Revelations 21 and 22
May 5, 2013
Anybody here want to try to sum up in a sentence or two what you think the Book of Revelations is about? Not what you think about the Book of Revelations, but what you think it is about. How about this? Jesus is a better deal than Caesar, and the Realm of God has way more to offer than the Roman Empire could ever imagine.
Granted that’s a much different take on Revelations than what you read about in things like the Left Behind books or hear from radio and TV preachers or radio and TV preacher wannabes. But, I think, it’s one that makes more sense. I think it’s good, to think about the Book of Revelations in a new way, or rather a way people used to think about it before it got occupied by the end times folk.
One way to begin looking at Revelations in a different way is to consider how its author ended up writing it. The text says it was written by somebody named John. He was writing it from the Isle of Patmos. And why was he on Patmos? He was exiled there. And why was he exiled there? Because he thought Jesus had a better deal to offer than Caesar did.
It’s not enough to say John was exiled because he was a Christian. Rome was more than willing to tolerate Christians or any other religious group. All they had to do was acknowledge that Caesar was Lord and that the Roman empire was established by the gods and worthy of its citizens ultimate allegiance.
The trouble came for John and other early Christians when they proclaimed Jesus as Lord, not Caesar, and offered their allegiance not to the Roman Empire but the Realm of God. That’s what got Christians top billing at the Roman Colosseum or an all expenses paid trip to places like Patmos.
This last book of the New Testament was never meant to become this really scary and confusing story we have made it into. It was written to encourage Christians of its age and, indeed, all ages to stake their claim with Jesus, no matter what the empire offers to or forces on us. John knew that all Caesar and the Roman Empire had was the power of death, while Jesus and the Realm of God has the power of life. That’s a big difference that the empire would rather that we not take into consideration.
So throughout the story you have this unfolding drama of Jesus and Caesar, the empire and the Realm of God. And it culminates with what we read today about the new Jerusalem descending from heaven, swallowing up the Roman and all other empires. And who is at the center of the new city? Jesus, the one that Rome thought they had dealt with by killing him. Do you see why John thought Jesus had a better deal to offer than Caesar did?
The challenge the Book of Revelations offers us is not the challenge of deciphering the code of the end times, like so many claim it is. Rather, I agree with a much older understanding that suggests the challenge the book offers us is that of figuring out how we live as followers of Jesus in the Empire.
That’s why we can’t let interpretations about the Book of Revelations let us deny that followers of Jesus really have any connection to this world. They say Heaven is our home, not this earth. Caesar is neither here nor there for them. The Realm of God is all about heaven, and the empire is all about this forsaken world.
I don’t think John imagines there is this gulf between heaven and earth that can’t be bridged. There is not just one left standing, heaven or earth, at the end. The end of his story is not about the destruction of the earth, as so many claim it is. The end of his story is about a new heaven and a new earth. It’s about the new city, the new Jerusalem descending to the earth, and all things being made new, not all things being destroyed by a Jesus led blood bath.
One of the things that gets confusing about the Book of Revelations is that John keeps switching between heaven and earth. He can’t keep them separated in his mind, because the living Jesus occupies both. In John’s vision heaven and earth have become one.
What does it say in Genesis about what God thought of the world when the creation was finished? “God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good.” So why would we think that all God wants to do now is evacuate the chosen ones to heaven? Do we think the incarnation was nothing more than a hit and run? If that were the case why would Jesus ask us to pray that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven? It ought not to surprise us that the last scenes in the New Testament are not in heaven but here on earth.
When I read the end of Revelations, it’s like reading the beginning of Genesis. There is the river that runs down the center of the city just like the rivers that formed the boundaries of Paradise. There is no violence or corruption there. And there by the banks of the river in the middle of the city is the Tree of Life, and it’s the leaves of that tree that heal the nations. And all kinds of people are there. Different tribes and different races. Even the kings of the earth are there, the folk who have been the sworn enemy of Jesus throughout John’s story.
It was stories like this that led the early Christians to make the symbols of their faith things that the church doesn’t tend to use much these days. Do you remember what Jesus said to that women about the living water bubbling up into eternal life? The early Christians did. And when they portrayed what it meant for them to follow Jesus it made more sense to use symbols like water and rivers, and other images of Paradise like trees and plants overflowing with fruit. They were symbols of the power of life, like that Tree of Life in our Sanctuary. The cross, which was the Empire’s sign of the power of death, did not hold central place in the life of the early church. It didn’t become a major symbol for the church until the time of the crusades. I guess the church had bought into the power of death. But we don’t have to.
John’s vision showed that heaven is close by, that there’s not this insurmountable gap between heaven and earth. The book of Revelations shows that the power of life that is in Jesus is right here and right now. The testimony of the Gospel is that we can be about the work of healing the nations. And there is plenty of healing to be done. Sure the nations have the power of death, but we have the power of life. And that power means we don’t abandon the nations to death, but bring the power of life to the nations, bring healing.
That’s what makes Jesus such a good deal, I think, in John’s eyes. Even if the nations can’t imagine a power greater than their power to bring death, we can. And if we have a hard time imagining that, John says just listen to the saints who now occupy heaven. They know the power of that life in its fullness. They just want us to hang on to that life no matter what the empire does, because they know that life, not death, is the end of the story. I agree with John. That’s a pretty good deal, if you ask me. The empire can never match it, much less beat it.