My problem with John’s Revelation
This week, I led the sixth of seven Bible studies on the book of Revelation. It featured Revelation chapters 17-19 – the Whore of Babylon, the great Beast, the fall of Babylon, the celebration in Heaven (and marriage feast of the Lamb), the Rider on the White Horse, and the defeat of the Beast and its armies. It was a lot to cover in an hour!
As I concluded the study, I had to make a confession about another thing I find frustrating about this book. John writes as if Babylon/Rome is in her last days. In his book, Comfort and Protest, Allan Boesak says, “We must remember that as John writes, there is no sign whatsoever of the imminent fall of Rome… Rome may still have power, but John knows we are seeing the beast’s final convulsions.” (119)
I think that John believed this and that he wanted his people to believe it. “Hold on! Be faithful! It won’t be long now! Jesus will return as true judge and violent victor – you will be vindicated very soon.”
Jesus is coming soon (?)
When I was in high school, the imminent return of Jesus was all the talk of the preachers and musicians that I listened to. “Jesus is coming soon – any moment, now. The United States won’t make it past her Bicentennial. God will soon cast godless communists into Hell. The generation that saw Israel become a nation will not pass before Jesus returns. Don’t be left behind, singing, ‘I wish we’d all been ready!’”
That was 1976. I think I stopped believing it around 1978 as I learned from my college Bible professors that there were alternative means of interpreting Revelation. So, I have not been stressed out about the Second Coming for a while.
Give John the benefit of the doubt
It bothers me that John used this tactic with his parishioners. Maybe it was what it took to keep his people in line, following Christ. Still, to say that an angel from God, or Christ himself, told John to make this prediction – I don’t like it.
Bruce Metzger in his book, Breaking the Code, pointed out: “As with so many judgments of God, the fulfillment actually came slowly, but at last suddenly. For centuries Rome decayed and degenerated, moral poison infecting her whole life. Then during a fateful week in August of the year A.D. 410, Alaric, with his northern hordes of Goths, pillaged Rome and laid it waste.” (87)
John writes sometime in 90-100 AD. Rome finally falls in 410 AD. Over three hundred years later. Not the timeline he was expecting. John was wrong.
When tragedies happen
This is how I have resolved, for myself, my frustration with John and his guidance to fellow believers.
Let’s say you visit with a friend who has just experienced a tragedy. What can you say that will change what has happened? Nothing. Nothing will rewind or reverse what has happened. You do not have the power to change a thing – but you do have the power to express your love and to remind them of God’s love. You sit with them. You weep with them. You pray with them.
I think this is what John was doing. His friends were facing terrible pressure to compromise their fidelity to Christ. Some Christians had been ostracized socially and economically because they would not confess Caesar as Lord. Some Christians had been killed. No Caesar, current or future, was going to allow citizens to have multiple loyalties, so, as long as Rome stood, Christians would be persecuted. What to say to his friends facing this crisis?
“God’s in charge. It’s going to be alright.”
Of course, the timing of that message can be good or terrible. A person in the depths of grief’s anger cannot hear this word. And the relationship of the person voicing this message is important – as is their credibility. John, their pastor, was not speaking from an ivory tower or from naive inexperience. He was in exile on an isolated island because of his faith.
Yet, he has hope. What he writes is not based on “facts” such as a certain date, but on hope. His core hope is that Jesus will make things right. The Judge will judge rightly. Evil will evaporate like steam above a flame. Death will disappear.
It is wrong for us to force timelines on John’s prophecies. John was simply saying what he trusted would help those he loved. By reminding them of Jesus’ love for them and unveiling the hope for the ultimate victory of that love, he did the best he could do.
I closed the lesson with Sara Groves’ song, It’s Going to be Alright. It includes the lyrics, “When some time has passed us, and the story can be told / It will mirror the strength and the courage of your soul…I did not come here to offer you cliches / I will not pretend to know of all your pain / Just when you cannot, then I will hold out faith for you. It’s going to be alright.”