I generally tell people not to worry about even trying to understand the book of Revelation until they’ve got the hang of the rest of the New Testament, at least. It’s magnificent, weird, inspiring, confusing, scary and glorious. If you’re not familiar with it, don’t worry. It’s not meant to be a detailed, coded prophecy about how the last days of the earth will unfold. I’m starting this reading with the understanding that it’s what’s called apocalyptic, a type of writing which uses symbols to speak out against (in this case) Roman oppression, while calling the church in dangerous times to stand firm because of the hope of heaven before us.
Whether that starting point survives the next few days, we’ll see! But I’m not going to try to decode the images, numbers and so on to look for things in the modern world – except in so far as the patterns of human life and politics, especially in rebellion against God, do tend to repeat pretty frequently. I think that’s part of the reason why every generation has been able to see enough echoes of this book around it to be sure that the end is truly near.
The Revelation begins with Jesus. That’s a statement about the text but also about its meaning. Jesus stands before John in vision, and reassures him with a human touch and a divine promise (1:17-18).
It continues with mercy. As Jesus speaks through John to the churches of modern Turkey, he praises what he can and challenges what he must. It’s easy to miss something which I suspect is important. Jesus is preparing the churches for the last chapter of God’s story, and even at this last moment, the call to repentance and renewal comes with a promise of mercy. God’s not finished with us yet. He isn’t finished with us while we still live.
And as so often, the renewal he calls for from the churches feels like the flip side of the strengths he praises. The Ephesians are faithful and careful to guard true belief – but their life and faith have become loveless. The Smyrnans are wealthy materially, but poor spiritually. The people of Pergamum (Pergamumians? Pergamothers?) are courageous in standing against evil and persecution, but are lax in their doctrine, accepting the teaching of two heresies we can no longer identify. The church in Thyatira is living out the faith in service and love, and their practical service to God is growing ever greater. But they are tolerating immorality and it is spreading through the congregation.
It often feels that life as a disciple or a church is like walking a tightrope – the more we concentrate on one thing that is good, the more we sway away from others, and the more likely we are to fall into the error that is the shadow of each truth, the sin that is the dark counterweight to each virtue.
How do we hear the challenge of Jesus to keep the balance and life of pure faith? We may need to seek out wise voices to look at our faith with us, and people who will prayerfully challenge us to remember the whole picture of faith.
There are many ways to serve and worship God, and many ways to stray from his path. But one thing is constant – Jesus’ challenge to return to a healthy, living faith always comes with the promise of mercy.