Revelation Questions: Apocalypse Now!

             When you’re shooting baskets after youth group, you really never know what conversations are going to arise. This past week as a student and I were playing together, we got talking about gas prices, and this week’s big pipeline news story came up. The student asked me “have you heard the conspiracy theory about that!?” I hadn’t, but it only took a stab or two to guess what it was all about.
                In a world where we have way more access to news than is healthy, one of our favorite ways to make sense of things is through conspiracy theories. Our brains instinctively look for patterns and then we stitch all of this week’s headlines together in order to construct a story that makes sense of it all (and usually pins the blame one someone we don’t particularly care for). Everyone, religious or non-religious tends to do it; however, it happens surprisingly often in our Christian circles, and often, floating somewhere in that suspicious stew of news stories and theories is the book of Revelation.
                Growing up in Christian school in the 90’s, I saw the end of the Left Behind book series and the release of the movie adaption of it. If you’ve never read the story, it charts the lives of people who were “left behind” when God beamed up all the Christians, and they have to navigate the 7 year “tribulation period” and the rise of an eastern European Anti-Christ as he attempts to manipulate the middle east for his nefarious purposes and behave oddly like an action-movie villain. These images created in me a whole end-times imagination and left me constantly running back to the book of Revelation, reading it as the necessary cipher needed to interpret news headlines.
                Is that why we have this book? Lately it seems like a lot of us are interested in this book, but are we coming to it with the right questions in mind? This Summer, I thought I might take a look at some of the questions we try and ask the book of Revelation and see if those are actually the questions Revelation is interesting in answering. Today I thought we would just start with a quick one:
what can you tell me about the future?
             I want to be clear from the start, Revelation does at time concern future events. I don’t believe Heaven and Earth have been redeemed and restored yet, so the part about a new world must be future-oriented. Despite this, we often assume the main thrust of the book of Revelation is answering questions about the end of the world. It’s all about the apocalypse, right? Well, it is all about apocalypse… but we have to talk about what that word means. In Greek, the word we translate as apocalypse doesn’t have to do with the end of the world at all. Instead, it means “a revealing”. It was actually a popular genre of religious writing at the time. Authors would take the events that God’s people were experiencing in the here and now and then pull back the curtain to reveal the spiritual realities at work behind the scenes.
             In John’s day, the Christians of Asia Minor were beginning to feel the threat of the cult of the emperor. They were to worship the emperor of Rome as divine or face the consequences (often death). That’s who this book was written to, so its worth asking, what questions were they asking? In the midst of their plight, their question for God was not “what can you tell me about the end of the world?”, but instead, “how can you help me make sense of the suffering I am now experiencing?” In their pain they were understandably questioning whether or not their trust in Jesus was in vain. Through the prophet John, Jesus communicates the words of the Revelation in order to pull back the curtain on the world around them and show them the true reality behind their suffering.
             Instead of looking forward, the prophet John looks back. He recalls the words of the Old Testament prophets, and filters them through the revelation of Jesus. The book of Revelation answers the questions that the suffering church had by reminding them that the victorious Messianic King of the Old Testament did in fact overcome his enemies by suffering and dying for them. Not only that, but he recognized that it was in fact dark forces of spiritual evil that animated them, and reminds us that our true enemy are not our flesh-and-blood oppressors. His reassurance is that Jesus has in fact conquered, and so we too, by suffering, will ultimately overcome.
             Rather than primarily focusing us forward, the book of revelation gives us new eyes to look at our present with. Rather than causing us to believe that we are this or that many years out from “the end times” due to the latest news headline and that we need to stockpile food and head for the hills, it reminds us that every painful news story is a result of beastly rulers and dark powers in our world, and that if we desire to overcome them as Christians, we must fight as Christ did- expecting to give up our lives for the sake of the message of his kingship. If current events drive you back to  the book of revelation this Summer, I would advise you to make this your first question. Don’t ask What details this book has for the future and how to prep for it; instead ask what the book reveals about the Christian life in every age, and how you can follow Christ even in the midst of suffering.
P.s. I usually include a song here, but this time, I thought I would include a video of  Jason Nightingale reciting the entire book of Revelation from memory. It's a time commitment, but it may be the most thrilling hour or two of your week!  (Ignore the glitches in the first few seconds of the video)

Dan Vandzura