Studies in Revelation—Lesson 3
by Reta Halteman Finger
Recently I ran into a friend who had just completed seminary. When I told her I was tackling a study of Revelation, she remarked that she had avoided taking such a course in seminary. Revelation was just too strange and incomprehensible for her taste. Here, however, I will argue that the worldview expressed in the book of Revelation is not so different from the rest of the New Testament.
In the last lesson, I traced some of the historical development of an apocalyptic worldview—the concept of a dualistic universe where God is at war with evil powers. Today, conservative Christians are more likely to believe that God is already in control of human history, and even though we often cannot understand why bad things happen, we must simply trust God.
However, this is not the view of our New Testament. Even though Revelation is the only apocalypse in the New Testament, every other NT book presupposes an apocalyptic worldview. Beyond the natural, ordinary world that we live in and perceive with our senses, there exists an unseen reality: the one God has a host of good angels who are doing battle with Satan and his demonic followers. At times, however, the supernatural world breaks into ordinary life through dreams, visions, and miracles, which is what happened with the coming of Jesus. In fact, what we call the “gospel”—meaning “good news”—is precisely this inbreaking.
Accepting a fantastic story
I am writing this lesson during the season of Advent and Christmas. Much about this story is apocalyptic and entirely outside of our 21st century worldview. One of God’s major angels named Gabriel tells an unmarried girl she will conceive by the Holy Spirit and not by her husband-to-be, Joseph. So it happens! Instead of divorcing or even killing Mary to defend his honor, Joseph accepts this singular event because an angel appears to him in a dream and confirms Mary’s story. After the birth, some humble shepherds near Bethlehem experience a group vision of a whole army of angels who announce this birth with heavenly praise to God. Later, three astrologers from the East see an unusual moving star that leads them to Jerusalem to worship a new “king of the Jews.” After they leave, Joseph has another angelic dream telling him to take his family to Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod, the present king of the Jews.
We celebrate this story each year for five or six weeks from Advent through Epiphany. It is so encrusted with tradition, most of us probably never think about how wild it is. Did it really happen this way? Unless readers of this lesson are having more visions and seeing more angels than I am, we have nothing in our current experience to confirm the truth of these stories. We do not have an apocalyptic worldview.
Tying up the strong man
Let me continue by turning to the Gospel of Mark, which is considered by most biblical scholars to be the earliest of the synoptic Gospels. Although the Gospel of Mark does not have a birth story, its entire plot centers on the supernatural fight between good and evil that invades ordinary first-century Palestinian life. After centuries of silence in which no prophets had been speaking out, John comes as an Old Testament prophet announcing a baptism of repentance. When Jesus is baptized, he has a vision of the heavens torn open. He hears a voice calling him “Son” and sees a dove representing the Spirit of God, who will stay with him during his mission (Mark 1:4-11).
Then combat begins. The Spirit “drives” Jesus into the wilderness, where Satan tests his vision of that mission. What kind of a son of God will he be? He apparently overcomes Satan, for in 1:15 he announces God’s kingdom is coming near. In other words, repent and get ready, because God’s kingdom is going to challenge Satan’s reign!
And it does! In chapter after chapter of Mark, Jesus is on a whirlwind tour to heal as many people from sickness and demon possession as he runs into. As the power of God incarnate, he is unstoppable. In Mark 3:22-27, when Jewish scribes accuse him of doing this by demonic power, he says a house divided against itself will not stand. Rather, someone from outside must enter that house and tie up the strong man of the house. Jesus implies he is the power that is tying up Satan. Later, he adds nature and feeding miracles to his healings and exorcisms.
A consistent worldview
All of the Gospels record the crucifixion and death of Jesus as a triumph of the powers of evil. But this is followed by another reversal—God breaking in to raise Jesus back to life. The “Christus victor” motif is far more prominent in the Gospels than is substitutionary atonement.
An apocalyptic worldview pervades Acts and the other letters and sermons in the New Testament as well. A few examples are the Christ hymns in Philippians 2:5-11 and Colossians 1:15-20. In Ephesians 6:10-20, we read about putting on God’s armor to stand against the devil. “Our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against…the cosmic powers of this present darkness,…spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (6:11-12).
From here on, we will focus on Revelation itself. The next few lessons will provide a social context for some of its imagery as well as discuss different interpretive approaches to Revelation.
Questions for discussion or reflection
- How do you negotiate the shift in worldview from the New Testament era and Western culture today?
- Could the unseen spiritual world portrayed in the Bible be more accessible to us if we opened our minds more fully to it? Should Christians today be performing miracles as Jesus and his followers did? Or is this view obsolete in light of our more comprehensive scientific knowledge today?