Studies in Revelation—Lesson 1
by Reta Halteman Finger
After several people encouraged me to write a blog series on the book of Revelation, I have accepted the challenge and am approaching it with some fear and trembling. Until now, I have only taught this book as part of a college or seminary course on the entire New Testament. Nevertheless, there are several reasons for our readers to explore this enigmatic document separately and in depth.
First, Christians need to know how to respond to the many misinterpretations of Revelation floating around. Second, we Christian feminists need to deal with several negative images of women in this book, such as “Jezebel” in 2:20 and the “great whore” of chapter 17.
Third, Revelation contains much violence. This may trouble those of us who believe that war and violence are not the way to solve problems. How we interpret it says a great deal about our view of God.
Fourth, misinterpretations have obscured some of the glorious poetry of this book. As one of my New Testament colleagues puts it, Revelation is the hymnbook of the New Testament!
Transcendence in the classroom
In spite of having only one or two class periods set aside for Revelation in my New Testament course, I will always remember one experience. Dividing a class into small groups, I would assign each group several chapters from Revelation to read aloud together and then choose a shorter passage from that section for a dramatic reading in class. Each section included one or more passages of worship. I wanted the students, many of whom were familiar with the Left Behind books or movies, to experience not only the drama of color, music, numbers, and fantastic animals, but the element of worship that throbs throughout this writing.
In one group in one class, a rather indifferent student who never interacted much in class turned out to be a singer. His group had given him a solo performance for part of their presentation. He surprised us by belting out Revelation 11:15 until it filled the room: “The kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever!” The class was spellbound. It felt as if something which had been hidden throughout our time together had now been revealed. It was indeed a holy moment.
Revelation’s controlling image
This may be the most misunderstood book in our entire canon. Some Christians ignore it entirely because of its bizarre imagery, while others pore over it attempting to unlock a chronological key to the future. In later lessons, we will challenge some current end-time predictions and schemes based in part on Revelation, as well as seek to understand its genre, its cultural context, and what it might say to Christians in the 21st century.
But for now, in this time of 2016 post-election shock and uncertainty, let me focus on a major theme that pervades Revelation. Chapters 4-5 detail a vision the writer John has of “the One who is seated on a throne and who lives for ever and ever” (4:9) and of “the Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered” (5:6). This vision provides a key to the whole book, and clarifies the nature of divine power. The Lion of Judah has become a slaughtered Lamb who alone is worthy to open the scroll of judgment because he has non-violently sacrificed his life-blood to bring people to God (5:9).
The response of humans—and indeed of all creation—to this great act of love must be an undivided political allegiance to the One on the throne and to the Lamb. Nothing and no one else is worthy of our worship.
A Pledge of Allegiance
Since 2008, it has become a custom in some churches to hold a communion service on election day. First held at a Mennonite church in Waynesboro, Virginia, the Election Day Communion practice spread rapidly so that by election day of 2012, nine hundred churches from most Christian denominations from all 50 states were participating. It is now recognized as a rapidly growing movement. “The practice of communion is an inherently political act,” says co-founder Mark Schloneger. “It is both a pledge of allegiance to Jesus and a declaration of independence from all other powers making claims on our bodies, minds, and souls” (from Mennonite World Review, October 17, 2016).
This is an important message for a time when there are deep divisions in our country and fears of what may be in store. This may be a time to renew our pledge of highest allegiance to the slaughtered Lamb, to relate through kindness and inclusion rather than hate.
Nevertheless, the first principle of biblical interpretation is to find out what a text meant in its original context. How did ancient people understand visionary literature? What was it like for believers in small house churches living in a Roman Empire that covered the known world? Was it possible to participate in political activities when Roman politics involved worship of Roman gods?
In the next lesson, we will discuss characteristics of apocalyptic literature and why it flourished during the time period of roughly 200 BCE to 200 CE.
Questions for reflection or discussion
1. What is your experience with Revelation? Are you troubled or intrigued by it, or do you ignore it?
2. What do you think about the four important reasons listed for studying this book? Can you think of other reasons?
3. If you have specific questions about Revelation, write them in the comment section, and I can try to incorporate these issues into later lessons.