For the next few weeks, the lectionary will be highlighting passages from the book of Revelation.
The book of Revelation is one of the most misunderstood books of the New Testament. Its vivid imagery of the future judgement of humanity has led it to also being one of the most misused books of the New Testament, interpreted by apocalyptic groups throughout the centuries as evidence that the end of the world was at hand. It is much more likely, however, that this complex book was composed in response to the persecution of Christians by the Roman Empire, its various characters symbolising a contemporary entity – the whore of Babylon signifying Rome, and the beast its emperor Nero.
The book begins with a matching set of seven letters to seven angels of a church. Each letter follows a standard pattern, and while each addresses specific matters, most refer to ‘patient endurance’, or ‘standing firm in the faith’, a reference to the persecution church members were experiencing. The reward for “holding fast” to their faith is the promise of eternal life and protection from the tribulations to come.
The opening address of the letters identifies the words as coming from “the holy one, the true one”, a reference to the Son of Man (see 1:13–16), who states in verse 22:11 “I am coming soon”, echoing early Christian belief that Jesus would soon return to redeem the world. While the imagery of Revelation may seem strange and archaic to us today, in a world torn by war, poverty and greed, its message of keeping the faith and working for the kingdom must remain relevant.
There is no doubt Revelation is an odd book, full of mystery and eastern symbols and visions, an exotic glimpse of heaven by an unknown visionary in the genre known as apocalyptic literature. It is unlike any of the other New Testament books as we have them. It does not tend to be as well known as many other biblical books, except by people who claim to have unlocked its riddles and can confidently predict the end of the world. It is comforting to recall that none of them have been right to date. But how to make sense of it?
Strangely for me, it was a victorian English chapel when I lived in England quite some years ago that contributed a lot to my understanding of the intent of Revelation. John and I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to explore our temporary country while we had the opportunity, so we organised our study to include time for touristing around. On one of these tourist excursions, we visited part of south Yorkshire, where many fine ruins remained of various abbeys and castles. The particular place that we visited this day was a large Victorian estate, which included the picturesque ruins of a very large abbey. Also on this estate was the family chapel. From medieval times, the wealthy families considered it was proper to worship in their own family chapel, rather than mingle with the lower classes in the village churches.
This particular chapel was very striking. It had cost many 100s of 1000s of pounds, an extremely expensive building even by the lavish Victorian standards. It was built to honour the dead brother of the lady of the estate, who died in a Greek war. It was also built to echo the book of Revelation.
When we entered this little chapel at its front door, opposite end to the sanctuary area, it was like many other small English chapels that we had seen. It had a high ceiling, lots of wooden carvings, a stone floor and wooden pews. There were glass windows in the stone walls, typical pointed arch shapes.
As we moved towards the middle of the chapel, the woodcarvings became more elaborate, and a very ornate stone tomb, complete with life-sized effigies of the master and mistress of the estate, was placed conspicuously in the centre.
Once we passed this middle section, we found ourselves in the sanctuary area. And the chapel had dramatically changed. The sombre stone walls had been replaced by colourful frescoes, all depicting angels and the various scenes of Revelation. Each picture was decorated in real gold leaf. The wooden rafters had given way to a magnificent gold dome, elaborately painted and jewelled, decorated as well with real gold leaf.
Marble archangels peered down from various niches. The altar stood enveloped in rich clothes, gold leaf and beautiful images. The triumphant lamb, carrying its banner, marched across the walls. A gold tree of life grew across the walls. It was space of splendour, beautifully made, a magnificent space designed to create feelings of reverence and awe.
The whole chapel was meant to represent our human journey, from the plain and earth-coloured entry into life on earth, through the heavenly portals at death, and into the glorious realm of heaven.
We of course were suitably impressed with the beautiful art work and architecture, though I confess the lavish cost bothered me, especially when I remembered the plight of the poor at that time. And I also started wondering about whether it was realistic regarding life, death and heaven, and whether it gave the right impressions to the Christian people who ostensibly used it.
Revelation not only takes us right to the end of the bible, to the very edge of the collection of our holy scripture, it also takes us to the very edge of the system of beliefs that we call Christianity.
The chapel I have described to you is based on one understanding of Revelation. This understanding has as its starting point a very old belief of Christians in the early centuries. This belief holds that everything earthly is bad and drab, and everything heavenly is good and shining, and the quicker we can access the good and the shining, then the better it is for us. Inherent in this belief was the idea that only a very few, very good Christian people would inherit the shining city, with many others being shut out. I want to challenge this understanding of Revelation; it actually has a very grounded theology despite the elevated imagery present in it, and also it is a very inclusive book, one that embraces many people.
While I am not sure how actually most of us live our lives, I am quite sure that most of us do not see our time on earth as merely ‘marking time’ till we get to the better realm of heaven. And in fact, this chapter of Revelation describes something very different from this traditional understanding.
John, the writer of Revelation, knows that human language is incapable of expressing the reality of things in the eternal world. So he casts his book as a vision, a series of pictures. But he does not mean us to begin and end with these pictures. The pictures are symbols that point to the reality of God and the world. Let us examine the meaning behind the pictures.
The first thing we can note that all of Revelation’s statements about the end are really statements about God. As God’s word is the begining of the creation in Genesis, so God’s word here is the end itself. God does not bring the end, he is the end. And he is the beginning. God is around us and with us, from beginning to the end. Here John is saying something very important about human beings, God and Heaven. Here is no aerial city of the upper realms, peopled with spiritual beings. No, God has descended to the earth to ‘dwell with humanity, and it is declared that “God will be with them, and they will be my people.” God will be with us here, on the earth, at the end. Not up in heaven, but on the earth with the people.
For John, God is always here among us now. So we can see that the notion of earthliness being dull, material and sinful is not what John menas at all. Rather, he is saying that God is amongest us on the earth, his divine presence is available to us directly, here and now, not just when we die and go to heaven. Life itself is a divine thing for John. What awaits the believer and the world at the beginning and the end is God, the first and last word. Beneath the imagery of pillars, gates, walls and ornament is John’s conviction that holiness lies with the people on the very account of God dwelling in their midst. John’s visionary city does not abolish or belittle that which is human, but fulfills humanity, completes it.
The second thing we can note is the inclusiveness of who is accepted into eternal life at the end of time. The new city on the new earth is a city where right and justice will prevail. It will be a world freed from the sins that infect the present world. So in 22:15, we find John’s ‘vice list’, which is governed by his historical situation of Christian persecution. Lack of courage in Christians under threat of persecution from the Roman overlords does not impress John, nor does giving in and acknowledging the emperor to be divine, as Christians were often pressured to do. John ranks such failures along with murderers and other social deviants. However, what is noteworthy about Revelation at this point is that John is not saying that everyone who has been guilty of these things are excluded fron the holy city; only that noone will bring these sinful practices with him or her into the holy city. The list serves to characterise life in the city of God, and is not a limitation on who will be finally there.
For John, everyone who can leave their failing behind is welcome in his city of God. And God is directly present to all those here in the city on earth, because all of it is holy. John feels all life is holy and God is present to all people at all times, not only at special times and places, and all of God’s people are priests. It is clear that John finds holiness in human community, and this community extends to all people. This holy community is not populated by the chosen people, but all nations and people of the earth, even the ones that oppressed the church and opposed God’s rule are here pictures as redeemed citizens of the holy city.
So Revelation is not just about a beautiful and ornamental, shining heaven where only the very good or the very rich can enter freely. It does not present a picture that considers the earthly and the mundane to be inferior to the heavenly and the ethereal. Unlike the chapel on the estate in England, John does not intend us to see our goal only as the bright and glittering ideal of heaven. Rather, John wants us to see that life is holy now, that God is here in our midst, descended to earth as Jesus Christ, as the word that became flesh and came to dwell among us.
Unlike our chapel, which was clearly designed for a select and elite group, Revelation envisages a world where all who drop their profane ways will be welcome as God’s children in the holy city. Rich and poor, rulers and beggars, Christian and pagan. all are welcome into the paradise on the earth that God has created for his people.
Holiness is not just about envisioning or aiming for heaven. Holiness is about community, acceptance and the ever-present spirit of God around us. Holiness is in the here and now, a gift to be treasured in this lifetime. Holiness is about living our life on earth, treasuring our relationships, working with our neighbours, and reflecting the grace and love of God in our lives.
In the book of Revelation, it is important to remember that fear is the penultimate word, not the final one. The final word is one of hope and promise, full of the love and grace that Jesus embodied.