#BCCSundaySchool 2019: “Glory and Power Be Unto the Lamb Forever,” Revelation 1-11

It’s fun to talk about how incomprehensible the book of Revelation is. Famously written in pretty rough Greek, and full of lurid imagery that’s thrown at you in a rather boggling order—in general, the structure is built around multiple series of seven things (dishes, trumpets, wax seals on a very long scroll), but not always, and it’s easy to lose track because within any given one of these series there are long lists of other things—the book seems designed to be confusing and mysterious and esoteric.

(That sentence, of course, gives you something of a sense of the book.)

Perhaps that aura is why it’s proven so attractive to people interested in lurid and esoteric things, like conspiracy theories about the New World Order.  But it’s critical to observe that within its text Revelation nowhere claims to be a coded timeline of the events leading to the Second Coming and Last Judgment. Claims that it is that are understandable; they’re attempts to reduce an extremely difficult text to something easily comprehensible.

One thing that I hope our collective grapple with the Bible these past few years has revealed to us, though, is that wrestling with these texts in all their uncomfortableness, jagged edges, and refusal to be reduced to pat lessons is in part the point. We grow more when we confront hard or complicated works of scripture than we do when we dodge them.  It’s the muscles that we develop while grappling with them—even if that means we end up finding them distasteful—rather than the lessons that we try to cram them into that are the point.

How To Read Revelation?

There are a few different ways we might confront Revelation. The first thing to do is to realize what it is. It is by genre an “apocalypse” (A Greek word meaning “revelation” or “unveiling.”) There are other “apocalypses” in the Bible, and even in the Book of Mormon. Nephi’s vision is arguably one, for instance; you can find others in Daniel, Isaiah, and Ezekiel, among other places. These writings are often heavily symbolic, and generally dualistic: they show the world torn between the conflict between good and evil, resulting in much terror and the eventual triumph of God.

So, as we read Revelation, we should take that into account. It’s supposed to be dramatic and over-the-top. It’s presented that way because it seeks to heighten the passion of the drama that it’s illustrating. And more than anything, that’s what Revelation is about. It’s not about the United Nations or communism or the Emperor Nero. It is about the single great story of all of scripture: humanity feels lost, threatened, and subject to chaos and despair, but God is coming, and God will set things right.

The first thing to do is to decenter the “futurist” interpretation of the text. That’s the one that presumes it’s a road map to the Second Coming and that everything it describes is happening NOW in the last few years before the End of Days. This will disappoint your uncle, but it’s an interpretation we bring to the text, not one that’s native to it.

There are other ways to read the text. The first is called “preterist;” that’s reading the text within its time period, assuming that it is describing things happening in John’s lifetime—persecution, martyrdom, the corruption of Rome, etc. A “historicist” reading sees in the text a description of all of Christian history, from the death of Jesus to the Second Coming. An “idealist” reading rejects the notion that it’s about history at all, and instead argues that it’s about the spiritual struggle between good and evil rather than specific events.  A “liturgical” reading emphasizes the temple and sacramental imagery in the text, and describes it as a symbolic description of creation, fall, and redemption in the same way the Lord’s Supper or the temple endowment is.

Pick your favorite, or mix and match. That’s the point.

What’s In Revelation?

The opening of the book, Revelation 1-5, is what I’ll deal with in what remains.

The author identifies himself to us as John in verse 1, and declares that what he’s written is “the revelation of Jesus Christ.” Two things here. First, because his name is John many people have assumed he is the author of the Gospel of John and the Epistles of John and is the beloved apostle. This might be true but is about the equivalent of assuming that your old bishop John is the same guy as your cousin’s current bishop John. The name was and is common. Furthermore, the Greek of the Gospel is polished and philosophical; the Greek of Revelation is neither of those things.

Second, John calls this text “the revelation of Jesus Christ.” Does he mean that this is a revelation Jesus Christ gave him? Or a revelation about Jesus Christ?  Discuss.

The next few verses therefollowing, Revelation 1:1-8 are John’s introduction to the book. One might read these verses as the guiding concepts behind the next 24 chapters. This is prophecy (that is, a message from God; not all prophecy is future-prediction); John sends grace to his readers; Jesus is the “faithful witness,” Jesus is the “first begotten of the dead,” Jesus is the “prince of the kings of the earth,” Jesus “loved us and washed us from our sins in his own blood,” Jesus “cometh with clouds.” The emphasis on Jesus should shape how we read what is to come.

John then sees a vision of somebody. We might presume it is Jesus, because of his self-identification as the “First and the last,” but it’s worth talking about why we assume this. It’s also worth talking through the vivid and foreign ways in which he is described here. Jesus tells John to send seven messages to seven churches; these are contained in chapters 2 and 3.  It is unclear precisely what some of these messages mean, which should remind us that this book was written as much for people then as for us today, and that we are in a sense eavesdropping. Jesus condemns the Nicolaitains. Who are the Nicolaitans?  Nobody living today really knows.

Generally, though, the sense we get from these messages is of a church not unlike our church: struggling to be good; having absorbed things from the world around it which makes that difficult.

What I really want to focus on, though, is chapters 4 and 5. John signals a break in theme at the beginning of chapter 4, saying “After this, I looked, and behold a door was opened in heaven.” John then is taken to the throne room of God.

He sees the throne of God there and various things signifying God’s majesty over the earth and the things on the earth: a sea of glass; a number of beasts, twenty-four elders. God’s throne room is the earth in miniature, as was the temple.

John sees also a “book” (thanks, King James Version: for “book,” read “scroll”). It’s sealed seven times (that is, as you might try to unwind it, you’ll hit wax seal after wax seal, so it’s a stop and go process).  Nobody can open it. John and everybody else are upset because nobody can open it.

Then we come to what I think is the heart of Revelation, verses 5-6:

And one of the elders saith unto me, Weep not: behold, the Lion of the tribe of Juda, the Root of David, hath prevailed to open the book, and to loose the seven seals thereof. And I beheld, and, lo, in the midst of the throne and of the four beasts, and in the midst of the elders, stood a Lamb as it had been slain, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits of God sent forth into all the earth.

Read that again. An elder tells John to see a lion, and he looks and sees a lamb.

There is much more going on here, of course. The lamb’s horns and eyes signify power and wisdom; he was “as it had been slain,” and it is because of that the lamb “hath prevailed to open the book.” The book, as we’ll find over the next chapters, contains within it human history, and it is the opening of the book that propels that history forward.

That central paradox, though: a lion that is a slain lamb. That, I think, encompasses the weird message of Revelation, the vivid imagery, the vision of divine power that comes in ways human beings don’t recognize, the promise that despite suffering God remains present in our history and in our lives. The lion is really a slain lamb.

Comments

  1. Not a Cougar says:

    The Come, Follow Me lesson starts with the following:

    “Have you ever struggled to express to others what you felt during a powerful spiritual experience? Everyday language can feel inadequate to describe spiritual feelings and impressions. Perhaps this is why John used such rich symbolism and imagery to describe his majestic revelation.”

    Honestly no. For every spiritual experience I can recall, I can adequately describe what I recall experiencing. But even if I couldn’t, I don’t think it would would cause me to then write down a bunch of descriptions so inscrutable that no one has any real idea what I was trying to convey. I don’t think John (whoever he was) was merely struggling to convey what he experienced.

    As you suggest in your article, this is yet another example of how inadequate the manuals are at tackling scripture, especially the Bible, on its own terms.

    And as a postscript, I find D&C 77 to be of limited practical use in better understanding Revelation.

  2. Thanks for this write up. I agree that the Come Follow Me manual is not the most helpful way of thinking about Revelation.

  3. Joseph Smith, 1843: “The book of Revelation is one of the plainest books God ever caused to be written.” (Documentary History of the Church, vol. 5, p. 342.)
    Does it follow that the D&C and the Book of Mormon are really not plain at all?
    Or only that JS indulged in ridiculous rhetorical overstatement born of overconfidence in his reading of Revelation?

  4. Or was it a joke?

  5. Thanks very much. I really like what you’ve written here. I look forward to reading over Revelation with the preterist, historicist, idealist, and liturgical views in mind. I’m particularly interested in seeing how the idealist reading pans out, because that seems like my kind of thing.

  6. I’ve always had a hard time with the Book of Revelation. I had Robert Millet’s “Making Sense of Revelation,” which was very focused on the doctrine, but still left me puzzled about the book. The two books that turned the tide for me were N.T. Wright’s “Revelation for Everyone,” and Elaine Pagels’ “Revelations.” Pagels’ book really drew out for me the historical context (which is… preterist, I guess?), and how the book was written as a polemic against Rome, but also a comfort to the martyrs. And Wright’s book really drew out the literary artistry of the book, how it all works together (including all the hyperlinks to the Old Testament), and how it can be used as a devotional text to inspire and uplift. I really recommend both books highly.

    I’ll say that, having been introduced to this ideas of what Revelation likely meant to Jews and Christians there and then (via the two books I just mentioned), D&C 77, D&C 130, and Joseph Smith’s teachings on the book are actually way more interesting. Mainly because I don’t have to see those teachings as wrong, per se, but as Joseph making inspired connections between the symbolism and images of the book of Revelation, and the themes and motifs of his own prophetic ministry: Israel, Zion, seer stones, spiritual and temporal realms. I don’t have to take these sections in the D&C at face value necessarily, or as a starting point, but I also don’t have to (rather, I don’t get to) throw them out. God used the Book of Revelation to instruct and advance Joseph. Not great exegesis, maybe, but fantastic way to tutor the boy prophet.

    Matt B, thanks for the post, and for the point about the slain lamb being the lion. It makes me think of Isaiah 40:9-11, where a herald is asked to announce God as a mighty warrior, and when he appears, he’s a shepherd instead. It’s really beautiful: an arming and disarming God.

  7. Oh, and BTW, LDS Perspectives has a good podcast on the Book of Revelation with Nicholas Frederick. It touches on the different readings of Revelation and how Latter-day Saints might take it on.

    https://ldsperspectives.com/2019/11/13/book-of-revelation-nicholas-j-frederick/

  8. Kevin Barney says:

    This is embarrassing. I’ve simply never noticed that the lion is a slain lamb. Such powerful symbolism and I’ve missed it entirely all these years.

    Here’s something else I don’t quite grasp: what did the scroll with the seven seals look like? I imagine a scroll with seven seals along the outer wrapping edge all in a row. But if that is the case, nothing happens to the scroll when you open the first six seals; it is only upon opening the final, seventh seal that you can actually begin to unroll the scroll without damaging it. It sort of seems to me that after you open the first seal you should be able to open the scroll a bit, then a bit more after the second seal and so on. But so far as I know seals don’t work that way; you wouldn’t have a seal with adhesion on both sides in the middle of a scroll Google is of zero help. Does anyone else have an image or idea of how these seals would work physically on the scroll?

  9. Joseph Smith, 1843: “The book of Revelation is one of the plainest books God ever caused to be written.”

    I take that statement literally – in fact I wrote a blog post earlier this year defending it (https://www.believingjoseph.com/2019/05/the-plainest-book-ever-written.html).

    The problem is that when you try to use the Book of Revelation to calculate the date of the Second Coming or prove that your favorite political enemy is the Antichrist, it becomes a lot less plain and easy to understand.

  10. J. Stapley says:

    Really good stuff, Matt. Thanks.

  11. Kevin, I’m admittedly lacking in my knowledge of “scroll technology”, but why couldn’t you have wax seals in the middle of the pages themselves? They would adhere to both the open portion and the “scrolled” part, meaning that you couldn’t continue to unroll it until you broke the seal. Is that not a possibility?

  12. Kevin Barney says:

    Mdg that’s what I tried to describe near the end of my comment. I’ve never seen an interior seal like that, but I agree that seems to be what the text is describing.

  13. Thanks all!

    Kevin: I agree that the scroll seems to have internal seals, though I’m not aware of any historical analogues for such a thing. I’m hardly a classicist though.

  14. Thank you so much for this article. I was really struggling with reading Revelations this time around, seeing it through the standard “futurist” interpretation. Your post has made me want to go back and read it with “idealist” and “liturgical” eyes.

  15. As to your question of how the seals work, if you haven’t seen it this post from Book of Mormon Central addresses the how it may have worked. https://knowhy.bookofmormoncentral.org/knowhy/why-was-the-heavenly-book-sealed-with-seven-seals?fbclid=IwAR0pZjD9O_fgkj92TifN6IJCtEjUia_g4aLTEIKp86N6ttdk9tMch5qq798