Monthly Archives: September 2013

What does the book of Revelation say? (part 7)

Ted Grimsrud

7. Theology by numbers (Revelation 7:1-17)

[This is the seventh in a series of posts summarizing the message of the book of Revelation.  I have been writing on Revelation off and on for a long time. My intent with this project is to write a new book applying Revelation’s message to our modern world.]

Two types of symbols

The book of Revelation is full of numbers. Clearly, they have symbolic meaning. But there are different kinds of symbols. We can break symbols into two categories: specific symbols and general symbols. With specific symbols, one particular meaning is meant by the symbol. Like with the American flag—the thirteen stripes symbolize the original thirteen colonies and the fifty stars symbolize the current fifty states.

With general symbols, the meanings are much broader, more dynamic and subjective. Think again of the American flag—what does the flag itself symbolize? Tons of things. Democracy, religious freedom, the destination for many of our ancestors fleeing trouble—and, empire, war-making, global domination, hypocrisy.

I think the numbers in Revelation work both ways—some symbolize specific things, others are more general. Without explaining why right now, I suggest that “666” and “7” are two examples of general symbols—7 having to do with wholeness in a broad sense, applied in different ways in different settings; and 666 having to do with a general sense of humanity resisting the wholeness of God’s shalom (the “6” meaning just short of the “7”, intensified by being repeated three times). On the other hand, I believe that 144,000 is a specific symbol. It has one particular meaning. And it is one of Revelation’s most important numbers.

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Glen Stassen’s reflections on the Yoder case (guest post)

[Glen Stassen, Smedes Professor of Ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary, was a close personal friend of John Howard Yoder’s. He wrote the following response after reading the series of blog posts on this site about John Howard Yoder’s sexual misconduct as well as other recent writings that reflect on the Yoder case. Glen, along with his and Yoder’s friends and fellow theologians Stanley Hauerwas and James McClendon, was involved in several conversations with Yoder during the time of Yoder’s working with a Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference disciplinary committee in the early 1990s (here’s an account by Hauerwas of this process). In his comments here he adds an important perspective on that process. I am grateful to Glen for sharing his reflections. Ted Grimsrud, 9/24/13]

These are enormously insightful blogs and comments on Ted Grimsrud’s blogsite. Thank you all! You help me to wrestle with my own conflictedness. Ruth Krall is so right that we need therapeutic and spiritual resources for victims, public education events, and work to change the surrounding culture. Barbra Graber suggests for writers, and “For Mennonite pastors and bishops: No more secrecy and silence.” (And other churches as well.) Sara Wenger Shenk’s policy decisions for AMBS, and Ervin Stutzman’s appointing a new review committee, are truly important and impressive initiatives. As Mark Nation wrote, “I agree with Sara that egregious behaviors were allowed to go undisciplined for far too long—perhaps in large measure because of Yoder’s own efforts to avoid such discipline.” Mark’s recent 16-page blog (September 23, 2013) seeks balance.

Let me speak to just a few of the excellent comments on the various posts about the Yoder issues.

Dan Umbel wrote insightfully that Yoder’s work leaves very little room for the honest acknowledgement of human frailty, the recalcitrance of human sin, and the depths of our estrangements from God, self, and one another. . . . (as well as the more affective/emotive needs of human nature as well) in a way that may have made it difficult for him to admit his own frailty, sinful habits, and/or emotional needs. Others write of John’s striking social awkwardness.

Dan continues: “I would offer as a caution, however, and point out that there is probably not a causal connection between Yoder’s theology and his actions. Rather, . . . what is lacking in his work did not give him the tools necessary to adequately acknowledge his own inner issues.”

Ted Grimsrud adds: “Combined with a pathological lack of empathy toward the women he wanted to try this out with.” This seems exactly right to me. How can I deal with Yoder’s actions and still express my gratitude for what he did for me? I am conflicted.

Heike Peckruhn and someone else suggested “the possibility of Asperger’s. . . via Temple Grandin. . . . I am guilty of hurting others, sometimes quite deliberately, and yet I do not want to be dismissed as a theologian because I am a fallible human being.”

I (Glen) totally identify with that. And all the rest Heike says about how we think of ourselves as Anabaptists.

My own son David, whom I deeply love, and who is sweet, kind, and thoughtful, has Asperger’s. [My plea to others; do not stereotype Asperger’s (caused by missing parts of the right brain from before birth) with autism (caused by missing parts of the left brain; the behavioral results are almost opposite. Do not stereotype and confuse by writing of “the autism spectrum.”] Continue reading

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What does the book of Revelation say? (part 6)

Ted Grimsrud

6. An Angry Lamb? (Revelation 6:1-17)

[This is the sixth in a series of posts summarizing the message of the book of Revelation.  I have been writing on Revelation off and on for a long time. My intent with this project is to write a new book applying Revelation’s message to our modern world.]

It is not too difficult to see in Revelation one through five a nice message of peace, the Lamb as the way. But then with chapter six, the plagues begin. For most readers of Revelation, this apparent turn toward judgment seems to come as a relief. But let me suggest something that might seem counter-intuitive—or at least contrary to the most obvious reading of Revelation 6—or at least contrary to Christianity’s teaching about God’s anger. I don’t think we should read these verses as being about God’s punitive judgment.

But most interpreters of Revelation seem automatically to assume that Revelation six is about God’s punishing judgment, directly visited upon the earth. As if the one on the throne who endorses the Lamb’s persevering love as the basis for the opening of the scroll now starts to rip things apart. As if the Lamb himself all of a sudden becomes angry. Think about it though, can you imagine an angry lamb? I believe it is clear that the metaphor in Revelation of the Lamb means to evoke a sense of gentleness, not punishing anger.

Bringing together two truths

So what then might be going on in Revelation six?

John brings together two truths. First, he affirms that the one on the throne made, sustains, and heals creation. The scroll that the Lamb took from the one’s right hand truly does contain the story of the healing of heaven and earth. And this healing will happen through persevering love, expressed most fundamentally in the Lamb’s path of faithful witness. But the second truth cannot be avoided: The world we live in remains powerfully alienated, the home of terrible injustices, violence, and domination. The need for healing remains all too obvious—as does the reign of the powers of greed and inhumanity.

How can we understand and affirm God’s care for creation and all that is in it in face of the brokenness that is so apparent? That is the question Revelation six tries to respond to with these horrific visions of destruction. But does God add to creation’s hurt with punishing judgment? How could this be in light of what we learned from Revelation four and five?  Continue reading

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What does the book of Revelation say? (part 5)

Ted Grimsrud

5. What is God like? (Revelation 4:1–5:14)

[This is the fifth in a series of posts summarizing the message of the book of Revelation.  I have been writing on Revelation off and on for a long time. My intent with this project is to write a new book applying Revelation’s message to our modern world.]

My sense with Revelation is that most people start to read it with the assumption that Revelation’s God is violent and judgmental. This assumption can lead some Christians to be happy. There are others who also might agree with the God-as-violent-judge reading of Revelation—but for these such a picture of God is a good reason to reject Christianity altogether. If this is what the Christian God is like, forget about it.

Well, we do have other options, starting with taking the vision at the heart of the book seriously.

Revelation chapters four and five contain one vision. This is a vision, we could say, of a worship service. It begins with the twenty-four elders worshiping, then moves to the four living creatures, and then to the central focus, the Lamb taking the scroll from the One on the throne’s right hand. Then the service kind of repeats itself with more worship that ends with the living creatures and finally back to the elders. This movement from the elders to the four living creatures and then back emphasizes the point in the middle. If we want to learn about God from this vision, we must center our attention on the high point of the worship service. In the middle is the shocking revelation that the Lamb defines God’s self-revelation.

Jesus’s divinity, properly understood

The first scene of the heavenly vision centers on the one on the throne. However, this character is never physically described—evidence, actually, that indeed the One is God. The surroundings make this clear: the throne, the worship by all creation. This vision of power echoes the claims for the god-emperor of Rome. But there is no hint here of anger or judgment, only joy and celebration. This is the true God, comparable to the emperor but profoundly different. That is, the true God and the emperor are rivals. You cannot divide your loyalty between the two, Revelation insists.

The difference becomes even more clear as the vision proceeds. When read as a whole, the most remarkable element of this vision is how the One on the throne and the Lamb are seen together. Both receive the same worship. And it is only the Lamb who can open the One on the throne’s scroll.

This vision underlies the Christian affirmation of Jesus’s divinity. Jesus, the Lamb, stands on the same level as the One on the throne. However, with tragic and ironic consequences, Christians have tended to misunderstand this affirmation. Jesus as linked with the One on the throne all too often becomes a kind of supernatural “Christ”—separate from the vulnerability and peaceableness of the Lamb image.

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What does the book of Revelation say? (part 4)

Ted Grimsrud

[This is the fourth in a series of posts summarizing the message of the book of Revelation.  I have been writing on Revelation off and on for a long time. My intent with this project is to write a new book applying Revelation’s message to our modern world.]

4. Weakness in power (Revelation 3:1-22)

We may read Revelation as a book of conflicts—the Beast vs. the Lamb, the Holy Spirit vs. the False Prophet, Babylon vs. the New Jerusalem. The question is: Who is more powerful? Which is actually the question: What kind of power is more powerful —the power to conquer through domination or the power to conquer through self-giving love? 

The seven messages that make up chapters two and three, the first of Revelation’s many visions, set the book’s agenda. In my last post, I discussed “power in weakness”—how the little church in Smyrna, besieged, suffering persecution, with little visible power, actually was praised above all the other churches and proclaimed to be rich indeed. Here, I will focus on “weakness in power”—how the big church in Laodicea, wealthy, comfortable, lacking in nothing, actually was condemned above all the other churches and proclaimed to be “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.”

Empire in Revelation

In these messages, the Roman Empire is everywhere. Each of the seven cities was a center for devotion to the Empire—shrines, temples, monuments. The various strengths and weaknesses in the congregations that the messages speak to are in some sense related to how the congregations navigate being in the midst of empire.

Smyrna and Philadelphia are both small, struggling, fragile congregations. They suffer in large part because their people refused to go along with the Empire’s civil religion, even at the cost of their jobs or more. Thyatira and Pergamum have many who resist bending the knee to Rome. But these congregations also have within them strong voices for going along. Now, in chapter three, we encounter two congregations where the struggle seems to be about over. Sardis has the appearance of being alive, but is actually dead. And Laodicea….

It is no accident that the message to the congregation in Laodicea is the last of the seven. Here, what we see is that the church has, in a genuine sense, actually become Rome. The Laodicean congregation has absorbed the values of Empire so totally that there is no longer any resistance. The Laodicean Christians simply parrot the language of the Empire.

How does the Laodicean church understand itself? “I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing” (3:17). How does the Roman Empire, in Revelation shown as a great harlot, understand itself? “I rule as a queen; I am no widow, and I will never see grief” (17:7). In both cases, in the visions of Revelation, these smug affirmations of self-sufficiency and autonomy, are turned upside down. The powerful are shown to be weak. Continue reading

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What does the book of Revelation say? (part 3)

Ted Grimsrud

[This is the third in a series of posts summarizing the message of the book of Revelation.  I have been writing on Revelation off and on for a long time. My intent with this project is to write a new book applying Revelation’s message to our modern world.]

3. Power in weakness (Revelation 2:1-29)

Chapters 2 and 3 in the book of Revelation contain messages to seven churches in cities in the northeastern corner of the Mediterranean. We don’t usually think of these as the key to understanding the visions that follow. I think that’s what they are, though. The seven messages are, you could say, instructions for understanding the rest of the book.

Living in empire

John’s main concern is with how the people in the churches will negotiate living in the Roman Empire—the visions that follow will in their own creative ways repeat what John conveys here: confrontation to those who too easily find themselves at ease in Babylon and comfort to those who seek to follow the Lamb and suffer because of that.

The reference in the message to Smyrna (2:8-11) seems to pit Christians against Jews. But that is not actually the case. John and other Christians thought of themselves as Jews. The conflict here is not between Christians and non-Christians but between two different ways of envisioning being the people of God. What was at stake was their attitude toward the empire. This charge of being a “synagogue of Satan” has to do with being too tight with the empire, which is linked elsewhere in Revelation with the Dragon, that is, Satan.

Pergamum is where “Satan’s throne” is (2:13)—a major regional center for emperor worship. In John’s view, the Roman Empire is a force for evil in the world, not a representative of the true God as it claimed. The empire sought to separate believers from God, probably most fundamentally by its ideology of power as domination. Rome was ruthless; nations and peoples who did not go along were crushed. Witness the thousands of Jews who were crucified by the empire before and after Jesus’ execution.

“Fornication” (2:20) is an old prophetic metaphor for when the community of faith turned from the ways of Torah and trusted in idols. To “commit fornication” in this figurative way is to forget the calls to justice, compassion, care for those in need—to forget that true worship is to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.

What’s at stake in these messages is the politics of empire versus the politics of the Kingdom of God. To which vision of ways humans relate to one another will those in the churches commit themselves?

The empire’s threat to faith

John is deeply concerned with the powerful currents in his culture that push believers to forget Jesus’ way of being in the world. The empire gives the message that it represents the gods. Because of this its power is to be feared and accepted as definitive. The villains in the messages to the seven churches, though, are not the beast and dragon so much as people in the churches who advocate cooperation with empire.

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What does the book of Revelation say? (part 2)

Ted Grimsrud

[For the past two years, one of the projects I have been working on is an updated take on the book of Revelation. I have preached a series of sermons at Shalom Mennonite Congregation that is nearing its completion. The next step (between November and next July) will be to expand the sermons by thinking more about how Revelation directly speaks to our present day, especially for those of us living in the United States. I hope to have at least one book that results from this work. As preparation for the sermon finale November 17, I will put up a series of posts that highlight the main points of each sermon. I have been writing on Revelation off and on for a long time. This time through is reinforcing much of what I have seen before, but with some new insights that help me to see Revelation as even more helpful and radical than I had perceived earlier.]

2. A revelation about Jesus (1:1-20)

The book of Revelation forces the reader to answer some basic questions about how to approach it. Is Revelation mainly predictions about the future or exhortation for first century believers? Is it better read in relation to other, non-biblical writings in the so-called apocalyptic genre or read in relation to the New Testament? Are the plagues in Revelation from God or from the Beast?

Maybe the most important choice comes right away. When the first words of the book tell us this is a “revelation of Jesus Christ” do they mean a revelation from Jesus or a revelation about Jesus? Either reading is possible. Maybe we should see both as being intended. But I think we still have to choose which meaning to emphasize more; our choice will be important.

To emphasize more “a revelation from Jesus” may set a tone of distance between Jesus and the visions that follow. This distance makes it easier to see Jesus as describing terrible judgment that God visits upon the earth—and Revelation as a fear-inducing book.

To emphasize more “a revelation about Jesus” may lead to seeing Jesus as more directly involved in the visions; they reveal Jesus, not what Jesus describes. This is my choice: This book is most of all a revelation about Jesus that gives a vision of how compassion might work in our violent world. Such a choice of how to read Revelation will, I believe, open our imaginations to find in the wild and wooly visions of Revelation help for our healing work.

Jesus is very, very powerful

If I had to say it in a nutshell, I think Revelation’s first chapter means to tell us that Jesus is very, very powerful. He is powerful in relation to the nations (“the ruler of the kings of the earth,” “on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail”). He is powerful in relation to the churches with a loud, loud voice, holding the angels of the churches and walking among the churches themselves. He holds the keys to death and Hades. Continue reading

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