Category Archives: Revelation

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. Continue reading

What is Paradise For?

[This is the seventeenth in a series of sermons in interpreting America in the 21st century in light of the Book of Revelation. The series will continue, monthly through November 2013.]

Ted Grimsrud

Shalom Mennonite Congregation—October 13, 2013—Revelation 21:1–22:5

Kathleen and I love to read to each other. We sometimes struggle a bit in deciding what to read, though. She wants to read serious fiction and nonfiction. Stuff that is actually literature. That would make us think. That would give us genuine insight into the human condition. You know, Moby Dick. War and Peace. The Brothers Karamazov. The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

The attraction of happy endings

For me, on the other hand, it’s different. I mainly just want something with a happy ending. Not that much genuine literature has a happy ending. So, we read mostly stuff that’s not genuine literature. Books by someone like Carl Hiassen, where you know who the bad guy is from the start by the kind of music he listens to….

It is probably true that books with happy endings have sold a lot more copies than books with tragic endings. And we tend to read the Bible this way. Even though a lot of people don’t like the book of Revelation all that well, it does have a pretty happy ending, depending on how you interpret it.

I’m finally getting to the end of the book of Revelation with my sermon today. Maybe simply to be done with Revelation will itself be a happy ending—though I do plan one more sermon to kind of summarize things next month.

Revelation does end happily, with a vision of paradise. The book contains several allusions going clear back to Genesis, and I think we are meant to read Revelation as in some sense the conclusion to the entire Bible. Let me read a condensed version of chapter 21 and the first part of chapter 22.  Continue reading

The Judgment That’s Not a Judgment

[This is the sixteenth in a series of sermons in interpreting America in the 21st century in light of the Book of Revelation. The series will continue, monthly through November 2013.]

Ted Grimsrud

Shalom Mennonite Congregation—September 15, 2013—Revelation 20:1-15

I have an idea that as much as any part of the Bible, the book of Revelation works kinds of like a Rorschach test, you know where you look at an inkblot and tell the therapist what you see—with the idea that what you see reveals things about your psychological makeup.

So, we look at this messy blot of images in the last book of the Bible and what we see there reveals a lot about us. Certainly one of the things many see when they look at Revelation is judgment. But what kind of judgment? Maybe what we see when we see scenes of judgment is itself kind of a Rorschach test. What we make of judgment reveals a lot about our psychological makeup—or at least our theological makeup.

A debate about judgment

I have a memory from back in the late 1990s. I went with a number of people from EMU, faculty and students, to hear a prominent theologian, Miroslav Volf, speak at the Eastern Mennonite Mission Board headquarters in Mt. Joy, Pennsylvania.

Volf, who had just begun teaching at Yale University, wrote a well-received book called Exclusion and Embrace. It drew in poignant ways on his experience as a Croatian with the terrible violence in the Balkans conflicts he had lived in the midst of. He powerfully emphasized the need for forgiveness, compassion, and reconciliation in face of brokenness.

However, there was a key element of Volf’s argument, about judgment, that some of us felt uneasy with. He suggested that a major reason why Christians might advocate and practice this radical “embrace,” even of enemies, is because of our trust that in the end God will judge evildoers. This judgment will be punitive. We don’t have to do violence against offenders because we count on God’s violence in the end.

I can picture the room where we met. The audience was in a u-shaped set of chairs with the speaker at the open end of the U. I was directly to one of side of him and one of my like-minded students was clear on the other side. During the discussion we started firing questions from both sides, and Professor Volf was kind of whipping his head first clear in one direction and then, right away, clear to the other direction. Back and forth. It was a friendly if intense debate, and we didn’t resolve it. Continue reading

Revelation Notes (chapter 20)

Ted Grimsrud

[See notes on Revelation 19]

Revelation 20 comes in the middle of the final set of visions that complete the book of Revelation. The first part of chapter 19 shows the great celebration of the Lamb’s marriage following the fall of Babylon the Great in chapter 18. Then comes the battle that’s not really a battle where the rider on the white horse (Jesus, crucified and resurrected) captures two of his main enemies, the Beast and the False Prophet, and dispatches them (without an actual battle) to the lake of fire.

The book concludes in chapters 21 and 22 with a vision of the New Jerusalem, the city of genuine peace and healing that has been in the background from the beginning of Revelation. Tears are wiped away never to return, and ceaseless celebration and praise of the Lamb and the One on the throne ensues.

In between, in chapter 20, come a series of difficult to understand visions that complete the judgment and destruction of the powers of evil (here the Dragon, the power behind Babylon, the Beast, and the False Prophet) and that portray the judgment of all of humanity and the final destruction of Death and Hades.

I will suggest that these visions (along with the rest of Revelation, actually) should not be read strictly in terms of chronology. One of the interpretive approaches that especially makes the visions in chapter 20 confusing is to assume that this chapter presents events that will happen in the future after everything else that we have seen—rather than seeing this chapter as a kind of recapitulation of some of the main themes from earlier in the book. That is, Revelation 20 is also best understood as a picture of present reality. And it presents a theology of judgment that is actually quite different that what is usually assumed to be characteristic of Revelation.

Continue reading

Revelation Notes (Chapter 8)

Ted Grimsrud—June 8, 2013

[See notes on Revelation 7]

Revelation 5–7 has established several crucial things about the agenda of the book and its theological center. The One on the throne is confessed as Master of the universe, but the kind of power that best expresses this mastery is the power of persevering love. The Lamb is worshiped due to how the Lamb resists empire nonviolently even to the point of death. The Lamb’s resistance frees the multitude from the Powers and offers this worship, worship that finds its ultimate expression in these people following the Lamb wherever he goes.

In between the vision of the Lamb in chapter five and the vision of the multitude in chapter seven, two clearly parallel visions, we have the first of three sets of seven-fold plagues described. These plagues, we have seen, are not direct acts by God to punish rebellious creation. Rather, they are a creative way to assert that though the world we live in is full of wars and rumors of war, God’s will for healing remains active, and (according to the book of Revelation as a whole) this healing will come.

So, now we turn to another set of plagues, and their level of destruction expands from one-quarter to one-third destruction. Still—reinforced by the visions of healing in chapter seven—I believe we still must read the plague visions in light of the core affirmations Revelation has already made about God’s intentions, God’s power, the promise of God’s victory, and—importantly—the means by which the victory is achieved. What we don’t have here, contrary to many interpreters, is a picture of God Godself unleashing terrible destruction in order to push people to repentance. The plagues in chapter eight, though, cannot be understood apart what from what follows in chapters nine and ten. Hence, I will offer here only comments describing the plagues waiting for the following chapters to reflect more on their meaning.
Continue reading

Revelation Notes (Chapter 7)

   Ted Grimsrud—May 18, 2013

[See notes on Revelation 6]

As a rule, the book of Revelation is read as a book emphasizing God’s judgment on the rebellious world. The visions that begin in chapter six (centering on the three sets of seven plagues in chapters 6, 8-9, and 15-16) are typically seen as visions of destruction coming down from heaven in order to punish wrongdoers and clear the ground for the New Jerusalem. I propose a different way of reading the book as a whole, including a different way to read these plague visions.

As part of this different way of reading, I suggest that chapter 7 be seen not as a kind of “digression” or “tangent” from the main story line. Rather, chapter 7 is better read as helping us see the main point that the book as a whole is making—Jesus is Lord and as Lord calls people from throughout the earth to embrace and witness to his ways of mercy and compassion. As people walking Jesus’ path, followers of the Lamb become agents of healing the rebellious world, ultimately even the kings of the earth (even as the nonhuman powers of oppression and domination are destroyed).

Our step in reading chapter 7 as central to the plot of the book as a whole is to recognize that it follows shortly after the crucial vision of chapter 5 that establishes the Lamb and his path of compassionate witness as the path the one on the throne embraces as the the meaning of history. That is, in a genuine sense, the plagues that are visited on the earth beginning in chapter 6 are the “digression” or “tangent” in relation to the core message of God’s healing love. Thus, the plagues actually serve that healing love—not the healing love as a side point to the plagues. Continue reading

The War That’s Not a War

[This is the fifteenth 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 12, 2013—Revelation 19:1-21

One of the great things for me in looking closely at the book of Revelation again is that I keep noticing new things. I have talked quite a bit, and will some more today, about how I see “blood” everywhere in Revelation. Now, this is not unusual, a lot of people see red when they look at Revelation. However, I have noticed that the “blood” in Revelation is always the blood of Jesus or his followers; never do we hear of the blood of Jesus’s enemies being shed. This one-sided use of blood can’t be an accident.

I believe when we “follow the blood” in Revelation we see that one of the main messages of the book is a call to self-giving love. Jesus gave his life over to love, so should we. Revelation presents Jesus’ way of nonviolent resistance to the domination system as the model for his people—and as the method that overcomes that death-dealing system. Jesus’ “blood,” and that of his followers, stand for lives of compassion in resistance to domination.

The Powers keep coming back

Today I want to talk about something else I have noticed. Over and over again we are told that the beast, the dragon, the city Babylon, these powers that symbolize the domination system—over and over we are told that they are defeated, that they go down, that “it is all over.” Yet the powers keep coming back, they keep showing up.

Some of you may remember the old folk song, “The Cat Came Back.” It has also been turned into a children’s book—I remember reading it over and over to our son Johan when he was little. Mr. Johnson wants to get rid of this pesky old cat—“he gave it to a little man who was going far away, but the cat came back the very next day.” And it goes on, a little boy takes the cat on a boat trip. The boat capsizes; lives were lost. But still the cat came back. Even after the hydrogen bomb falls, the cat comes back. “They thought he was gone, but the cat came back, he just wouldn’t stay away.”

This is kind of like the dragon and his minions in Revelation. They go down in chapters 11 and 12, “it is over.” They go down in chapter 17. And then again in chapter 18. And at the beginning of chapter 19, the great harlot has been judged and smoke goes up from her forever and ever. And yet, in the second half of the chapter the powers of evil are back, gathered for the great battle of Armageddon. Continue reading

Confessions of a Birthright Imperialist

[This is the fourteenth 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—March 17, 2013—Revelation 18:1-24

When I started this series of sermons on Revelation, back in the mists of time, I talked about it as sermons on 21st century America according to the book of Revelation. As the series has unfolded, I’ve had a lot more to say about Revelation than the 21st century. But today I want to focus a little more on our present world.

I think Revelation, chapter 18, might speak more obviously to the 21st century than anything else we have considered thus far. This chapter focuses on a critique of the great city, called here Babylon—probably with Rome in mind, but also most other imperial capital cities ever since. John challenges his first readers with how they think about the empire they are part of. As such, I think Revelation, chapter 18 works as a good challenge for us today to think about how we feel about our empire.

Reading Revelation 18 as Americans

So, let’s start with an exercise. As I read Revelation, chapter 18, let the imagery stimulate you to reflect on how you feel about being part of our nation. What here maybe rings a bell or triggers a thought? What parallels between ancient Rome and present-day America are suggested by this vision? Continue reading

Revelation Notes (chapter 18)

Ted Grimsrud

[See notes on Revelation 17]

Revelation 18 continues the envisioning of God’s work of transformation, from Babylon to New Jerusalem.  In Revelation 17, we read of Babylon’s comeuppance. At the end of chapter 16, the seventh of the full out plagues had been visited upon the city Babylon. The greatest earthquake the world has ever known splits Babylon into three parts. A loud voice, presumably God’s, had cried out: “It is done!” (16:17). Yet, the visions John reports are far from over.

Chapter 17 focuses on what happens to Babylon—a rather gruesome picture. However, we should not think of this picture as a prediction of what will happen in the future—rather the vision is simply part of Revelation’s broader message about our purpose (or “end”). When read in context, then, chapter 17’s vision actually is part of the bigger movement the book portrays of movement toward the New Jerusalem. In a paradoxical sense, the “destruction” of Babylon might actually be its transformation—or, at least, the transformation of the human city from Babylon to New Jerusalem.

Babylon falls, crushed by the self-destructiveness of its ways. But in the destruction lies the seeds of the city’s hope. Babylon is “drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the witnesses of Jesus” (17:6)—”blood” that links the witnesses with Jesus. That is, the “blood” of self-giving love that leads to Babylon’s downfall, the destruction of the three great Powers of evil (dragon, beast, and false prophet), and the re-creation of Jerusalem as a city of healing. The healing, as we will see, is not only for the faithful witnesses but also for the kings of the earth and the nations.

First, though, the destruction of Babylon requires more attention. So John gives us another vision in chapter 18, also of the destruction of Babylon but from a slightly different angle.

Revelation 18:1-3

The vision features a different angel than the angel of chapter 17 who was one of the seven angels who had poured out the plague bowls in chapter 16. It begins with an assertion that indeed “Babylon the great” has met its doom. Instead of being a place of beauty and power, a true city of the gods, Babylon is actually pretty disgusting, a home for demons, foul spirits, foul birds, and foul and hateful beasts. Continue reading

Seeking the Peace of the City

[This is the thirteenth 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—February 17, 2013—Revelation 17:1-18

Welcome back to the wild and crazy world of the book of Revelation. My job today is further to persuade you that it’s our friend. Revelation is our friend as we desire wholeness in our world, as we seek peace with humanity and with the rest of creation, as we are troubled by power politics and injustice. Right? Well, listen up….

Linking Revelation with today’s world

My first sermon in this series was “The 21st century according to Revelation.” I suggested then, and today, that in its idiosyncratic way, Revelation can give us perspective on the world we live in—not due to its predictions about the end times but due to its insights into its own times. Those insights tell us about deep structures of human life and the message of the Lamb that spoke then and continues to speak now.

An image that comes to mind is of a chair my mother found at a second hand store when I was a kid. The chair was covered with ugly green paint. She stripped the paint and uncovered the beauty that remained with the original hard wood. Then she put on a finish that enhanced the chair’s original beauty—and she had a treasure. Many interpretations of Revelation hide the original beauty of the book. I think we can strip those interpretations away and find its actual message as a great treasure. Continue reading