Dwells

The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place; he made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who testified to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw.

—Revelation 1:1-2

 

What is the good news in the Book of Revelation?  That is a good question.  From dragons to blood to fiery skies to deep pits, the book of John’s apocalypse includes everything—it seems—except good news.  But, that is the question, i.e., the quest for the essence of the gospel or good news couched in the various parts of the Bible, that we are reflecting upon this year.  Therefore, some good news must be somewhere in John’s writing . . . shouldn’t it? To try to uncover this buried good news, first, we need to understand better the character of the Book of Revelation. 

 

To start our dig for Revelation’s good news, we need to consider the categories of time and place. 

 

The Book of Revelation is written at a certain time in the history of Christian writing and within a particular community of readers, a community of readers familiar with specific kinds of imagery and ways of viewing the world. 

 

The Book of Revelation is one of several books that falls within what is called Johannine literature.  Those New Testament writings include the Gospel of John, the pastoral letters of John, and John’s Apocalypse or what we call the Book of Revelation.  Scholarly consensus is that this set of writings was not necessarily written by the same person but within a community of persons formed around the disciple John early in the Christian movement.  This community interpreted the story of Jesus in a very particular way, a way that was shaped not just by the life and resurrection of Jesus but also by a traumatic event that happened in the year 70 CE. 

 

In the year 70 CE, the anti-Roman energies within the Jewish communities coalesced and revolted against their Roman occupiers, attempting to expel the Romans from Jerusalem and the rest of Palestine.  To make a long story short, the Jews failed, the temple was destroyed, and everyone within the Jewish community was looking for someone to blame. 

 

There was no consensus on whom or what group might be most responsible, but several candidates emerged.  One of those popular candidates to receive the blame for the nearly total annihilation of what was left of Jewish identity was a dissident and politically agitating group of Jews who followed a different king, saw themselves as embodying an alternative political reality, and called themselves Christians.  Now, whether or not Christians can be legitimately accused of instigating the uprising of 70 CE is of little import.  Such details are lost in the fog of history.  Rather, what is certain is that soon after the failure of the revolt, Jews and Christian-Jews formally and acrimoniously part ways.  As a result, the Christians find themselves not just as a minority within a larger minority community but a targeted and vulnerable conspicuous minority separate from all other faith traditions in the ancient near east.

 

And, this stark division between this newly formed Christian sect and the rest of Judaism and all other faiths and peoples is evident in the language, imagery, and conceptual underpinnings of all of the Johannine writings that follow this severing of the old with the new.  It is no surprise that the unambiguous language of light and dark permeates the Johannine community’s writings and that such imagery almost exclusively is found in that community’s writings, writings that are some of the latest and only New Testament texts written after 70 CE.  In other words, things had radically changed.  The church’s writings reflected this dramatic, separated, new reality.  So, understanding the time during which the Book of Revelation is written is important because this book captures the tenor of the new circumstance in which the church finds itself, a circumstance of alienation, oppression, separation, and desperation looking for hope, healing, and final victory. 

 

In this turbulent world, the pen of the writer of the Apocalypse finds parchment. 

 

If the time of the writing of this book is important, then the place of its writing is as important, too.  And, by place, I am not referring to the locale of the book’s writing on Patmos but referring to its placement within the scope of literary genres of the day and to its final placement at the end of the New Testament canon.

 

John’s “apocalypse” (or “revelation” as it is translated from the original Greek) is a type of literature found within the Jewish community written during a very short portion of the history of Jewish writing and penned almost exclusively during times when Jews found themselves a targeted political minority.  (Their being political targets is significant in the character of the writings.  But, I am getting ahead of myself.) 

 

The first of the apocalyptic writings that seeps from Jewish pens is the Old Testament book of Daniel, written around the time that the Greeks were desecrating the temple in Jerusalem and that the rebellious Maccabees were asserting Jewish independence and rallying Jewish nationalism in the second century BCE.  This form of Jewish writing ended, roughly, with the writing of John’s Revelation and the final disbursement and delusion of Jews throughout the Roman Empire following the revolt of 70 CE, a disbursement that would remain until the founding of the modern state of Israel in 1948 CE. 

 

As such, apocalyptic literature is always political in nature.  But, more importantly for our purposes, apocalyptic literature is always a political commentary on the times in which it is written, written as a critique of the, then, current political powers and written in code as not to endanger the oppressed minority for whom it is written.  Like a letter written by the resistance in Vichy France or a song sung along the Underground Railroad, this medium uses dual meanings both to protect and encourage the intended readers. 

 

Daniel’s and John’s apocalypse are no different. 

 

Daniel’s text labored to inspire Jews to resist their Greek oppressors and remain faithful to Yahweh by drawing upon Israel’s resistance and survival during their exile to Babylon.  Similarly, John’s text recalls the creation stories and their narration of God’s triumph over chaos and good’s supremacy and originality in opposition to evil’s triviality and temporality to generate hope and stamina within the emerging Christian community following their expulsion from the synagogues in 80 CE and their lingering persecution under both local and imperial forces.

 

Importantly, the early church’s decision to “place” John’s Revelation at the end of the New Testament in the fourth century CE is significant. (Importantly, the Book of Revelation does not appear to be the final/last book of the New Testament written.) By placing the Book of Revelation last, the crafters of the New Testament seek to give the apocalyptic literature it represents a new purpose.  Originally, apocalyptic literature was never meant to be about predicting the future. (That is a very modern assumption.)  Rather, apocalyptic literature was always an interpretation of the present. 

 

However, by placing the Book of Revelation at the end of the New Testament, the church shifts the focus of John’s apocalypse away from a very specific rallying cry of hope and victory for those oppressed early Christians trying to find courage in the midst of both Jewish and imperial hostility.  In other words, the editors of the New Testament felt that the Book of Revelation still had and has something to say. And, that message is found in imagery used at the end of John’s revelation. There, we have a vision of a garden with rivers and a tree of life, echoing the original creation imagery found in the Genesis story.  The editors of the New Testament are using their placement of the Book of Revelation to make a grand and ultimate theological claim. 

 

Those New Testament editors’ shift in focus redirects the interpretive energies of the text away from simply a commentary on Roman oppression to a generalized affirmation that, in the end, God created out of good and will restore goodness to that creation and that while chaos seems to hold sway at times, in the end, God takes chaos and turns it into a new and peaceful creation.  And, John—and the New Testament editors—see this creation out of chaos as the distilled essence of the Gospel. 

 

In the penultimate chapter of this book (and the Bible), John says: “‘See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.’“

 

This passage at the end of all the tumult that is the Book of Revelation envisions a world in ultimate peace, as it was originally created to be.  And, embedded in this final refrain is the entire hope of the Gospel central to John’s community and this text:  “God will dwell with them.”  In the garden of Eden, in the incarnation story of the Son, in the Pentecostal descending of the Spirit, in the concluding vision of the Apocalypse relayed by John, what finally matters is that God is with us, we are with God, and we share in a peaceful existence with each other as a counter-witness to what might seem conversely to be the case. 

 

This declaration of final, triumphant, peaceful co-dwelling is the good news of John’s Revelation.  And, that sounds like a pretty “good” ending to a (Divine) story to me.

 

 

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