Why We (Should) Read Revelation

[This is the eighteenth (and last!) in a series of sermons on the Book of Revelation.]

Ted Grimsrud

Shalom Mennonite Congregation—November 17, 2013—Revelation in three minutes

It was, if I remember correctly, September 1982. I was in my late 20s. Kathleen and I were living in Eugene, Oregon. We had recently made the decision to join Eugene Mennonite Church—a decision we made after a wonderful year attending Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries. We had a sense of clarity that we were at home with Mennonites and in that particular, quirky but quite welcoming little congregation.

Full circle with Revelation

The Eugene church’s pastor took a sabbatical attending AMBS and I was asked to fill in as interim while he was gone. One of my main responsibilities was to preach regularly. All I had to do was figure out what to preach about. For some reason, I decided to preach on the book of Revelation.

I can’t remember now why in the world I chose to do that. I am sure the folks in Eugene wondered why in the world, as well. But, Mennonites are pretty polite. Like a friend of mine once said, with Mennonites it’s hard to tell the difference between praise and condemnation. People said nice, polite things—but I have to imagine they were really wondering what this kid preacher was going to try to pull on them.

I feel like I have come full circle now, as I complete this new series of sermons on Revelation. There is definitely some overlap between what I did those many years ago and what I have had to say this time through. But there is always new light to be shed on a fascinating and complicated text such as Revelation—and certainly the world and Ted Grimsrud have changed quite a bit in 30 years.

Before I share my concluding thoughts on why we should read Revelation, I want to go back to how I started this series. I have a three-minute version of the entire book that I want to read, and, as I did back then, I would like to ask you to do a little word association. As I read, think of a word or two you would use about this book—based on what I’m reading, on what we’ve talked about these past two years, on your general impressions and feelings about the book.

The revelation of Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, firstborn of the dead, and ruler of the kings of the earth. To the church at Philadelphia, “I know you have little power, yet you have kept my word and not denied my name. Because of your steadfast endurance, I will make you a pillar in God’s temple.” And to the church at Laodicea, “You say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing. You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.”

I saw the right hand of the one seated on the throne holding a scroll. I began to weep because no one could open this scroll. But I was told, do not weep, the Lion of the tribe of Judah can open the scroll. Then I saw a Lamb standing as if it had been slain. He went and took the scroll from the one who was seated on the throne. The creatures and multitudes from all the nations cry out: “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain.”

Then I saw the Lamb open one of the seals to the scroll—and terrible riders came forth: warfare, famine, and horrific disease. Then, I saw a great multitude that no one could count from every nation crying out, “salvation belongs to our God and to the Lamb.”

Then, I saw a beast rising out of the sea. The whole earth followed the beast and worshiped the dragon who had given his authority to the beast. “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?” Then, I looked, and there was the Lamb standing on Mount Zion. With him were a multitude numbered, symbolically, 144,000 (that is, the multitude from every nation). They sing a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and before the elders.

Then I saw foul spirits, coming from the mouth of the dragon, go abroad to the kings of the whole world to assemble them for battle against God. Then I saw the seventh angel pour his bowl into the air. A loud voice came from the throne, saying “It is done!” God remembered great Babylon, who received the fury of God’s wrath. Babylon will be thrown down—“your merchants were the magnates of the earth, and all nations were deceived by your sorcery. In you was found blood, of prophets and of saints, and of all who were slaughtered on earth.”

 Then I heard the voice of a great multitude, “Let us rejoice, the marriage of the Lamb has come. His bride has made herself ready; to her it has been granted to be clothed with fine linen, bright and pure.” Then (and finally) I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven. 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 shall walk by its light, and the kings of the whole world will bring their glory into it. Amen.

So, what words do you associate with Revelation?

Two types of arguments against pacifism

I was reminded again just this past week why I think 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.” Last Sunday, Kathleen and I drove over to eastern Kentucky. On Monday and Tuesday I gave several lectures at the University of Pikeville on the Bible and peace. It’s, I guess you could say, a school with almost all Christians but not formal church affiliation. We certainly had a good time, but I wouldn’t say my message was embraced enthusiastically.

As one student said—he liked what I had to say but before he met us he had only known one pacifist in his entire life. I didn’t get a lot of hostile challenges, but I did hear the standard objection to pacifism. So, 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 that I encountered this week came from a very different place. I just got in the mail a new book called The Failure of Nonviolence by a guy named Peter Gelderloos, a radical anarchist who now lives in Spain but used to live here in Harrisonburg.

I’ve just glanced at the book so far. I perceive that Gelderloos’s argument is actually pretty similar in that he sees pacifism or nonviolence, as too passive, too constrained, not really willing to take on evil and evil-doers. In his view, the evil-doers are the people in the establishment—the national security state, global capitalism, the status quo that oppresses and crushes the life out of regular people.

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 do see some things both of these perspectives that oppose pacifism share. It’s true that the people they want to use violence against are on opposite sides—violence vs. law-breakers on the one hand and violence vs. the enforcers of the law on the other hand. However, in both cases, it seems to me, what is missing is compassion. Both are pretty cold at their heart. And both assume that the only way to win in a conflict or the only way to make sure the good side comes out on top is through use of what they see to be “necessary” violence. And because this is true, much 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, of what are the bases for true security, of how one approaches conflict and enemies, that I have found the book of Revelation especially meaningful this time through. Revelation indeed is all about positive outcomes, victory, achieving goals, finding security, dealing with conflicts and enemies. But it presents a radically different view of the how than those held by the anti-pacifist people.

Revelation is about method, not predictions

One conclusion I have come to about Revelation is that its main message is one about method, not one about predictions. Revelation is concerned with the present more than the future. Revelation does make the claim that the victory of God is real and is about the healing of all of creation. 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. The human enemies of God, the kings of the earth and the rebellious nations, are welcomed into the New Jerusalem.

But I don’t actually read this as a certain prediction of what will without a doubt happen. My main reason is that 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—not only Revelation but the prophets throughout—what the Bible can tell us is how to move toward a good future. What the Bible can tell us is about the method for achieving the hopeful outcome. 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. Or, maybe a better way to say it, we can know for sure what kind of people we should seek to be should we want to be at home in the New Jerusalem, 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 of sermons, let me mention several key points from the book. The first is a point that I have mentioned several times. 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 I have to say is something that I have not thought of or heard about before. So, you have heard it here first. You can know something about Revelation that few other people know.

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. Just in the past few weeks, a prominent evangelical pastor named Mark Driscoll got a lot of attention for a harsh article that 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 is clearly a reference to Jesus’s cross. Jesus’s cross has come up before 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. “Blood” in Revelation is about a way of life, a method of responding to brokenness, a commitment to healing. The bloodiness of the book ties directly to the dynamics of healing that transform the nations and the kings of the earth.

Revelation points back to Jesus’s life and message

So, 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. To say this another way, Revelation is not about a future battle of Armageddon when God must intervene on earth with great violence in order to defeat the powers of evil. Besides the point that we aren’t really being told anything definitive about the future in this book, it is also important to realize that Revelation makes it clear that the decisive moment in the story has already happened.

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.

What kind of “apocalyptic” literature?

Let me conclude with a comment about the book of Revelation as “apocalyptic” literature. One way the message of Revelation gets misrepresented is to place the book in a slot called “apocalyptic” where “apocalyptic” means futuristic, catastrophic, totally hostile to the present world, hateful, judgmental, violent, and all these things.

However, we should note that the term “apocalyptic” actually originates with Revelation 1:1. It’s use here is translated “the revelation (or apocalypse) of Jesus Christ.” If we are going to discern what “apocalypse” means here, we need to focus on what exactly this book is about and what exactly is being revealed.

What I believe is that actually the book of Revelation is a manual for life lived in this world we are part of. Revelation teaches, ultimately, a love for this world and it promises that as we follow its path for us, we will actually contribute to the healing of this world. We will actually contribute to the healing of even those human beings who have placed themselves over against God’s love and mercy.

What is revealed in Revelation is not judgment and future catastrophe and the destruction of God’s enemies. Rather, what is revealed is the way of the Lamb—and the encouragement of communities of Lamb-followers to embody that way. To love enemies. To resist injustice. To love this world that God has created and to be agents of healing so that even the kings of the earth might be made whole.


Index for Revelation sermons

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