Monthly Archives: October 2013

What does the book of Revelation say? (part 15)

Ted Grimsrud

15. The War That’s Not a War—Revelation 19:1-21

[This is the fifteenth 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.]

In Revelation, we are told that the Beast, the Dragon, the city Babylon, these Powers that symbolize the domination system are defeated, that “it is all over.” Yet the powers keep coming back. They go down in chapters 11 and 12, and in chapter 17, and then again in chapter 18. And at the beginning of chapter 19, the great harlot has been judged and smoke goes up from her forever and ever. And yet, in the second half of the chapter the powers of evil are back, gathered for the great battle of Armageddon.

There’s a war going on in Revelation—a war against these Powers. But it’s a strange kind of war. Revelation 19:11-21 pictures a great warrior. Notice that though the warrior is victorious, the Powers come back in chapter 20. That they always come back is a literary technique pushing the narrative ahead. We come to the end but know there is still more of the book to come. Then we circle back and it happens again. It’s a way to hold readers’ interest. But I also think there is a theological message here too—it’s a way of saying that history, what Revelation symbolizes as the 3½ years, the time we live in, is not simply linear. The outcome that matters isn’t only in the future.

That is, that the Powers keep coming back and that the Lamb’s followers keep celebrating tell us that what matters is what we do now. Revelation is not about the future. It’s about the present—the present of John the writer but also the present of all the readers throughout history. The Powers are always present, but so too is the celebration, if we choose to join it.

The war that is not a war

Revelation tells us about an on-going deadly conflict that is deadly and frames the conflict in terms of living a life-enhancing life in the midst of the death-dealing ways of the Roman Empire. And, yet Revelation makes it clear that this war is not to be fought with conventional weapons. It’s not to be a typical war with winners and losers, with death and destruction. The “conquering” that needs to happen comes about through love, not through force. So, there is a war, but it’s not really a war. Continue reading

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What does the book of Revelation say? (part 14)

Ted Grimsrud

14. Confessions of a Birthright Imperialist—Revelation 18:1-24

[This is the fourteenth 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.]

Revelation, chapter 18, focuses on a critique of the great city, called here Babylon—probably with Rome in mind, but also most other imperial capital cities ever since. John challenges his first readers with how they think about the empire they are part of. As such, I think Revelation, chapter 18 works as a good challenge for us today to think about how we feel about our empire.

What’s wrong with Babylon?

What does Revelation 18 say is wrong with Babylon/Rome? Well, Babylon may seem all powerful, full of greatness and things to inspire awe and respect. But the vision in Revelation states that Babylon is home for demons, every foul spirit, bird, and hateful beast. Now, it wasn’t obvious to everyone that Rome was disgusting and foul. This is not an objective statement of clear sociological fact. It’s more a kind of moral or theological interpretation that said, in effect, that Babylon/Rome in actuality, beneath the smoke and mirrors of imperial power and splendor, was corrupt—and corrupting. It was not a place of genuine life-enhancing beauty, but the opposite, the haunt of death.

Babylon/Rome did like all imperial centers did and do—it demanded and, by and large received, loyalty. People believed in it, trusted in it, gave it their consent to dominate. Babylon gives wine to the nations that makes them drunk. And it “commits fornication” with the “kings of the earth.” And it makes the “merchants of the earth” rich. The problem is not literally alcohol and sex. The problem is that by trusting in Babylon, the nations, the kings, and the merchants join in Babylon’s injustice.

Revelation 18 twice details in subtle but powerful ways the dynamics of empire that Babylon follows. First, the chapter portrays the economic dynamics of empire. The merchants of the earth grow wealthy almost beyond measure due to their collaboration with Babylon. They profit from trade of all sorts of things, according to a long list: gold, silver, jewels and pearls, fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet, all kinds of scented wood, all articles of ivory, all articles of costly wood, bronze, iron, and marble, cinnamon, spice, incense, myrrh, frankincense, wine, olive oil, choice flour and wheat, cattle and sheep, horses and chariots. At the end of all the cargo comes this, stated as just one more item: “slaves—and human lives.” This is what’s wrong with Babylon. The commerce may benefit many people, but the great wealth it generates for the merchants and Babylon ultimately comes off the backs of the poor, the vulnerable, the defenseless—and makes their lives worse. Continue reading

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What does the book of Revelation say? (part 13)

Ted Grimsrud

13. Seeking the Peace of the City—Revelation 17:1-18

[This is the thirteenth 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.]

I hate the use of “harlot” as a metaphor in Revelation 17. Among other things, it gives the misleading impression that the concerns John has in Revelation are about illicit sex. However, in terms of what the image communicates, we may see many parallels with our current situation—the one superpower that corrupts people from around the world to do its bidding, to serve its insatiable greed and will to dominate. And the arrogance and lack of self-awareness of this superpower.

The image here, too, of the hostility of the one superpower toward people who challenge it, especially out of concern for the vulnerable ones on whose lifeblood the system thrives. But also, that the Lamb’s way nonetheless conquers the system. And then the rather shocking picture—the kings who had earlier allied with the woman turn on her and destroy her. Is this a picture of the self-destructive nature of this insatiable greed and lust for power?

Revelation 17 as a call to seek Babylon’s well-being?

Let me test an idea: Even with all this destruction, the picture here actually holds out hope for the city symbolized by the harlot and Babylon. This vision is a call to seek the well-being of Babylon. At the end of the previous chapter, chapter 16, the seventh of the full out plagues is visited on the city Babylon. The greatest earthquake the world had ever known splits Babylon into three parts. A loud voice, presumably God’s, cries out: “It is done!” (16:17).

But then, starting in 17:1, there are more visions that elaborate on the final plague. The point, as with all the visions, is not to predict how the world will end. The “revelation of Jesus Christ” in the book of Revelation is not a vision of the chronological end of time but, rather, a vision of the purpose of our existence. The seventh and final plague that completes the vision is about purpose, not future predictions.

The final six chapters of the book elaborate the seventh plague. They make clear the purpose of the plagues—that Babylon would end and out of its ashes would arise the New Jerusalem. The revelation of Jesus Christ is a revelation not of the literal destruction of Babylon but of the transformation of Babylon itself into the New Jerusalem. The visions are not so much about a future outcome as they are about a present process: follow the Lamb resolutely wherever he goes. Continue reading

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What does the book of Revelation say? (part 12)

Ted Grimsrud

12. Transforming Babylon—Revelation 15:1–16:21

[This is the twelfth 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.]

At the very beginning of World War II, British poet W. H. Auden wrote what became a famous poem called “September 1, 1939”—the day that Germany invaded Poland and that Britain and France declared war on Germany. Auden realized this was a world-changing moment. He laments: “I and the public know, what all schoolchildren learn, those to whom evil is done, do evil in return.” He struggles with the outworking of this spiral of evil, then concludes with the poem’s most famous line: “We must love one another or die.”

Now, as it turned out, Auden repudiated this poem and especially this line. He rarely allowed the poem to be reprinted and when he did once, he left that line out. I suppose he thought that it showed him to be too sentimental and weak. After all, what was necessary to stop the Nazis was brute force, not love. But still, did the Nazi spirit truly lose that war? Was Auden’s plea for the need for love refuted? I tend to think not.

In fact, were we to summarize the life work of Martin Luther King in just a few words, this phrase, “we must love one another or die” would work pretty well. But we live in a world not all that friendly to love, it would seem—look at what happened to King himself, shot to death at the age of 39.

The “real world”

Revelation 15–16 actually can be helpful for us as we think about love and the “real world.” What we have here is the third of three terribly destructive sets of seven plagues. Each set gets worse—first, we read of terrible destruction that brings death to one-quarter of the earth; then, the destruction comes to one-third of the earth. And now, here, in chapter 16, “every living thing in the sea died.”

What’s going on with these visions? Well, they are not meant to be read with precise literalism. We have these visions of death and right afterward the story goes on with people and things still living. The tales of destruction should be read symbolically. They symbolize—not particular moments of extraordinary, even unbelievable death and destruction—but the on-going reality of human life.

The numbers, one-quarter, one-third, total, do not tell how many are going to be destroyed. Rather, they simply convey terrible destruction. People die in wars and famine, empires and nation-states wreak havoc, the earth itself is exploited and polluted and poisoned. Such destructiveness ebbs and flows throughout human history. But the brokenness, the alienation, the attempts at domination and control, the conflicts, the corruptions, wars rumors of war, all stretch back over most of the past 2,000 years. Continue reading

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What does the book of Revelation say? (part 11)

Ted Grimsrud

11. How to Read Revelation—Revelation 14:1-20

[This is the eleventh 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.]

Many of the commentaries on Revelation agree that the blood at the end of chapter 14 indicates God’s punishing judgment. The blood that flows “from the winepress as high as a horse’s bridle for a distance of about two hundred miles” shows just how widespread God’s retribution will be.

I’m impressed with how easy it is to assume the worst about this vision—as if this same book does not include the vision of the Lamb’s self-giving love in chapter five and the vision of the healing of the nations in chapters 21 and 22. Interpreters seem to find it obvious that “blood” symbolizes death and punishing judgment. Some cultured despisers of Revelation are horrified by this theology that they see in Revelation and reject it. They think Revelation is bad news. Others welcome this kind of bloody theology—they embrace the idea of God as punisher and see Revelation as a key source. However, I have discovered that Revelation actually teaches something quite different.

Revelation’s theology of “blood”

We can see that Revelation is not about violence if we focus on this most troubling of metaphors—the blood flowing from the wine press in chapter 14. This is not the first time blood is used in Revelation. Let’s look at some of the other places that speak of blood.

At the beginning of Revelation, we are introduced to Jesus, the faithful witness who followed a path of nonviolent love that led him to resist the powers to death. He is described as well as the firstborn of the dead—his life was vindicated when God raised him. Because of this witness and vindication, he is also described as the true ruler of the kings of the earth. Then we are told that he loves us and frees us from the power of sin by his blood—by his ministry as faithful witness.

This same point is made in chapter five. Jesus, the executed and resurrected Lamb is the true Lion of Judah (Messiah) who has the power to open the great scroll that tells of the ultimate victory of God. Jesus is worshiped here as God. The worship includes these words of praise: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation.” Continue reading

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What does the book of Revelation say? (part 10)

Ted Grimsrud

10. How do we fight the Beast—Revelation 13:1–14:5

[This is the tenth 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.]

One of the most famous characters in Revelation is the Beast that rises out of the sea. There is something important to remember as we think about this character. Not everyone would see it as beastly. There would have been people in the book’s audience with a quite positive view of what John is calling the Beast. John’s agenda, in part, is to challenge his readers to recognize the Beast here as a beast.

A vision of the Beast’s power

The vision in Revelation 13 that introduces the Beast gives an overwhelming sense of the its power. John had in mind the Roman Empire which had conquered most of John’s known world, executed Jesus and many other prophets, destroyed the Jewish temple in Jerusalem, and demanded of its subjects reverence and loyalty crossing the line into religious worship.

The Empire brooked no opposition. The Beast is set to wreak havoc for 42 months. These 42 months, a number often used in Revelation, are the time in the present where we live. If John’s vision had ended with chapter 13, it would indeed be a vision of despair. No wonder people in John’s churches would also have wanted to give the Empire their homage and grant it the loyalty it demanded. Resistance was futile—it seems.

But we need to go on to chapter 14—and ultimately to the end of the book. John’s agenda is not to counsel despair nor to give comfort to those in his audience who don’t think the Beast is so beastly. John’s agenda is to empower his audience to resist, to bear witness, even (remarkably) to celebrate in the present.

Celebration as resistance

In stories of resistance to various historical Beasts, celebration played an important role in undermining the domination system. In Denmark during World War II, people gathered for public hymn sings that served to undermine the attempts by the Nazi occupiers to define their reality. The black church in the American south during the Civil Rights movement provided a place to praise and celebrate and find solidarity and to be reminded that the white so-called Christians did not have the power to define God’s will for them.

The celebrations scattered throughout Revelation play a similar role. And John promises before the book is over that the witness will be fruitful and the celebrations will not be simply whistling in the dark. They will in fact help lead to the healing of creation, healing of the nations, healing even of the kings of the earth (the human beings most enslaved to the Beast). Continue reading

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What does the book of Revelation say? (part 9)

Ted Grimsrud

9. Standing by words—Revelation 11:1–12:17

[This is the ninth 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.]

I am trying to wrest this most fascinating of biblical books from two different kinds of reading. One sees it as being a truthful account of the future, full of predictions and a set-in-concrete plan of God that will violently cleanse the earth of all those who oppose God—both rebellious human beings and the evil satanic powers. The other sees Revelation as the paranoid ravings of a religious fanatic who projects onto God all his anger and envy and judgmentalism and gives us an unbelievable picture of future catastrophes and punishing tribulations.

Of course, though one view loves Revelation and the second hates it, both agree on many important details about its content—violence, judgment, future catastrophes.

A quixotic quest?

What I am trying to do is read Revelation instead as a book of peace that intends to strengthen people of good will so that we might witness to healing in a violent world—healing even for God’s human enemies. Right in the middle of the book, we find two wondrous stories that, in all their bewildering detail, each essentially tells us the same thing. God is indeed work to heal God’s good creation—and a crucial role in this work is to be played by the human followers of the Lamb. The role these followers have to play asks of them two things—that they embrace a ministry amidst the nations of the world of telling the truth. And that, in embracing this ministry, they refuse to be deterred by suffering and even death. Continue reading

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