Notes on Revelation

[As I was going through my files, I found this draft that written four years ago. As it has about 24 hours of relevance left, I’m publishing it now. Happy New Year.]

When I teach Revelation 1-11 to my youth Sunday School class, I’ll probably start off by saying something about gasoline.

Gasoline is powerful stuff. You can drive an average-sized car with an average-sized tank well over 400 miles using gasoline. A little goes a long way. But if you start splashing gasoline around your house and light a match, the whole thing will go up in flames within minutes, and the fire department won’t be able to do much when it arrives except sift through the ashes.

Expectation of the end time is spiritual gasoline. It can be spectacularly destructive, or it can be a powerful driving force. Given the Church’s strong commitments to situating itself in the world’s latter days, we can’t avoid dealing with the end time altogether, but we need to treat it carefully, as church leaders have generally done beginning with Joseph Smith. Calculating dates for the Second Coming based on Revelation of Daniel isn’t our style. As with many things in the scriptures, the challenge is to preserve the concreteness and power of the message instead of turning it into vague platitudes, but without going to fanatic excess. Jesus taught some radical, even impossible things – give away all you have, forgive endlessly, be born again – and we shouldn’t reduce them to “be nice and kind.” Water is a very safe liquid, but if you fill your gas tank with water, you will not drive far. So we need to treat Revelation in a way that provides spiritual power, but without burning our houses down.

The book of Revelation meant something to early Christians, but we can’t simply say that Revelation is all about the first century and has nothing to do with us or the end of the world. Nephi’s Vision in the Book of Mormon commits us to the legitimacy of an eschatological reading of Revelation rather than a strictly historical one.

And that’s a good thing, since it is the apocalypticism of Revelation that makes it so important. It’s easy to think of Revelation as that one weird book at the end of the New Testament, but apocalypticism is actually the glue that connects the later books of the Old Testament, intertestamental Jewish writing, and the Book of Mormon. The end time is a thread that runs throughout the New Testament, from Matthew 24 to the later epistles to Revelation. We miss something essential about the book and its connection to other scripture if we deny its relevance to our own time and to times yet to come.

“Apocalypse,” as you have probably already heard, is from a Greek word for “unveiling” or “uncovering,” but an apocalypse reveals a few specific things. It reveals that the world as we know it will eventually end, possibly sooner than we think. We can see this happen in small ways fairly often. Today, high school is important to you; your teachers and grades matter; you’re invested in your clubs and teams. In six months, or two years (which is to say, in nearly no time at all), it will be over and will matter very little, if at all. The same is true of college and careers and government and geopolitics. I grew up with a world organized into the free and democratic Us and the totalitarian Them, with the Berlin Wall separating us and mutual destruction only a matter of time until someone miscalculated. That was the world I lived in – until one day in 1989, it wasn’t. The end of the world is not always a bad thing.

I’m not saying none of these things matter – far from it. They all matter tremendously, including high school. An apocalypse also reveals that the things we do every day have cosmological significance. At school or work or anywhere else, we make choices that are part of a long struggle between good and evil, mostly fought in our hearts.

So John’s situation as author of Revelation is not entirely unlike our own. He has seen the attempt to establish Christian communities around the Mediterranean meet with some success, and much failure. The early church had already been subject to intense persecution, with worse to come, and powerful opponents looming and a measure of success still centuries in the future. Revelation is not just a coded statement about first-century Palestine or about the twenty-first century: it lays out a pattern with relevance to both and provides a model for how we can deal with the world ending (as it usually seems to be doing). When the world is ending (in ways both great and small), fear, opposition, and uncertainty are part of the territory. But the message of Revelation is ultimately hopeful. God is greater than any power that opposes him. Sacrifices will be rewarded. There is safety and salvation in Jesus.

5 comments for “Notes on Revelation

  1. Beautiful post. I’m glad it made it to publication after marinating for so long, haha.

  2. Thanks, John M. The category that worries me more are the things I’m certain I posted at some point, but now I can’t find a trace of them anywhere online and my local copy stops after the first paragraph.

  3. Jonathan: One thing that works for me is Google searching within the website. For example, if you google [insert word you remember using here] then it google searches just within timesandseasons, and I find that it’s much more effective for finding that post way back when than WordPress’ native search function.

  4. Stephen, until you mentioned it, I didn’t realize there was a WordPress search box. Weirdly, the post turns up there, but not in Google or even the search box (it looks like it’s from a gap in the coverage). It looks like our older archives may not be visible to Google.

  5. I think the Book of Revelation also has great importance as a temple text. It’s a window into the mysteries–and as such it helps the Latter-day Saints feel a continuity of sorts vis-a-vis temple worship from earlier times.

Comments are closed.