Revelation and Rapture

My cousin Jack wrote today, asking for some suggestions for Bible study materials. His small group from church wants to spend some time in "The Revelation to John" (the last book of the New Testament). My response to him was probably ten times longer than what he had hoped to have to read (poor guy...), but I thought it was worth posting here for your information. "The Revelation to John" is best known to us through the Eucharistic Liturgy that we use on Sunday mornings.

Worthy is Christ, the Lamb who was slain, whose blood set us free to be people of God. Power and riches and wisdom and strength, and honor and blessing and glory are his. Sing with all the people of God and join in the hymn of all creation: Blessing and honor and glory and might be to God and the lamb forever. Amen. For the lamb who was slain has begun his reign. Alleluia. Revelation 5:9-13

It is a strong word for those of us who put our hope in Christ. Sadly, through the years, this book has been used to support all sorts of odd (and sharply "un-Christian") beliefs. But we would do well to study it more thoughtfully. It invites us to put our trust in God instead of anything else, and assures us that in doing so, we will receive the gifts of hope and peace.

Hey Jack,

Revelation, eh? That’s one of the most interesting books in the whole New Testament. Lutherans (and Catholics) quote it in our liturgy more than any other book of the Bible, but it is sadly misunderstood by many Christians, including no small number of them who write books about it.

What many people don’t realize is that Revelation is apocalyptic writing — a form of writing that was common in the first century. There are other examples in our Bible: Daniel, for instance, or the 13th chapter of Mark (“The Little Apocalypse of Mark”).  It includes, as does “The Revelation to John” (or “The Apocalypse” as some Bibles call it), fantastic images of beasts and wars and natural disasters. It is a type of writing that emerges in desperate times, like the end of the first century when Nero was impaling Christians to be used as torches in his gardens, and throwing them to the lions for sport.

Some people today have concluded that it is a code book that can reveal the future to us if we read it correctly. That is only half right. It is a code book of sorts, but one that refers to the first century, not the 21st century. In those days, Christians saw no earthly  hope of survival, so they came to believe that their only hope was that God would wipe the slate clean, destroy their oppressor, and start all over again. The vision given to St. John was a vision intended to give them hope. The imagery suggests first century realities (for instance, the seven-headed demon is thought to refer to the seven-hilled city of Rome), and speaks in secret language, because if a Christian was ever to be found in possession of a book that described God destroying the Roman Empire, he or she would pretty quickly begin to illumine Nero’s garden or feed Nero’s lions. The basic message of Revelation is that in a hopeless time, there is hope to be found in Christian faith.

In the 70s and 80s, writers imagined that the U.S.S.R. was the beast. I felt sorry for them when the wall came down, worried that they would be embarrassed publicly by being so wrong. But I shouldn’t have been worried: they weren’t embarrassed — they only rewrote all their books, insisting that now China or Iraq or some other modern-day opponent of the Gospel is the beast, and they have became wealthy selling another crop of books.

Revelation can be a very powerful book for us, if we read it to be inspired by the hope of the early church. If we read it, imagining that God is telling the future through it, we’ll only be drawn into silly imaginations that have little to do with the Biblical message. (Some time, I’ll drop my defenses and tell you what I really think… <g>)

One of those silly imaginations is the concept of the rapture. It is a theory that first arose in the early 19th Century and is associated with people like Edward Irving, Margaret Macdonald, and John Darby. It describes a distant God, who uses terror to coerce people to believe out of fear, in order to protect themselves from danger (quite a contrast with the Biblical portrayal of Christ!). A thoughtful study of Revelation discounts the theory of Rapture fairly quickly.

The best book I’ve read on Revelation is by Barbara Rossing (The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation; ISBN: 0813343143). You could read it a chapter at a time and study it together, or google the title — there are a number study guides available for her book through the internet.

I’ve attached a pdf from our church in Fargo that offers some additional resources. I haven’t used it, but the book by Bruce Metzger ( Breaking the Code: Understanding the Book of Revelation; VT 1628) looks very interesting — I think I’ll order it and read it myself. He was a brilliant Biblical Scholar (not Lutheran), and I’ve always been impressed with his insights.

Our denomination has also produced some studies. I’ve not reviewed them personally, but know about the authors, and would be inclined to trust them. They include:

So that’s probably way more than you wanted to know, but ask a preacher a question and you get a sermon, right?

Good luck with the football game this weekend. [Author's note: Virginia Tech (where my cousin and his wife studied) plays Wake Forest (where their son, Erik, studied) this weekend.] We’ll be watching to see who prevails. Great, as always, to hear from you.

Cousin Dave