Ted Grimsrud—October 15, 2016
[This is a transcript of a talk presented to the Annual Haverim Breakfast during Eastern Mennonite University’s Homecoming Weekend, October 15, 2016. Haverim is a support group of friends of EMU’s Bible and Religion Department.]
I am glad to be here today to share with you. I well remember 20 years ago when I attended my first Haverim breakfast; it seems like yesterday. It’s hard to believe that now as I share this talk, it’s so many years later and I stand up here as a retiree.
My life with the book of Revelation
In a sense I am going full circle right now. My first book, published before I started teaching at EMU, was on the book of Revelation. Now, the first book I hope to publish after I have finished teaching at EMU will also be on Revelation. When I am done with it, maybe someone could read both books and tell my how my thinking has changed.
When I was asked to speak this morning, I faced a problem. What to talk about. Well, it’s like the joke. If you have a hammer in your hand, any problem looks like a nail. My version, if you have the book of Revelation on your mind, any problem of what to give a talk about looks like something related to Revelation.
Well, I chave found Revelation to be remarkably relevant for thinking about faith in our contemporary world—over and over again. I believe that much more strongly now than I even did when I was writing a book about it thirty some years ago.
I suppose I owe my career at least somewhat to Revelation. When I became a Christian as a teenager, I was taught what we might now call “Left Behind” theology—a strong emphasis on the End Times, on Jesus’s soon return, on the Rapture that will come before the Great Tribulation and allow we Christians to escape the carnage—and all proof-texted from Revelation. So, my initial impression was that Revelation was about the future and that the future predicted in Revelation is at hand. It was a book of war and judgment, death and destruction—with a joyful ending only for those whose personal savior is Jesus.
When my theology changed and I became a pacifist and learned that most Christians in fact did not believe in the Left Behind theology, I began to ignore Revelation. It ceased to be part of my usable Bible. But I was taught by some of my new pacifist mentors that all of the Bible, properly interpreted, is usable and can support pacifist convictions. I learned of Millard Lind’s work on the Old Testament and had my anxiety about that part of the Bible undermining pacifism alleviated. But no one said anything explicitly about Revelation supporting pacifism.
Revelation and pacifism
Then, not quite forty years ago, I was challenged to think more about Revelation. In a formal debate about pacifism in the nondenominational church I was part of at the time, one of the pastors argued against pacifism. He agreed that Jesus taught peace, but he stated that before Jesus (the Old Testament) and after Jesus (the book of Revelation), the Bible favors war. We should recognize that Jesus’s teachings actually had to do with life in heaven more than life in the fallen world here and now.
Because of Millard Lind, I knew that the Old Testament as pro-war argument could be refuted. But what about Revelation? This was a challenge. I knew little about Revelation but I did not want to accept that any part of the Bible could refute pacifism. So, I started to work on Revelation. I read all the commentaries I could find, asking questions I hadn’t before—who is this Lamb that is so prominent? Is it actually the case that God punishes evil human beings with violence here? And, maybe most importantly, what does this book say to those for whom it was written back in the first century?
One thing led to another; I discovered a peaceable tradition in Revelation studies, going back at least to British scholar G. B. Caird in the mid-1960s. Then I took an excellent class on Revelation at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in 1981 from Gertrude Roten—who is the only person in my entire life who ever called me “Theodore.” Then, when I found myself in an interim pastorate, I decided to preach a series of sermons on Revelation. Then I decided to submit them to the magazine of the Mennonite Church, the Gospel Herald, and a series of seven articles was published. Then as a result of those articles, I got another interim pastorate in Phoenix, Arizona. Then I expanded the articles into a book, Triumph of the Lamb, that Herald Press published. Then, a decade later, I got to teach at here at Eastern Mennonite University. So, Revelation has been good for me. I’ve stayed in touch with it over the years, and have become ever more convinced that it is a book about peace—not a book forecasting terrible judgment and violence.
I recently preached a series of 16 sermons at my congregation here over a couple of years and wrote running commentary. This is all on my web site, Peace Theology.net. Now I’m polishing it up. Unfortunately for my timing, just very recently, after my sermons, the greatest scholarly commentary on Revelation ever written was published so I have to take time to account for that in my writing. Happily, what makes it the greatest commentary ever is that the author, a Lutheran New Testament scholar named Craig Koester, happens mostly to agree with me. It’s in the Anchor Bible series—part of what makes it great, as well, is that though it is long and detailed, it is well written and pretty accessible.
What kind of “revelation”?
So, I do mean to say that Revelation has a revelation for EMU. I’ll explain what this revelation is. What I will talk about, though, is not some kind of “special” revelation aimed only at EMU, a kind of magical foretelling just for this community. Rather, what I actually mean is that Revelation’s own message to its own time and place turns out to have great relevance for our time and place. The possible applications of Revelation’s message to our world are nearly endless, given how deep and rich the revelation of Jesus Christ is. So I will arbitrarily have to limit the connections I will mention to just a few.
My first point is about what Revelation seems to be concerned about. The book clearly has a polemical tone. Certainly John, the author, doesn’t like the Dragon and Beast; or, we could say, he doesn’t like the real Roman Empire that he links with the metaphorical Beast. But actually, John’s main target is other people in the Christian community.
The messages in chapters 2 and 3 anchor the book in the 1st century world. And John has Jesus call people in the churches names and threaten them with dire consequences. What’s the problem? More than anything else John is distressed that many in the various churches, led by leaders who John equates with the Old Testament, Baal-worshiping villain Jezebel, are feeling way too comfortable living in the midst of the Roman Empire.
It could be said from these seven messages that John comforts the afflicted, the Christians who did not accommodate Empire and suffered as a consequence. And John afflicts the comfortable. He believes that some too easily avoid Jesus’s message to turn from idolatry, to reject injustice and violence as a way of life, to refuse to give their loyalty to the Roman religious/political arrangement. The entire book of Revelation can be read as a challenge to this accommodation. John presents a stark choice, loyalty to the Lamb or loyalty to Caesar.
Now, in this country, we live in what may be a modern version of the Roman Empire. This is a complicated thought. In ways somewhat parallel to the first century, we may see many benefits to the Pax Americana. And we have good reasons to be proud of our country. But perhaps one of the ways Revelation speaks to EMU is to challenge this community to work at discernment. EMU has special resources explicitly to discern the significance for Lamb-centered Christian faith of being part of the world’s one superpower. But this takes work—and courage. More on this in a minute.
A call to resist Empire
John’s expected response to the challenge of living in Empire is that followers of Jesus would imitate Jesus’s resistance to the ways of Empire. John is well aware that the Roman Empire executed Jesus. There was a conflict there that was seemingly resolved by ending Jesus’s life—but actually provided the occasion for the power of God’s faithful love to turn that execution into victory when God raised Jesus from the dead.
The messages of chapters 2 and 3 make the point—the voice of Jesus in each message exhorts those in the congregations to conquer. Resist the Empire, resist the Powers of evil that stand behind the human leaders of Rome—follow Jesus all the way to giving up one’s life if that is what is called for. In doing so, you will be part of God’s victory that will transform this world from Satan’s realm of death and coercion to the Lamb’s realm of life and shalom.
So, there is a battle. There is a call to conquer. There is confrontation. There is sharp critique. For some readers, this makes Revelation off-putting. They think that John shows a spirit of alienation that is mainly about him being a loser in the Roman Empire and resentful of the winners. But others would say that actually John only echoes the prophets and especially Jesus when he emphasizes that people of faith should be at odds with a culture that coerces and exploits and practices injustice. One question is whether John’s critique is warranted and reflects the perspective of God. And a second question is whether John’s critique should be our critique.
Again, EMU, with its Mennonite Christian biblical tradition combined with its international awareness and the expertise of its professors and other community members, may be especially well situated to work at these questions. We should know a lot about the message of Jesus and we should be well aware of dynamics in our society—does Revelation’s call to resistance speak directly to our setting? If so, how?
How to “conquer”
Let’s think about the “how” question—let’s assume that we do see Revelation as revelatory of something true and important and let’s also assume that there are parallels for we who live in a contemporary manifestation of an unjust empire—then how do we resist? And what is EMU’s calling as a resource for this resistance?
I’ll speak briefly of one passage. In chapter 13, we meet a Beast that arises from the sea, commissioned by the great Dragon, identified as Satan himself. This Beast, clearly a picture of the Roman Empire, seems all-powerful. People cry out, “Who can stand against it?” This reference to “standing” is important.
This picture of the Beast is extraordinary, the most profound critique of Rome from that time. The peace and order the Empire brought to privileged ones within it rests upon Satanic power. The “who can stand?” turns out not to be rhetorical. John has someone in mind who does stand against the Beast.
Chapter 14 tells us that the Lamb stands (with his 144,000). These metaphors—Lamb, 144,000—refer to earlier themes. The Lamb conquers through persevering love, resisting Rome to the point of crucifixion. Chapter 5 tells us that God vindicates the Lamb’s conquering love through resurrection. The slain Lamb stands. Then in chapter 7, we hear of the Lamb’s followers numbering 144,000—that is 12,000 from each of the 12 tribes of Israel. This is what we hear, but what we see is a countless multitude from all tribes and nations who stand before the throne and the Lamb. So, the victorious response to the Beast is the Lamb (that is, Jesus) standing, and those who follow him wherever he goes standing with him (the 144,000—that is, all those who trust in Jesus and his way)—and, that is, actually truly standing against the Beast.
Now, part of what makes EMU distinctive is being located in the midst of the American empire, and, at the same time, being heir to the Anabaptist tradition that places following Jesus above accommodating the Beast. But EMU’s tradition has also been that of being the quiet in the land. Revelation’s call to stand openly against the Beast could be seen as a call to EMU to take more chances. Embrace the Lamb’s way of conquering and recognize it as directly relevant for resisting the American Empire, standing openly against it.
The wideness of God’s healing work
The visions in Revelation make extraordinarily wide-ranging claims. The Lamb is worshiped by people from every tribe and language and people and nation. The 144,000 is not a small, sectarian group. It is made up of a countless multitude. EMU’s past tradition has been cautious, humble, willing to accept that our pacifist message is mainly for us. Revelation’s revelation challenges EMU to open up—but not by moving the message of the Lamb to the margins. Rather, it is as followers of the Lamb, the Jesus who challenged political authoritarianism, cultural exclusivism, and religious institutionalism, that EMU’s witness might contribute to social transformation and healing.
Revelation ends with an inspiring vision of New Jerusalem. The conflicts, plagues, and struggles for victory find their resolution in a place of healing, of genuine peace, of restored harmony among God, humanity, and the rest of creation. There is something crucial in this vision that has not been taken seriously enough. Who do we find in New Jerusalem that comes as a surprise? The “kings of the earth.” This is not a casual reference. Throughout the book up until this vision, “kings of the earth” is a technical term for the human leaders who work most closely with the Dragon and Beast and fight against God.
As the book, as the revelation of Jesus Christ, comes to its conclusion, the spiritual Powers of evil are destroyed—the unholy trinity of the Dragon, the Beast, and the False Prophet. We do well not to think of these as literal personal beings but rather as personified ideologies, as structures of oppression, of belief in empire, in wealth, in retributive justice, the various ways of thinking that lead to oppression and brokenness. As these powers are destroyed, as the ideologies are destroyed, what happens to the actual human beings who acted on their behalf? They are healed.
The transformation happens not by God’s sheer retributive coercive power. Nor does it happen due to the accommodation John so strongly opposes where followers of Jesus find “a seat at the table” of power and help implement gradual reform. Rather it is witness to the pattern of Jesus—faithful living that nonviolently resists by exposing the Powers and by practicing healing love—this is what leads to the transformation. So, the reach of Revelation’s vision is wide indeed. It reveals God’s healing concern that draws in people from all tribes and nations who worship the Lamb. And it reveals God’s healing concern for even the human beings who most oppose God.
Again, this is a challenge to EMU. A challenge for creativity and imagination and discernment. We have a precious tradition, a precious commitment to the truthfulness and centrality of the biblical witness that culminates in Revelation’s healing vision. We are distinctively positioned, perhaps, to cultivate a sense of how the gospel of Jesus, of the Lamb’s way, speaks to all peoples, tribes, and nations—and speaks to people on all levels of society. But the way it speaks to the kings of the earth is not to speak their language of coercive power but to speak the Lamb’s language. The kings make it to New Jerusalem as healed and transformed people.
A revelation about method
To conclude, one way to characterize Revelation is that more than anything, it has to do—we could say—with method. Revelation is about a way of being in the world, about how Jesus’s followers conquer—through imitating his style of confronting the powers, with compassion, with love, with nonviolent resistance. Revelation is not about setting out a pre-determined chronology of future events, nor about portraying God as a God of war and retributive judgment.
The message of Revelation profoundly challenges all Christians. The revelation of Revelation to EMU as a Christian university is similar to the revelation of Revelation to all congregations and to us as individuals—how can we be part of this conquering? For EMU specifically, how can EMU be faithful to its distinctive calling to be at the intersection of American higher education, community affirmation, and radical witness to the way of the Lamb? These are the questions Revelation bids us to work with.