18. Why We (Should) Read Revelation
[This is the eighteenth (and last!) 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.]
Back in 1982 I preached my first sermons on Revelation. There is definitely some overlap between what I did those many years ago and what I have to say now. But there is always new light to be shed on a fascinating and complicated text such as Revelation.
Two types of arguments against pacifism
I was reminded recently why Revelation is worth reading. I encountered two different kinds of arguments against pacifism—one from the “right,” we could say, and one from the “left.”
I gave several lectures at the University of Pikeville on the Bible and peace. Not surprisingly, I heard a standard objection to pacifism. You would just stand by while someone is attacked? You would just stand by while our country is invaded? Behind these questions are assumptions that the only way to resist wrongdoing is with violence. The only way to have national security is with an all-powerful military. Pacifism is passive and helpless against injustice. Trust in the sword is necessary for national survival. We must be ready to fight.
The second kind of argument against pacifism came from a book called The Failure of Nonviolence by Peter Gelderloos, a “combative anarchist.” He sees pacifism or nonviolence, as too passive, too constrained, not really willing to take on evil and evil-doers. The big problem with nonviolence that Gelderloos focuses on is how nonviolent approaches tend to take the starch out of resistance movements. The book states: “Nonviolent campaigns around the world have helped oppressive regimes change their masks, and have helped police to limit the growth of rebellious social movements.”
I see some things both perspectives that share. It’s true that the people they want to use violence against are on opposite sides—law-breakers on the one hand and the enforcers of the law on the other hand. However, both assume that the only way to make sure the “good side” comes out on top is through use of “necessary” violence. Because this is true, energy must be devoted to preparing for violence. Once you make violence a necessity, it can never be a last resort, something you avoid unless you absolutely have to use it. Rather, you must prepare for it, build up your firepower, shape your strategy by how you can position yourself to be successful in the violent actions.
It is at this point of understanding what it means to be victorious and what are the bases for true security that I have found Revelation especially meaningful. It is about victory and finding security. But it presents a radically different view of the how than those held by the anti-pacifist people.
Revelation is about method, not predictions
Revelation’s main message about method in the present, not predictions about the future. It does make the claim that the victory of God is real. The beautiful vision in the last two chapters portrays a new heaven and a new earth—but this new heaven and earth do not involve the literal destruction of the old and its replacement, but involve a transformation. God heals what is broken.
But I don’t actually read this as a certain prediction of what will without a doubt happen. Such a prediction is more than what the Bible is capable of giving us. The Bible is a book of stories and exhortations that emerge out of a people’s experience in life—interpreted in light of their faith in their God. It speaks to their world and, certainly, to their hopes about the future. But the Bible cannot transcend their present. The Bible’s writers would have had no way to know what will happen before it happens. The future is not settled; it’s open.
But what the Bible can tell us is how to move toward a good future. We can’t know for sure that the New Jerusalem will come down, but we can have guidance for what it will take for the New Jerusalem to come down if it is to come down. This is the main burden of Revelation—our method, our way of living, our approach to life to be people who would be at home in the New Jerusalem. Revelation tells us how victory is to be won—even if we can’t know for sure that it will be won.
A new insight about Revelation
As a way of summarizing some of what I have said in this series, let me mention one key point from the book. I have wrestled with Revelation for years, done a lot of reading, taught and preached from it, heard many people speak about it. And what follows is something that I have not thought of or heard about before.
I went through the entire book and looked at every reference to blood. Revelation has the reputation of being a bloody book, a judgmental book, a book of God’s violence. A prominent evangelical pastor named Mark Driscoll recently insisted that pacifists are wimps and that Jesus was anything but a pacifist. He even said that he could not follow someone who he could beat up—and if Jesus truly is a pacifist Driscoll would be able to beat him up.
Driscoll’s main prooftexts are from Revelation and all Revelation’s blood. Including the blood of his enemies that Jesus supposedly spills when he comes back to earth in chapter 19 riding a great white horse and wielding a sword. Driscoll fails to notice, though, a couple of key parts to that return. First, and most importantly, the only blood at all in the scene is the blood that is on Jesus’s robe before he rides into battle. This refers to Jesus’s cross, which came up earlier in the book, back in chapter 5 where it’s the victory that won whatever battle ever mattered. Jesus rides into battle the crucified and resurrected Lamb who has already taken the scroll from the one on the throne. As a result, when he returns in chapter 19 there will be no battle.
Also, notice the other part of this scene. Jesus wields a sword, alright, but it’s a sword that comes out of his mouth. Hard to do a lot of slashing with a sword held in your mouth. Here, too, is an allusion to something earlier in Revelation—Jesus’s mouth-held sword is mentioned twice earlier. It portrays his word of testimony (partly meaning his teaching and also meaning the witness of his life that led to his cross).
So, this is my insight: Every single time “blood” is mentioned in Revelation, what is in mind is Jesus’s own blood or the blood of his followers. Never is “blood” used in relation to God’s enemies. So, “blood” is not about God’s punishing judgment of sinners and rebels. To the contrary, “blood” is about the faithful and self-giving love of Jesus and his followers.
Revelation points back to Jesus’s life and message
Revelation is not about bloody judgment against God’s enemies but about the self-giving love of Jesus and his followers that leads to the transformation of God’s enemies. Chapter 5 envisions the taking of the scroll of the meaning of history from the right hand of the one on the throne by the crucified and raised Lamb. This act is followed by massive acts of worship from all of creation, including people from every tribe and language and people and nation. The verb tenses are crucial here: You have achieved this victory. You are worthy to take the scroll. This is already real.
The plot of Revelation is all about what has happened and living in light of that. The basic story of Jesus—his ministry, his faithfulness unto death, his vindication by God—this is the exact same story that Revelation, in its uniquely creative way, reinforces. Revelation does not give us new information about the future. Revelation challenges us to follow the Lamb wherever he goes—just like the gospels, just like the writings of Paul.