“Revelation and Sacred Imagination”

Revelation 1
July 17, 2022
Matt Goodale

Welcome to the book of Revelation: one of the strangest, most controversial, and I would add, most universally misunderstood books of the Bible. It’s a book where Christ appears as a terrifying warrior clad in white, where Satan is a great red dragon waiting to devour a newborn child and where a character known only as the “Whore of Babylon” is astride a scarlet beast with seven heads and ten horns, drunken with the blood of the saints. Oh and there’s also a lake of fire and brimstone opening up, ready to consume a long catalog of unbelievers.

Some of the images in Revelation are the stuff of nightmares, and other images are just plain weird. There’s a reason why this book has invited so much intrigue and attention over the centuries—because everyone wants to know what the heck this book is about.

I had a professor in seminary who would joke about how pastors should be required to obtain a special license before they are allowed to preach from the book of Revelation (don’t worry, I have mine). He said it as a joke, but I don’t think he was fully joking. Because I’m sure we’ve all heard those interpretations of the book of Revelation that seem designed to prey on the gullible and the curious.

In our present context, Revelation is treated mostly as a code book that needs to be deciphered in order to figure out how exactly the world is going to end. Because Revelation in Greek is apocalypsis–apocalypse. And that’s why the book was written, we’re told by pastors and bloggers, in order to clue in the faithful few who can decipher its meaning so they can read the signs of the times and know when and how everything is going to end.

Most of these pastors and bloggers who have “the key” to unlocking the book’s meaning tend to foretell the end times as a violent struggle with lots of death and war, usually ending in some sort of rapture or separation of believers and unbelievers before the world and everything God created is eventually burned up and destroyed in order to start over again. That’s the version I hear most often.

You want to know something really funny? I don’t know if you knew this, but the books that fill our Bible were at one point voted on by church councils, who prayed and discerned whether the books were inspired, edifying, in line with the creeds and theology of the early church. And guess what? The book of Revelation was barely included in the New Testament. It was narrowly squeezed into the Bible in the fourth century.

And you want to know why it almost wasn’t added? Because in the fourth century, just about 200 years after this book was written, they had no idea what it meant! But they decided to add the book with the stipulation that it couldn’t be used to create any new theology, but could only be used as a book of worship.

And so it gives me pause when preachers and bloggers claim, 2000 years after it was written, that they know exactly what this book means, when the early church fathers weren’t even sure what it meant just 200 years after it was written! If nothing else that should give us an ounce of humility as we approach the book.

So no, I’m very sorry to disappoint, but as we go through this series I won’t be interpreting visions of Apache helicopters, I won’t make any guesses about which politician or pope is the anti-Christ, nor will I try to discern for you what the mark of the beast is.

But I will tell you that this book is still as important and relevant as ever, and it has a lot to offer us. But in order for this book to offer us anything, we need to know how to read it responsibly, and how to read it on its own terms.

And the first chapter tips us off as to how this book should be read. So let’s take a look at how this chapter introduces the whole book.

First of all, and perhaps most importantly, did you notice who this book was written to? “To the seven churches in Asia Minor.” In other words, this book is a letter, written to real people in real churches who are dealing with very real issues around the end of the first century AD. So right off the bat, we need to recognize that we are reading somebody else’s mail. This wasn’t written to us!

So to claim that this is some code book that when deciphered properly will tell us sensational truths about our times…is a bit ridiculous. Because if that was really the case…if this book really was written to prophecy the future 2000 years later…then this book would be completely worthless to the people it was actually written to.

Let me frame it this way: back at the start of Covid, around mid-summer of 2020, imagine if there was some important pastor who wrote a letter to encourage churches and give them hope…

And imagine they wrote something to this effect: “I know it’s hard, but we’ll make it through this pandemic; be patient, stick with it because guess what? I’ve seen a vision and it should give you hope. God is providing us with a vaccine. This vaccine will allow people to return to their lives, be with their families, put their kids back in schools. And this vaccine will be available in 2000 years. Praise God! Be hopeful!” If that happened we’d probably crumple up the letter and throw it away. It would be worthless. What kind of hope would that be to us in our present situation?

So we need to remember that this book is a letter written to provide hope and encouragement to very real people in Asia minor who are suffering major persecution and terror—and I’ll really dive into that context next week. But that also doesn’t mean this letter has nothing to offer us 2000 years later—because it does.

And we also learn from this first chapter, that this letter is written by John, maybe the same John who was a disciple of Jesus. And John, we’re told, is in exile on a small island of Patmos, exiled by Rome. So we know three things about John.

One: he’s an enemy of the state. The Roman empire doesn’t like what he’s been preaching…so he is exiled. Hmm, interesting.

Two: we know that John is first and foremost a pastor. He’s writing to seven churches to encourage, to provide hope and to help them understand what is going on in their current context.

He introduces his letter as “the revelation from Jesus Christ.” In Greek: the apocalypsis of Jesus Christ. This letter is all about apocalypse. But not the type of apocalypse you and I are used to hearing about in Hollywood and online blogs. Because in Greek, apocalypsis doesn’t mean “end of the world.” That’s what it’s come to mean…but that is most certainly not what it used to mean.

In Greek, the word apocalypse literally means uncovering or unveiling or disclosing. A true apocalypse is all about things being revealed for what they actually are. John’s letter reveals how Rome is like a dragon that kills and devours…it reveals Christ as a slaughtered lamb who suffers in solidarity with the churches…it reveals the trajectory of where God is taking us and creation. Apocalyptic writing like this pulls back the curtain of reality and says, “Look, Jesus is still Lord. No matter what has happened or is about to happen, Jesus is still in charge. It may seem like Rome is in charge, but let me tell you, that’s not the case.”

And John wasn’t the only biblical author who wrote about apocalypse or of things being laid bare. “When the writers of the Bible wrote about this laying bare, it was with the anticipation of everything being made right, put back in place, restored. It was a hopeful, buoyant, joyous expectation that there is still a better future for the world.” (Rob Bell)

So as we read Revelation, remember that this book is a letter written from a pastor to his churches. He is writing to give hope, to give direction, to provide encouragement to a church ravaged by the Roman Empire.

And third: we learn from this first chapter that John is a poet. He is a master of metaphor and story, of imagination and playfulness.

Now, I’ve never been a big fan of poetry. I tend to not get it. Other people will read a poem and be like “Whoa that’s deep.” And I’m thinking, “I have no idea what I was supposed to get from that.”

The problem, I’ve realized, is that I expect a poem to give me the same thing as say a good nonfiction book or an article. I want it to give me more information. I want to learn something from it that I can then take away and summarize or put to use. But as I’ve been learning, that’s not how poetry works.

Pastor Eugene Peterson, wrote that “A poet uses words not to explain something, and not to describe something, but to make something. Poetes means “to make” in Latin. Poetry is not the language of objective explanation but the language of imagination. [Poetry] makes an image of reality [that] invites our participation in it. We do not have more information after we read a poem, we have more experience.” (Eugene Peterson).

A poet, like a great storyteller or a rabbi who speaks in parables, is not intent on giving you more information, but is set on inviting your participation. And therein lies the reason why most people botch (misread) the book of Revelation. Because like me, in our age of information and technology; of self-help books and 24/7 news cycles, we are gluttons for information.

And so I’ve been learning how to approach the book of Revelation differently than I used to. As one of my mentors once said, we read Revelation not “to gain more information, but to revive [our] imagination.” (Eugene Peterson)

Imagination. Something that many of us probably haven’t exercised since elementary school. As we grow up and become adults we assume that imagination is for children—sure we partake it in for leisure with a good book or movie—but when we grow up, we buy into the boring lie that reality is shaped not by imagination, but by logic, numbers and cold-hard objective facts—tangible things we can hold onto and prove and find assurance from.

And if that’s how we’re used to thinking, then Revelation won’t make much sense. Because Revelation is “a work of intense imagination that pulls [us] into a world of sky battles between angels and beasts, lurid punishments and glorious salvations, kaleidoscopic vision and cosmic song.” (Peterson) It is a world that invites us to become like little children again. To suspend our anxious need for “the facts of reality”, and to instead recapture our imagination and primal affirmation about who God created us to be, full of dreams for a fuller life and hopes for a better world.

One of the greatest stories told in the last century is J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Whether you read the books or watched the movies, Tolkien, like a poet, weaves an incredible world and invites us into it. It is a world of wizards and hobbits, magnificent eagles and terrifying orcs. The world he creates is of course not real. Nothing in those books ever happened or is going to happen. And yet the reason this story has been so transcendent is because it is full of timeless truths. Like the power of friendship to overcome evil. Like the sacrifice that doing the right thing requires of you. Like the buoyancy of hope in the midst of dark times.

Lord of the Rings is of course not real. And yet it is true. And each time we allow our imagination to pull us back into that world, we find that we are becoming participants in those timeless truths.

The book of Revelation was written, I believe, to do just that. To invite us into its world, to stoke our imaginations, to pull us in as participants to experience the horror and the hope, the grief and the victory, the suffering and the love.

Because when we allow our imaginations to draw us into new spaces, we might find that our reality—which is so often summed up by logic, numbers and cold-hard facts—could use a little more imagination.

Imagination is not a child’s game. It is a gift from God that allows us to see through the everyday humdrum existence of our lives. It allows us to pull back the curtain to reveal a reality that is vibrant with life, gushing with hope and effervescent with love. This reality behind the curtain is what Jesus called the kingdom of God. It’s not a reality we often see; the familiarity of our everyday living dulls us to it. But imagination, the way John invites us to use it, opens our eyes to a reality that is teeming with future possibilities. Imagination pulls back the curtain of our humdrum everyday lives to reveal something more than what we thought was there.

With a little more imagination, our eyes are opened to see that yardwork is an act of creation care; with imagination, our eyes allow us to see physical exercise not as a means of having a good-looking body, but as a means of using what God gave us. Imagination helps us see daily chores as a way to love our spouse; to see the endless ways our money can be used to care for somebody else. Imagination helps us to work through our grief and pain, as we imagine with hope what a life can look like that incorporates and redeems our losses.

Imagination helps us see that the fullness of our life is not determined by how much money we have in the bank, but by our ability to hope and dream and love and laugh. Imagination reminds us that the future of our world is not predetermined by politicians nor supreme courts nor any powers that be, but that our future is held in earnest by God, who invites us to join him in the work of bringing God’s kingdom here, now.

John invites us, much like Jesus did, to become like one of these little children, to read and live and think and love with a little more imagination for what the future holds. Because every time you live in hopeful anticipation of God’s kingdom, you’re taking part in that future dream now. Amen and may it be so.