11 September 2020

Introduction to Revelation

The Book of Revelation was written by John of Patmos (Patmos is an island in the Aegean Sea in modern-day Turkey). Modern scholars date the book to around AD 90, but more traditional views hold that it may have been written as early as AD 60. The author is almost certainly not the disciple of Jesus, nor the author of the epistles 1-3 John, nor the author of the Gospel of John.

The Revelation of John is written to a church experiencing persecution by the Roman Empire. Christians were being exiled or even executed for their faith. John, himself, having been exiled to the isle of Patmos. What the Roman emperors seemed to find most disturbing about the Christian faith was that they avoided paying taxes by not venerating the Roman gods or eating meat sacrificed to idols, that they followed Roman law only because Paul told them they should do so (Romans 6), and that they only paid taxes at all because Jesus told them they should do so (Matthew).

Emperor Augustus had established himself as god-emperor before the birth of Jesus and the deification of Roman rulers had continued to the time of John (during the reign of Emperor Domitian). That Christians recognized any power above the Emperor was considered blasphemous to imperial sensibilities.

John addresses the imposition of Roman beliefs and practices upon Christians directly. Much of the book is focused on idolatry and how to resist its lure. John establishes through his Revelation that no matter how powerful Rome (indeed the entire world from the point of view of any Roman) seemed to be, whether it could establish gods of its own and held power of life and death over its subjects, God was greater still. Unlike Rome, which held temporal power, God alone has the power to make edicts that are eternal (or permanent). Rome might kill its enemies and have the power to survive being "mortally wounded" but God alone holds the power of resurrection.

John's cryptic form of communicating his thoughts may seem strange, but it is quite intentional. His revelation was dangerous and could have gotten both him and his readers killed. John makes numerous references to the Torah and to the Prophets. He encodes meaning in numbers.

Take for example the 144,000 gathered from the Tribes of Israel, 12,000 from each of the Twelve tribes. These are military units; God gathers his army and then God fights for them. Another important number in Revelation is seven. This could be a reference to the Sabbath Day (the seventh day of the week, Saturday) being holy and a day of rest, but it is more likely that it is a reference to the seven hills of Rome (the Whore of Babylon sits atop seven mountains).

When we see the number seven as referring to Rome, it gives the scope of Revelation. God stands against the power of Rome (sometimes referred to a the World at that time). So when John sends his letter to "seven churches" these are not only literally seven churches but symbolically all churches. So seven refers to Rome specifically, but also the whole world symbolically.

John references Babylon in reference to Rome. Babylon had been conquered by Persia, which was conquered by Greece, which was conquered by Rome. John references this ancient empire not only to mask his message to the Roman authorities, but also to point out the cyclical nature of imperial power. Empires come and go, some support God's people, but all eventually make themselves God's enemies. When they do, God brings an end to their dominion. This is not only something that has happened, but when John was writing, it was not even the first time it had happened, and it wouldn't be the last. John establishes a cycle which will carry through all the way to the end of the world, but he gives us an assurance, that God will support his people, he will fight for those who stand up for him, and he will never forget us.

Next week, we'll look at chapters 1-5.

Until then,
Peace be with you.

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