Introduction: Nothing New Under the Sun
In the 2007 box office hit, Rocky Balboa, the legendary Rocky hits a spot not unfamiliar to the challenge of the church. “It’s a different world now,” his son says, to which Rocky replies, “Only the clothes is different.” Revelation also brings such sentiments from the varieties of readers across the centuries. Today’s readers often say to the old, you’re worn out, you’re done, you’re dead, and Christ didn’t come in your time so obviously the book of Revelation wasn’t speaking to you. Yet John from the very beginning speaks to the churches across time. That the churches of the past were the direct audience and John had a very specific message for them is apparent from the very beginning. And as today’s churches come and go, as they grow and age, Revelation speaks to each if each would listen to Revelation’s word to its context.
The hearts of man have not changed over the centuries. In the field of education we study literature and do much reading simply to see not only the big changes that have physically occurred, but how despite the technological changes and perhaps so-called advancement of thought, the basics of life allow us to continue to identify over time. The whole idea of the Bible is such, and as a part of a larger context, Revelation must be similarly read within the context of the Bible.
Looking for the Consistency
The first thing people are trying to get out of the Bible, in many cases, is consistency. If this is the case, and assuming the accuracy of authorship, the literal reading of Revelation would not be possible. The radical interpretations of literal translation does not fit with the context to whom John is speaking, nor does it fit his typical use of vocabulary in relation to his other books. While each of John’s book is a different genre, some things are characteristic of him and they don’t change in this letter either.
Vocabulary that speaks of global Christianity, of the Word and word of God, and of the battle between light and darkness are all common to John’s Gospel and letters and can be found again here in revelation. Vague definition of time and symbolic use of numbers are both also common. John, throughout Revelation, speaks in a style very distinct to his writings and not inconsistent with his previous writing and such a style includes heavy repetition, contrast, and symbolism, all of which points to a reading of Revelation that fits such a style.
Persecution and Authenticity
One concept that is apparent through all Johannine literature that comes out especially strong in Revelation as well is the importance of active Christianity at all times. Revelation challenges readers through its contrasts and symbols of light and darkness to stand as lamp stands through trials and tribulations.
As Rocky would say, “When that time comes and you find something standing in front of you, something that ain't running and ain't backin’ up and is hittin’ on you and your too tired to breathe. You find that situation on you, that’s good ‘Cuz that’s baptism under fire!” Challenge and the threat of death, according to John, must only be answered with perseverance and faithfulness, backed up by deeds and, if necessary, by death, which (in the typical style which is John) is in fact life.
Babylon’s Comfort Zone (pg 100)
To those in Babylon John shines a different light—the prophetic light of warning. The Babylon that John talks about isn’t much different than our own cities. There is, in this sense, a false sense of security in thinking that one is safe simply by a convenient association with Christ. However, when this faith is challenged, they either blame God or run from Him. “The world ain't all sunshine and rainbows,” Rocky tells his son who has this mindset of a rose-colored life “if only.”
“It is a very mean and nasty place It will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is going to hit as hard as life. But it ain't about how hard you hit, it is about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward, how much can you take and keep moving forward. That's how winning is done!” God does promise victory in the end, but this victory is not without pain. In fact, it is in a victory through suffering and, consequently, over suffering that a complacent church becomes new. The church need only ask “To whom do we run? From what do we escape?”
In a prophetic voice that rings throughout the Bible, John gives this final call for repentance, coupled with this revelation of God’s glory and a warning of life without God. If the church will repent, it can then find its purpose and identity, becoming part of the New Jerusalem.
Our identity with Christ and in Christ: The New Jerusalem (106)
Our identity is unified in purpose through the cross. This is yet another bit of vocabulary not uncommon in Johannine literature. The New Jerusalem identifies this Christian community that the Gospel of John calls for (John 17) and that the entire book of 1 John relies on. Identity with Christ creates a unified body who fulfill the role of a witness to the world. This body is diverse, and this body will finish in a symbol of perfection and completion.
In identifying with Christ, this body accepts the potential for earthly suffering just as Christ accepted such suffering on the cross. However, the believers from every tribe and nation look forward to a certain victory and reward for their faithfulness to the Word. The community of revelation stands in strength when it stands together as lamp stands (and Christ is the light), as the temple (through which Christ demonstrates his presence), and specifically as a witness to the world that God works and moves out of love and hope for his people.
Prophecy for Change
Prophecy is consistently identified as a tool for creating change. The prophecies in this book as in the prophets of the Old Testament were told less as a method for figuring out the future, and more in the purpose of bringing the church, this Jerusalem or Israel, back into an active relationship with Christ. However, this change hurt at times and often appeared in a harsh manner. Throughout the reading of Koester’s book I kept thinking in the back of my head, “Yes, I see. But why must God use this particular method?” The answer that came to me has not yet been complete, and perhaps it never will be.
However, Koester makes a good point when, after describing the forces of evil and what they look like living along side of the holiness of God, he says, “For change to come, God would need to disturb the peace.” Again Christians must, through Revelation, realize the challenge it holds as well as the necessity for its adherence. The world is not a very nice place, nor is it perfect. Therefore something must necessarily change. Change is the resounding call of Revelation. It is written just as it is, in such a manner as to change that very thing that must still be changed in every church, in every century until Christ Himself returns and makes all things new. The change, while not always immediately addressed to the context of today’s readers, will apply to readers as they begin to realize that it is only the clothes that are different. That Revelation speaks for a change which needed to happen as much then as it must now and will in the future until the coming which is finally promised.
Conclusion: Dressing Our Churches
Revelation is, in fact, a strong vision to the churches today of contextualization. If today’s church would listen to the community of John’s time, Revelation certainly has its place even beyond the first three chapters. The challenge to the leaders of the church is to see the message as it was initially seen and then to have the creativity and understanding to interpret it in such a way that speaks to today’s community. John’s images and method of contextualization brings close to home the fears, worries and hopes of their time in a way that spoke uniquely to them. The question, therefore, is do we have parallel stories and situations in our society today? The exegetical and homiletical processes of Revelation are not really all that different from the approaches to the rest of the Bible if we stick to the basic rules of study—looking at the context of the time, the context of the author, and seeing how it all applies today. Who are we as a church? Are we the persecuted church or the complacent church? And in either case, what does John write to churches in this situation? The letter, after all, did not end after the third chapter. This was what spoke to me the most through this process of studying Revelation, that although it is hard to understand its interpretations, once you look into the context of the time you see that it’s only the clothes that have changed. It’s only the way that you dress the story of Christ, his saving power, his sovereign kingdom, and the necessity of worship that has changed.