Often, so-called Evangelical approaches to scripture are like a man who wants to study flowers and so glues a microscope to his face in order see better. And, without a doubt, he can see better. Details appear that invite increasing the magnification even more. Now more detail appears. So look even closer. Amazing.
But increased detail may obscure more than it reveals.
Look through at magnified detailed close enough long enough and a man may loose interest in looking at the flower. In the end, he becomes merely an educated technician of minutiae. Perhaps he could become a noted lecturer in floral reproductive systems.
So, step back from verse by verse study for a moment. Instead, listen to the Book of Revelation. Listen with other believers. Let it project its images in your shared imaginations. Let the words tell their own story without pausing to cipher its cryptic images or oddities in its Greek syntax. Imagine, instead, standing in some quiet room with other believers in ancient Asia Minor and just listening with fresh ears while the words are read aloud.
What you will hear is the great account of the ultimate worship war. In hearing the dramatic images describe, your mind is lifted into a cascading, even frightening, world of thundering sounds, dazzling scenes, horrendous carnage, and triumphant celebration. Monsters as frightening as Beowulf’s Grendel or Stoker’s Dracula, explode on the scene, seeking and gaining the worship of many. Against these comes forth the lamb-lion-word-warrior-judge-redeemer-alpha-omega-king of kings and lord of lords, for whom, willing or no, submission is given amidst resounding choruses joining the eternal sanctus sanctus sanctus before a renewed and restored creation.
This is how it happened for me. Here’s the story.
It was a crisp clear October night in Adirondack mountains of upstate New York. I sat, with Linda, before a small campfire. A needed vacation from those hectic first five years of ministry. We had rented a campsite in the mountains. Getting away in order to get back. So, we had also decided to listen each evening to a book of the Bible read aloud under the stars. It was the era when audio Bibles were just becoming widely available (yes, there was such a time). Without any real forethought, this was the first book we chose.
As the words of John came from the speaker, I listened. But, as the thoughts and images were being described, untangled now by the mental processes of translating printing shapes to words - freed from the unnatural presence of verses and chapters. I began to listen with what Eugene Peterson once called new ears.
As I did, with the letters to the churches, giving way to the dazzling worship of God in the midst of the living beings, the elders, and his creation, the scene took form in my mind. Rainbow. Sea. Myriads of voices. A scroll with seven seals. The despair. And then, at the deepest moment of despair and anguish, the Lamb enters the scene, and the worship that erupts thunders across space and time. Against the black sky and stars of that Adirondack night, scenes flowed from one into another. Wonderful. Terrible. Comforting. Frightening.
I did not understand what I was seeing, but by now I was caught. Captured. Caught not by the words or printed text or conundrums over unexpected vocabulary, but by that which these now carried. The cassette speakers no longer amplifying words, but, bringing thunder and voices and ideas and scenes in which I was standing, no longer as auditor, but as an observer. And, finally, as a participant. Until, at last, I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war. Eyes like fire. On his head are many kingly crowns and his name is the Word of God.
And then, the long silence after the last great plea, “Come, Lord Jesus.” Silence that was too full to be held even a single comment. But, I would have had no words to say. I had no sudden new insight as to typological meaning or literary structure. None of the perplexing images generated in my mind came with a Lawson translation. But, even without understanding, the images remained. I finally believed I understood the nature of the blessing promised to those who hear and keep what is written in this book.
It was not a blessing promised to the scholarly or even literate. It was not a blessing promised only to those able to decipher. It was not the blessing of foresight or prediction. It was not simply the blessing of triumph over tragedy, although that is a lasting truth. It was, rather, the blessing of worship.
To young churches faced with the cult of emperor worship now driven by Domitian’s insatiable ego, and surrounded by the impressive splendor of both Græco-Roman and Oriental spectacle, the questions would be obvious. Hurrying past these signs of a wealthy and decadent paganism, the Spartan gatherings of these religious outcasts could be seen as only the visible symbols of helplessness in the face of empire. An empire whose fierce omnipotence rose like some great beast out of the sea.
But, in the reality those ancient believers experienced in hearing and imagining John’s visions, theirs was not a small gathering of the poor and powerless. Ultimately, they were not the helpless victims of empire. In listening and imagining, they would have been carried to places and scenes before which the temples of emperors and rituals of Dionysus faded to dull insignificance. They saw a reality in which their religio illiciti had become religio de Christus victor.
But, I know those who value detailed verse by verse exegesis will till object. After all, what value can there be in listening to images and events whose subtle apocalyptic meaning we still cannot reliably decipher?
A little boy sitting on a jet, returning from a long trip, does not need to understand how the plane flies in order to look out the window in wide-eyed wonder. Even then, seeing clouds and mountains and the patterns of fields and crops, the boy does not need to know the names of the landmarks. He does not even need to know where he is at that particular moment. But, as he gazes out the window, he is not worried. Everything he sees tells him the only thing that matters. He’s on his way home.