Thy Kingdom Come

Now we’re getting to the good part…Over the last few weeks, we have waded knee deep into Revelation, and some of the territory we have covered was designed to give us the willies. As we sought to decode some of the nastier stuff in Revelation, I kept reminding you that all of Revelation was ultimately about hope. Hope in the face of the terrifying. Hope in the face of the distressing. Hope in the face of the brokenness of this world.

This week’s passage is about what that hope is directed toward. The last few chapters of Revelation are beautiful. They are poetic dreams of the best of all hopes. This is what we have been working toward all along. Again, a reminder that these are not necessarily eye witness accounts of what the kingdom of God looks like, but this is John dreaming of the very best realities that he can imagine and seeing these as the jumping off point for the beginning of a vision of what it would look like to walk through God’s city.

I think it begs the question of us—imagine the very best realities of this world and of your experience, and use that as a jumping off point for what the kingdom of God must be like. I would hazard a guess that the kingdom of God would look a little bit different for each of us, given that starting point. It reminds me of the movie What Dreams May Come with Robin Williams. Though some of the theology in that movie is questionable at best, it did paint a picture of the kingdom of God that offered a myriad of beautiful dreamscapes that can only begin to capture what it might be like to be a part of God’s kingdom.

One last thing to point out—and where we will spend most of our time on Sunday!—you will notice that in these passages of Revelation the message is that earth does not pass away, but heaven and earth become one and the same kingdom. Not only that, but earth and heaven are both made new again. This raises some interesting theological questions, and we will spend some time with those questions on Sunday!

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Decoding 800 Pound Gorillas

So this week we return to Revelation! We are going to cover an awful lot of territory on Sunday, but there is a really important reason for that—there are several 800 pound gorillas camped out in the pages of Revelation. Unfortunately, the lectionary skips over said gorillas, but we aren’t going to let sleeping gorillas lie.

 

I wanted to touch on one of those gorillas here to prepare you for Sunday. Perhaps one of the most memorable images from revelation is the beast marked 666 (Revelation 13:11-18). This image captures so much of the imagination. Funny thing is, there are numerous beasts within the pages of Revelation, and this one is arguably not even the most important. Nonetheless, it is worth some attention to “decode.” So is this some hideous beast that will come about at the end times? No. This beast was emperor Nero. We can say that pretty definitively because of mistakes that we have caught in the translations over the years. You see, some ancient copies of Revelation don’t read 666, but 616. What is the reason for this change in the number? A copying mistake? Nope. A mistake in adding up the letters of Nero’s name. Numerology was very important in Hebrew apocalyptic writing, called Gematria. This was a practice of coding certain words that was borrowed from the Assyrians, Babylonians and Greeks. There are other examples of this in the Bible in places like Daniel, Ezekiel and even the Psalms. In this case, some copyists didn’t understand the ancient Hebrew language that added an “N” onto the end of Nero’s name—the missing “N’ has a value of 50. Thus the difference between 616 and 666. If you need further evidence that this is how you are supposed to understand who the beast is, just read the actual verse, “18 This calls for wisdom. Let the one who understands calculate the beast’s number, for it’s a human being’s number. Its number is six hundred sixty-six.” (Rev. 13:18). It actually tells you that this is a code for a human being that you have to figure out. Of course, so called “biblical literalists” don’t actually read the text, they just make predictions of the end of the world off the text. If you want a further explanation of the Gematria click here.

 

Why is this important? Because we have to understand that Revelation is a coded critique of the political climate of John’s times. As I have said before and will say again, Revelation is about the past, present and future, but not about the “End Times.” You have to understand that Revelation spends a lot of time re-living the past experience of the Israelites. For example, Revelation chapter 11, is a commentary on the work of Elijah and Moses, and how the law and prophets figure into Christ’s ministry and Transfiguration. Revelation 8 and 9 are rehashing another experience of bondage and oppression in the history of God’s people—Egypt, Pharaoh and the 10 plagues.

 

So why is Revelation coded? John was living in oppressive times under the Roman Empire, and he couldn’t just come out and call the Roman Emperor (considered a God by his subjects) an evil beast. This is so important because it helps us understand the purpose of Revelation. It is not about scaring the pants off us for some future challenge to come, it is about seeing the challenges, corruptions and evils in the world around us right now for what they are. If we only reserve the translation of Revelation for some future “end time,” than it doesn’t allow the people of God to see themselves reflected in this text right now.  Even though much of Revelation is about the trials that face John and the early Christian community, it is also about us and the challenges our Christian community faces today. Ultimately, the message that it gives us is a reminder of the hope we have in Christ, even amidst the evils we will face in the world.

god vs. God

I have been thinking a lot this week about why it matters that we stop thinking about Revelation as a book about the end of the world. I think the biggest reason to think differently about Revelation is the message that it sends about who God is. The god of the “Left Behind,” Premillenialist, doomsday predictors is a pretty nasty god. If this truly is who god is, than it is a god who looks more like the worst parts of humanity, rather than the best. This is a god who is more interested in power and wealth than the values that Jesus Christ represented in his time on earth, and simply does not jive with the Good News we have from the Gospels.

On the other hand, if we understand that Revelation is not so much about the end of the world as it is about the metaphorical and symbolic depiction of all of the trials and tribulations and beasts that we face within our own journeys, then God looks a lot different. The God of that reading of Revelation, and the God that we come to understand from that kind of theology is a God that is interested in walking the trials and tribulations with us, rather than exacting vengeance and gaining power. Frankly, that sounds a whole lot more like the person that we see in Jesus Christ.

I suppose the other part of the question, is why does this matter if we can go on like most mainline denomination Christians quietly pretending that Revelation and all that premillennialist theology isn’t our concern? If we continue to let the gospel message be high-jacked by fear mongering opportunists, we let them define what Christianity is all about. Instead of being about the Good News of Jesus Christ for all humanity that God is the embodiment of mercy and grace and will walk our journey with us, Christianity is defined as a threatening message of believe or god will unleash all manner of nightmare like demons upon you until you do believe or until you are thrown into the pit with the beast marked 666.

I, frankly, don’t think that we should allow such nonsense to continue in the name of Christ. That is why I think this is so important that we own the book of Revelation and the hope that is contained therein. It is our responsibility as the children of God, not to continue to let such hateful understandings of scripture and of God be perpetuated. Instead, we can help others find a message of hope amidst their trials and tribulations. Instead we can help others know that they never face their beasts alone. Instead we can help others know that Christianity is not about threats of being left behind, but about the promise that Christ will never leave any of us behind.

Next week, April 17th, we will look at some of the nasty stuff, alongside some of the hopeful stuff, and I think you will come to find, the messages of fear that have been perpetuated about Revelation don’t hold much water. I hope that you will find the voices speaking for hope are louder than the voices speaking for fear. I hope that you will find that it is your calling to pass on that message of hope too.