The Contemporary Relevance of the Book of Revelation for the Church (Part 1)

(Before reading this blog article I would advise readers to read an earlier article entitled “Some Thoughts about the Book of Revelation.” A knowledge of that earlier blog entry will help in appreciating the two articles I am now ready to present on the relevance of Revelation for our time.)

In these two articles I will be referring to several concepts that I would like to define before beginning the substance of my presentation.

  • “God of the gaps” is a phrase going back to the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer observed that for thousands of years people ascribe to God what they did not understand in the world. For example, an eclipse was often interpreted in the past as a supernatural event usually signaling some major and imminent catastrophe. We now know that a solar eclipse is merely the moon coming between us and the sun as it revolves around the earth. With the “God of the gaps,” God is squeezed out as we learn more and thus becomes less relevant for our lives.
  • “Christendom” in this article refers to the sociopolitical reality whereby Christianity both influences the way civilization is structured as well as the ways in which the church benefits from such collaboration with the powers that be. Today, at least in Europe, the church has very little influence and in the U.S. its influence lessens as time goes by. Thus, we can talk about the end or the decline of Christendom.
  • Positivism refers to the philosophy that the only realities that exist are those things that are material and can be measured and/or quantified. Such a philosophy has no place for God or any suggestion of transcendence. 
  • Postmodern refers to the realization that scientific and materialistic understandings of the world are not adequate to explain what we experience as reality. The modern era failed to understand and explain adequately all the questions and issues of life. Unfortunately, the postmodern mindset often leads to an unhelpful cynicism and a loss of any ultimate grounding.

  1. We live in an age which hungers and thirsts for the presence and rule of God. In our secular, materialistic age, our culture feels the absence of God. The “God of the gaps” is not adequate, but neither are the alternatives provided by the “God is dead” movement or the musings of atheism and positivistic philosophy. Revelation is God-centered through and through. John was very much aware that this world does not always appear to reflect God’s sovereignty. However, John, through inspiring metaphors and powerful poetry, communicates the transcendence of God. Today we need interpreters of transcendence who can move us beyond the dead ends of our cultural and philosophical shortsightedness if not blindness. Part of the reason we find Revelation so difficult to understand is because we are largely strangers to the transcendence of God. Modern parallels to John’s accomplishment can contribute to the authentic experience of God in a post-Christendom, postmodern world. I find the writings of contemporary Eastern Orthodox theologians to be very helpful in this much-needed recovery.

2) Worship in most Western churches needs serious revival and transformation. We need to involve all of the person—the right and left sides of the brain; the emotions and the reason; all of the senses; the imagination; and the aesthetic hunger within all of us. Revelation is above all else a worship liturgy. And there is scarcely a human sense or part of the person not involved in the worship presented by John. The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard once compared worship to the presentation of a drama. He said in a play we basically have three components: the actors, the prompters, and the audience. In a lot of our worship, the ministers are the actors; God is the prompter; and the congregation is the audience. But in authentic worship, Kierkegaard maintained that the congregation is the actors; the ministers are the prompters; and God is the audience. In other words, we are profoundly aware that we are in the presence of God. John in Revelation involved his readers/hearers in the authentic worship of God. In true worship, “spectator” is not a legitimate role. One must be a participant.  

3) John understood the “beast” in terms of a combine of power involving the political, economic, social, religious, and military aspects of the Roman Empire. Structural, systemic, and corporate evil was recognized by John as “powers and principalities” which are more than the collective evil of individuals. This form of evil takes on a life of its own. One can perhaps remember the warnings President Eisenhower gave the American people of the “military-industrial complex.” John saw the “complex” as being even broader and more insidious than many of us will admit. A church with an exclusive focus on individual sins becomes a part of the system and chooses to have its head in the sand. Such a church does not want to deal with the “powers and principalities.” But as John understood, great evil results from the system when it operates in idolatrous and unjust ways. And the church has no choice but to recognize and “name the demons” if it is to be obedient to the calling of God. Because of our participation in “civil religion,” we have much difficulty understanding structural evil in our midst. In John’s theology, ultimate allegiance must be to God and God alone. Anything less than that is idolatry. 

In a book with many references to “thrones,” “powers,” and “kingdoms,” we are not at liberty to ignore the political, economic, social, religious, and military aspect of our world as we seek to be faithful to God.

4) We could understand the entire book of Revelation as a correcting balance to the usual (though false) interpretation given to Romans 13. Without that balance, things like the Holocaust, slavery, and the annihilation of First Nations peoples have been justified on the basis of poorly interpreted Scripture! In a book with many references to “thrones,” “powers,” and “kingdoms,” we are not at liberty to ignore the political, economic, social, religious, and military aspects of our world as we seek to be faithful to God. If Jesus is “King of kings and Lord of lords,” then we are not free to divide the world into “spiritual” and “secular” components. If Jesus is Lord, then he is Lord of all aspects of our existence. (The title “King of kings and Lord of lords” was originally in reference to Persian kings and in John’s day to the Roman Emperor. The entire message of John’s Book of Revelation can be summed in this question:Who is Lord? Jesus or Caesar?” That question is most relevant for our time. “Caesar” comes in many disguises in our world.)

5) We should not be surprised that Revelation speaks to those in situations of persecution and oppression. Such people understand the message of the book far better than we do. Those who daily experience the arrogance and brutality of the “dragon and the beast” know exactly where idolatry and injustice exist. Perhaps for us the lesson to be learned is the power of seduction exercised by the forces of evil and “the great whore.” The power of the dragon comes from its use of the Big Lie. The great whore cannot maintain her position through brute force alone. She must seduce those she would rule. And she must seek justification for her rule. We live in an age of seduction. The Big Lie runs like a crimson thread through the fabric of our existence and blinds us in ways we scarcely recognize. Perhaps in the cast of characters in Revelation, we are as much to be numbered among the seduced victims as we are to be counted among the faithful victims. Only as we listen to our sisters and brothers in the faith whose situations approximate that of the original interpreters of Revelation can we understand in what ways we are seduced and where we need liberation. (The Confessing Church in Germany, led by faithful followers of Jesus like Bonhoeffer, found special illumination and inspiration in the Book of Revelation. Unlike most of the churches in Germany, the Confessing Church saw and exposed the Big Lie of Nazism. At other times in history, those faithful to Christ facing persecution and oppression found courage and solace in John’s writing. Those in the church today who see no relevance in Revelation might want to become acquainted with the saints who have gone before us and who understood the critical choice between Caesar and Christ.)

(The Contemporary Relevance of the Book of Revelation for the Church will continue in Part 2.)

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