Today, we begin a five-week series in Revelation. This is easily one of the most intriguing, fascinating and chronically misunderstood books of the Bible. Its influence for good or bad, is far out of proportion to its place on the fringes of the scriptural canon. Filled with complex symbolism, it has inspired a wide range of interpretations and ideologies. Some have claimed they are able to “decode” Revelation’s hidden meaning, some have used Revelation to scare people. Often these ominous predictions, totally miss the key strength of this magnificent, yet frustrating book, which is the assurance of the ultimate victory and the unshakable reign of our Lord. In this knowledge, the Church throughout history finds strength and purpose. I pray that over the next five weeks we will gain a renewed awe of the sheer majesty of God, a deeper understanding of the power and glory of Christ’s reign, and that we will feel moved to act without fear in that powerful name, through the Holy Spirit. I pray that, rather than seeing Revelation as a scary book about the end times we will see it as a book that sweeps away fear in light of our sure future.
This is not an in-depth study of Revelation, though if there is enough interest, I would be glad to offer one. The five lectionary passages assigned are not the most controversial, but it will be helpful to our understanding if we start with some general information. First, Revelation is classified as apocalyptic literature, the Greek word apokalypsis means revelation. We can see the origins of this type of writing in the OT prophets. Books such as Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Joel, some of Hosea and Amos are sorts of apocalyptic material. These books are full of symbolism, they are not meant to be taken literally, and reading them without at least a little understanding of the symbolism becomes especially confusing. A lot of the OT symbolism reappears in Revelation. While it is mainly considered apocalyptic writing, John seems to move back and forth between a couple of styles and this makes reading Revelation even more challenging. – it is a revelation, a prophecy, and a letter. Revelation 1 starts out as a letter written to the seven churches in Turkey -Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum,Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. The letters carry a specific meaning and purpose for each city and each letter contains some detail or identifier that is specific to the church at that time. To understand the letters, you need to understand the place and time.
Then there are three generally agreed upon (ways of interpreting) the text of Revelation. Historical (or preterist), Idealist, and Futurist.
The historical understanding (or preterist) is that Revelation can be seen mainly in reference to the time and place in which it was written. Its main purpose being to disclose the truth about what was happening in the world at that time and it is speaking only secondarily to later readers. For example, this approach views the seven letters as actual correspondence addressed to churches that existed in Asia Minor at the time.
The idealist understanding sees the text as describing timeless spiritual truths about the nature and purposes of God, the church and the world. It references universal themes and symbols. Its main purpose is to provide spiritual insight that is meaningful for every time and place. This approach treats the letters as generic advice to seven types of churches that might be found in any age.
The futurist understands the book of Revelation as a prediction of an imminent end and the advent of the millennial age. This view often points to the signs of the times and sees disaster. The futurist would interpret the seven letters as representing Christ’s description of a future era of church history.
One of the details of Revelation familiar to nearly everyone is found in chapter 13 (18) “let anyone with understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a person. Its number is six hundred sixty six.” Some translations read 616. This is interpreted differently based upon how you read and interpret Revelation. Historical readings usually take the number as a reference to a specific person -the cruel emperor Nero.. In Hebrew, letters of the alphabet also serve as numerals in a system called “gematria”. The letters for Nero’s name as Neron Caesar equal 666, and as Nero Caesar equal 616. An idealist reading of this verse takes the number as a symbol for anyone supremely evil. Just as the number 7 equals perfection, the number 6 equals impurity and three 6s is triple bad. A futurist reading assumes the number to be a code for some evil person who is to come into the world at the end of time. It is interesting to note that this number has been attributed to Hitler, Bill Gates, Ronald Reagan, and the Pope, among others.
So you can see, there are a number of ways to interpret and understand nearly everything in Revelation. There is so much imagery and symbolism that it would be a mistake to think you could offer a completely accurate decoding. And, there is still a lot of disagreement as to the purpose of Revelation. In our quick look over the next five weeks, we will have a specific focus on what Revelation says about our reigning Lord, about who is really in control of history, about worship and about the security of the future. As scary as we have sometimes been made to think Revelation is, it is ultimately an optimistic book that in the end, is an invitation to joy.
The first few chapters are dedicated to the letters or messages for the seven churches, (you may want to read these later). Then the scene shifts in chapter 4 to heaven, and the throne of God, where God is worshipped. Chapter 5, where our passage today is found, is also a vision of heaven. God holds a scroll sealed with seven seals (remember the number 7 represents perfection). An angel searches for someone who is worthy to open the scroll, but no one is found who is worthy. Verse 4 tells us that John begins to weep bitterly because no one is found until one of the elders says, “do not weep. See the Lion of the tribe of Judah has conquered and is worthy.” John turns to see the lion, but what he sees instead is “a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered.” (v. 6) The Lion of Judah and the Lamb that is slain are both references to Jesus Christ. Let me read verses 7 -8: “ He went and took the scroll from the right hand of the one who was seated on the throne. When he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell before the Lamb, each holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. And they sing a new song.” In verse 11 we read of the huge number that gathers to “sing to the Lamb” the voices of many angels – myriads and myriads (a myriad is ten thousand) and thousands of thousands singing with full voice. Can you imagine that. When all our seats are full in January and we have a couple of hundred voices singing together we sound pretty good – but can you imagine thousands upon thousands at full voice? And they are all singing: “Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (verse 12) Worthy is the lamb! Having just celebrated Easter, the resurrection is fresh in our minds, is it not! Worthy of all we have, of all our worship is the Lamb! It may not seem like it to us today, but this is a political statement of the strongest sort, because in this corner of the Roman Empire, this is what the crowds shouted when the Roman emperor appeared in public – “Worthy, worthy, worthy is the emperor!” That proclamation is reserved for the Roman emperor alone – to claim it for the Lamb is a powerful critique of the current structure of authority. Then as now, political powers try to have us believe they are the ultimate control, the ultimate “worthy.” But here we have the resounding word that worthy is the Lamb. All expressions of worship are to God and the Lamb, alone. All that is left to do is to say, “Amen” which is exactly what the four living creatures do in verse 14.
In this passage, it is abundantly clear that no matter what history holds, in spite of all the scary sounding stuff in Revelation, in spite of what comes before and after, the word of salvation is already present in the Lamb. Those who have ears to hear know and are secure in this knowledge – the decisive victory has already been won. We are invited to join with the rest of creation, with the myriads of myriads in worship and praise of the Lamb, who was, and is, and is to come – the Alpha and Omega) Amen.
(Credit to Walter F. Taylor, Jr., A Working Preacher commentary, 4/17/10, for some details contained in this sermon.)
Go now in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the worthy Lamb of God, and in the love of God the Father, in the guidance and communion of the Holy Spirit. Now and always. Amen.