At Morning Prayer throughout November we have been reading the Book of Revelation. To be honest I can’t say that I’ve been enjoying it. Its world view, its philosophical assumptions, its literary style, its imagery are all so far removed from my own experience and understanding that I find it difficult to access and even to make sense of.
I’m not alone. Throughout Christian history the place and authority of the Book of Revelation has been disputed. To this day some Eastern Churches do not include it in the canon of New Testament books. It is not read in the Divine Liturgy of the Eastern Churches, although it is read in Catholic and Protestant liturgies. Martin Luther, at the time of the Reformation called it neither apostolic nor prophetic, John Calvin wrote commentaries on every book of the New Testament – except Revelation.
It was included in the New Testament canon because it was believed to be apostolic in authorship and in its teaching. The book is attributed to John the apostle in the opening verses of the book. It’s focus on the Second Coming of Christ is certainly in keeping with recorded teaching of Jesus and with the writings of Paul and the other authors of the New Testament letters.
I am inconsistent in my attitude to the book. There are bits of it I love. The Church of England in its Daily Prayer from Common Worship includes no fewer than seven canticles taken from the Book of Revelation in its rich treasure of canticles for use in worship – and I love to say them at Evening Prayer. There are are some wonderful passages from the book – the letters to the Churches (Rev. 2-3), the vision of heaven (Rev. 4), the new Jerusalem (Rev. 21). But most of it I find dense and inaccessible. Which is something of a shame because I’m sure that, probably more than any other book in the New Testament, Revelation rewards being read as a whole (but I easily lose track and my mind wanders).
There are the major themes in the book which are important and central to Christian teaching. Revelation reminds us that suffering is a part of the Christian life and that there is a reward awaiting those who are faithful and resolute. It reminds us that God is in control of our destiny and will ultimately be victorious. It reminds us that the kingdom of heaven and the values of this world are in conflict and are fundamentally incompatible. But it is also negative about this world in a way that Jesus was not; it encourages, at least implicitly to distance ourselves form this world in way that Jesus never a did and that Paul wished to do but would not (Phil. 1.15-24) The book seems obsessed with sacrifice – Jesus’s and that of suffering Christians – and appears to take little account of the joy of the resurrection life.
I suspect that the book was relevant to the lives of the Christians for which it was written, persecuted and martyred; and it is easy to look at our world and see how for many Christians today the situation in which they find themselves is similar; and it’s not difficult to believe that, even in the West, our comfortable Christian lives might become much more difficult in the not too distant future. If that happens the Book of Revelation might be just what we need.
The Book of Revelation is fraught with difficulties of understanding, relevance, interpretation and accessibility. But it’s there, at the end of the Bible and I’ll guess I’ll have to just keep on reading it and finding in it whatever I can. Who knows, one day it might all fall into place and God will speak to me through its words. I’ll just have to wait and see.
The images are from the Apocalypse Altarpiece in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London