“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.” Revelation 1:8
The Book of Revelation used to terrify me. Our staff at school were very deeply steeped in a brand of Protestant fundamentalism that found all sorts of stuff in Revelation to tell themselves that a time was near when Jesus would return and take them to be with him, leaving the world in the hands of Satanic powers and those left behind to a future in hell.
Some versions of what would happen were slightly more optimistic for people like myself, Jesus would return as he said, taking to himself those who had believed in him, but then there would be a period of three and a half years in which there would be a chance for those who had been left behind to repent. There was an American company called Chick Publications that produced comic books, which were distributed in school, explaining how all these things would happen.The writers of such stuff said that the ‘ten-horned beast’ in Revelation 13was the European Community (there were nine members at the time and a tenth was expected) and identified other texts from the book with things happening at the time, particularly the conflict in the Middle East in the 1970s.
I don’t suppose I should have been surprised when I later discovered that Catholic fundamentalists used the same book, and in some cases the same texts, to support the things they believed. Some of the wilder claims about Mary the mother of Jesus found their origin in obscure references in the Book of Revelation.
When I went to theological college the approach tended to be much more analytical. The book was part of a tradition in Jewish writing dating back to prophets such as Ezekiel and Daniel and that much of it would only make sense to readers at the time. It was suggested that John was writing at a time when the Christian community in Rome was suffering terrible persecution under the emperor Nero. John dare not speak the name of Nero, so he calculates what his name would be in Hebrew characters where each letter also represented a number, and he gets the number ‘666′.
Reading history revealed that down through the centuries there were very many groups who claimed that their times were the end times. At the turn of the first millennium in 1,000 AD, there were Christians who believed the end had come while through the Middle Ages such prophecies were frequent. In the 15th Century we encounter people like Savonarola, who drew on the Book of Revelation for his warnings of a new biblical flood.
Because of its use by all sorts of esoteric groups, there has been a tradition amongst Anglicans of avoiding this last book in the Bible, we have avoided getting involved with it. This is a pity because John’s insights can help us with being Christians in the 21st Century.
In a world where the church accommodates itself to the secular powers, what does John say?
If we look at the letters to the seven churches in Revelation Chapter 2 and 3, we see that John is convinced that dual allegiance is not possible for faithful Christians. He sees that Christians were subject to numerous temptations and pressures and tries to stir up their commitment so that they realize that loyalty to anyone other than Christ is not possible. He is concerned about those who would be happy to slip into the ways of the Empire. In Chapter 2 Verse 20 he warns about one identified as Jezebel who was ‘teaching and beguiling my servants to practise immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols’. Do we dilute our own faith to accommodate ourselves to the world?
In a world of relativism, where every view is considered equal, what does John say?
He would have had no doubt that we have been granted possession of religious truth not enjoyed by others. John is in possession of the Spirit of God in Chapter 1 Verse 10 and subsequently receives glorious vision of the Son of man Chapter 1 Verses 12-16 and there is the opening of the heavenly door in Chapter 4 Verse 1 which allows him to ascend into a heavenly world where he receives visions of God. Do Christians today have confidence that God has spoken?
In a world of nominalism, where people belong to the church in name, but not in heart, what does John say?
In Revelation, membership of church is a freely made choice, not something imposed. In Chapter 14 Verse 12, John believes proclamation of the gospel to mean martyrdom and he says, “This calls for patient endurance on the part of the people of God who keep his commands and remain faithful to Jesus”. The warnings expressed in the letters to the seven churches are primarily addressed to those within the churches who turn out to be false believers. ‘So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth’, says the letter to the church at Laodicea, Chapter 3 Verse 16.
In a world of globalisation and monoculture, what does John say?
The church in Revelation is to provide an alternative to Roman culture and there are clearly tensions between John’s community and the larger church and the society in which it existed. The vision suggests in Chapter 11 that the true church has been defeated and only from the perspective of heaven in Chapter 19 is it victorious. There is a sense of alienation, of isolation and protest. The letter to Philadelphia offers assurance that Christ will never betray those who continue to confess his name when weak and rejected, ‘I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name’ says Chapter 3 Verse 8.
The Book of Revelation tells of holding onto faith in adversity, of perseverance through difficult times. What many people need today is the confidence to go on being Christians when everything and everyone around them says they should give up. The faith that has held people down through the generations is losing its grip on people’s lives. Why go to church when there are other things to do? Why keep the Commandments when other people don’t bother? Why believe when it seems to make no difference?
We can’t understand all the things John says in Revelation, but we do know that the people reading what he wrote were going through difficult times. It would have been much, much easier for them to have given up what they believed; life would have been so much safer. What confidence could they have had that their faith was going to survive? They couldn’t look back on 2,000 years of Christian history in the way we can.
At the heart of what they believed, something that comes through again and again in the Book of Revelation, is a God who is real, a God who is present, a God who is active.”I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.”
There used to be graffiti on a wall in Belfast that said,
“For those who understand, no explanation is necessary.
For those who refuse to understand, no explanation is possible.”
If we have the sense of God that the first readers of the Book of Revelation had, then we don’t need any explanation as to why we go to Church or why we try to live by the Commandments; we do these things because our faith tells us to do these things. If we refuse to understand God in the way that Saint John writes about him, then no explanation of Christian worship or Christian living will really make sense and we will always be inclined to do what we want.
Belief in this God of Revelation sustained the early Christians in Rome through the most horrific trials. We are challenged to have the same faith. The faith that places first call upon who we are, on what we do, and on what we have, belief in ‘the Lord God, “who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.”