When I heard another voice from heaven saying, "Come out of her, my people, so that you do not take part in her sins, and so that you do not share in her plagues; for her sins are heaped high as heaven, and God has remembered her iniquities." Revelation 18:4-5
The book of Revelation has long seemed under the exclusive control of those who read its powerful imagery as a blueprint for the imminent End. Bestsellers by the dozen lay out doomsday scenarios that revel in the death and destruction of unbelievers and the world they inhabit, while assuring "true" believers of their salvation via rapture. But is this the only way to read Revelation? Could these paranoid fantasies reflect the intention of Revelation's author? More important, do they truly express the Word of God for us today?
Revelation has attracted some strange bedfellows to its list of readers: Isaac Newton and D.H. Lawrence both wrote commentaries on it. Emily Dickinson and Hunter S. Thompson both claim Revelation as one of the texts most influential upon them as writers. And beneath the attention-grabbing interpretations of prophecy writers, a wide variety of readings of Revelation have been produced in recent years from a diversity of scholarly and faith perspectives. Revelation is a rich text. Any one reading, including this one, cannot exhaust its meaning. What we can do, though, is attempt to read it first of all from the viewpoint of the world in which it was written and proclaimed: the world of Asia Minor within the Roman Empire of the late first century of the common era.
The Historical Setting
Revelation was written to the "angels" of ekklesiai in seven cities in Asia Minor, now present-day Turkey. The term ekklesiai is usually translated "churches," but our modern sense of this term as comprising an established institution or at least a dedicated building misses the point of why John of Patmos used this term to describe the fledgling bands of Christians. Ekklesiai were the local political assemblies of the Greek city-states, similar to modern-day city councils. In calling the Christian communities ekklesiai, John was establishing that these bodies were intended to be the basis for a new social order, replacing the ekklesiai that were grounded in his day in the Roman Empire mythos.
Why were these seven ekklesiai selected? Certainly not for their sanctity; the messages found in Revelation 2-3 are harshly critical of some of the ekklesiai, while affirming of others. They were probably chosen in part because of the author's penchant for the sacred number seven, which is used 60 times in the book. The cities of the ekklesiai form a loose circuit that is headed by Ephesus, the Asian seaport that was a key locale for Roman international trade.
Christians were a tiny minority in the Hellenistic culture that dominated the Mediterranean region. For example, one author suggests that there may have been around 100,000 residents in Roman Corinth, and between 60 to 100 Christians. To be a Christian in the Empire's cities in the first century was to be a member of an extremely marginalized sect. Just as members of unusual religious groups are often looked upon with suspicion in our culture, the Hellenistic neighbors of these Christians viewed them with curiosity at best and contempt at worst.
A major aspect of civic life among Roman cities was competition for honor and status in the eyes of the imperial elite. Contrary to popular belief, Roman government did not impose emperor worship or other aspects of Roman religion on the people of the provinces. Rather, provincials competed with one another to show which could curry the most favor with Rome. This was done in several public ways: building temples and monuments to Roman gods and goddesses, displaying busts and other symbols of the emperor and his family, and holding "games" that included a large amount of public ritual and ceremony designed to display loyalty and honor to the emperor. Roman cities hoped that their display of zeal would produce the fruit of Roman funds that enriched the cities' local elites.
Those who would not participate in the civic cult were ostracized in various ways. One could be refused invitations to social events, have one's business boycotted, or, in extreme cases, be turned in to the local authorities as a criminal. For the most part, it appears that Christians did not suffer these consequences for a simple reason: They generally went along with the social expectations of their cities and participated in the cultic activities.
Paul's correspondence with the Corinthian Christian community reveals one struggle over this question of cultural assimilation. Should Christians eat meat offered as sacrifices in temples dedicated to Roman gods? Paul walks a fine line between commanding total abstinence and allowing total accommodation (1 Corinthians 8-10). It was apparently surprising for the new Corinth Christians to appreciate the extent to which their commitment to Jesus might call for resistance to the cultural norms around them.
John of Patmos faced a similar struggle in Roman Asia. Unlike Paul, he did not write in the form of Hellenistic correspondence. Instead, he had a powerful visionary experience that led him to compose the book of Revelation within the tradition of biblical apocalyptic. Although the form was much different, the question remained the same: What is the proper relationship between Christians and the culture around them?
Removing the Veil
The word "apocalypse" comes from the Greek word meaning "to remove the veil." It suggests that "ordinary" reality is separated from a different reality, a "God's-eye" perspective on the present that is normally hidden. The image is not that of a brick wall, but of a thin, filmy gauze. Just beyond our perception lies an entirely different view. Apocalyptic writing refers to this perspective as "heaven." A major problem in the prophecy readings of apocalyptic literature is the confusion of the normal time-and-space language of daily life with the metaphorical imagery of apocalyptic thought. A reader of Revelation who attempts to construct a literal world from its swirling visions of past and future, heaven and earth, must either ignore the paradoxes or twist the text into bizarre scenarios. John, though, expects his audience to be familiar with the conventions of apocalyptic literature, which means understanding that "heaven" is not either in the sky or after death but co-present with daily life, hidden only by a veil.
John's authority comes not from being a famous apostle or holding some ecclesial office, but from the power of his vision and his sharing in his audience's suffering (Revelation 1:9-11). He is one of them, distinguished only by the wisdom he has been given as a gift from "heaven." Like Daniel before him, John offers his listeners a God's-eye perspective on their situation that is otherwise unavailable to them.
Holy, Holy, Holy
The major theme of Revelation is simple but terrifying in its implications: Worship God! (Revelation 19:10, 22:9). As a Christian text, John's vision adds one element to this basic biblical injunction: "'To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!' And the four living creatures said, 'Amen!' And the elders fell down and worshiped" (Revelation 5:13-14). It is God and the crucified Lamb who are worthy of worship. The consequence, of course, is that neither angels nor demons, emperor nor emporium are to share as recipients in that worship.
The command to worship God alone goes back to the Deuteronomic prayer, the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-6), which Israelites were to recite incessantly to remind them of their covenant commitment. How hard it is to practice this "simple" commandment! For Israelites and for Christians, the greatest temptation is to forego exclusive worship of Yahweh in favor of the desire to be loved and accepted by one's neighbors and other citizens. Whether struggling over monarchy (1 Samuel 8), honor (Luke 14:12-14), family (Mark 3:32-35), or money (Mark 10:17-27), the urge to do the socially acceptable thing rather than to stand out from the crowd has been a perennial problem for biblical people.
John's audience faced this struggle in the context of the imperial cult practices of their Asian cities. The command he received from the angel was to "write in a book what you see"remove the veil that had allowed the Asian Christians to accommodate to the Empire's dominant culture. The effect of lifting the veil was powerful. What had seemed like simple, daily life choices were revealed to be aspects of a cosmic battle between the angels of Satan and those of God. To collaborate with Roman ways was not an innocuous act, but an act of intercourse with a prostitute (Babylon). In place of citizenship in a degraded city filled with violence and greed, John's vision offered his audience an alternative residence: New Jerusalem "coming down from heaven" (Revelation 21:2, 10). We cannot forget that this choice was not then and is not now between "earth" and "heaven" in the mundane sense of "this life" and "afterlife." The apocalyptic form tells us that John is presenting the Asian Christians with an option that confronts them each moment of their lives. To which "city" will they give allegiance: the prostitute, Babylon, or the bride, New Jerusalem?
FROM THIS PERSPECTIVE, many of Revelation's otherwise difficult symbols make sense. Throughout the text, John ruthlessly mocks imperial pretensions to ultimacy by caricaturing the Empire as a shameless whore who imagines herself to be beautiful (Revelation 17:3-5, for example). Despite the apparent power of Rome's military and economic might, John says, "she" is just another street hooker, trying desperately to lure people into her control. Why consort with such a foul creature, John says, when one can choose the "bride" adorned with divine glory?
To the ordinary eye, John's vision is ridiculous. The Empire holds the real power. When Jesus tried to resist it, he was mocked, tortured, and crucified. Such will be the fate of any who dare to stand against the brutal logic of imperial "persuasion." And indeed, John does not deny that Jesus' followers will likely be subject to the same "honor." This is precisely where the apocalyptic perspective calls one to see beyond the surface of life to the reality hidden just behind the veil. In the end, all empiresBabylon's, Rome's, and today's global capital empirewill fall and return to dust. It is God alone whose strength is enduring.
And thus one finds that the cardinal apocalyptic virtue is endurance (Greek, hupomene); active, public resistance that does not shrink in the face of imperial threats and punishments. To endure is to remain faithful, to stick to one's baptismal commitment to offer worship only to God and to the slaughtered Lamb, the only one found "worthy" to open and read the scroll of history (Revelation 5:2-12). Jesus "read" the history of Israel and understood what no one else did: The Empire is not to be compromised with, accommodated to, or fought against with weapons of destruction. Rather, Jesus defeats the Beast with the two weapons God provides: The "sword" from his mouth (Revelation 1:16, 2:16) and his faithful witness (Revelation 1:5, 3:14). To become a citizen of New Jerusalem is to follow in these footsteps.
As always, the "sharp, two-edged sword" of God's Word does not offer easy comfort. Instead, it calls us to repentance, resistance, and trust that, despite all appearances to the contrary, the world is in the hands of a good and loving God who reaches out to say, "I will be their God and they will be my children" (Revelation 21:7).
Wes Howard-Brook was an author and activist living in Seattle when this article appeared.