[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.
However, the issue of the nature of Jesus’ power—and the nature of God’s power, for that matter—is huge in understanding what Revelation might say to our setting. When we get to chapter five, we will see the most important vision of the entire book. No one is found powerful enough to open the scroll that holds the fulfillment of history. So John weeps. Then he is told someone powerful enough has at last been found, so don’t weep. But what he sees is a slain and resurrected Lamb—the symbol for a very different kind of power.
Revelation challenges us to accept Lamb-power as actual power, the fundamental power of history, the kind of power that runs with the grain of the universe. But lambs don’t kill and dominate and instill fear and justify violence in the name of a “realistic” need for peace and order. Lambs don’t violently punish their enemies. But they do provide the image for Revelation’s portrayal of the power that matters most.
This is a revelation that will tell us more about the Jesus we meet in the gospels—not more about a different kind of Jesus who wields a death-dealing sword of judgment in his right hand, but more about the same Jesus whose “sword” comes out of his mouth. This sword coming from his mouth is kind of a grotesque image if we take it literally. But if we recognize the symbolism we may see the image pointing to the path Jesus trod during his life. His power was based on his defenseless testimony.
We keep our eyes open for indicators that this defenseless Jesus is the one being revealed in Revelation. And hidden in the opening verses is a description of Jesus that actually captures the essence of his testimony—and puts us on notice that the issues of politics, power, confronting domination are key parts of the revelation.
The pattern of Jesus
John offers his readers a blessing from God and from Jesus. This is how he describes Jesus: “the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth” (1:5). I believe that these three descriptors present in a nutshell the pattern of Jesus. This is the pattern of Jesus: Faithful living, to the point of suffering due to one’s resistance to the domination system, even to the point of death. Vindication by God, the witness sustained even through death, resurrection, sustained hope, true power. And then the status as ruler of the kings of the earth.
What does “ruler of the kings of the earth mean?” We’ll need to work through Revelation to get a better sense of how to answer this question. Let me suggest now that there is only one Jesus who has only one way of ruling. He made that way clear to his followers: “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them. But it is not so among you; whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant” (Mark 10:42-43).
Note how the story in Revelation ends: in the New Jerusalem we see a shocking image, given what happens between chapters six and twenty-one. The domination system seeks to dominate using the violence of the kings of the earth—but notice how things end: “The city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it” (21:24). A verse later we are told that “nothing unclean” will enter the city.
The Lamb as lamp gives light to the healed and transformed kings of the earth—ruling them with compassion and self-giving love. They are no longer unclean. That is, they no longer operate by the ethics of domination.
The relevance of an “exalted” Jesus
Revelation one definitely presents, with all its somewhat complicated imagery, an exalted picture of Jesus. But what’s the point of this picture for us today, living in a society that seems to share all too much in common with the beastly society of Revelation?
Well, the exaltation of Jesus is here is not so much about establishing his identity as divinity incarnate. Revelation does link Jesus with God more closely than much of the rest of the New Testament. But why? Not to set the stage for the fourth century creeds—creeds commissioned by the Roman emperor. Not to establish a doctrinal boundary marker to separate true believers from heretics.
It was something very different. Jesus is exalted here as a preface to John’s book-long critique of domination. John envisions Lamb-power as the true power of the universe. Even in the face of a sword wielding Empire. Even in the face of terrorism in service of anti-empire retribution. The exalted Lamb is exalted as Lamb, not as warrior. The exalted Lamb is exalted because of his faithful witness to persevering compassion and love.