I think I claimed in my last essay that the Sixth Sunday of Easter presented the final text of Revelation that we would be dealing with this year. I was quite wrong! Here in the seventh Sunday of Easter, the final Sunday before the Day of Pentecost, we have one more text to address from John’s Revelation. I admit readily that I have long thought the final verses of the book to be rather anticlimactic. After the many number games, the wild images, the flying back and forth in visions between earth and heaven, the end appears to be something of a letdown. However, for the first-century readers, it was clearly intended to be a call to arms, a demand that all they have read up to the end is crucial for their futures, both individually and collectively. John announces in no uncertain terms that Jesus, the one who has sent the angel to John with the “testimony to the churches,” is about to come again, bringing his “reward with him to repay according to everyone’s work” (Rev.22:12). And since those words were written, any number of readers have taken the book as a roadmap for the end of days, and have employed all manner of clever, not to say ridiculous, devices to “prove” that their reading is the right one; any who would find their way to the heavenly city must follow the paths, must read the signs that John has implanted in his pages. Because, says Jesus, “I am coming soon” (Rev.22:12). Hogwash!
I have tried to say throughout my perusal of this extraordinary book that I find such a reading fanciful, absurd, and finally dangerously misleading for what John apparently had in mind for his work. For John did not write his book in a burst of visionary power, trapped in a cave in the island of Patmos. The work is carefully constructed by a literary artist who employed a certain style of his day to impart to would-be followers of the new Christian cult the word from God and the Lamb of God, which is that Rome is not the master of the world; its doom is certain. Only God and Jesus, the slain Lamb, are masters of the cosmos, and all who would follow must both believe that truth and live it in their lives. Those who would manipulate the numbers and images in order to demonstrate that modern events are predicted by John some 1900 years before they happened, are would-be interpreters only, bent on leading astray gullible persons who revel more in abstruse mysteries than in serious engagement with an ancient text. John is not in the business of predicting anything! He is in the business of announcing the gospel of God in the face of Roman power, and warning early Christians that following Rome is following the beast, participating in the money-making might of Rome is participating in a system that is passing away.
When John claims that “Jesus is coming soon,” he in effect is saying that Jesus is already here; what we must do is see him for who he is, master of the cosmos, because he gave himself over to death at the hands of the Romans to show that Roman power was a sham, no real power at all. When John says, “Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates” (Rev.22:14), he means that those who would follow Jesus must truly be ready to follow him all the way to confrontation with Rome and death. It is quite telling that other ancient manuscripts at this point, rather than reading “wash their robes,” read “do his commandments,” a far more direct way of saying what more metaphorical robe washing tries to say. To follow Jesus is precisely to do his commandments, and to do his commandments is inevitably to conflict with the demands of the Romans. This is so because what Jesus stands for is in nearly every instance exactly the opposite of what Rome demands. Jesus’ desire for peace for the whole world rejects the famous Pax Romana, a restive calm in the world made possible only at the point of a Roman sword. Jesus’ demand that we “turn the other cheek,” willingly “to give our last garment” to those in need, flies in the face of the Roman desire to gain power through strength and to hold on to power through conquest and war.
It is no wonder that John ends his book with the Pauline phrase “the grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints” (Rev.22:21). We cannot follow Jesus merely by deciding to do so, by willing it on our own. We must embrace the grace that only Jesus can give, that grace that can enable us to follow. For without that grace, we are surely doomed to fall into the traps of Rome that bid us think only of ourselves, that tell us that greed is good, that power is all that matters in our world. Each day we must cry with John, “Come, Lord Jesus,” for without him we as would-be believers can do nothing.
John’s Revelation is nothing else than the Gospel by other means, in other words. Do not be misled by its peculiar language and its strange beasts and number/letter games. Read the Revelation as the statement that it is: God and Jesus are the only masters of the cosmos, and that those who would follow them must do what God has always called us to do, namely to follow the commandments to love our neighbors, to care for the marginalized, and to be willing to give what we have for a world in desperate need of such generosity. And in addition to stand against those powers in our world that claim ultimate authority, that demand from us actions that God and Jesus plainly oppose.
No one need fear Revelation, or imagine that it is just a book of foolish and impenetrable images and claims that are in our time only nonsense. Quite the contrary! Revelation is the Gospel, and we can rejoice in it, in all the beasts and all the games, and all the mysterious language. “Come, Lord Jesus,” we cry, and in so crying we announce our allegiance to the one who is, who was, and who is to come, the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, the slain Lamb who has conquered all conquerors and become both Lord and Christ for us.
(images from Wikimedia Commons)