Revelation is the scariest book in the Bible, says almost everyone. I just mentioned the word to my high school Sunday school class, and life long, baptized-as-a-baby Christians shuddered at the name. I asked if anyone had actually studied the book before, and two kiddos who grew up in other church traditions sheepishly raised their hands. One of the Lutheran gals, who had never even flipped through those terrible pages at the end of the Bible, cringed deep into her seat. “Ooooo, it gives me shivers just saying it – Revelation.”
Now, as a teacher of the beautiful good news of Jesus Christ, this wasn’t right. To have a whole classroom of young kids terrified of an entire book of the Bible, avoiding the words at all cost. A young man, excited to learn nearly everything about the Word of God, was less than thrilled to hear that we would be reading this one together. He tried in vain to excuse himself from a couple of months of Sunday morning youth study simply because he had been beaten over the head with these words before. Taking stock of the downcast and afraid faces that surrounded me, hovered around the table in our little church library that morning, it was clear that this was the perfect Bible Study to tackle next. I do not have this same aversion to the vision of the Apocalypse that St. John was instructed to write, and so I was immediately fascinated by their fear.
Now, I guess I take that back. I can imagine why there is so much fear associated with this book of the Bible. We have all heard snips and clips of the impending judgment day, whether you have read it or not. Plagues and horsemen, earthquakes and destruction, the end of the earth and life as we know it. I heard even more about it from our youth on that Sunday morning, fear and trembling used by bad teachers to shock these little ones into righteousness. I even hear a story about Revelation camp, where young happy minds were shipped off to purposely be scared into submission. If you don’t believe, they say, Revelation will get you. I began to envision the fire-breathing, drooling monster that most of my kiddos were hiding from who answered to the name “Revelation.”
Even Martin Luther, a great teacher and preserver of the Gospel of Jesus, admits that Revelation is a hard sell to understand and teach. He writes in the introduction to his commentary on Revelation, “Finally, let everyone think of it as his own spirit gives him to think. My spirit cannot fit itself into this book. There is one sufficient reason for me not to think highly of it, — Christ is not taught or known in it; but to teach Christ is the thing which an apostle is bound, above all else, to do, as He says in Acts 1:8, ‘Ye shall be my witnesses.’ Therefore, I stick to the books which give me Christ, clearly and purely.”
I’m not one to usually argue with dead Reformers about their scholarly opinions on books of the Bible, but today I wish Luther and I could talk it through. According to his own philosophies, returning to the source of God’s Holy Word alone, using Scripture to enlighten Scripture, centering the message of every God-breathed word on the cross of Christ, there is no better key to understanding St. John’s rich and comforting Revelation of Jesus Christ.
Contrary to Luther’s one sufficient reason for distaste, the very first three words of this book set the tone for the entire apocalyptic letter to follow. “The Revelation of Jesus Christ.” Ἀποκάλυψις Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ (Rev 1:1) Notice it is not a revelation of the scary end of the word, nor is it a revelation of what you should do to make your life more worthy to be spared, nor is it a revelation of obscure metaphors with no referent; this is a revelation of Jesus Christ.
This simple focus means all the difference. Images from the Old Testament prophets appear in Revelation – it’s about Jesus. Visions of victory at the same time death and tribulation overtake the world – it’s about Jesus. White robes covering all who have been washed in the blood of the Lamb, all who hear and cherish what God speaks no matter what he sees – it’s all about Jesus.
Yes, Luther certainly right, “stick to the books which give me Christ clearly and purely.” Revelation is not the place to start drinking the spiritual milk. But our deep heritage of discerning the Gospel of Jesus has prepared us well to receive this Revelation as comfort, not fear. We have been taught since Baptism to see with our ears and recognize the Gospel of Jesus is the center, even in Revelation.