Ted Grimsrud

Archive for the ‘Revelation’ Category

Is Revelation’s God a God of peace?

In Biblical theology, God, Jesus, Pacifism, peace theology, Revelation on May 13, 2016 at 7:19 pm

A sermon preached at Community Mennonite Church Lancaster

May 8, 2016 by Ted Grimsrud

The book of Revelation is a mystery, right? Scary, intimidating, fantastic, wacky, off-putting. When Kathleen and I first moved to Harrisonburg 20 years ago, we attended Park View Mennonite Church. We learned there how back in the 1950s, the Mennonites in Harrisonburg had intense conflicts about the interpretation of Revelation. So, in good Mennonite fashion, they decided they needed to stop talking about it. So, those who grew up after that had no exposure to Revelation. However, maybe, also, Revelation is fascinating and even inspiring. I think it’s worth wrestling with, and it may even have special importance for we who live today in the center of the world’s one great superpower.

What are we looking for?

When we take up Revelation, though, just like any other religious text, so much depends on what we are looking for. Let me give some examples from who have written on Revelation. Are we looking for the date of the rapture and the identity of the Antichrist (like with the Left Behind books)? Or are we looking for the lunatic ravings of a hallucinating first-century fanatic (that’s what British novelist D. H. Lawrence thought)? Or are we looking for words of encouragement in face of a vicious authoritarian state (like South African theologian Allan Boesak 30-some years ago)? Or are we looking for a challenge to American imperialism (with the great American prophet of the 1960s and 70s William Stringfellow)?

And what kind of God do we expect to find “revealed” in this book? We all tend to try to find what will reinforce our already existing beliefs. We don’t always look very kindly toward images and ideas that threaten what we think we know. I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotes, from the social thinker John Kenneth Galbraith: “Sometimes we face a choice, do we change our minds or do we prove that we don’t need to. When faced with such a choice, most of us most of the time get busy with the proof.”… We tend not to want to change our minds. So if we expect a mean God in Revelation, that’s likely what we will find.

Still, it is a good idea to at least try to listen to different views. And certainly it’s a good idea to try at least to listen to the Book of Revelation with an open mind, to listen with the possibility that it might have something to say to us a bit different than what we expect—maybe it’s actually meaningful! Or meaningful in a different way that what we have assumed.

My sense with Revelation is that most people start with the assumption that Revelation’s God is violent and judgmental. Some might want that kind of God—some don’t. One of the pivotal moments in my own theological journey came nearly 40 years ago when a couple of friends had a formal debate in our church about pacifism. The non-pacifist drew heavily on the judgment in Revelation. He used it to support his belief that sometimes God is violent and thus may, at times, want us to be as well. That statement challenged me to study Revelation to see for myself. Read the rest of this entry »

Revelation Notes (Chapter 21)

In Revelation on July 24, 2015 at 8:59 am

Ted Grimsrud

[See notes on Revelation 20]

The book of Revelation reaches its conclusion following the destruction of the Beast, the False Prophet, the Dragon, Death, and Hades in chapters nineteen and twenty. The final vision of the completion of God’s healing work in chapters twenty-one and twenty-two leaves us with the fundamental contrast of the book: The spiritual forces of evil are gone, they are not part of the fulfilled city; New Jerusalem, and the spiritual forces of good are ever-present.

Even in the end, though, things are left ambiguous about the human element of the final scene. The book makes it clear what kind of person will be at home in the New Jerusalem—one who follows the Lamb’s path of persevering love. And we are told numerous times what kind of person will not be at home there—one who trusts in the Dragon and follows the ways of domination. What is ambiguous is what happens after the Dragon is gone. Shockingly, the very kings of the earth who throughout the book symbolize humanity at its most hostile to the Lamb are present in New Jerusalem. The nations—allied with the Dragon as they were—find healing in New Jerusalem. So, we don’t know precisely who will be there—some of the Christians mentioned in chapters two and three might not; the kings of the earth will be. It is not about religious affiliation. It is about the ultimate response to the Lamb’s call.

Revelation 21:1-8

Probably the best way to understand the vision of “a new heaven and a new earth” and the statement that “the first heaven and the first earth had passed away” (21:1) is that John reports the social and spiritual healing of the world we live in. We read a few verses later that God is “making all things new” (21:5)—not making all new things. The process of the plagues turns out to be not the total destruction of the physical world but the destruction of the destroyers of the earth (i.e., the Dragon, et al—the spiritual dynamic of domination).

Throughout the book we have been told about various moments of worship in the midst of the time of tribulation that characterizes the “three and a half years” of human historical existence. These worship moments point ahead to this vision of life lived in the presence of God and the Lamb—a kind of constant worship. Read the rest of this entry »

Revelation Notes (Chapter 19)

In Biblical theology, Eschatology, peace theology, Revelation on July 21, 2015 at 6:09 pm

Ted Grimsrud

[See notes on Revelation 18]

Though both at the end of chapter sixteen and chapter eighteen, John writes of the completion of the destruction of Babylon, the story is not over, not even the destructive elements. However, it is crucial for the storyline that Babylon not longer exists as a lure to turn people from God. John turns toward another celebration scene at the beginning of chapter nineteen. Here, though there is a sense of something new—unlike earlier worship visions, this one is not so much celebrating the Lamb’s victory amidst the plagues. Now a crucial corner has been turned, Babylon is no more, and the New Jerusalem is much closer.

The final “battle” is just ahead, followed by the final judgment of humanity and the Dragon meeting his end. In all of this, John’s readers are challenged to remember the Lamb’s way as the way of God—and the path to victory for the entire world. The outcome is the healing and genuine justice of the New Jerusalem.

Revelation 19:1-10

The worship scene picks up on several images from earlier in the book. The “great multitude” points most directly back to chapter seven, though it also evokes the worship scenes from chapters five, twelve, fourteen, and fifteen. In chapter seven, in the midst of the seal series of plagues, John sees “a great multitude” beyond counting, “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” praising God and the Lamb to whom “salvation belongs” (7:9-10). Both “great multitudes” are dressed in white robes (7:9, 14; 19:8).

As with the earlier visions, here we have massive praise, “salvation and glory and power to our God” (19:1). The new dimension is that now we are told that God has “judged the great Harlot who corrupted the earth with her fornication.” God has brought justice due to the Harlot shedding “the blood of God’s servants” (19:2). As we know, and will be confirmed again in the second half of chapter nineteen, God’s method of gaining justice in relation to Babylon through persevering love even in the face of violent bloodletting by the structures of domination. And this justice will result in the destruction of the powers of evil and the healing of the kings of the earth and the nations. Read the rest of this entry »

Revelation Notes (Chapter 17)

In peace theology, Revelation on July 19, 2015 at 1:56 pm

Ted Grimsrud—July 19, 2015

[See notes on Revelation 16]

We read at the end of chapter sixteen, “God remembered great Babylon and gave her the wine-cup of the fury of his wrath” (16:19). Now, in chapter seventeen and eighteen, the details of that “remembrance” will be presented. One of the bowl-plague angels comes to John to take him to see the “judgment of the great harlot” (17:1).

We should note that it is presumably the same angel who will later come again to John to take him to see “the bride, the wife of the Lamb,” that is, New Jerusalem (21:9). The same exact wording is used in both places, indicating that these two visions should be understood in relation to one another. These are the two destinations that John holds out for his readers—trust in the Dragon and end up in fallen Babylon or trust in God and end up in New Jerusalem.

Revelation 17:1-6

We have got here a central symbol that is referring to another symbol. The “great harlot” refers to “great Babylon.” Clearly John does not have in mind an actual prostitute. And by the time of this writing, the ancient city of Babylon no longer existed. Probably the main source for the metaphors is the Old Testament. Already in the Old Testament these two images were used to signify the social embodiments of idolatry, rebellion against God, violence, and injustice.

On the immediate level, John surely means to apply these symbols to Rome, the “city of seven hills” (17:9) that “rules over the kings of the earth” (17:18). Rome, who promises peace and insists that it operates with divine favor, stands as the most profound temptation for John’s readers. Those John most vociferously opposes apparently suggested that followers of Jesus many also function as comfortable actors in the Roman world—including taking part in the requisite public expressions of acquiescence to Roman civil religion. The worship moments scattered throughout Revelation are meant to counter that acquiescence.

We should read this account now as reflecting a broader critique. Just as Babylon, formerly a great empire but by John’s time a distant memory, worked metaphorically to provide insight into the character of the Roman Empire, so now Rome, also formerly a great empire but now a distant memory, works metaphorically to provide insight into the character of present-day empires (and all other empires throughout history)—most obviously for readers of this book, the American Empire. Read the rest of this entry »

Revelation Notes (Chapter 16)

In Biblical theology, Eschatology, peace theology, Revelation, Theology on July 17, 2015 at 4:00 pm

Ted Grimsrud

[See notes of Revelation 15]

Revelation sixteen describes all seven of the final set of plagues—the “bowl plagues” where seven angels pour out onto the earth “the wrath of God” (16:1). Unlike the partial destruction that the two early series of plagues (seals and trumpets) describe (in turn, one-quarter and one-third—perhaps the thunder plagues that were “sealed up” and not reported [10:4] would have told of one-half destruction), here the destruction is total (“every living thing in the sea died,” 16:3). With the seventh plague “a loud voice came out of the temple, from the throne, saying ‘It is done!’” (16:17). Now, John’s reporting of the “revelation of Jesus Christ” is not done. We still have six more chapters and several important visions to go. But this is the final plague and the expanding circle of destruction has reached its climax. The dynamics of wrath and destruction seem to have reached their culmination here. We will need to think carefully about these plague visions and also consider what is to come in Revelation—all in light of the core visions we have already heard, especially chapter five’s vision of the triumph of the Lamb—before we draw conclusions about what is being communicated in this chapter.

Revelation 16:1-11

The “loud voice from the temple” almost certainly is God’s voice telling the angels to “pour out on the earth” bowls of the “wrath of God” (16:1). We should read this description in light of what we have already discerned about God, the plagues, and wrath. The basic idea may be we are again going to have described for us the dynamics on earth during the “three and a half years” where the Dragon and his minions are wreaking havoc—but not in a way that will actually defeat God. “God’s wrath,” thus is not God direct anger being visited upon the earth in order to punish wrongdoing. Rather, it is what results when people turn against God and order their lives on the values of domination and exploitation—gaining their marching orders from the Beast and not from the Lamb. On a certain level, we may say that God allows the spiral of destruction loosed by the Dragon, but also that this spiral of destruction actually leads to the destruction of the Dragon himself along with the Beast and the False Prophet. Read the rest of this entry »

Revelation Notes (Chapter 14)

In Eschatology, peace theology, Revelation, Theology on July 4, 2015 at 7:59 pm

Ted Grimsrud

[See notes on Revelation 13]

Chapter thirteen concludes with a call to wisdom. The picture of the Beast and the False Prophet exercising domination reflects the perspective many of John’s readers would have had. Some would have welcomed the Empire’s kind of “peace” and sought to accommodate with its ways to protect themselves from the kinds of consequences to resistance that are alluded to with the Beast “making war on the saints” (13:7). Others would have still believed in resisting the Beast but would have despaired of fighting “against it” (13:4).

So the call to wisdom is crucial (much more so than the exact meaning of the 666). The Beast might simply destroy the witness of the Lamb’s assembly—either by crushing the resisters or, more likely, by converting them to an accommodating approach to faith where the Beast and the Lamb seemingly coexist.

John wastes no time, though, in countering the temptation to accommodate or despair. Of course, the content in Revelation leading up to the vision in chapter thirteen also gave powerful reasons not to take that vision as definitive of the actual situation. Jesus already has been identified as the ruler of the kings of the earth, worthy to be worshiped by all creation and the one who brings healing to countless multitudes from all corners of the earth. Chapter fourteen, then, actually does not provide the antidote to the Beast’s claims so much as reiterate what has already been asserted—but with new depth.

Revelation 14:1-5

The impact of the contrast between the “I saw…” of 13:1 and the “then I saw…” of 13:11 with the “then I looked…” of 14:1 is lessened a bit by the chapter division. However, the three need to be read together. The vision of 14:1-5 is the conclusion to the Beast account. What is seen in chapter thirteen only has meaning in Revelation in light of the conclusion in 14:1-5. Read the rest of this entry »

Revelation Notes (chapter 13)

In Eschatology, peace theology, Revelation, Theology on July 3, 2015 at 11:54 am

Ted Grimsrud

[See notes on Revelation 12]

Chapter 12 ended with an ominous image, “the Dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her children, those who keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus” (12:17). What follows will be an account of this “war,” though we should understand that what this verse refers to is the same phenomenon we have already seen in the plague visions.

And, crucially, we also already know the outcome of this war. Revelation does not allow for any doubts about the outcome of the Dragon’s war. Right away, back at 1:5, we read the affirmation that Jesus is the victorious “ruler of the kings of the earth.” Then, the center point of the book, chapter five, proclaims Jesus as worthy “to receive power and wealth and honor and glory and blessing” (5:12).

So, whatever the impression we might get from the picture of the Dragon’s “war,” especially in the vision of the mighty Beast we see in chapter thirteen, this is a war that is not really a war. The outcome is not in doubt—and, as we will see, the methods of combat between the Dragon’s side and those “who told the testimony of Jesus” are quite different, two diametrically opposed approaches to “conquering.”

Revelation 13:1-10—The Beast from the sea and the politics of domination

We briefly met the Beast back in chapter eleven where the “two witnesses” (essentially the same as those who hold the testimony of Jesus in 12:17) are warred upon, conquered and killed by the Beast “that comes up from the bottomless pit” (11:7). This “bottomless pit” is first mentioned at 9:1, where a “fallen star” goes from heaven to earth, is given a key to the shaft of the bottomless pit, and sets a plague of locusts who torture “those who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads … for five months” (9:4-5). Read the rest of this entry »

Revelation Notes (chapter 12)

In Eschatology, peace theology, Revelation, Theology on June 1, 2015 at 9:11 am

Ted Grimsrud

[See notes on Revelation 11]

With chapter twelve, John begins a more detailed account that provides a fuller picture of the forces at work in the plagues we have seen and will see more of. It becomes more clear over the next several chapters how the Powers of evil are involved in the kinds of events that make up the plagues—and how the victory of God is won and implemented.

First, “God’s temple in heaven” is opened (11:19) as part of the seventh trumpet vision that announces “the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah” (that is, the One on the throne and the Lamb) and the time has come “for destroying those who destroy the earth” (11:18). This “time has come” should best be seen as a plot device—the time of the story where we turn to the “destroyers of the earth” and their fate has come. Revelation is not setting out a chronology for the world’s future so much as exhorting its readers to part of the work that will destroy the earth’s destroyers—who are the Powers behind the empires of the world, including the Roman Empire.

The “opening” of the temple here signals the coming change in focus in the second half of the book that will culminate with a return to the temple—though we will see in chapters twenty-one and twenty-two that John has in mind a radically changed notion of the temple.

Revelation 12:1-6—The two main actors

Chapter twelve contains a wealth of images and events—many are cryptic and difficult to understand. As elsewhere in Revelation, with this chapter we should focus more on the overall sensibility that is being conveyed more than expect to see in each of the images a direct correlation with a particular historical person or event. With all the uncertainty we can’t help but have about many of specifics, the general message here is pretty clear—a new dimension is added to the story with the introduction of the Dragon. We are now able better to understand the paradoxes of previous chapters concerning the plagues in relation to the One on the throne who is so closely linked with the Lamb. God is not the only cosmic actor in this drama. Read the rest of this entry »

Revelation Notes (Chapter 10)

In Biblical theology, Eschatology, Revelation on March 30, 2014 at 11:32 am

Ted Grimsrud—February 19, 2014

[See notes on Revelation 9]

Revelation 9 concluded with a picture of “the rest of humankind” continuing to worship their idols even in the face of the terrible plagues that had killed “a third of humankind” (9:18). “They did not repent of their murders or their sorceries or their fornication or their thefts” (9:21). It could be that the point of this image is to underscore just how stupidly stubborn these humans are, that God—in the plagues—had tried to get them to change their ways and they continued to refuse. However, it is much more likely that a different idea is being conveyed here.

We should understand the plagues not as directly sent and controlled by God but more as a way of describing the on-going traumas of fallen human existence in history. The plagues picture something that actually (we will learn beginning in chapter 11) has its direct source in the machinations of the Dragon but that nevertheless does not defeat (and even providentially furthers) God’s purposes. Hence, we may recognize that the point here is that the plagues could not hope to bring about repentance and the turning from idols. Indeed, though this is not an explicit point the visions are making, we can understand that the plagues tend to exacerbate the problem of humanity trusting in idols.

People trust in idols, and as a consequence are pushed by the idols toward “murders, sorceries, fornication, and thefts” (9:21), because they are insecure and traumatized, fearful and in pain. So if God wants to reverse this dynamic, it would make much more sense for God to take a different tack. And this different tack, already described back in Revelation 5 (the hermeneutical key for the entire book), will be detailed beginning in chapter 10. Read the rest of this entry »

Revelation Notes (Chapter 9)

In Biblical theology, Revelation on February 8, 2014 at 6:59 pm

Ted Grimsrud—February 8, 2014

[See notes on Revelation 8]

In Revelation 9, the unfolding of the vision of the plagues associated with the seven trumpets continues. Chapter 8 echoed the first four of the seal visions in chapter 6, except with much more destruction. We should read these plague visions in light of their being surrounded the visions of redemption and faithfulness that we saw in the worship service of chapters 4 and 5, the multitude that stands before the Lamb in chapter 7, and—as we will see—the faithful witness of God’s people in chapters 11 and 12. Such a reading strategy will help us keep the plagues in perspective. They are not the fundamental reality. And they are not the work of a vengeful God punishing human wrongdoing.

After the four plagues of chapter 8, there is a brief interlude where a talking eagle cries out in pain in face of what the earth is facing with the plagues. The term in 8:13 that is translated “woe” could also be translated “alas!” and has the connotation of sorrow and empathy more than that this is announcing God’s direct punitive judgment.

The eagle cries out three times, pointing to the next two trumpet blasts that will be described in chapter 9 and a third “woe” that does not have a clear referent. The seventh trumpet blast (11:15-19) could be the third “woe”—in which case since the focus with the trumpet is the promise that God will “destroy the destroyers of the earth” (11:18), the idea could be that this “woe” will end all the “woes” by doing away with the actual source of the destruction, the Dragon and his minions. Beginning with chapter 9, Revelation makes it increasingly clear that the Dragon is the direct actor behind the plagues.

The fifth and sixth trumpets do speak of more trauma on earth and give more detail to the picture of this time of the “3 1/2 years” between Jesus’s victory described in Revelation 5 and the coming of the New Jerusalem in chapter 21.

Read the rest of this entry »