St. John immediately departs from the Apocalyptic tradition of pseudonymous centuries-old prediction: the very first verse indicates that Revelation describes “what must soon take place.” While the book does do some future-predicting, this “must soon take place” combined with past-tense narration (in English at least) suggests a preoccupation with present first-century realities in a way that is related to but distinct from what we’ve encountered in this course so far. This focus on the present leads him to explore more universal claims that are as relevant to the twenty-first century as they were to the first.
A note on authorship: it’s quite plausible that the author is in fact someone named John who is experiencing persecution and exile on Patmos. At the very least, Revelation is closely tied to the “Johannine” corpus of the New Testament: its authorship may have involved the same community that is connected to the Fourth Gospel and John’s three Epistles.
1:3 explicitly names the book as a “prophecy.” Just like the Hebrew prophetic and apocalyptic literature that preceded it, Revelation has a clear “target” to denounce. The “seven hills,” (17:9) the convulsions of horned beasts (ch 13) and the aftermath of the Four Horsemen (ch 6) are intended to be transparent references to the Roman Empire, its violent political machinations and its pretensions to universal glory through conquest and subjugation. The prevailing view about the infamous “mark of the beast” (13:9) is that it refers to Nero Caesar: the letter numerals of the Hebrew translation נרון קסר “NRON QSR” add up to six hundred and sixty-six.
The clearest expression of John’s prophetic thrust is his prediction about the fall of the Roman Empire in chapters 16 to 18. He predicts a specific historical development, but does so by way of a general comment on the politics of self-aggrandizement: a ruler or a city can amass power by violently enforcing a type of unity, but that only creates a toxic system of competitive back-biting. As we see in 17:16, that toxicity can just as easily turn on the ruler, and around the cycle goes. We should note the pointed critique of economic exploitation, which is made explicit in chapter 18. John couldn’t have predicted our twenty-first century globalized hyper-capitalist economy, but the processes that reduce people to “consumers,” “taxpayers” and “labour assets” are as old as those seven hills of the City of Rome.
12:1-6 implies a very brief narrative summary of Jesus’ birth, life, Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension, but that isn’t really what I mean by “Revelation as Gospel.” Just under the surface of Apocalypse, Epistle and Prophecy, the “Revelation of Jesus Christ” is fundamentally a proclamation of the Good News that the Crucified Jesus is the Messiah of Israel and God of all Creation. John doesn’t rely on possible events in a distant future: he only needs to point back to and explore the meaning of the events at Golgotha a few decades in the past. Jesus is “worthy to take the scroll [of history] and open the seals,” (5:9) because he experienced the depth of human suffering, victimization and death in solidarity with the whole breadth of human existence.
As John’s Gospel expresses, the Crucifixion is “the hour…for the Son of Man to be glorified.” (John 12:23) John’s Apocalypse sees Jesus’ glorification realized in the vision of heavenly worship of a slaughtered lamb, who receives his power directly from the throne of God. (5:6-7) The “great multitude…from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (7:9) worships the lamb, not because he has violently amassed an empire, but because he has been “lifted up from the earth” on the cross, and has “[drawn] all people to [himself].” (John 12:32) In contrast to a false unity that destroys people, Jesus secures a true unity that builds up and welcomes all. The final word goes to the Incarnation, God-with-us: just as John’s Gospel begins with the “word…made flesh” who “tabernacled among us” (John 1:14), John’s Apocalypse ends by declaring that “the tabernacle of God is among mortals. He will tabernacle with them….” (21:3; see note 1) Jesus Christ is God’s apocalyptic intervention into the created order, bringing about the end of history and the birth of a “new heavens and a new earth.” (21:1)
What is this Good News for us today? We should be realistic about how we can’t simply excise ourselves from the corrupt and decaying systems of empire: we are “at once justified and sinner.” But our lives don’t have to be defined by those systems, we don’t have to, ahem, pledge allegiance to an empire; our foreheads don’t have to be marked by a toxic beast. (13:9) We can hear John’s call to “come out of her” (18:4) by journeying with the slaughtered lamb, by being marked by his name and his loving service instead. (14:1) At the end of the day, everyone’s life is marked by something, is about something, worships something. St. John hopes that the lives of his readers are about the love of God shown in Jesus Christ.
A selection of musical settings:
(Background reflections for a course on Apocalyptic Literature taught on Zoom by Rev. Daniel Graves. I led the discussions of New Testament texts. The original posts for the Book of Revelation on Fr. Dan’s site can be found here and here. My notes on the Synoptic Apocalypses and selected Epistle passages can be found here.)
- The same term in John 1:14 and Revelation 21:3, is translated “home” or “dwelling” as a noun, and “to make a home” or “to dwell” as a verb. It intentionally evokes the pre-Temple Tabernacle in which God journeyed with the Israelites during the Exodus pilgrimage to the Promised Land.