Ted Grimsrud—Stumptown Mennonite Church (Lancaster, PA, 4/15/07); Scottdale [PA] Mennonite Church, 9/19/05
The Book of Revelation. Let me tell you a couple of stories.
In our first several years living in Harrisonburg, Virginia, our family attended Park View Mennonite Church. Park View is a large congregation with quite a few older people who have been part of the congregation and the larger Mennonite community around EMU for many years.
When it became known that I had written a book on Revelation, I was asked to lead Sunday School classes. Something I heard that surprised me was people my age and younger saying they actually knew nothing about Revelation. Especially those who had grown up in the area said they never heard sermons or had Bible studies on Revelation.
As it turns out, in the 1950s, the Book of Revelation and issues related to beliefs about the Millennium and the Last Days were controversial around Eastern Mennonite College. The discussions became so heated that, in good Mennonite fashion, people decided to quit talking about the subject. This moratorium was so effective that several generations of Mennonites in that community grew up knowing next to nothing about Revelation.
My second story is set in a very different context. In the late 1970s, I was a young adult actively involved in a small nondenominational church in Eugene, Oregon. Several of us had become quite interested in peace theology. As we talked about our beliefs, we faced opposition from others in the congregation. In this case, though, our controversies led to a formal debate that actually helped us understand and respect each other’s views.
The big fallout from this debate for me, though, came as a result of the spokesperson for the non-pacifist view. He argued that although Jesus of course did teach about being peaceable, his views are only part of the biblical mix. The Old Testament and the Book of Revelation bracket Jesus’ teachings with a portrayal of God as a warrior who at times wants people of faith to take up arms. By this time, I had some sense of how to deal with the issues related to the Old Testament. But what about the Book of Revelation? Did I have to choose between being a pacifist on the one hand, or accepting the Book of Revelation as part of the inspired word of God on the other hand? I resisted that choice in my heart – but I wasn’t sure I could give reasons for saying that Revelation did not contradict Christian pacifism.
I think of a quote: when faced with the choice between changing one’s mind or proving that one doesn’t have to, most of us get to work on the proof….So that’s what I did. I began to study Revelation, asking whether it was compatible with what I saw as the way of peace that Jesus calls all his followers to. As it turned out, I soon saw that Revelation indeed does support Christian pacifism. And I didn’t have to twist the meaning of Revelation to see it this way.
I now believe that by ignoring Revelation we actually deprive ourselves of one of the most useful biblical resources we have for illumining the way of peace to which Jesus calls us.
I want to share with you this morning the heart of what I have come to see as the peace testimony of the Revelation. Our first clue that this book indeed is fully compatible with the life and teaching of Jesus comes in its very first verse, the first five words of the book: “The revelation of Jesus Christ.” This book presents itself as a message from Jesus – the same Jesus who taught love your enemies and offered words of forgiveness toward those who executed him. This book presents itself as a message from Jesus – that same Jesus who taught don’t lord it over others in the way the leaders of the Roman Empire do, that same Jesus who himself showed that authentic leadership and power express themselves in washing the feet of others.
The basic outline for the whole book is given in verse five of the first chapter: the book shows us, it reveals, the meaning of the story of Jesus: the faithful witness, the firstborn of the death, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. The faithful witness – the one who lived the faithful life of God’s healing love and who remained faithful even to death as a martyr (the Greek word for martyr is that same as witness). The firstborn of the dead – the one who God vindicated; the powers could not defeat God’s love – God raised Jesus from the dead. And the ruler of the kings of the earth – this is Revelation’s core affirmation: trust in Jesus, the true Lord; do not trust in human empires and emperors.
We next read that this Jesus lives among the seven churches to whom the book is written, reminding them that true faithfulness in seen in the suffering love embodied in the tiny, persecuted congregations of Philadelphia and Smyrna. The idea that the Jesus of Revelation would ever call upon his followers to kill others is contradicted by the use of the word “conquer” in the messages to the churches in chapters two and three. The “conquerors” in these messages are those who follow Jesus in responding to violence with love – those who witness to Jesus’ way by their willingness to die for him.
Revelation gives a choice – conquer like the Beast, use the sword, and separate yourself from God. Or conquer like the Lamb, follow his way of suffering love, and find yourself united with God. The book from start to finish confronts its readers with this choice. The creative visions of the book speak to hearts, to imaginations, on a gut-level – choose this day whom you will serve, and how. Will it be the Lamb, the vulnerable one, who “conquers” by disarming the powers through persevering, suffering love? Or will it be the Beast, the domination one, who “conquers” with coercion, intimidation, and constant propaganda?
The book asks: whose portrayal of reality do we trust? The Roman Empire, the wealthy merchants, the large, successful, prosperous churches? Or the suffering servant and his persecuted witnesses, those who, like the church in Philadelphia, “have but little power” (3:8)?
We face this same question still today. We, like the first readers of Revelation, live within the world’s one superpower. We, like the first readers of Revelation, are presented with a
view of reality filtered through the interests of the great merchants that can seem like the only truth. We, like the first readers of Revelation, may be tempted to think that churches who find ways to be large, successful, and prosperous in our success-worshiping culture embody authentic faithfulness. Does the Empire, do the merchants, do the comfortable churches point toward God’s truth or away from it? In whom do we trust?
Well, in Revelation, the answer is quite clear. Throughout the book, we see one sharp contrast after another. Though presented as an obvious contrast between the forces of truth and goodness on the one hand and the forces of evil and death on the other hand – the Lamb and the Beast, the Harlot and the Bride, the Lake of Fire and the Tree of Life – for the book’s first readers the contrast in their actual lives was not so obvious. John’s visions tell his readers that they did have important choices to make even in what seem to be unclear circumstances.
His readers might have asked: Surely one need not directly oppose our culture’s expectations that we express our patriotism by going to the public meetings that celebrate the greatness of our Empire – especially when such opposition could get us into trouble. Surely it only makes sense to express gratitude for the greatest military force in the world and the peace, order, and prosperity that it creates in the face of the forces of chaos and insurrection.
John thunders to his readers: realize what is at stake in your choices about in whom you trust. Do you truly trust in God? Or do you trust more, we could say, in the coin that carries the divine emperor’s image? For John, from start to finish, the Lamb deserves our trust, not the Beast. The small, vulnerable, far from rich and powerful faith communities such as the congregation at Philadelphia embody true godly power, not the “successful” church at Laodicea.
The Revelation of Jesus Christ. The revelation that suffering love fuels history, not coercive force. One big contrast Revelation makes is between two ways of winning, two understandings of victory. The Beast wins, the Beast conquers with dominating power and force. The Lamb conquers with a suffering, persevering love that refuses to retaliate and match violence with violence. Which of these understandings of victory characterizes America today?
Chapter five of Revelation captures what is at stake in a nutshell with what turns out to be a stunning upending of expectations. First, John sees a great scroll coming from God’s great throne. This scroll it would seem, contains the fulfillment of history, the direction and outcome of the human project. But no one can be found to open it. John weeps in frustration. Then he is told, wait, someone has been found. Then he hears this great scroll-opener described. A Lion, a Messiah, a great King. But what does he see? “A Lamb, standing as if slain.”
The crucified, resurrected Jesus.
Our key to understanding this vision lies with getting a sense of what the “Lamb” symbolizes. My friend Loren Johns, professor at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, is a terrific Revelation scholar. Loren has a recent book that goes into great scholarly depth and makes clear that the most fundamental meaning of the Lamb symbol is one of vulnerability. The “Lamb” conquers with vulnerable love. The Lamb conquers with the willingness to suffer rather than fight back.
Revelation portrays the pattern of Jesus in this way – first follow the path of peace, then suffer the consequences (remember, Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate, the Roman Empire’s governor in Judea), and then be vindicated by God through resurrection. Revelation summarizes this pattern in 1:5 – “Jesus Christ, the faithful witness (or martyr, the Greek can be translated either way), the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.” Revelation throughout refers to this pattern – persevering love, suffering, vindication – as the pattern Jesus also expects of his followers. Revelation, as much as the Gospels, calls upon Christians to take up our cross and follow.
So, the Lamb, vulnerable love and all, conquers. This is the conquering that matters. The victory that Revelation celebrates is the victory of Jesus’ faithful, peaceable life, lived to the point of martyrdom, and then vindicated by God. That victory matters – there need be no other.
John’s first century readers were, just like today’s readers are, tempted to misunderstand the nature of conquering that God blesses. In a world where the mighty, the powerful and wealthy have their way, proclaiming in all their arrogance, to quote Babylon in chapter 18: “I rule as a queen; I am no widow, and I will never see grief” (18:8) – in such a world we have to take it on faith that the Lamb’s way is actually the way of truth.
Revelation means to confront us with this reality though. In chapter twelve we read of the two witnesses, in some sense representing Jesus’ followers, who conquer, who are victorious – through the “blood of the Lamb (meaning here, through identification with Jesus’ witness unto death) and the word of their testimony.” Their conquering happens not through their violence but their willingness to resist the Beast and his violence with the word of Jesus.
In chapter thirteen, we read of the terrible power of the Beast, the great empire, the world’s one superpower, to whom, it seems, everyone bows down. And part of the Beasts’ seemingly irresistible power finds expression through a second Beast who is the master of propaganda, the one who through its spin, its masterful public relations work, convinces everyone, it seems, to worship the Beast, to give the nation their ultimate allegiance. Who can stand against such overwhelming power. Here we have the other kind of “conquering,” through brute force and through irresistible propaganda.
And yet, the call goes out to those who trust in the Lamb. Don’t believe what you hear and see. Resist, indeed, but don’t buy into the Beast’s methods. Don’t fight fire with fire. “If you kill with the sword, with the sword you will be killed” (13:10). You can resist; you must resist, because of what the vision concludes with. The Beast’s is not the true reality. This is the true reality, according to chapter fourteen: “Then I looked, and there was the Lamb, standing on Mount Zion! And with him were 144,000 who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads” (14:1).
We know who these 144,000 are from an earlier vision in chapter seven – they are the entirety of the people of God. Twelve tribes times twelve apostles times 1,000 (which in the ancient world was a much, much bigger number than it is to us today – so big, really, as to essentially symbolize infinity). The 144,000 symbolizes the people of God beyond counting – sealed by God’s love even in the face of the Beast’s brute power, not protected from suffering but promised genuine victory. These people of God have a simple task, according to 14:4: “Follow the Lamb wherever he goes” – persevering love and its attendant suffering, with the promise of vindication.
The final contrast I will mention dominates the last five chapters of the book – two parallel visions, the great city of Babylon, the city of the Beast, and the New Jerusalem, the city of the Lamb. That these two visions are direct parallels, clear alternatives, may be seen in the word for word echo of 17:1 in 21:9. In the first case, we read, “Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, ‘Come and I will show you the judgment of the great harlot’.” In the second case, we read, “Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, ‘Come and I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb’.”
And notice this one powerful point of contrast. Both of these cities are said to have within them people who in some sense oppose what the city stands for. In Babylon, we read, “was found the blood of prophets and saints, and of all who have been slaughtered on earth” (18:24). Babylon murders its enemies, “conquers” them with violence.
In Jerusalem, we find “the kings of the earth,” the people spoken of throughout the book as symbolizing humanity in rebellion toward God. But what happens to the kings of the earth in the New Jerusalem. They walk by the light of the glory of God and the lamp that is the Lamb (21:24). They bring their glory into this city. They are healed by the leaves from the tree of life (22:2). The New Jerusalem heals its enemies, “conquers” them with love.
This is the Lamb’s way of peace – resist the Beast, indeed. But resist with persevering love. That’s the call of the Book of Revelation to its readers – 2,000 years ago and still today.
Because we, too, are given different definitions of reality, different claims to true power, different promises for victory. Our choices are at least as hard to discern as those of the first readers of Revelation. But, still today, the Lamb’s way points toward life – our call, too, is to use the Lamb as our light as we seek to discern in whom to trust.
How do we seek to conquer? In which city will we be at home? Our style of “conquering” shapes us. Our fitness for the New Jerusalem has a lot to do with what kind of people we are seeking to become. The doors to the New Jerusalem, we are told, are always open. God doesn’t force us to go in nor force us to stay. The choices we make in our lives right now – conquer through suffering love or through domination – these choices shape us toward one city or the other.