Over the decades of my ministry (both teaching and pastoring), I have been asked why John wrote his message using such bizarre and confusing symbols. If his point was to communicate the spiritual, life and death struggle between Rome and the church/between Caesar and Christ, then why didn’t he just say that in ways that are easy for us to understand? Here are a few of my thoughts as to why John, an artist with words, chose the apocalyptic genre for his letter to the churches in the Roman province of Asia Minor.
*John was not writing for us. (In fact, no writer was conscious of writing for people living many centuries in the future. I would imagine that every single writer of the New Testament would be flabbergasted to know that two thousand years later we would be reading their writings and viewing them as sacred Scripture.) I know that is a hard lesson for us arrogant moderns and post-moderns to learn, accustomed as we are to expecting everything to revolve around us. John was writing to encourage, inspire, and strengthen those little house churches scattered around what today is Turkey. He chose to use the apocalyptic genre to communicate his message. The apocalyptic genre was well known in Jewish and early Christian circles. Its use dates from around 200 B.C.E to 200 C.E.
Writing in this familiar way, John sought to give his fellow Christians a powerful presentation of the gospel of Jesus Christ which is centered in the victory of Christ through sacrificial love. Those early Christians were familiar with the Old Testament from which John drew most of his symbols. They knew the past as well as current events and situations John was alluding to in his book. The problem is that we don’t know these things, and we will never know them unless we open our minds and do some homework. Our ignorance is not John’s fault or responsibility. He was writing to an audience which understood perfectly what he meant.
*John is an artist who uses his words and symbols in powerful and deeply insightful ways. For example, consider the image of God’s throne in Revelation 5. It would take most preachers, including me, some time to explain how God’s awesome power and judgment are tempered and guided by love, mercy, and compassion. But John communicates that profound truth of the gospel with one picture. He takes the great throne, universally understood as the symbol of power and judgment, and a rainbow, understood by his parishioners as God’s promise to Noah and to all creation, that God would, from that point on, be guided by compassion and mercy. In that one image, John expresses in a beautiful and impressive way how God deals with creation.
Remember that Revelation originally was read to the congregations, which meant that people sat in those house churches and heard these words. (Many people were illiterate during this period of history, and copies of books/manuscripts were rare and very expensive. Only the very wealthy could afford to have private libraries. Churches were blessed to have even one manuscript of sacred writings.) I would imagine most of them had their eyes closed as they tried to create their own “moving pictures” of all these scenes. Perhaps that is the way Revelation should be presented today. We could listen and let our inner eye picture these scenes, provided we understand the meaning behind the symbols we are trying to imagine.
*John wanted to be honest about the extent and depravity of the evil in his world. He also wanted his people to understand how through propaganda, twisted religion, and consumerism, the empire of his day could seduce its subjects into believing that Rome was the answer to all the problems of the world; that Rome was their friend and could be trusted; and that Caesar was the savior of the world and the divine representative of all the gods. So, John depicts Rome along with its leaders, soldiers, priests, and merchants as monsters, beasts, and horrific amalgams of animals and humans. He does so to show that “the emperor has no clothes.” He presents Rome as the goddess Roma—beautiful, enticing, dressed to the nines, and bejeweled. But then he says that behind all this glamour and makeup she is a drunken whore feeding off the blood and bodies of the poor and the faithful. John wants his people to recognize the duplicity and evil surrounding them so they will not be seduced into becoming a part of this monstrous evil.
*Perhaps today we have trouble appreciating the power and relevance of John’s letter because we do not live in a time when we are persecuted for being Christian. Living in the last days of Christendom, we still think in terms of fitting into our culture and enjoying the benefits that a growing number of people in our nation (not to mention the wider world) cannot enjoy. Christendom has always had the attitude that the “best way to get along is to go along.” However, whenever in history faithful followers of Jesus must pay a heavy price for being faithful to Christ and his way of unconditional love, justice, and compassion, they find an inspiring and encouraging message in John’s Apocalypse. The Confessing Church in Germany during the Nazi era, led by courageous people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, found much consolation and strength from Revelation. They too were in the “belly of the dragon.” It is dangerous and often lethal to challenge the empire when it has become a manifestation of evil. I hope and pray that we will never have to make such life-and-death choices as those members of the Confessing Church and as the congregations of John’s day had to make. But should we find ourselves in that crucible (and remember that every empire in history has fallen as it gives its assent to evil), we too may find in Revelation the trust and courage to take up our cross and follow Jesus. At such a time I suspect that we would not find John’s message lacking in strength, relevance, and inspiration.
*It has been suggested that John wrote in such a cryptic way so that the Romans would not understand his message. In other words, he wrote in a sort of code so that he and his people would not be condemned by the Romans should they be caught with this book. There may be some truth to that theory. However, if a Roman citizen actually read Revelation, I think he would have realized that John was talking about Rome. Throughout the book John refers to customs, historical events, and current situations that most intelligent Romans would have recognized. For example, he refers to the great whore of Babylon who sits on seven hills. Rome was known for four hundred years before John as the city sitting on seven hills. Every school-age child would have known that.
Perhaps the reason John doesn’t specifically mention Rome is his profound understanding that Rome was not the real problem. Rome was just the current incarnation of evil in the world. There had been many before and many would come after Rome. You could trace that evil through a succession of empires: Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Alexander the Great, Alexander’s Greek successors, Rome, and on and on we could go. The problem was evil which can become incarnate in any time and place. Rome did not have a monopoly on evil. Any empire could become evil just as any person could become evil. So far in human history every empire has fallen because of its assent to evil—every single one without exception. And every empire always assumes it is the exception to the rule. (Rome called itself “the Eternal City.” The British boasted that “the sun never sets on the British Empire.” Hitler claimed that he was starting a “Thousand Year Reich.”) But there are no exceptions. Every empire, including our own, will fall if it assents to evil. John knew that, and he wanted his people to know that. Perhaps the most relevant question we could ask in light of John’s message is this: Do we know that?