8-27-17 Sermon “You Say You Want a Revelation?” Part 3
At this point we’re halfway through our study of the book of Revelation. We've discussed a lot of the early symbolism, how this apocalyptic literature is much different than other kinds of writing that we’re used to, even vastly different than the rest of the Bible, and that we can’t read it in the same way we read other kinds of literature - if we do we miss the point.
And remember I said last week that the book feels like it could have concluded after chapter 11 - that what follows serves largely as a flashback of sorts. Well, our staring point today in chapter 12 can and has been characterized as a flashback, telling the story of the birth of Jesus and the attempt of King Herod to kill him shortly after his birth. John of Patmos, the author of Revelation, doesn’t tell the story in the straightforward, no-nonsense way that Matthew’s gospel does though, instead using vivid imagery and wild symbolism, portraying a heavenly oriented representation of a nearly century old event - the birth of Christ. And in doing so he employs some of those traditional apocalyptic literary motifs we talked about in week 1: great symbolism, dualistic representations of good versus evil, etc. And Metzger points out that there are what he calls “striking parallels” to these stories that have been found in Babylonian, Persian, Egyptian, and Greek mythology, and especially in astrological lore and mythology.
So chapter 12 opens with a big to-do in heaven.
John sees a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars, about to give birth to a child. John also describes a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns. This dragon is huge - it’s size suggested by the fact with a swipe of it’s tail one third of the stars are swept away. So, this BIG dragon is poised to devour the child as soon as it’s born. The woman gives birth to a son but before the dragon can get to it, God intervenes, saving the child.
So what are we to make of this? Well, remembering that these images are symbols and are not real, we know in part because John tells us that the dragon represents Satan. And we understand that the child represents Christ because John identifies him as “the one who is to rule all of the nations with a rod of iron,” words taken directly from Psalm 29 describing Jewish understanding of the role of the Messiah as a great warrior. And Metzger suggests that “the dragon’s eagerness to devour the child explains the violent opposition that Jesus met during his earthly ministry. It began with the slaughter of the children (Mt 2:16) and culminated when he was crucified…”
Satan is thwarted, though, when the child is “snatched away and taken to God and to his throne” - perhaps a non-chronological reference to Christ’s ascension.
So John presents an almost unimaginably condensed version of the gospel - from birth to crucifixion to ascension in a few short verses - as though John wrote a Cliff’s Notes version of the gospel. But he achieves his purpose of showing the deadly enmity of the dragon/Satan, it’s defeat, and the exaltation of Christ to the throne of God.
The symbol of the woman clothed with sun, standing on the moon, and wearing a crown of twelve stars has been the subject of many different interpretations. The easiest interpretation is to assume that John means Mary, the mother of Jesus. Others though, pointing to the crown of twelve stars, have suggested that she represents the Christian church - the stars being the twelve apostles who began it post-resurrection. Still others, also referencing the crown, have suggested that she represents the Jewish people giving birth to the Messiah - the twelve stars symbolizing the twelve tribes. Metzger proposes an amalgam of those images - the ideal community of God’s people, first in Jewish form and then in Christian form, which was then persecuted by a political power as evil as the dragon.
The dragon then, having missed out on the child,
takes its anger to heaven and battles the archangel Michael, the heavenly patron of Israel according to the book of Daniel. The dragon is defeated and cast down to the earth, after which God’s people celebrate, the words of their victory song recalling Christ’s victory over sin and death celebrated in the preaching of the gospel. The chapter concludes with the dragon pursuing the other children of the woman, that is the church, and is symbolic of the ongoing persecution of the church that began at the time of Christ’s birth and continued beyond John’s day - saying it was initiated by Satan.
In chapter 13 then, two beasts appear - one from the sea and one from the land - and these, together with the dragon, Metzger suggests, “comprise a counterfeit trinity.” And he continues, “One is a frightful beast, rising out of the sea, who is given power by the dragon. This beast symbolizes the Roman Empire, which in John’s day was the embodiment of Anti-christ, a world power in opposition to the reign of Christ.” Anti-christ, by the way, is a term found nowhere in the book of Revelation. It is referenced only in the letters 1 and 2 John. This symbolism, in context, makes more sense if we remember from mythology or geography, that Rome is a city built on how many hills? Seven. And Metzger says, “The beast, we are told, ‘opened its mouth to utter blasphemies against God,’ reviling his name and his heavenly dwelling. We know what this means. Beginning with Julius Caesar Roman Emperors had been deified, that is, given the status and worship due to a god, the early ones after their death, but later emperors even during their lifetimes.” And I shared with you in week one that the emperor Domitian had even required people to address him as “our lord and God.” Remember also, as we were describing the cities to which John wrote the letters in chapters 2 and 3, most of them had built temples to these false “deities.” More on this shortly as well.
So, while the policy of requiring emperor worship came from the emperor himself, it was enforced by local officials. These political underlings, Metzger suggests, “could be aptly represented by the second beast that John saw rising out of the earth and whom he later calls the false prophet. This is personified paganism itself. With a grim parody,” he says, “John describes the beast as having ‘two horns like a lamb’ - that is, it has taken on the guise of God’s chosen one…” (picture a wolf in sheep’s clothing maybe?)…”yet it spoke like a dragon.” And this beast, acting on behalf of the dragon, promoted and enforce emperor worship by any means possible, including trickery.
The most helpful way to think about the word pictures in this passage is by comparing them to the word pictures used in political cartoons. I reminded us in week one that in American media we find an elephant and donkey representing political parties, a bull and a bear representing the stock market trends.
In Revelation we find two beasts, one from the sea and one from the land representing a political authority that has become as destructive as a beast.
The dragon is set up as the ultimate authority, a power to be worshiped above all else.
One of the ways that an emperor enforced his sovereignty onto the minds and lives of his people was by issuing coins bearing his image and his title, and requiring that only imperial currency could be used in commerce. And we remember stories from the gospels where Jesus was either confronted with coins bearing Caesar’s image and asked about paying taxes to the Roman Empire, where he said famously “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s,” or at the cleansing of the temple when he overturned the money-changers’ tables because people were being cheated when they tried to exchange their Roman imperial money for currency that could be given in the temple as their offering or sacrifice. Throughout the Roman Empire, every transaction of buying and selling with money meant handling imperial coins. And on the coins, around the image of the head of the emperor, were titles that often included “Our Lord and God.” “It is such coins as these,” Metzger says, “that John refers to as bearing the mark of the beast, without which “no one can buy or sell.” Consequently, resistance by Christians to the cult of the emperor would entail the very worst consequences - being subject to economic hardship as well as to persecution.” Other sources have suggested that under some of these officials, there was an actual mark, like a stamp or even a tattoo, that without it, one could not conduct business in the marketplace at all, and that that mark was given only when allegiance to the emperor was sworn in public by swearing to one of these public officials, “Caesar is Lord,” or “Caesar is our Lord and God.” Metzger doesn’t cite that example, but does remind us that the details of John’s vision are symbolic and that the “mark” on the right hand or forehead are meant figuratively. Those who conform to the demands of the state are given means to identify themselves, so that they can claim the benefits to which they are due. And we might also consider the conflicting images that these “marks” present - in earlier chapters the people of God also receive a mark on their foreheads. The imagery challenges people to ask to whom they truly belong: to the forces that destroy or the Lamb who liberates?
Chapter 13 ends then, by mentioning the famous "number of the beast” - six hundred and sixty six. And Metzger explains, “the number  is, in the first place, a symbol of the greatest imperfection, for it is the sacred number seven less one, repeated [three times]. John says it is a human number, that is, it is the number of a person’s name. Now, in both the Greek and Hebrew alphabets, the letters also served as numerals, and it was a well known technique to add up the letters that comprise a proper name.” It doesn’t work the same way in English because our letters don’t also serve as numbers, but we do sometimes correlate a number with a letter, A with 1, B with 2, and so on. If we did that in English, then my name would break down as J = 10, A = 1, and Y = 25, which could either be written out as 10125, or added together to total 36.
In the ancient Hebrew numerology system, that cryptogram probably works out to the name of Emperor Nero. In the Hebrew alphabet, which has only consonants and no vowels, the numeric values of the first ten letters progress by 1 each time, the next ten letters progress by ten - so the eleventh letter is valued at 20, the 12th at 30, and so on to 100. Thereafter they progress by hundreds. So in this system the numeric value of the name “Neron Caesar,” Nero’s full name and title, equals 666. So, John could, this implies, be naming the emperor Nero, under whom the persecution began, as being represented by the beast. Now, a complicating factor to all of this is that in other ancient copies of the book of Revelation, the number is recorded, not as 666, but as 616, which would alter the symbol, or which could simply suggest an editorial or copying error. At the same time, if the last “N” of Neron is left out, which is commonly done, and with the value of N being 50, then the number of the names works out to be…616. And Metzger posits, “There doesn’t appear to be any other name, or name with a title, that satisfies both 666 and 616.” John points directly at the Roman Emperor here.
So, as has been the case throughout, John’s images and scenes alternate back and forth between turbulence and peacefulness and in chapter 14 we return to a scene of peacefulness. John sees the Lamb standing on
Mt. Zion, with the 144,000 of the redeemed. And as we mentioned last week, this is a symbolic number, representing all of those who remain faithful. But then he adds this comment, “It is these who have not defiled themselves with women, for they are virgins.” So are we to understand that the only ones who can “follow the Lamb wherever he goes,” as John puts it, are men who’ve never had sexual intercourse? If we read Revelation literally, that is EXACTLY what that would mean. But, we know - or I hope we know - that this book is not to be taken literally, this is a book of symbols, so what is John suggesting here? Well, since the rest of the Bible sanctions and commends marriage (and with it, intercourse if for no other reason than procreation) then it’s hard to understand this as a sudden condemnation of marriage, or a demand for celibacy. Rather, Metzger suggests, “John appears to adopt the imagery found frequently in the Old Testament where any contact with pagan worship was called ‘fornication’ or ‘adultery.’” And I would add here, often in scripture when we hear these words, “fornication” and “adultery,” the writer is suggesting, not physical sexual intercourse, but idolatry, suggesting “sleeping with another god,” or placing someone or something at the center of our lives instead of God. Regardless, Metzger says that the 144,000 about whom John writes refers to those “who have not defiled themselves by participating in pagan worship,” which you’ll remember was one of the chief complaints leveled at many of the seven churches in the seven letters that began Revelation.
Then John envisions three angels, one at a time.
The first announces the time of judgment and calls the people to come to worship God. The second announces the fall of Babylon, a theme that John will take up in chapter 19 but that references the most recent empire before Rome that occupied and ruled over Israel and her people. And then the third angel predicts eternal damnation for those who persist in worshiping the beast and its image, saying that those people will “drink the wine of God’s wrath…will be tormented forever…and will have no rest, day or night.” Now, the symbolism of fire and sulfur, or fire and brimstone, are, Metzger reminds us, “traditional symbols for the fate of those who persistently reject God. Since [throughout] the book of Revelation the author uses metaphors and symbolic language, it would be quite unfair to take him literally here. Now throughout Revelation,” he writes, “we have seen that if people persist in living contrary to the structure of God’s universe, they suffer. John’s words here mean that the most terrible thing that a person can do is deliberately to turn away from the living God.” Such torment, says John, is ‘forever and ever.’ This is so, because God respects our free will and will never force us to turn to [God]. So this picture of wrath… [with which John concludes chapter 14] means nothing more or less than the terrible truth that the sufferings of those who persist in rejecting God’s love in Christ are self-imposed and self-perpetuated.” And he says that the inevitable consequence is that if they eternally persist in such rejection, God will never violate their freedom to choose. Now, whether anyone could or would eternally resist a love so great, so universal, so all-encompassing, so utterly irresistible, is the stuff of an ongoing debate within Christianity throughout it’s history. We simply do not know. But these solemn thoughts are followed by words of comfort. John hears a voice from heaven declaring, “Blessed are the dead who…die in the Lord.” “Yes,” says the Spirit, “they will rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them.” And these words of comfort and promise are familiar to us part of our funeral liturgy.
So, as we’ve seen, the writer of Revelation tells of this vision in ever-progressing ways, backing up, looking from different perspectives, and displaying what he understands as God’s plan from different vantage points. The overarching truth within all of them is that God’s will will be done.
Chapters 15-18 describe the struggles of the church in its conflict with hostile world powers. Earlier in the book we had the opening of the seven seals, followed by the sounding of the seven trumpets and the woes that followed both of those. Now we have an account of the seven bowls full of God’s wrath poured out on all the earth - described as “seven plagues” - and which signify the last of God’s wrath that has been exemplified in all of these events. After this, a song of praise and joy is sung, expressing confidence that all nations will be led to worship God because God’s restorative justice will vindicate all people. So, the symbolism of the pouring out of the bowls is not to suggest an orgy of violence and retribution - as Revelation is so often interpreted when read literally - but more as symbolizing the process of God’s justice being worked out through the consequences of people turning away from God to other idols or gods. To continue to subvert God’s justice, to continue to misuse the power God has entrusted, is to set one’s self up for disaster - sometimes personally and other times globally. Whether that misuse is intended for personal gain, or whether it is more systemic and results, for example, in climate change that destroys life, this is what we see playing out here. So we must remember that the descriptions we read are descriptions of symbols, not of the reality or situation conveyed by the symbols. And like a good teacher who reiterates a point in different ways to accommodate the different learning needs of their students, John makes this point again and again for his readers.
However, the way John presents them suggests a desire to prepare the Church of his day for a period of suffering. Although he’s confident that the Lord will come soon and bring deliverance, he doesn’t want to delude his readers with premature hopes. If we look beyond the grim symbolism, we find a grim reality that the writer, and the Church, faces in his time. He desires to bring them comfort, but not with false hope. Fully conscious of the struggle that awaits it in the midst of an empire that seeks to crush it, the Church must be prepared to meet these challenges - even with their lives if necessary.
It is in the midst of this section that the author refers to what is commonly called the battle of Armageddon. Through a complicated vision of frogs and spirits, John sees an assembly of the kings of the whole world preparing for a battle that is to occur at a place called Armageddon. “Armageddon, like the number 666, has been magnified in popular thinking,” Metzger writes, “out of all proportion to its significance as a word. Curiously enough, no one knows for certain what the name Armageddon means.” And he points out that there’s not even one broadly accepted spelling for it, some begin the word with an “H” and the number of m’s, g’d, and d’s varies from place to place. And he goes on, “In spite of the difficulty of knowing how to spell the word, and consequently what it means and where the place is located, most scholars suppose [or suggest] that it alludes to the mountain of Megiddo. The difficulty with this, however, is that there is no “Mount Megiddo”; Megiddo was the name of a city that gave its name to the pass between the coastal plains of Palestine and the Plain of Esdraelon. Because this had been the scene of frequent and decisive battles in ancient times,” as described in Judges and 2 Kings, “it would appear that John is using familiar language to symbolize a final great conflict between the forces of good and evil, a battle in which evil will be defeated scripture says - not by armaments or armies, but by God’s incarnate Word, Jesus Christ.” And then, with the subsequent pouring out of the seventh bowl, a mighty voice cries out, “It is done!” and we’re told that Babylon falls. And we wonder, Babylon? What does Babylon have to do with it?
Metzger describes chapters 17 and 18 as “a literary triumph of imaginative power.” John has sought to provide comfort for his readers with the ongoing assurance that Rome, the evil empire, would fall. So certain is he that he spends two chapters on an account of the crashing down of the “grandeur that was Rome.” However, to say outright that God was going to destroy Rome would have been seen as treasonous in the eyes of the imperial authorities who had exiled him in the first place, so like a prisoner writing in code, John characterizes the evil power of Rome by the name Babylon. Just as Babylon represented to the Hebrews all that was wicked and symbolized persecution during the Exile, so for John Rome was another Babylon, the source of all seductive luxury and vice and the enforcer of pagan and emperor worship. And to that end, he describes Babylon as a prostitute with a description you can read for yourself in chapter 17, but suffice it to say, after reading his words one might be inclined to ask him, “do you kiss your mother with that mouth?” He condemns Rome as Babylon not only for her pagan worship and blasphemies against God, but for her treatment and persecution of fellow Christians, begun under the crazed Nero and furthered under Domitian. The historian Tacitus comments that Nero’s persecutions of Christians in Rome were so terrible, so horrific, that even non-Christians were horrified and began to intercede on their behalf.
So then in chapter 18, John describes the fall of Rome - clearly a vision because at this point Rome was very strong. And Metzger’s description paints an image almost as realistic as John’s, “Like the tolling of a funeral bell, we hear the repeated lamentation: ‘Alas, alas, the great city!’ Despite all of her sins and her crimes, there are many who mourn for her. The kings of the earth who had consorted with her ‘weep and wail over her when they see the smoke of her burning.’ The merchants who became wealthy because of her great commerce and trade ‘weep and mourn for her, since no one buys their cargo anymore.’” So, while those who profit from the business they do with the city that John calls “the whore of Babylon” weep, from John’s perspective, the fall of Rome is reason to celebrate.
And Metzger writes here, “It is remarkable that when John wrote these immensely moving chapters about the fall of Rome, Rome was still very much alive, still enjoying undisputed sovereignty and undimmed prestige. So great, however, is John’s faith in the sovereignty of God and so great is his confidence that the justice of God must eventually punish [this] evil, that he writes as though Rome has already fallen. 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.” And I would interject this into Metzger’s flow of thought here - that even as the Roman Emperor Constantin made a near death-bed conversion to Christianity in the early 300s, making Christianity the official faith of the Empire, it was too little too late to save the empire from the consequences of its abuse of power. During what Metzger then describes as a “fateful week in August of the year 410 CE…northern hordes of Goth [armies] pillaged Rome and laid it waste.”
So what are we to take from this part of the book of Revelation? Certainly John wrote in order to stimulate faithfulness and hope on the part of persecuted Christians living in the first century under the rule of a dominating and domineering power, assuring them that ultimate victory lies with Christ. But Revelation also serves as a warning for believers down through the years. Babylon is an allegory, a representation, of the idolatry than any nation, ANY nation commits when it elevates material abundance, military might or power, technological sophistication, imperial grandeur or exceptionalism, racial pride, moral superiority, or any other glorification of the creature, over the Creator.
“In these chapters,” Metzger concludes, “we have an up-to-date portrait of what may occur when we idolize the gross national product, worship growth, and become so preoccupied with quantity that we ignore quality. The message of the book of Revelation concerns the character and timeliness of God’s judgment not only on persons, but also of nations, and, in fact, of all principalities and powers - which is to say, all authorities, all corporations, all institutions, all structures, all bureaucracies, and the like. And to the extent that [religious] denominations and sects have succumbed to the lure of power and prestige, the words of John are applicable also to present-day church structures.”
So next week we’ll look at the concluding chapters; on Christ’s final victory; the last judgment; and this idea commonly referred to as the rapture.
Let’s pray: For your presence with us, in us, and around us we give you thanks. For your inspiration in the writing, reading, and hearing of Scripture we give you thanks. For the gift of your Son Jesus Christ, the lens through which we view both Scripture and life, we give you thanks. Amen.