
I don’t know if our five weeks together were a disappointment. I think we made progress in demystifying it. We teased out the more important themes of hope, healing, reconciliation and restoration. We emphasized the certainty of God’s triumph over evil: it is not a battle yet to be fought, the outcome of which is uncertain. We explored the geopolitical setting in which John received his visions. We discussed ancient and contemporary (to John) religions that were competing with Christianity. We followed a few strands from Revelation back to passages in the Hebrew scriptures. Time and again I argued that Revelation must be measured against the rest of scripture, especially the gospel stories, and not the other way round. We tried hard to understand the role of metaphor, but it was difficult. I was caught off guard when, in our final session, a question was raised about whether Babylon and Rome were literally, not metaphorically, the same, and that the Babylon of the Hebrew scriptures was the same city as modern day Rome.
Disappointed or not, they did ask for another round of bible study to be scheduled in the weeks ahead, and that’s a good thing. I’m going for something simple next time. Amos maybe.