One of the things that is immediately noticeable when reading through the book of Revelation is that it is filled with strange symbolism and strange imagery. For example, the book has strange animals with multiple heads and eyes, made up of different animals. It is also filled with all sorts of numbers which clearly suggest something symbolic.
7 Lampstands, 7 seals, 7 spirits before the throne.
4 Corners of the Earth, 4 windows of heaven
There are also references to 3 and a half, which is half of seven.
There are also various mentions of the number 10 and multiples of 10.
There are also mentions of multiples of 12 and 10 together, for example the 144 000 elders around the throne.
When bombarded with all this symbolism and numbers, it can be quite overwhelming, especially when one is not quite sure what they all mean?
The bottom line is that anyone who reads Revelation will see that it is a very strange and unique genre of writing.
Revelation is just one example of a genre or style of writing that scholars have given the name “apocalyptic” which comes from the Greek word “apokalypsis” which simply means to reveal, to unveil, to disclose or even to unmask.
What is revealed, or unveiled or unmasked in apocalyptic literature?
In many ways what apocalyptic literature sought to do using the symbolic and mythical language of a cosmic battle was to unveil that the emperor has no clothes. It sought to unmask the domination systems of this world and reveals their final destiny on the scrap heap of history.
When regimes build themselves on domination, exploitation, greed, they are out of tune with the deep structure of reality which is ultimately always working towards harmony and balance. When the systems becomes unbalanced, they move to restore balance and harmony. When too much power, wealth are gathered in one place, it is ultimately unsustainable.
Martin Luther King Jnr is often quoted as having made the statement: “The arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” The words were originally taken from an 1853 sermon by the slave abolitionist and Unitarian Minister Theodore Parker. In the same essay he said: Things refuse to be mismanaged long. Jefferson trembled when he thought of slavery and remembered that God is just. Before long all America will tremble.
These words of Parker’s sermon foreshadowed the American Civil War fought in the 1860s. He saw it coming because he could see that a certain form of injustice had gone on too long. It had become unsustainable. The tide of history had begun to turn against it.
Ancient Apocalyptic literature sought to unveil this same truth in the realm of human relations and politics in the ancient world, using symbols and myth. When Empires build themselves on domination, exploitation and greed, they are fundamentally out of Sync with the Way of God. In Chinese Toaist thinking, they are out of Sync with the Tao. The warning of Apocalyptic writing is that such human political systems are not sustainable. They will crumble and fall.
In the book of Revelation, the language that is used is the language of God’s judgement and retribution. I believe that this needs to be read metaphorically. It would be more accurate to understand this as the law of consequence. If you bump a glass off a table it will break on the floor. You could say that the gods have punished you for being careless, but the mechanism beneath the language of judgement is ultimately the law of consequence.
When you act against the fundamental laws of the universe, which bend towards justice and harmony, you are in danger of life coming crashing down around you.
Apocalyptic writing was a religious form of writing that sought to express these truths in the mythical language language of the cosmic battle between the forces of Good and Evil, God and Satan.
In situations of political oppression and domination, it would have been difficult to speak out against the ruling regime, and so these writers used mythical language and symbolism to say what they needed to say. Those to whom it was written would have understood it’s meaning, but to their oppressors, it would have just sounded like religious myths.
And the message was this: Stand firm, do not give in, the evil oppressive and dominating regimes of this world will fall, and God’s kingdom and victory of justice and peace will be established. Political systems that deny the principles of justice may seem to grow strong for a season, but ultimately they will fall.
And so in apocalyptic writing, the subject matter is often written in the form of one or more visions disclosing and unveiling God’s judgement on the current oppressive regime and the future promise of God’s kingdom of justice and peace.
Apocalyptic writing thus uses code language to identify and unmask the evil and oppressive regimes of this world as expressions of a greater cosmic evil, under the power of Satan. It also divides time into the current evil age dominated by evil and beastly rulers and the future age to come evil will be wiped away and all things will be made new.
The earliest example of this in the Bible is the book of Daniel, written when the Seleucid King Antiochus Epiphanes turned the screws on his Jewish subjects in Judea. The book of Daniel was written to call Jews to be faithful and described the evil empires of this world as wild beasts in contrast to the coming Kingdom of God which would be ruled by one like a son of man. In other words, in contrast to the wild and beastly kingdoms of this world, God’s kingdom would have a human face, in other words, it would be humane, expressing the very best of our humanity made in God’s image.
But there are many other examples of Jewish Apocalyptic writing that never got included in the Bible. Wikipedia lists 15 Jewish Apocalyptic books apart from the book of Daniel.
The Book of Revelation is the most well-known Christian example of this style of Apocalyptic writing, but there are a number of other Christian examples of the same kind of writing. In fact almost the whole of the New testament is influenced in varying degrees by this style of writing, most especially seen in Mark 13 which is often called the Little Apocalypse.
As I mentioned last week, the vast majority of Biblical scholars book of Revelation was written during a period of turmoil, oppression and persecution, most probably the period of the Roman Jewish War which began in 66 AD when all out war broke out in Judea and Galilee which led to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 AD and which led both Christians and Jews in those areas to flee into exile, a little bit like the Syrian refugees of today. Parallel with this there was also the beginnings of the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire, beginning with Nero’s scapegoating of Christians in 64 AD for the great fire in Rome. During this persecution, the Apostle Peter and the Apostle Paul were both killed by the Roman Empire.
In the book Rome, the capital city of the Roman Empire is identified as the ten-horned beast that comes up from the sea. (The sea is a symbol of chaos). This 10 horned beast rules the world and demands worship, just as the Roman Empire ruled the world, and just as it’s emperor’s from the time of Augustus Caesar were hailed and worshipped as lord and god in temples honouring them around the Empire. As we saw, the number of the beast in Revelation 13, using Hebrew and Latin numerology systems decodes to the name of Caesar Nero who had become perhaps the greatest symbol of Roman decadence, violence and oppression.
In chapter 17, the City of Rome is then identified as a great harlot. She is dressed in royal attire and rides on the beast identified in chapter 13, and her name is Babylon the Great. The Babylonian Empire which centred around the city of Babylon had vanished some 600 years earlier. It had oppressed the Jews and destroyed the city of Jerusalem in 586 BC along with the Temple taking most of the leading Jews into Exile. Using code language so that his Roman oppressors would not know he was referring to them, John, the writer of Revelation uses the symbol of Babylon as a nick-name to refer to the city of Rome.
Marcus Borg says that the identification of the harlot of Babylon with the Roman Empire is made complete by two more details in chapter 17. The woman is seated on “seven mountains”. From ancient times Rome has been known as the city built on seven hills or mountains. The identification becomes even more explicit in the last verse of chapter 17: “The woman you saw is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth”. As Marcus Borg says, for John, the beast and the person whose number was 666 were not figures of the future, but rather realities of the present for those to whom he was writing.
And in this context of a world ruled by a beastly, violent and oppressive Empire, that felt like it was an expression of a greater spiritual evil, the message of John, as I suggested last week was: “Stand firm, remain faithful, persevere. There is a greater reality than the one you are now experiencing. There is a greater King who is the true ruler of the kings of the earth, and this ruler is ultimately a Lamb, a soft gentle creature, who has experienced the brutality of the Empire first hand, for he was slain, and yet he is alive and reigns ever more. God’s judgement over Rome is coming. It will fall just as all the Empires of this world have fallen. A new age is coming when God will renew both heaven and earth.”
I close with the words of Revelation 19:6 “Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready.
When the surface of our lives feel like they are in turmoil, as though our world is falling apart and the sky has come crashing down upon us, the writer of the book of Revelation invites us to catch a vision of a deeper reality to life, where, using metaphorical language, God is still seated on the throne and where all is well. And from that alternative deeper and greater reality, the troubles of this life are experienced from a different perspective. They are no longer our controlling reality, because we have caught a glimpse of that which is eternal and deathless.