Lenten Reading Challenge: Revelation 4-16
•When and Where
As we read, keep in mind basic worldviews. In the 1st Century (and indeed for most of human history) we understood earth to be flat, under a domed “firmament” above which are “the heavens” (1, 3, 7?) and with various accounts of a lower level as a “place of the dead” – usually just “dust,” less commonly images of Hades’ intrigue or Hellish punishment. This earth was the center of the universe and spiritual things happened or came from “up there.” God symbolically lived here in the Temple. This basic assumption was true in Judaism, as well as Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Babylonian and Assyrian worldviews.
In our expanding knowledge that we actually live on the third planet orbiting a relatively small star in one of the spiral arms of a massive galaxy, itself just one of billions of stars, our worldview is quite a bit more complex – yet we still have the same sorts of experiences of revelation, awareness of the divine, that our ancestors did.
While we know much more about the world, in some ways I think we also know less. Look, for example, at this photo. http://tinyurl.com/brwq2bq That’s a view of the Milky Way from a middle eastern desert. (The whole blog entry it is from is worth your time).
Such sights would have been common in the 1st Century, while they are rare in our time due to light pollution in our cities. One has to travel to isolated places to really see the stars – so while we know more about the universe, it is also more distant from our lived reality. That affects our theology and our understanding of the Bible.
• Key Insights
I put these chapters together because I want us to get the full sweep of the series of visions found here rather than getting caught up in the details. As you read, its useful to reflect and compare these visions to the plagues reported in the Exodus story (Exodus 7-10). Both present a troubling image of God for many of us, yet are about a promise of liberation. Note as well that the images of the Dragon and the Woman in chapters 12 and 13 echo the Enuma Elis, a set of Babylonian creation stories. The language of this entire text is highly symbolic, and often has multiple levels of meaning. The author is taking well-known imagery from his own as well as surrounding cultures and repurposing it – all leading towards the ultimate vision of hope, not despair, that we will get to tomorrow!
With far too much to say, I find the introduction to Revelation from the Wesley Study Bible helpful:
“The Revelation was not written without tears; neither without tears will it be understood (Notes, Rev 5: 4). With these words, Wesley puts readers on notice that if they intend to join with John in experiencing Gods revelation, they must be prepared to do so fully, with emotions as well as intellect. These words of the prophecy (1: 3) draw upon all our senses to see, hear, touch, smell, even taste the word of God for today. Perhaps this is one reason why the book has been so hard to resist for poets, painters, musicians, and a variety of other artists, who are often among its best interpreters.
Revelation is an account of John’s visionary experience with the resurrected Jesus, an experience facilitated from start to finish by the Holy Spirit. The four occasions when John describes being in the Spirit mark out the books overall structure and indicate that the Spirit is closely associated with the person and words of Jesus (see 1: 10; 4: 2; 17: 3; 21: 10). Revelation’s hearers are urged to share in John’s experience of the Spirit, not only in understanding what is written but also in their Spirit- led worship of the risen One. The result is a more faithful witness to God in the hostile world described in Revelation.”
Note that the one having these visions hears a lion but sees the Lamb.
Note as well that while there is much violent imagery, at no point do humans actually engage in the violence against evil – what we find here is a Christological transformation of traditional imagery. It is mythic and archetypal.
Finally, know that our images of hell are shaped as much or more by texts like Dante’s Inferno and Milton’s Paradise Lost than they are any text of Scripture, including Revelation. Let this text stand for itself without further imagining, say, the lake of fire with these later cultural influences!
Another insight from the Wesley Study Bible’s notes on Revelation.
**Life Application Topic: Do Not Be Afraid
What frightens John (of Patmos) the most? Is it the dire situation of the seven churches on the mainland or the magnificent appearance of the risen Christ, fully alive and just beginning to make all things new? Seeing an old world up to its deadly tricks is not necessarily frightening; maybe discouraging, but not frightening. Seeing God on the spot, resurrected, and declaring that things will change—this takes our breath away. According to Scripture, God does this a lot—to discouraged prophets facing idolatrous congregations, to shepherds in fields, to disciples in storms, to followers being severely persecuted—”Do not be afraid” is one of Gods favorite things to say.
Blessings on your reading!