The final book! We’ve almost made it through! The end is nigh!
First, a note on names. This is the book of Revelation (singular) not the book of RevelationS (plural.) It’s a really common mistake in Hollywood and elsewhere, like the “books of the Bible” tie I have. (Ok, mine isn’t pictured. But Revelation is misspelled on my tie and it irks me.) The title Revelation comes from Rev 1:1, with that ambiguous “of” preposition. “The revelation of Jesus” can mean “a revelation that is about Jesus,” “a revelation from Jesus,” or “the revelation belonging to Jesus.”
This is also the book of the Bible that made popular the term “apocalypse.” How so? The Greek for “revelation” is apocalypsis (that y is pronounced like a ooo.) In my French Bible, Revelation is simply called Apocalypse. It means “uncovering, disclosure, revelation.” However, because Revelation seems to be about the end of the world, “apocalypse” came to take on meaning of, well, end-of-the-world type stuff. Moreover, even though Revelation was probably not the last book of the Bible to be written, it was placed at the end because… the end is the logical place for the bits that seem to talk about the end.
Now, back to the idea of apocalypse and revelation. This year in New Testament, I’ve occasionally talked about the importance of genre in understanding what we read. Last year in Old Testament, I absolutely harped on it in nearly every post. Here in Revelation it raises its head again. We struggle to read Revelation because it’s a foreign genre to us. We’re not familiar with the conventions of the genre of “apocalypse” the way we are with, say, westerns. Or romantic comedies. Consequently, we don’t understand how Revelation uses or departs from those conventions. (For some general and Old Testament-focused writing on genre and conventions, see Brettler, How to Read the (Jewish) Bible and Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative.)
Unlike us, however, the recipients of Revelation were familiar with the genre, which was fairly well known to them. They knew dozens, but Revelation is really the only one to be well preserved in the New Testament. In the Old Testament, you get bits and pieces of apocalyptic in Ezekiel, Daniel, and a few other places. Nephi’s vision in 1 Nephi 13-14 verges on apocalypse at times.
What are some characteristics of “apocalypse”? The following characteristics apply often, but not always.
- There is explicit revelation, a vision or dream,
- often using fantastical and surreal imagery and strange creatures.
- These depictions are highly symbolic.
- It is binary and dualistic, with no middle: good/evil, black/white, light/darkness, Jerusalem/Babylon, righteous/wicked.
- There is conflict or war between these binaries, but good (however manifest) eventually and always wins.
- Highly eschatological (ess-cat-uh-logical), that is, concerned with the eschaton, (pronounced ESS-cat-on) literally the “last things” or what is to happen in the future.
- Or at least, supposedly in the future. Apocalyptic sometimes masked criticism of the present, the same way Shakespeare could use the past to criticize the present.
- Although eschatological, past, present, and future are often blurred and mixed.
- Often, there is an angelic guide to explain and interpret what is being seen, at least partially.
Now, the lesson today concerns the first few chapters and chapter 12. The early chapters are explicitly written to seven churches in Asia. (Note that throughout most of the Revelation, the JST change the number seven to twelve.) It’s somewhat like a circular letter, to be read and passed on. These sections addressed to each church are Rev 2:1, 2:8, 2:12, 2:18, 3:1, 3:7, and 3:14. Each church is named, and given specific instructions and promises. Most of these seven churches are conditionally condemned, unless they repent of specific named issues. (This and the last lesson show that early Christianity was always fractured, in flux, and unstable. Or, in traditional LDS terms, it’s not as if a strong unified Church was established which then fell apart due to apostasy. Rather, as the letters of Paul, Peter, and John show, the church bricks seemed to crumble almost as fast as they were being built.)
Each church is also given a formulaic but unique promise, in this form. “Let anyone who has an ear hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches. To everyone who conquers…[insert promise here.]” These are found in Rev 2:7, 2:11, 2:17, 2:29, 3:6, 3:13, 3:22. Take a minute and look at those.
First, the phrase “to everyone who conquers” or KJV “to him that overcometh” is Greek tō nikōn. It comes from a verb meaning to conquer, overcome, triumph. You might know the noun form from a little athletic company called nikē, (knee-kay) or Nike, meaning “victory” whether in combat, sport, or struggle. So when you think of the promises to the seven churches, think swoosh.
Second, and more interesting, each of these promises has something in common; they mostly draw on Genesis temple/garden imagery! In this way, the canon is bracketed by the temple and garden in Genesis at the beginning, and the temple and garden in Revelation at the end.
- To everyone who conquers, I will give permission to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God. (Rev 2:7 NRS)
- Whoever conquers will not be harmed by the second death. (Rev 2:11 NRS)
- To everyone who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give a white stone, and on the white stone is written a new name that no one knows except the one who receives it. (Rev 2:17 NRS)
- The “hidden manna” draws on Exo 16:33-34. Cf. the white stone and new name in D&C 130:10-11.
- To everyone who conquers and continues to do my works to the end, I will give authority over the nations; to rule them with an iron rod, as when clay pots are shattered– even as I also received authority from my Father. To the one who conquers I will also give the morning star. (Rev 2:26-28 NRS)
- This is dominion as the primordial couple was given.
- If you conquer, you will be clothed like them in white robes, and I will not blot your name out of the book of life; I will confess your name before my Father and before his angels. (Rev 3:5 NRS)
- If you conquer, I will make you a pillar in the temple of my God; you will never go out of it. I will write on you the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem that comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name. (Rev 3:12 NRS)
- To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. (Rev 3:21 NRS)
That language of “I am his god and he is my son” is royal adoption language from the Old Testament. That is, in the Old Testament, the king was held to be divine in a sense, God’s son through adoption. This is said of David in, e.g. 2Sa 7:14 “I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me.” Psalm 2:7, a royal psalm, expresses the same thing. “The king says, “I will announce the LORD’S decree. He said to me: ‘You are my son! This very day I have become your father!” (Psa 2:7 NET)
In other words, you become God’s child, royal, priestly, inherit all things, partake of the tree of life, dressed in white robes, sit on God’s throne with him, have dominion, are not harmed by the 2nd death, have a white stone and new name, etc
Revelation hearkens back to the Old Testament and temple themes in other ways.
Note Rev 1:5-6 (cf. Rev 5:10 and 22:5), which talks about how Jesus has washed us in his blood (think about the miraculous logic of that! do you wash something dirty with blood and expect it to get cleaner?) and has made us kings and priests, combining the properties of power/authority (kingship) and ritual/moral purity (priestliness) Here Revelation invokes Exo 19:5-6, a founding passage for Israel. Rev 1:6 itself gets taken up in The Vision of D&C 76 in describing those who inherit the celestial kingdom (see v. 56-63 in particular with kings, priests, and overcoming, but there is lots of other temple imagery and scriptural allusion there in D&C 76.)
To summarize, then, Revelation invokes a lot of temple imagery from Genesis and the Old Testament, and later LDS scripture then draws on Revelation in expressing exaltation through temple imagery in D&C 76.
In one of his lectures (I’m unaware of him elaborating on this in print), Mark S. Smith remarked that the book that best captured the cosmic battle mythology in the Old Testament and the ancient Near East was not even in the Old Testament, but the book of Revelation! You have a battle between God and his warriors, and a dragon-beast associated with the sea and its warriors. See this accessible volume, or this one, among a host of others.
This dragon appears in chapter 12 along with the woman bearing a child. The manual interprets this in terms of the war in heaven. The woman is the church and the child the kingdom of god. As you read through this whole chapter, note how time seems to blur together. Was the kingdom brought forth by the church before the creation of the earth? Note that the woman goes into hiding and the child is taken into heaven for a time. Is this the apostasy, as LDS would term it?
If you want to understand current and historical LDS perspectives on the apostasy, which involves interpreting Revelation 12, there are two important books you need to read, both anthologies.
- Standing Apart: Mormon Historical Consciousness and the Concept of Apostasy
- Early Christians in Disarray: Contemporary LDS Perspectives on the Christian Apostasy
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