Reading Revelation on the verge of a pandemic

Reading Revelation on the verge of a pandemic

It sounds strange, but I teach an entire course on the Apocalypse.

That’s the Greek word (apocalypsis) for the Book of Revelation.

To be clear, I’m not the kind of Christian who owns detailed charts on the “end times.” I don’t watch prophecy shows on Christian Cable (except for the hair and makeup). And I don’t have a backyard bunker filled with firearms, homemade scrolls, and MREs.

But I am a dad, and the threat of a coronavirus pandemic has made me a little nervous.

Last night, I foolishly read a blog post entitled, “The Pandemic is Coming!” and then dreamt that I had to protect our children from the viral equivalent of Season One of The Walking Dead. (I was Rick Grimes, in case you’re wondering.)

THE APOCALYPSE OF ANXIETY

One might think teaching a course on the Apocalypse would prepare me for such times. But alas, I can sometimes be as prone to catastrophizing as the next person.

When I walked through the Los Angeles airport last week, my wife smiled at me for holding a bottle of hand sanitizer like it were a vial of holy water.

Should the book of Revelation help with these anxieties?

Or is its function primarily to scare the holy Hades out of us?

Unlike some purveyors of Christian fan fiction, I do not think the Apocalypse is primarily a code to be cracked about the end of the world, a still-future “Antichrist” (a word that never appears in the text), the rapture, or the founding of the United Nations.

Revelation is written to seven first-century churches in Asia Minor, each wrestling with the affluence, idolatry, political upheaval, and (impending) persecution of the Roman Empire. (See here and here for an accessible introduction.)

John’s message is not that these churches will escape tumult, but that the way forward involves the posture of the Lamb rather than the way of the Dragon. Some parts of the book are scary, or just strange (Chapter 17 includes a drunken prostitute riding an amphibious assault beast tattooed with naughty names [vss 1–3]).

Although John isn’t taken physically “out” of the world of fire and plague, he is taken spiritually “up” to glimpse the heavenly throne. A powerful worship service ensues (ch. 4), but as the choruses conclude, John’s worry returns (sound familiar?). He weeps and weeps when confronted with a “scroll” associated with the events of the future:

no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or even look inside it (5:3).

John’s anxiety is our anxiety—especially in times of global uncertainty.

We wonder what will happen next. Will peace be taken from the earth? Will the church be swayed by political idolatry, affluent pride, or the threat of persecution? Will kings and paupers be laid low?

Uncertainty over the future makes John weep.

Then comes an answer:

one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.” Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne… (5:5–6).

DON’T WASTE THE APOCALYPSE

Many things in Revelation are unclear. Which prophecies were fulfilled “soon” after the book’s writing (1:1), and which ones await the future? The Apocalypse does not come with a decoder ring.

Still, I agree with Dennis Johnson, who authored an excellent introductory commentary on the book:

Our interpretation of Revelation must be driven by the difference God intends it to make in the life of his people. If we could explain every phrase, identify every allusion to Old Testament Scripture or Greco-Roman society, trace every interconnection, and illumine every mystery in this book and yet were silenced by the intimidation of public opinion, terrorized by the prospect of suffering, enticed by affluent Western culture’s promise of “security, comfort, and pleasure,” then we would not have begun to understand the Book of Revelation.

Our only safety lies in seeing the ugly hostility of the enemy clearly and clinging fast to our Champion and King, Jesus.

To ignore this takeaway is to waste the Apocalypse–and to miss the forest for the flowcharts.

CONCLUSION

I have no idea, of course, whether fears of a global pandemic will come true, or whether this year’s flu will kill more people than the coronavirus. (Thankfully, it does seem that the mortality rate is not as bad as it could be.)

But if there is a benefit to teaching Revelation during times of global anxiety, it is the reminder that God’s people have been here before.

It is a modern myth that health and prosperity are guaranteed by science, medicine, prosperity, technology, and military might: Just ask Babylon the Great (18:2).

Regardless of the viral spread of fear and other pathogens, the overriding takeaway of Revelation is that the final “face covering” is not a medical mask but a wedding veil:

the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband (21:1-2).

 


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