What do you think of when hear “Revelation”? And yes, it’s “Revelation,” not “Revelations.” It’s very easy to know the difference. Just look at the name in the Bible!
As might be expected, many people’s reflections deal with confusion, crazy creatures, future disasters, scenarios of the rapture—a theology, by the way, which is built on a single verse (though not in Revelation) and given an extremely questionable interpretation. But I say, “as might be expected,” because much of the teaching on the book of Revelation presents horror-movie-like themes, including 666, the number of the beast. Folks have all kinds of fun with that one!
And then, there are the timelines of the future. People have taken plenty of tidbits from the book and devised their own interpretation of “what soon must take place,” as it says in verse 1. I have heard many sermons in which sober reflection has been tossed to the wind.
So having said all that, we need an approach with humility. “If you’re unwilling to live with any uncertainty, you’re more likely to read into Revelation things that are not there. Beware of interpreters who appear to have all the answers to even the small questions. ‘Experts’ who claim absolute knowledge about every detail of Revelation should immediately raise suspicion.”
“Revelation” means “apocalypse.” And apocalypse: oh, that’s another fun word! What does our popular culture make of “apocalypse”? What do we see in movies and on television? The aftermath of nuclear war? A global pandemic? Zombies walking the earth?
Apocalypse refers to a revealing, an uncovering, a showing of what was hidden: indeed, a revelation. Pablo Richard adds that apocalypse “is not neutral: what the wicked and the oppressors cannot understand is revealed to the upright, to the childlike, to the oppressed.” It’s a gift to those who love God.
As the book begins in verse 1: “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place; he made it known by sending his angel to his servant John.” The revelation, the message, is intended for the servants of the Lord. It is sent, via angel, to God’s servant, John.
In fact, in Matthew 11 for example, Jesus uses the word “apocalypse.” “Jesus said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants’” (v. 25). The word has been “revealed” (απεκαλυψας, apekalupsas) not to those who think they know, but to the humble—to those who are as humble as infants.
And these humble ones are blessed. There are seven beatitudes (“blessed”) in Revelation. (In the book of Revelation, seven is a number that appears over and over and over.) Verse 3 says, “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and who keep what is written in it; for the time is near.”
“Blessed is the one who reads aloud.” This was read to the community as part of worship. That underlines something about the entire book. Revelation, as much as anything else, is a book of worship. Add to that, “blessed are those who hear and who keep what is written in it.” Blessed are those who hear. Blessed are those who, in church, stay awake and set their cell phones on vibrate—or turn them off altogether!
If it wasn’t clear already, “We were not the intended audience of Revelation,” as Eric Barreto says. It wouldn’t make sense to have a book directed to people in the distant future. Verse 4 says John sent his message “to the seven churches that are in Asia.”
I think most of us understand that the scriptures were written for the people alive at the time. Still, they have enduring meaning as the inspired word of God passing down through the ages. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying.
The problem with Revelation is the symbolism which would have been familiar to most of John’s audience, now speaks a language we struggle to understand.
Perhaps we weren’t the intended audience of Revelation. Nonetheless, “This is the word of God for us today. They are words for us, however, by the means of some of the earliest believers in Christ Jesus… Thus, these opening verses invite us to read the rest of this text in light of the everyday experiences, struggles, and successes that marked these early Christian communities.”
There’s a whole lot more in this introduction to the book, but I don’t want to spend too much time on it. I want to consider what today is: Christ the King Sunday (also called the Reign of Christ.) What is this day all about? What does it mean to say Christ is king?
The book of Revelation is addressed to Christians near the end of the first century. Two or three decades before them, the emperor was Nero, a man who insanely persecuted the church, as well as a bunch of other people. Now, Emperor Domitian picks up where Nero left off. He takes things even further in how he wants to be addressed. He demands to be called “our lord and god.” (Here’s a guy with a real messiah complex!)
As you can imagine, Christians are put into an extremely awkward, even deadly, position. Do you simply go along, do the expected duty of a patriotic citizen, even if your heart isn’t in it? You could avoid the unwelcome attention of the state. Of course, there is that little problem of allegiance to Jesus Christ. How do you reconcile those competing loyalties?
John’s words are meant as both encouragement and expectation. “Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come” (v. 4). Okay, maybe there’s no problem there—not exactly, anyway.
Then we have this: “and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth” (v. 5). There’s plenty of stuff there to give someone pause.
How much of this is set in stone, so to speak? Isn’t there a little wiggle room? Jesus is called “the faithful witness,” so this really is a message from God. He’s also called “the firstborn of the dead.” No one, not even Domitian himself, can legitimately claim to have been resurrected. Here’s the kicker: “the ruler of the kings of the earth.”
It’s a common thing to hear it said, “Our church doesn’t get involved in politics. We avoid political issues.” I can go along that, if what we’re talking about is promoting one candidate over another. But for the Christians in John’s time, “lord” and “god” and “savior” are not only spiritual terms, they’re also political terms.
The gospel of Jesus Christ is inherently political. The good news of salvation is intrinsically political.
That’s not a bad thing. “Politics” is a neutral term. In fact, it used to be taught in every school! What is “politics”? What is “political”? The way we structure our society—the way we shape our values in our social contract—that is political. “Politics” becomes a dirty word when we act in bad faith, when we employ manipulation and deception in furthering our own narrow ends.
The choice between Christ and Caesar obviously didn’t begin with the church in the time of Domitian. In John 18, there is Pontius Pilate’s interrogation of Jesus. There’s a debate over whether or not Jesus is a king. He says, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here” (v. 36).
Pilate realizes Jesus isn’t scheming to have him overthrown. Jesus continues, “I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate replies, “What is truth?” and then he walks out the door (vv. 37-38). He’s really not interested in getting involved in this religious squabbling among the Jews.
Keep your faith to yourself; don’t bother me with it.
Of course, there is a problem with that if we follow the example of John the Revelator, who was exiled to “the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” (v. 9). He hasn’t kept his faith to himself. The powers-that-be wanted him to go away. He made his choice between Christ and Caesar. For those who confuse the two, consider yourself as having received fair warning!
Bruce Metzger, in his book Breaking the Code, has his own cautionary note. “Revelation…has a warning for believers down through the years.” It speaks “of the idolatry that any nation commits when it elevates material abundance, military prowess, technological sophistication, imperial grandeur, racial pride, and any other glorification of the creature over the Creator.”
So again, what does it mean to say and to claim Christ as King?
Do we affirm the inherently political nature of the gospel, the good news, in a way that is holy and ennobling? Do we take a cynical, unholy approach in a way in which we worship our own tribe? Of course we will have disagreements, but are we mindful of the one we would serve as King? Do we celebrate the peace of Christ, or do we celebrate the peace of empire—be it Roman or as empire exists today? (A lot of questions, to be sure!)
Claiming Christ as King means loyalty to one who redefines the meaning of family: “pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother’” (Mt 12:49-50).
When we are welcomed into the family of God—the one who is the Alpha and Omega—we receive a royal revelation that we belong to Christ the King. That is an apocalypse to be celebrated.
 Pablo Richard, Apocalypse: A People’s Commentary on the Book of Revelation, English tr. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1995), 37.
 Bruce Metzger, Breaking the Code (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993), 88.