Category Archives: Eschatology

Standing By Words

[This is the ninth in a series of sermons in interpreting America in the 21st century in light of the Book of Revelation. The series will continue, monthly for about two years.]

Ted Grimsrud

Shalom Mennonite Congregation—September 16, 2012—Revelation 11:1–12:17

Welcome back to the wild and woolly world of the Book of Revelation! In these monthly sermons I try 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 second problematic reading 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 try to do, perhaps a quixotic or starry-eyed quest, is read Revelation instead as a book of peace, a book that intends to strengthen people of good will so that we might witness to peace in a violent world. A book that, by strengthening peacemakers will play a role in God’s work of healing—healing even for God’s human enemies.

Today, right in the middle of the book, we will look at 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

Revelation Notes (chapter 11)

Ted Grimsrud

[See notes on Revelation 10]

At the end of Revelation 10, John eats the scroll that the “mighty angel” holds in his right hand, a symbolic act echoing Ezekiel 2–3, where the prophet accepts his commission to witness. Here, John is told, after he eats the bittersweet scroll, “You must prophesy again about many peoples and nations and kings” (10:11). So, when we turn to chapter 11, we know that John is “again” presenting insights about the ways of the Lamb in the violent and chaotic world of his readers—a world dominated by the Roman Empire.

Revelation 11:1-14—The two witnesses

John is given a “measuring rod” with which to “measure the temple of God and the altar and those who worship there” (11:1). This seems to symbolize a kind of protection that is not offered to “the court outside the temple” which is “given over to the nations” (11:2). It seems doubtful that this “protection” means that followers of the Lamb are being promised that they won’t suffer. More likely, it’s simply a way of affirming the perseverance of the witnessing community even in the midst of suffering and trauma for faithful ones at the hands of the empire. Battered and bruised but not overcome.

Another symbol for this witnessing community is the “two witnesses” (11:3). These witnesses are actually “two olive trees” and “two lampstands”—both images used elsewhere for communities of faith. They will “prophesy for one thousands two hundred sixty days”—that is, three and a half years (or forty two months). This is the “broken time” (half of seven years) that in Revelation symbolizes time in history, the time of the plagues, the time remaining before the New Jerusalem comes down.

So, what we have is a kind of recapitulation of the plague visions (where the nations “trample over the holy city for forty months,” 11:2) but with an added dimensions. The “two witnesses” are essentially the same actors in this drama as the “conquerors” of the seven messages in chapters two and three. That is, they carry out the vocation Jesus gives to all his followers—to witness to his way amidst the plagues. Continue reading

Reading Revelation (and the whole Bible) as a book of peace

Ted Grimsrud—Peace Essays #B.10

[Published in Ted Grimsrud and Michael Hardin, eds. Compassionate Eschatology: The Future as Friend (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011), 3-27.]

 Eschatology all too often means judgment, vengeance, the bad guys and gals getting their “just desserts.”  Probably at least in part because of the titillating allure of violence, and in part because of the attraction of being part of a story when our side wins and the other side loses, eschatology is pretty popular.

But is this kind of eschatology Christian? What might Christian eschatology look like if it is done as if Jesus matters?  If we look at Jesus’ own life and teaching, we won’t find a clearer statement of his hierarchy of values than his concise summary of the law and prophets: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and soul—and, likewise, you shall love your neighbor as you love your own self.  This love of God and neighbor is why we are alive.  It is what matters the most.  The “end” that matters is our purpose for being here, not any knowledge we might think we have about future events.  Our purpose is to love—that purpose is the eschatological theme that is central if we do eschatology as if Jesus matters.[1]

To talk about the “end of the world” biblically points us to our purpose for living in the world.  The word “end” can have two different meanings.  (1) “End” means the conclusion, the finish, the last part, the final outcome.  In this sense, “the end of the world” is something future and has to do with the world ceasing to exist.  (2) “End” also, though, means the purpose, what is desired, the intention.  “End of the world,” in this sense, is, we could say, what God intends the world to be for. In this sense of “end,” the “end times” have to do with why we live in time.[2]

The book of Revelation is usually seen as the book of the Bible most concerned with “the end times.”  The book of Revelation has always vexed interpreters.  Rarely has it been seen as an indispensable source for Christian social ethics; often it has been seen more as an ethical problem.[3]  I want to suggest, though, that Revelation has potential to speak powerfully to 21st-century Christians about our purpose in life.

The Bible generally speaks in the future tense only in service of exhortation toward present faithfulness.  The Bible’s concern is that the people of God live in such a way that we will be at home in the New Jerusalem—not with predictions about when and how the future will arrive.

How do we relate “eschatology” with “apocalyptic”?  Let me suggest that biblical apocalyptic (which I will differentiate from the genre “apocalyptic literature” that modern scholars have developed) actually is best understood similarly to eschatology.  The biblical use of apocalyptic language, like the broader use of prophetic and eschatological language, serves the exhortation to faithfulness in present life.  Continue reading

The justice of God in the book of Revelation

Ted Grimsrud—Peace Essays #B.11

[This essay was published in Willard M. Swartley, ed. Essays on Peace Theology and Witness (Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1988), 135-52.]

For the person seeking to gain a Christian theological perspective on justice, it is likely not self-evident that the Book of Revelation would be a crucial source.  For example, Jose Miranda’s well-known study, Marx and the Bible,[1] only tangentially refers to Revelation, and the biblical chapter in the United States Catholic bishops’ 1985 pastoral letter on the US economy does not refer even once to Revelation.

We can paraphrase Tertullian’s famous question: What has Patmos to do with Rome?  What do these obscure and seemingly fanciful visions have to do with justice in the real world? I will attempt to show that they have a great deal of relevance.

Does Revelation picture God and God’s justice in such a way as to make it illegitimate to apply Jesus’ teaching about God being the model of Christians’ loving their enemies to a rejection to a rejection of Christian involvement in warfare? Is the justice of God in Revelation punitive, angry, and vengeful in such a way that it becomes a warrant for acts of human “justice” such as just wars, capital punishment, a harsh and strictly punitive prison system, and a “big stick” foreign policy that seeks to punish “ungodly” and “unjust” enemies.

Is this really the view of God’s justice presented in Revelation?  My thesis is that it is not, that just as Jesus and Paul give us a picture of God’s justice that is different from the justice of “the nations,” so too does John. Continue reading

Theology by numbers: A sermon on Revelation 7

[This is the seventh in a series of sermons in interpreting America in the 21st century in light of the Book of Revelation. The series will continue, monthly for about two years.]

Ted Grimsrud

Shalom Mennonite Congregation—May 13, 2012—Revelation 7:1-17

The book of Revelation is full of numbers. If you pick it up and start to read it, you may feel like it is a kind of impenetrable code. Journalist Jonathan Kirsch, in his book A History of the End of the World, writes that “the book of Revelation is regarded by secular readers—and even by progressive Christians—as a biblical oddity at best and, at worst, a kind of petri dish for the breeding of dangerous religious eccentricity.”

The numbers certainly play into this dangerous religious eccentricity. I want to focus on one number in particular this morning. But first, I’d like for us to think about as many numbers as we can remember from the book. What are the numbers in Revelation? And what do they mean?

Two types of symbols

Clearly, the numbers have symbolic meaning. But there are different kinds of symbols. We can break symbols into two general categories: specific symbols and general symbols. With specific symbols, one particular meaning is meant by the symbol. Like with the American flag—the thirteen stripes symbolize the original thirteen colonies and the fifty stars symbolize the current fifty states.

With general symbols, the meanings are much broader, more dynamic and subjective. Think again of the American flag—what does the flag itself symbolize? Tons of things. Probably significantly different things for different ones of us even in our small group here today. Democracy, religious freedom, the destination for many of our ancestors fleeing trouble—and, empire, war-making, global domination, hypocrisy.

Right after September 11, 2001, a friend of mine who teaches at a Mennonite college put a picture of the American flag on his office door. You can imagine that this led to some controversy (to say the least). The meaning of that symbol for my friend changed just within weeks and he soon took the picture down—from a statement of solidarity with victims and relief workers, the flag came soon to symbolize revenge and a new war of aggression against Afghanistan.

I think the numbers in Revelation work both ways—some symbolize specific things, others are more general. Let me read from chapter 7, which gives us several numbers. Think about what these numbers may symbolize—and think of other numbers in Revelation. We’ll talk about these when I’m done reading. Continue reading

An ethical eschatology

Ted Grimsrud

At various times since 1525, groups of Anabaptists have gained notoriety for their eschatological views, particularly the Anabaptists who gained control of the city of Münster in 1534–5, proclaiming it to be the New Jerusalem.  As a rule, though, the Anabaptist tradition has been characterized by caution concerning views of the “last things.”

Anabaptist convictions, at their heart, have focused on faithfulness in this present life much more than on speculation concerning the future.  Implicit in such a focus, we may see a sense of trust in God.  As we follow the way of Jesus we may be confident that the God who remained faithful to Jesus will also remain faithful to Jesus’ followers.

What follows are two meditations on these convictions concerning importance of the call to discipleship for viewing the doctrine of eschatology.

The End of the World

At the turn of the millennium, many Christian bookstores and the Christian airwaves included an extra large number of “end times” types of writings and sermons.  Reflecting on “the end of the world” is called “eschatology,” the doctrine concerned with the end of the world.  However, what follows here more accurately could be seen as “anti-eschatology,” or, at least, a different kind of eschatology than that found on the Christian airwaves.

“End” as purpose. This is my main point: In the Bible, and I want to propose, for us today, the point in talking about the “end of the world” is not so much to focus on what is going to happen to the world in the future.  Rather, to talk about the “end of the world” biblically points us to the purpose of the world.  Or, more directly, our purpose in living in the world. Continue reading

An Angry Lamb?

[This is the sixth in a series of sermons in interpreting America in the 21st century in light of the Book of Revelation. The series will continue, monthly for about two years.]

Ted Grimsrud

Revelation 6:1-17—Shalom Mennonite Congregation—April 15, 2012

Kathleen and I love to go on rides out in the beautiful countryside around Harrisonburg. We’ve gotten lost a few times and once or twice had close calls with the gas gauge. But mostly it’s great and we enjoy the rides as much now as ever.

One memory is the first time we ventured west on state highway 257, years ago, not long after we moved here. I hadn’t bothered with a map, thinking part of the fun is figuring things out as we go. We drove through Briary Branch and cruised on our way to West Virginia—I thought. A nice highway. Then all of a sudden the nice highway ended. It was a shock; little warning. We had a couple of options, but they weren’t too appealing. Narrow, steep, windy roads with no lines. After wandering around for awhile, we turned back and left the way we came.

This sense of disorientation when the expected continuation of the nice highway ends is kind of how I feel with I come to Revelation, chapter 6. You may remember the first five chapters. Maybe not totally easy sailing, but fairly clear. And it’s not too difficult to see in Revelation one through five a nice message of peace, the Lamb as the way. But then with chapter six, the plagues begin. The nice part ends. What in the world is going on? Continue reading

Revelation Notes (Chapter 6)

Ted Grimsrud—April 2, 2012

[See notes on Revelation 5]

John enters the door into heaven at the beginning of chapter four and begins to describe what he sees. First it’s a vision of the throne room—which turns out to be a vision that reassures the reader of God’s on-going presence and worthiness of continued worship from all creation. This reassurance forms the first of a set of bookends that is matched at the end of the book with the vision of the New Jerusalem that returns to the image of the “one on the throne” (21:5) being worthy of praise and adoration.

It’s is essential that we keep these two references to the one on the throne’s mercy and healing love—and power—as we enter into reflection on the visions that come between the throne room and the New Jerusalem. In some ultimate sense, those visions must be seen as serving the purposes of the healing power of the one on the throne.

To emphasize that the intentions of the God of Revelation are healing, the first vision after the throne room account (chapter 5) portrays the power of the Lamb, seen in faithful witness and crucifixion followed by resurrection and vindication, to take the scroll. Because of this power, the Lamb receives that same all-encompassing worship from the entire animate creation. The power of the Lamb leads to the liberation from the powers of sin and evil of people “from every tribe and language and people and nation” (5:9). And these liberated people for a nation of the their own that stands in resistance to the nation ruled by the Beast.

So, with the context set—God as ruler, the Lamb as liberator, the nation of Lamb-followers established—we turn to a new set of visions within the broader vision of one on the throne establishing the New Jerusalem. Continue reading

Revelation Notes (Chapter 5)

Ted Grimsrud—April 1, 2012

[See notes on Revelation 4]

After the throne room time of praise of the one on the throne, we move to the next part of the vision of chapters four or five. If we think of this vision as a kind of worship service, at this center point we get the main content of the service that allows us to understand the significance of the worship that precedes it and follow it.

Revelation 5:1-5—Who can open the scroll?

John sees a “scroll” in the right hand of the one on the throne. That this scroll is in God’s “right hand” emphasizes its weightiness as does the fact that it is so securely secured with seven seals (“seven,” again, is the number of completeness). Though we are not told directly, we surely are to understand the contents of this scroll to be the fulfillment of God’s work with creation, a message of final and complete healing.

But the message cannot simply be given. Someone must be found to open the scroll and bring the message to its fruition. To John’s bitter frustration, given his longing that the healing come, “no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or look into it” (5:3). We can only speculate as to why this is the case. One idea, though, is that everyone misunderstands the way the scroll is to be opened. Everyone looked for the power of domination as the power to bring history to its conclusion. Continue reading

Revelation Notes (Chapter 4)

Ted Grimsrud—March 31, 2012

[See notes on Revelation 3]

The basic message of the seven messages to the faith communities in chapters two and three, when taken as a whole, focused on the call to those communities to maintain their loyalty to Jesus and his way in face of demands from the Roman Empire for this loyalty. These messages conclude with a promise of a place with the Lamb and his God for those who “conquer.”

The call to “conquer” is a call to Jesus’ way of persevering love. Chapters four and five now provide the bases for taking this call with the utmost seriousness and the utmost hope.

After the messages conclude, John looks and sees an “open door” in heaven (4:1). He’s taken inside and sees a throne. The appearance of the one seated on the throne is never described—confirming that this is the creator God.

So John gets a theophany in this moment of transition from the challenges to the actual recipients of the book to the terrible visions that will follow. This direct vision of God seems to be intended both to ground the challenges in the realities of the sovereign one who calls them forward and to remind the readers that the visions to come do not negate the healing intentions of the one on the throne.

Chapters four and five actually make up one vision with one main message: God is present in the Lamb who brings healing to the world. The two chapters present a kind of worship service. It begins with worship and praise from the twenty-four elders (4:4, 11), proceeds to the four living creatures (4:8), then focuses on the core content—the triumph of the Lamb. It then proceeds to more worship, including from the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders, concluding as the service began, with the elders (5:14). Continue reading