The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants the things that must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw. (Revelation 1:1-2, ESV)
“Revelation”, the common english translation of the greek word “apocalypsis” (αποκαλυψις) which opens this text, is such a familiar term that its basic meaning is almost lost to our ears and eyes. Similarly, the term “apocalypse” has come to refer to any large-scale catastrophic event that threatens the extinction of humankind and life as we know it i.e. zombie apocalypse. (Pace Rick Grimes et al.)
But slow down and listen to the text. John’s first readers did not have this linguistic and cultural baggage hanging on these terms. They were not dispensationalists. There was no such thing as guns or atomic bombs. They had not heard of global warming. John and his early readers had their own linguistic and cultural milieu which shaped their understanding of the term “apocalypse” and the other terms, allusions, and images John uses throughout this prophetic letter to the Christian communities in first century Asia Minor. Like learning a new language, it takes some mental effort and yes some reading and research to understand and interpret an ancient text, including those included in our Scriptures.
At its heart, the term apocalypse means to unveil, to reveal, or to make manifest. It quite literally meant to pull back the curtain. The apocalyptic moment of The Wizard of Oz is not when the Wicked Witch releases her flying monkeys but when the little man behind the curtain is revealed and it is made manifest that the so-called Great and Powerful Oz is nothing more than smoke and mirrors and the performance of a con-man. The apocalyptic moment of the Star Wars trilogy is not the destruction of Alderaan but Darth Vader’s confession to Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back. The ending of M. Night Shymalan’s Sixth Senseis apocalypsis.
In an ironic twist, The Book of Revelation, the book of Unveiling has come to be associated with obfuscation, obscurity, and opacity rather than as the opening word which gave it its title suggests unveiling, revealing, and making manifest.
So, in John’s visions, what is unveiled? When the curtain is drawn back, what is revealed? In the series of visions which Jesus Christ gives to John who is in exile on Patmos, John and his readers (past and present) are offered a glimpse of the Roman Empire (and I will argue all worldly powers i.e. empires, corporations, many churches, etc.) from the perspective of God’s throne room. And as in the Wizard of Oz, when the curtain is pulled back the Roman Empire and her allies are revealed to be far less glorious, far less powerful, and anything but eternal despite appearances to the contrary. For people under threat of persecution (even to the point of death), this vision from God’s eternal throne room and ultimate victory is good news.
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