The book of Revelation is just plain weird. In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Rev. Dr. Brian K. Blount joins Pete and Jared to discuss how to read and understand the book of Revelation. Together they explore the following questions:
- What are some common reasons that people approach the book of Revelation with fear and anxiety?
- What kind of book is Revelation?
- What is the aim of the symbolic nature found in the apocalyptic literature as seen in Revelation?
- What is the difference between apocalyptic material found in popular culture versus that found in the Christian tradition?
- How is God seen operating in a liberative way in the Book of Revelation?
- What is the revelation in the book of Revelation?
- What is the 1st century context that made the declaration of Jesus being Lord a dangerous proposition?
- How can Revelation be relevant today without dismissing the ancient context?
- How can African Americans and other marginalized communities see their stories reflected in the Book of Revelation?
Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Brian K. Blount you can share.
- “I teach Revelation and ask people to look for the rapture in the book of Revelation. It’s kind of a trick question – you don’t find it.” @bblount21
- “How we use our gifts, our talents, our resources, our possessions, all these things to be transformational in the world around us so that we’re trying to help the world look more like what God intends in that new heaven and that new earth.” @bblount21
- “We know what the future is supposed to look like, we should be using our resources to live or create that future in the midst of the present. That’s how we witness to the lordship of Jesus Christ today.” @bblount21
- “How can you witness to the lordship of Jesus Christ if you’re allowing the Lord’s people to be segregated and treated as other and diminished as other in any kind of environment?” @bblount21
- “You get apocalyptic urgency from the book of Revelation to create witness for the lordship of Jesus. Go back and look at what Jesus himself was doing and let that be the kind of anchor for how you think about a world that is Christlike.” @bblount21
Mentioned in This Episode
- Website: thebiblefornormalpeople.com
- Book: Invasion of the Dead
- Book: Can I Get a Witness?
- Support: patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople
Pete: You’re listening to The Bible for Normal People – the only God-ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns.
Jared: And I’m Jared Byas.[Jaunty intro music]
Jared: Welcome, everyone, to the podcast. Today’s episode is called “Revelation for Today,” and I’m really excited about it because Revelation could be one of those books that is very difficult to manage, very difficult to understand if you aren’t clear on the context and how it’s trying to function in our Bible. And we have with us to talk about this Brian K. Blount, who’s not only Professor of New Testament, but also President at Union Presbyterian Seminary, wrote a commentary on the book of Revelation, and also a shorter book on Revelation called Can I Get a Witness?: Reading Revelation Through African-American Culture. So, let’s get into talking about “Revelation for Today.”[Music begins]
Brian: How can you witness to the lordship of Jesus Christ if you’re allowing the Lord’s people to be segregated and treated as other and diminished as other in any kind of environment. If you’re going to witness to the lordship of Jesus Christ in such an environment, you protest, you witness against that, and you do what the book of Revelation calls for – that is, you resist. You do it non-violently, but you resist it.[Music ends]
Jared: Welcome, Brian, to the podcast. It’s great to have you!
Brian: Well, thank you, it’s very nice to be a part of this.
Jared: Absolutely, looking forward to the conversation here. But before we get started, what led you to be interested in studying Revelation in depth? There’s a lot of reasons why you could or maybe wanted to shy away from it, you know, just because of how complicated it can be or how many things there are that’s going on, but for you, what was that story?
Brian: Well, I was a church pastor at one point many years ago, and I was scared to death of the book of Revelation. I did not preach on it, did not teach on it in the congregation much. When I was a professor, I was invited, by noted theologian Walter Wink who had written some wonderful pieces on the book of Revelation, to be a part of a panel discussion and at that point, I said, you know, I don’t know a lot about the book of Revelation. I’m really anxious about it and therefore, want to decline. That was one of the most difficult declines I’ve done in my career. I just simply did not know enough about the book and was anxious about what I did know.
It came to a point where I was invited, when I was teaching at Princeton Theological Seminary, I was invited to do a commentary on the book, and I thought about that, thought about it a great deal. It was something that was going to stretch my boundaries a little bit. And so, I accepted doing that and it was because of that invitation to do a commentary on the book, and it took me about 10 years to do that commentary, that I began to push in depth into the book. I taught courses, then, because I wanted to be prepared in my research and study for the commentary. I wrote a couple of other little books as I prepared and worked on the commentary. So, it was an invitation. So, you know, that’s one way that God reaches out to people to do certain things – I think it’s through other people, other colleagues. And these colleagues knew that I’d been interested in looking at biblical material, invest us in what God is doing in future, and how we can participate in that future and the book of Revelation is all about God’s future and how we are drawn into that future. I was doing it through the Gospel of Mark, but I was invited to do it through the book of Revelation. I thought, well, this will be a nice alternative to the gospel portrait of what God is doing in the future. Let me look at this and that is how I moved into the book of Revelation.
Pete: Wow, and you mentioned, Brian, that there was a fear and anxiety about, at least parts of it. Could you, I’m asking for a reason, because anxiety is a word that comes up a lot, I think, with the book of Revelation because it’s just so plain weird. But can you elaborate on that a little bit? What the fears were about even approaching a book like this.
Brian: Yes. Well, the first one, I grew up in a small Baptist church in Virginia. I had mostly come into contact with the book of Revelation through a dispensationalist kind of understanding, that there were certain dispensations or errors in human time, and that the book of Revelation somewhat helped us understand where we were in those dispensations and then how we might be able to look for particular clues in the wording in the book that would help us understand where we were in our present time and how we were either going to be saved or not saved in the present time. So, that dispensationalist perspective made me anxious because it wasn’t really the kind of theological perspective that I hold to myself. I was also anxious because of the rapture imagery and theology that was connected with the book of Revelation. Interestingly enough, I now teach it and ask people to look for the rapture in the book of Revelation. It’s kind of a trick question – you don’t find it.
Pete: Right, right. Yeah.
Brian: So, that made me anxious. It also made me anxious about the way it deals with, and this was later on, how it deals with women.
It’s a very difficult text for women, believers, and scholars to engage because it has a very male orientation, a strong male view and women are somewhat demonized in the text. So, those were, its theology, dispensationalist theology, that connection with the rapture theology, and then the whole sense of its relationship with women. And then the whole idea of it being a coded kind of text that we had to find the keys to unlock and then we could understand it, all that made the book very, it made me anxious about the book.
Jared: You had that right on the tip of your tongue. I think that’s a great, you did, you articulated exactly all the reasons I would’ve been anxious growing up with reading the book. So, let’s take a step back and maybe untangle some of this stuff. So, can we talk a little bit about what kind of book Revelation is? You know, what’s the genre, what, because we don’t have a lot of other books in our Bible like this, so, you know, maybe put it in its context a little bit. What kind of book is this?
Brian: Yes, it is a very unusual book. It is technically called an apocalypse, that’s a Greek term, it means to reveal. Well, the term itself comes in the verb which means to reveal, the noun form is the noun that’s used for the book of Revelation, apokalupsis. There is something being revealed about God’s future that has impact for us as we live in the present. Now, there are other books with apocalyptic sensibilities, that is when I say apocalyptic, I’m talking about the fact that we’re revealing God’s future intent for how we are to live in the present moment. So, God’s future intent is to bring a new heaven and a new earth in the book of Revelation. How are we to prepare ourselves so that we can be a part and participate in that new heaven and new earth when it erupts into human history? So, the book of Revelation does that. It’s not the only book in the New Testament that has an apocalyptic sensibility. The Gospel of Mark, for example, I mentioned that a little bit earlier. Jesus also talks about this expectation of how God is going to do a certain thing in the future, Jesus is a part of that future, he says that the end of the gospel that you’ll see the Son of Man, referring to himself, coming on the clouds of heaven. In other words, God’s future will be revealed, you want to be positioned in a particular place so you can be in right relationship to what God does when God reveals God’s intent in that future moment.
The book of Revelation is the only pure apocalypse in the New Testament. The others like the Gospel of Mark, and Paul, actually, have apocalyptic sensibilities. They’re also books in the Old Testament – the author John of Patmos of the book of Revelation is building from Old Testament imagery. So, if you look at the book of Ezekiel, for example, you’ll see a lot of language and imagery that’s very similar to what John is doing in the book of Revelation. If you look at the book of Daniel, that prophetic work also has imagery that’s very similar to what you’ll see in the book of Revelation. You’ll see Exodus imagery in the book of Revelation. As a matter of fact, the plagues of the trumpets and the bowls in the book of Revelation are the plagues of the Exodus that come out of the Exodus account when Moses was asking or telling, demanding, that Pharoah let God’s people go, and then the plagues were Moses’s way of demonstrating that God was God and not Pharoah’s God. So, there are roots that John is drawing from, from biblical material both in the Old and the New Testament, and there is a whole genre of Jewish material in the time in the 1st century before Christ in the 1st century after Christ that are what we call apocalyptic material. So, there’s material that’s also not in the Bible that’s very similar to what John is also doing in his text. So, he’s not a standalone text. It’s not so unusual that people would not have recognized the kind of literature it was when.
Pete: So, they would have recognized things like, yeah, this is symbolic?
Brian: Oh, yes.
Pete: Something like that? Talk more about that, because it’s, I mean, when I tell my students apocalyptic, they think a video game that the world blows up at the end or something like that. They think of like, this physical cataclysmic end, but could you tease that out a little bit more? The symbolic nature of this apocalyptic literature and what it’s aiming at?
Brian: Yeah, one of the things I do in the little book I’ve written called Invasion of the Dead, it’s a look at how popular culture has taken apocalyptic literature from the Christian tradition and created something a little bit different than the Christian materials actually intended it to be. That destructive doom orientation, for example, if you watch, you know, contemporary Zombie movies or science fiction movies about a dystopian future where they are these apocalyptic images and the world comes to an end.
And then there’s a remnant that’s trying to live and survive by any way they can in that future, that that is contemporary popular apocalyptic. It is drawn from the book of apocalyptic to be sure, but as the church has strayed away because it’s such unusual literature, the popular culture movies and novels and whatnot, they’ve taken that material over.
I want to argue that the church needs to reclaim that material because it is part of the core theology of the Christian tradition to be sure. But the difference is that apocalyptic in the Christian tradition, the Jewish tradition as well, but as we look at it in the book of Revelation, yes there’s cataclysm, yes there is difficulty, yes there is combat, yes there are plagues, but they’re all moving even at the worst moments towards newness and wholeness and opportunity and relationship with God. It’s not a destructive tangent or trajectory that you’re on in the book of Revelation. You’re on a constructive trajectory. And that’s why I think it’s important to remember a comparison with the plagues in the book of Revelation and the plagues in Exodus. When people think about the Exodus account, they don’t think about destruction and doom and gloom, they think about the possibility of God’s people being liberated to live in freedom and to live to be able to worship God as they would like to be able to do so, and the plagues are a mechanism to try and demonstrate or to make possible that liberation to take place on earth. The same thing is happening in the book of Revelation, the plagues and the other cataclysmic events, these are the indications that God is in combat with the forces that would operate against God’s people, the liberation of God’s people, just as Pharoah did in the Exodus account, and as God clashes with those forces, there is, yes, this residual affect and impact of destructiveness in the world around us, but that is all moving toward a particular kind of end that will be restorative, that it will lead to liberation for God’s people, that it will lead to a positive transformation of the heavens and the earth so that it is more like what God has always intended it to be from the beginning of time. So, it is a, not a pessimistic but an optimistic perspective when you look at biblical apocalyptic as opposed to contemporary popular culture apocalyptic culture.
Jared: That’s a wonderful description of how God is seen to operate in this liberative way in the book of Revelation. I’m wondering, you said, part of it also is how do we as humans and as part of the Christian faith prepare for this future that God is doing in the world. So, can you speak to kind of the flipside of that, what’s the human element of what Revelation is trying to get us to respond or get the original hearers to respond with?
Brian: Yes, and that’s one of the big things that I try to bring across whenever I teach or preach in the book of Revelation. I have another book on the book of Revelation called Can I Get a Witness? and the book of Revelation pushes hard on the language of martureó in the Greek, which means to witness, to testify the language of a martyr which is a language that we know very well in the English, it is the language, it means literally in the Greek – witness. And John expected people to witness, I like to tell people that one of my pet peeves is that people will often say “Revelations” when they’re talking about the title of the book, that there is only one revelation in the book, there are many visions, but there’s one revelation. The title is singular. The Revelation is simple, it’s that Jesus Christ is Lord, and the expectation is that the people who read this book will witness to the revelation that Jesus Christ is Lord.
Now, that doesn’t seem like a difficult thing to want to do except in the context in which John is working at the end of the 1st century, there is this combat, this contest about who is actually the Lord and Savior of humankind and of creation. The Roman emperor and the Roman Empire itself declared that Rome was the guarantor of human salvation, that the Roman emperor was the person who should be deified and given a sense that he was the one responsible for protecting the well-being of the people, not only in Rome but around the world and that Rome and the Roman emperor should be deified and worshipped. Therefore, in Asia Minor, which is now contemporary Turkey, where John was writing to these seven churches, emperor worship had reached kind of a height, a zenith, so that the Emperor Domitian, the Roman emperor who was emperor at the time John was writing about 95 toward the end of the 1st century, Domitian was understood to be or had been deified by many and had accepted this sense that he was a representation of the divine here on earth.
Now, the question becomes should you worship Rome and the Roman emperor or not as Lord? And, of course, the Christians following the first commandment would obviously have this sense that only God and Christ could be worshipped as Lord.
So, when John says witness to the lordship of Jesus Christ, he’s saying it in a context where you could lose a lot, John himself was exiled onto Patmos for witnessing to the lordship of Jesus Christ. There’s some like his friend Antipas, he lost his life for witnessing to the lordship of Jesus Christ. Others could lose social standing; they could lose property. There was a lot to lose if you were to stand up and witness to the lordship of Jesus Christ in a context where you could pay a heavy penalty because there was an alternative power that was claiming lordship in that world.
Pete: So, there is a, what I’m hearing you say, Brian, is that there is something of maybe a paradox, I don’t know if paradox is the right word, but something a little bit unexpected because Jesus is Lord, you’re saying that’s the Revelation of the book, but the context is screaming at you – he was slain.
Brian: Right. By the Romans.
Pete: The Romans. The Romans have all the power. So, you could just as easily, I mean not to simplify this too much, but is Revelation sort of maybe giving some sort of a choice to people? Is the slain Lamb of God Lord despite all appearances? Or is this Roman machine Lord? Caesar, Lord? Because they really are playing the part, it seems like. Is that what’s happening or am I just mixing that up somehow?
Brian: Oh no, no, no. That is exactly what is happening. As a matter of fact, when you get this understanding, I think John is throwing it really for those, it’s almost a dare, who would you rightly believe? Are you going to believe your eyes or are you going to believe what I’m telling you? Your eyes tell you that Rome is in charge of the world. The Romans not only have an empire that stretches beyond all, you know, your visual and imaginary kind of sensibilities, Rome looks to be the power that is in control. Not only that, but they killed the one you claimed is, or the one I claimed is in control. And they slaughtered him on a cross because he was testifying to his own lordship when he was asked a question, “are you the one?” and he said “I am.” Testifying to his own lordship, witnessing to his own lordship – He was slain and slaughtered as a result of that. Now, I’m going to ask you to believe that that very person who was slain by the Romans is the exact one who is not to be compared to the Romans because the Romans don’t compare to him. He’s Lord. Not them, even though they slaughtered him. You know, there has to be a good bit of faith involved when hearing someone make that claim and then holding onto that claim in spite of what you’re seeing. The Romans could very well ask you are you going to trust your heart or are you going to trust your eyes? Your eyes tell you we’re in charge.
Pete: So that’s, I mean, I guess to put a fine point on this, the revelation of the book of Revelation what’s being revealed is the lordship of the crucified Christ and risen Christ. That’s what’s being revealed, and I guess that needed to be revealed because it’s sort of hidden, right? It’s contrary to appearances.
Jared: It’s not obvious.
Pete: It’s not obvious.
Brian: And that’s right. You know, Paul dealt with it in a different way. He talks about the foolishness, the stumbling block and the foolishness. So, Paul recognizes, his people and his churches decades before John writes the book of Revelation, they realize how ridiculous this claim is, this crucified person is Lord. So, it’s not just John in the book of Revelation who is dealing with the ludicrous claim that’s being made here, Paul dealt with it very early with his churches and congregations who were dealing with pagans around them. They had been pagans themselves before they came to be Christians and now they’re trying to deal with this. Well, how do we deal with this fact that it doesn’t make sense? John, by his time, is not only dealing with the fact that it doesn’t make sense, he’s dealing with it in a context where you could pay a great deal if you made the claim.
Jared: Let’s fast forward, then, because I want to maybe draw some clarity to how, for instance, I would have grown up and maybe it sounds like you as well, Brian, to figure out how to interpret this today. So, the original context is about Domitian and are we going to worship the Roman Emperor and the Roman Empire or are we going to worship the slain Jesus? That context isn’t our context. So, I think, for me the way that we made it “relevant” was, in the same way you said, to make it this dispensationalist text so that it directly applies to us, meaning it’s actually, the context is our day.
Pete: Yeah, not the ancient one.
Jared: Not the ancient context, just the modern context. So, could you paint a picture of an alternative for how this book is relevant for Christians today without making light of or dismissing entirely that ancient context?
Brian: Yes. What I want to do is to make sure people, when they interpret it, interpret it out of the ancient context first and foremost. Here is what I try to do, I try to help them understand what the ancient context was and then how that translates to our contemporary context. One of the first things that I realize I was mistaken about, I grew up believing that every Christian, there was a systematic persecution of the Christians, the kind of systematic persecution that happened, you know, when a fire broke out in Rome and Nero blamed the Christians and then there was this hunt for Christians, this systematic persecution of Christians. In ‘95, when we think the book of Revelation was written and Domitian was Emperor, there was not a systematic persecution of Christians. Instead, there was targeted so that, a matter of fact we have a letter from a governor just after the time John wrote, but it deals with the same circumstance that John and John’s people were dealing with. Pliny writes this letter to the emperor and Pliny asks the emperor, “What am I supposed to do with these people are claiming, who are brought before me and are charged with being Christians?”
See, the Romans weren’t looking for Christians in the way they were when Nero after the fire in Rome. However, if someone claimed that you were a Christian and you were brought before a tribunal, you were asked – “Are you a Christian?” – you could get out of it by saying no and curse Christ and go on your way. But if you held to that belief, Pliny says he would then punish a person by taking away their property, etc., etc. Now, why is that important? It’s important because you were able, if you want to, to fly under the radar. To kind of stay in the closet so to speak. You don’t really let people know that you are a Christian who believes in the lordship of Jesus Christ and not the lordship of the Roman Emperor and the Roman Empire itself, so you don’t really have to live into this claim of Jesus’s lordship if you want to. You can hide. You can pass as any other Greco-Roman pagan believer if you’d like to be able to do that and you could get away with it unless someone accuses you, and then you have the opportunity to get away with it by simply denying that you are a Christian.
Now, how does that translate to where we are today? Well, we can fly under the radar as Christians today and not witness to, not just the lordship of Jesus Christ, but what that lordship means for how we live our lives. Not only how we live our lives individually, the kind of person we represent ourselves to be, but how we then use our gifts, our talents, our resources, our possessions, all these things to be transformational in the world around us so that we’re trying to help the world look more like what God intends in that new heaven and that new earth. We know what the future is supposed to look like, we should be using our resources to live or create that future in the midst of the present. That’s how we witness to the lordship of Jesus Christ today, by living into that Lordship and by creating an environment where that lordship seems to be the kind of expectation for how we live and govern our lives today.
Many of us, instead of doing that, find ways to fly under the radar. To just kind of pass along ourselves as any other person who doesn’t believe in that lordship or kind of tempers that expectation, that radical expectation to live out our faithfulness in a way that we construct our lives and everyday life. And so, what I’m suggesting is we need to ask ourselves how we are or are not witnessing to Jesus’s lordship in the way we carry out our everyday Christian lives today. That’s where the meaning now has impact because you can’t, I mean there are places in the world where Christians will be persecuted for claiming the lordship of Christ, but in the United States for example, where I reside, that’s not really an issue. I mean there might be some things that might happen, but you’re certainly not going to lose your life, you’re not going to be in exile, things like that. However, there is a price to pay in terms of the way in which – your relationships with others, the ways you use the gifts and resources you have, how you go about trying to make a particular stand for people who are oppressed in society or people who don’t have housing or people who don’t have homes or people who don’t have the kind of resources they need to live out lives in any kind of decent sense of comfort or survivability. How you witness in those cases is also appropriate to this expectation that John has that you live into what God wanted us to approximate as we are trying to live out our lives in a way that fits God’s expectations for the future.
Pete: It’s really striking me that the, let’s say the practical importance of the book of Revelation is not, that’s not the first place many people would go.
I think it’s practical only in the sense that well, the book of Revelation is only predicting things that are happening in the newspaper today and in that sense it’s practical, but, you know, I love the title of another book that you’ve written, Can I Get a Witness?, which is about Revelation and the African-American experience and the way you describe what witness is, you know, earlier in the book of Revelation that whole, you know, martyrdom idea of bearing witness to Christ’s lordship, that brings out now a different meaning to me when I hear a phrase like “can I get a witness?”. The witness is, you know – how does one live faithfully in God’s world despite the appearances to the contrary? That’s how I’m seeing that.
So, can we talk about that a little bit too? Because I think this is, when people don’t see the very practical implications of this book, it might be attributable to the fact that they’re part of a privileged part of society where that’s not an issue. You sort of run things. You’re more Rome than anything, right? So, but marginalized peoples will probably focus and zero in on different kinds of things in the book of Revelation and you’ve written a book about that. Can we talk about that a little bit? I mean even something like one of the chapter titles – “An Apocalyptic Call for Active Resistance.”
Brian: Yes, and that’s a reason, well, one of the things that interested me I should say. It’s one of the reasons why I wrote that book: Can I Get a Witness? And, you know, the subtitle is Looking at the Book of Revelation through an African-American Lens. And the African-American lens I chose was that of the Civil Rights Movement. There is a keyword in the book; I mean, there are many keywords in the book of Revelation. I’ve talked about one of them, martureó, which means witness. Another is hupomoné, which means or has been translated as patient endurance. I actually translate in my commentary, that word, as non-violent resistance. John doesn’t want his people to act violently, but he does want his people to resist the claim that Rome and Rome’s Caesar are Lord. And what I look at is the way in which the language of the book of Revelation has this understanding of witnessing against those ideas or thoughts or concepts that are contrary to God’s expectations for humankind and, of course, equality and liberation of all God’s people being one of them in particular in the case of the Civil Rights Movement, looking at how we are to witness to God’s lordship in a way that witnesses against claims that counter God’s lordship. So, if God’s lordship is to suggest that we are all creatures of God, that we are all the Created, and God is the parent of all of us, that makes all of us equal before each other, brothers and sisters in Christ before God, which means that none of us should be heightening ourselves above others because of race or gender or whatever kind of human characteristic we have.
In the time of the Civil Rights Movement, of course, the protest was against segregation where African-Americans were held as less and because they were held as less were then segregated in certain areas – in every area and component of society including church. In that case, one either accepts it or one witnesses to the lordship of Jesus Christ. How can you witness to the lordship of Jesus Christ if you’re allowing the Lord’s people to be segregated and treated as other and diminished as other in any kind of environment? If you’re going to witness to the lordship of Jesus Christ in such an environment, you protest and you witness against that and you do what the book of Revelation calls for, that is you resist the counterclaim that represents another kind of lordship. You do it nonviolently, but you resist it. So, I translate hupomoné, therefore, as nonviolent resistance to push for that kind of witnessing. Another thing that’s really important here is how we translate that word martyr.
In most contemporary understandings, it’s someone who dies for his or her faith. When John was writing the book of Revelation in the 1st century, the word simply meant witness, witness to the lordship of Jesus Christ. By the 2nd century, it took on the language and meaning of martyr because many of those witnesses were dying, but many like John on Patmos, he was exiled. There were others who didn’t die for their faith. The key here is not to die for, or want to die in order to develop and create equality in the case of the Civil Rights Movement for all God’s people, but to witness for the lordship even though you know that witnessing for that lordship may bring suffering, may bring destructiveness from others, it may even bring death as it did to Martin Luther King, Jr.
But your goal in that case is not to die, your goal is to present the lordship of Jesus Christ and a world that operates around that lordship in such a way that we’re living out the expectations of what that lordship would mean. In this case, it would mean equality for all of God’s people.
Jared: Yeah, I think, and maybe this isn’t an answerable question, but what I hear you saying is for us today, this is about witnessing to the lordship of Jesus Christ and that’s a true interpretation of sort of how Revelation can be meaningful to us today. However, I think there’s this competing claim today on what it means to witness to the lordship of Jesus Christ. So, that maybe, you know, what criteria might you say is a more faithful witness than other criteria, because, again, growing up in my tradition, I think everyone I would’ve grown up with would’ve completely agreed and endorsed what you said and then the rallying cry would be – “so let’s go get everyone saved.”
Pete: Yeah, right.
Jared: Let’s get them to say the Sinner’s Prayer because that’s what it means to witness to the lordship of Jesus Christ –
Pete: And keep them in separate schools.
Jared: Well, yeah, and to not listen to bad music and to not go to movies and that’s how we witness to the lordship of Jesus Christ, and if that means we get persecuted then we do. Which is very different from what I hear you saying around equality for all people.
Brian: Yeah, that’s an excellent point and one of the concerns I have about dealing with the book of Revelation because that alternative expression and understanding has been the one that has been quite powerful and then also, I think, in my understanding and opinion, fairly destructive. When you talk about the lordship of Jesus Christ, I think you have to do what I’ve taught throughout my history. I’ve now been teaching at Union Presbyterian Seminary for fifteen years, and that is we look at the whole New Testament and we have the New Testament interpret the New Testament rather than having us fill in the gaps, we let the New Testament fill in the gaps. So, when we talk about what does the lordship of Jesus Christ look like?
Well, John doesn’t give you a complete answer because he’s so invested in the future to get to the New Heaven and New Earth, but he does give us a clue and it’s a huge, big clue staring us right in the face and that clue is Jesus himself, the Lamb. And to therefore go back and look at the life of the Lamb in the New Testament, the four Gospels give us a clue. As I told you I spent a great deal of time looking at the Gospel of Mark because I think it’s very apocalyptic in its orientation as well. And if you look at that text and you look at that kind of reality Jesus is trying himself to present, it’s one where, let’s just start out right in the beginning of the Gospel of Mark. He’s touching lepers who are unclean and people who are supposed to be set aside in society. He’s bringing them and drawing them back into society and getting in trouble for it. He’s calling the wrong kinds of people, people who are defrauding others, tax collectors, he’s calling people who are sex workers. He is breaking traditions like the Sabbath tradition when it’s interpreted too legalistically so that it’s appearing to uphold more of the law than the people for whom the law was created. So, you can’t feed them or heal them on a particular day. He is also doing something outrageous and that is he’s bringing the Gentiles into the understanding that they are a part of God’s people.
It’s this new kind of breaking the boundaries, this is a kind of ethnic boundary that was really pretty solid and firm and opening up the possibility that these other people, these Gentiles too can be the children of God. So, this kind of boundary-breaking activity that represents how Jesus in the Gospel of Mark understands God’s future intent to be taking place in the present in the way he lives out his life, that becomes a way we follow Jesus by doing exactly those same kinds of things. Now, give it the kind of urgency that’s there in the presentation from the book of Revelation, create with urgency that kind of apocalyptic urgency we see in John’s work, give energy to that presentation of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark. And it’s not just Mark, it’s Matthew and Luke and John as well. I just picked Mark because I’ve been working a lot with Mark. But you get apocalyptic urgency from the book of Revelation to create witness for the lordship of Jesus, so what does that lordship look like? Well, don’t just create a whole cloth. Go back and look at what Jesus himself was doing and let that be the kind of anchor for how you think about a world that is Christlike.
Pete: Yeah, Michael Gorman wrote a book years ago, maybe about 10 years ago or so on the book the Revelation, Reading Revelation Responsibly, and he says something – a phrase that I like and I think it connects very much with what you’re saying, but he calls Revelation a theo-political drama.
Theo, right, the religious part, and political, you know because there is that social-political dimension which is certainly the case in the book of Revelation, and I guess what’s bringing that to mind now is what Jared is saying about a very non-political implication of all this. Just, you know, got to get people saved. You don’t want them to go to hell. But the political dimension is missing and I think, you know, it seems to me and I think it seems to a lot of people that there is an influential Christian witness, at least in the West, that does not see any of this really having to do with issues of political justice and righteousness and I find that to be so very, I mean, frustrating and I guess just not looking at a book like Revelation for what it’s worth, right? We seem to be missing something very crucial there.
Brian: Yes. I think it’s missing really its primary intent and its primary intent was what politics are going to be the politics that govern the way in which humans live out their lives in the present and moving into the future. Is it the politics of Rome or is it the politics of Christ? We have to be careful even saying that because the term politics of Christ can be so misused, but what I want to stress is that you have a political confrontation here between the expectation of how we live either in the image of what God is doing in Christ or the image of what is happening with the Roman Empire. When you get to chapter 17 or 18, actually 16, 17, and 18, there are some powerful places here where John is castigating. He calls Babylon because it’s the symbolic name for Rome because Babylonians obviously took God’s people into exile in the Old Testament, now they’re threatening to do something similar in the guise of Rome in the New Testament times.
So, there is this understanding that this reality of Rome is this great imperial force that lays claim militarily, economically, socially, and politically and how does one orient oneself in relationship to that thing? The way you do it is the way Jesus himself did it and that is to say no, you’re not Lord. Something else is. I am, in this case. God is. And that counter positioning of those two realities is not just a spiritual one, it certainly is a spiritual one, but it is manifestly a social and political one. John is claiming that this new entity, this new heaven this new earth will take over and be in place of the expected domination and rule of an entity of politics like that we’ve seen from Rome. So, there’s no way if you read it faithfully to read it without this political sensibility that is critical that is key to what John is doing in this book.
Jared: And I think part of what gets in the way is the language in, at least in our context here in America, and I’d love feedback from people who are listening who may not share the American context because for us when we use the word politics, it immediately brings to mind partisan politics. It brings to mind who is our favorite politician and we think of Congress, we think of the machine, the institution within our system rather than what you’ve been talking about. How do we organize ourselves as society and as a culture and as a people in ways that, how are we orienting ourselves toward those who have less means? Those who have less resources? Those who don’t have the opportunities that we, some of us, have had? So, I think that’s a very grassroots understanding of politics that say the book of Revelation is asking us to consider rather than saying which side of the aisle does God support, Republicans or Democrats. I think that’s just an important, maybe, shift in how we think about it when we even hear the word politics, because I can imagine some listeners bristling at the idea.
Brian: Yes, and that’s a very good caution and thank you for making sure that the listeners hear that because I certainly agree with you whole-heartedly. John is not talking about one side versus another side, he’s talking about the infrastructure of humans living with other humans and in relationship, not only to each other, but in relationship to God and how our relationship to God governs or should govern how we build relationships with one another.
So, when I talk about politics, that’s what I’m talking about. Is it the way the world wants to be structured through the lens of the Roman Emperor and the Roman Empire or is it the way in which the world ought to be structured through the life teaching and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. Those are the options John is working with and he’s inviting his people to witness to the option that is in the image of Jesus of Nazareth.
Pete: Well, Brian, we’re sort of coming to the end here, which is unfortunate.
Jared: How very Revelation.
Pete: Yes, right.[Light laughter]
But I think just, in closing, if you could maybe help our listeners with maybe some steps they could take toward not having anxiety about reading the book of Revelation. Maybe, do you have any tips? Do you have any resources or just a frame of mind for when people who maybe have never read it or have avoided it for years, now are going to turn to the first chapter and start reading. Any help you can give them in their trying to do that?
Brian: Well, I do tell people that the more they can read about the book in places, you know, finding good commentaries and things that are helpful. I also tell them to think about the way in which you approach poetic material. If you think about your favorite poet. John is a wonderful poet. He’s writing poetry and his poetry is to be understood symbolically and not literally, although it has a literal component to it, in other words, it’s connecting with how we live and function in the real world. So, it’s not separate from the real world, but it is poetry. So understand that you’re going to be reading language that has a symbolism and it has a symbolic intent and then how that symbolism is to be appreciated and understood in the context of the world in which John was writing. It helps to know that context, so read a little about the history of Rome in the first century at the end of the first century, who Domitian was as an emperor, and learn a little bit about that and that will help you place the poetic language that John is using as he writes in the book of Revelation.
The other thing is, think about the Old Testament prophets and how you read that material. John sees himself as a prophet. So, read it the way you’d read Ezekiel or Jeremiah or Daniel or Hosea; with the kind of prophetic expectation and urgency you’d read in those Old Testament materials. And if you read it that way, you don’t read it as a prediction about what’s going to happen in the future, because that’s really not what the prophets were doing, the prophets were saying, “Look, God’s future is opening up with an intent to draw us into that future. You want to be in relationship with God in that future. You want to make decisions here in the present that have you in good standing so you can be in relationship with that future vision.” That’s what the prophets are doing. That’s what John sees himself doing as well. So, he gives you this poetic language and material to invite you to live into this beautiful relationship by seeing into the future and then investing as much of your energy as you can into creating that future or pieces of that future here in the present. So, read it the way you’d read a poetic Old Testament prophetic work.
Jared: Wow. Well, thanks again, Brian, for jumping on and I hope lowering people’s anxiety and I love that you even started by naming and admitting to that you even started this journey feeling anxious about the book. I think that gives people a lot of hope. And my takeaway, I’m just going to end by saying, is to think about witness in the book of Revelation as nonviolent resistance to anything in the present that contradicts the new world that God is creating in Christ. I just think that’s a wonderful, wonderful picture and it, for me, that will become the lens through which I can read the book of Revelation.
Pete: I’m going to take credit for that.
Jared: Of course, you will. Of course, you will.
Pete: I will, because I can do what I want.
Jared: That’s good, because you represent Rome.
Pete: I’m in power and you’re not.
Pete: Good. All right.
Jared: Excellent. Thanks so much, Brian. We really appreciate it.
Pete: Thank you, Brain.
Brian: Pleasure being with you.[Music begins]
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