If there’s any book in the Bible that attracts more attention than The Revelation to John, I don’t know which one it would be. I also don’t know which book of the Bible has been so badly misunderstood, in so many ways, by churches and the secular world alike. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between the religious and commercial purposes it’s been used for. The “Left Behind” series sold millions of copies and were made into several movies, but one reviewer from “Christianity Today” called it “fast-moving fiction with elements drawn from sci-fi, romance, disaster porn, and political and spy novels.” Hardly a serious exploration of Scripture.
But, as faithful Christians, we allow ourselves to get caught up in John’s vivid word pictures of monsters and murder and mayhem. We picture battles suitable for a Star Wars movie with futuristic weapons. We scour the pages for hints about what the future holds, maybe with some anxiety about what role we’ll play in it. We forget that the Revelation is not a spy thriller with secret clues that can only be decoded by insiders. It; snot a schedule of events that will lead to the destruction of the planet.
When we read the Revelation as a doomsday forecast, we miss the fact that it was intended for John’s contemporaries in the early Christian Church (specifically in seven different churches), who were facing a variety of conditions under Roman rule. His visual images seem mysterious and ominous to us, but they’re directly connected to everyday life and well-known symbolism in the Roman Empire. Yes, John’s mission was to unsettle those who had become too complacent and accommodating of the Empire and its values. It is indeed a warning for the present—John’s present and ours. But, most of all, John’s Revelation is a message of hope.
Revelation is often called “the Apocalypse,” and the word “apocalypse” has become a synonym for doomsday scenarios. Hollywood churns out so-called “Apocalyptic movies” at a rapid clip—some eighty-five of them between the years of 2000 and 2015 alone. But “apocalypse” comes from a Greek word that simply means a disclosure of truth—an uncovering, a revealing, a “revelation.” John shares with his readers the truth that has been revealed to him—that the evil they were seeing at the hands of the Roman Empire has already been conquered in Jesus Christ.
John exposes the rotten foundation of life in the Empire—life built on material prosperity that benefits only a few, peace achieved by military conquest, and power derived from violence. John shares this revealed truth with his readers—partly as a warning to those who have bought into the imperial myth, but primarily as a message of hope and assurance—that the rotten foundation of the empire is even now succumbing to the love and will of God in Jesus Christ.
That means the “end of the world,” right? Yes, and no. Again, the Greek word that both John and Jesus use when talking about “the end” have nothing to do with violence and destruction. Rather, the word refers to a purpose, a goal. It has to do with the completion of an intended outcome. Think of our phrases, “The ends justify the means” or “the end result.” We’re not talking about destruction (at least, I hope we’re not). We’re talking about an outcome. When Jesus talks about “the end,” he’s talking about the purposes of God—God’s desired outcome of God’s kingdom fulfilled here, on the earth God lovingly created and sent Jesus to save.
The first three chapters of Revelation are relatively easy to understand. But then John’s images start coming fast and furious—strange creatures, a magnificent throne room that John struggles to describe, a scene of passionate worship with the creatures and human elders all singing their praise of God.
John introduces the scroll with the seven seals, which will be the focus of the next few chapters. He sees the scroll in the hands of “the one seated on the throne.” (John is a good Jew who doesn’t speak God’s name.) When an angel asks who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll, no one steps forward, and John is crushed. But then, one of the elders comforts him. “Don’t worry! The Lion of Judah has conquered, so he can open it!”
Now this would make sense to John. In Jewish literature of the time, the lion symbolized the conquering Messiah, who would destroy Rome. In the lion, God would fight fire with fire, power with power, conquest with conquest. John wants to see this lion, and so he turns to look.
But, there is no lion. There is only a lamb, standing as though it had been slaughtered. This lamb would remind John of the Passover lamb—a symbol of God’s deliverance of God’s people. It would remind him of Isaiah’s suffering servant, described as a lamb. Maybe he knew the apostle John’s description of Jesus as the Lamb of God.
This lamb of John’s vision has seven horns—a number that invokes the fullness of divine power, knowledge, and dominion. The conqueror—the one who is worthy to open the scroll—is not a warlike copy of a Roman general. This victor conquers by his own sacrificial death for the world he loves. The power of God is unleashed, not by superior weaponry or wealth or political maneuvering. The power of God is unleashed by the blood of the Lamb, poured out for us and for many.
The Lamb takes the scroll, and the creatures and the twenty-four elders fall before him, each holding a harp and a golden bowl of incense. It’s the make-up of those bowls that captured my attention this week. Those golden bowls, John tells us, are the “prayers of the saints.”
Who were these saints John spoke of? They weren’t angels. They weren’t perfect examples of humanity who had died and gone to heaven. They weren’t heavenly beings. The saints John spoke of were the rank-and-file Christians on earth.
These were people like the ones Paul wrote to when he addressed his letters to the saints in Rome and Corinth, in Ephesus and Philippi and Colossae. Were they perfect? Probably not. Did they all face great danger and take terrible risks for their faith? Certainly some had, especially when widespread persecution of Christians began, but most had not. They were simply people trying to live Christlike lives. They were ordinary people like us whom God had set aside for holy purposes, by virtue of their faith in Christ. They were people who share with us the calling Peter wrote of: to be a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.
Saints care for the poor and the sick and the friendless. They care for the weak and the powerless. They are kind, and they are willing to share their faith with others. They are sincere and constant in their worship of God. But they are also bold in speaking out and acting against injustice, wherever they find it—at school, in the workplace, in the community, even in the Church.
United Methodists believe that saints are Christians of every time and place who exemplify the Christian life. They are the people who have been ransomed by Jesus for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and made to be a kingdom and priests serving our God. They are the people who will reign on earth in Christlike love. In this sense, every faithful Christian is a saint. And, we’re not alone. We are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses—a cloud of departed saints whose earthly lives serve as examples for us. The saints of the past help us to be the saints of the present—living as faithfully as we can as we are being sanctified and perfected in love.
On this All Saints Sunday, we remember the saints of the past who help guide us into saintly lives today. We remember the saints who read the Scriptures to us, sang hymns with us, showed us how to serve. We remember the saints who taught us to pray as we knelt by their sides, so that we can envision with John our prayers filling golden bowls in the throne room of heaven. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young