O.K. group here is part two of chapter five. I wanted to break this part out because I think it will stir plenty of thinking and conversation from us. The views expressed by the authors aren't the views that most of us were taught growing up in church about the book of Revelation. Let me remind us all - you don't have to agree with the authors take. I do hope you will think about what they say and do some personal study, however. I also want you to know that the authors interpretation of Revelation is not a new one. Many Christians have understood Revelation this way for a long time.
Enjoy - and I look forward to our conversation on Thursday night!
A tragic example of what happens when Christians miss the central message of the Scriptures is the way in which the book of Revelation, the last book of the Bible, is taught and understood in American culture. Revelation is a letter from a pastor named John to his congregation. To understand how significant the letter is, it helps to understand its first-century historical backdrop.
First, the emperor: The Caesars, who ruled the Roman Empire, sow themselves as gods on earth, sent to bring about peace and prosperity. Throughout the first century, the Caesars had taken their divinity more and more seriously, demanding more and more overt displays of worship and acknowledgment from their subjects. Many of them demanded that their subjects worship them as the Son of God, the divine one ruling the earth with the favor of the god. One Caesar had a choir that followed him wherever he went, singing, “You are worthy, our Lord and our God, to receive honor and glory and power.”
Second, economics: The Caesars understood that at the heart of the empire is economics. If you want to truly control people, you need to control their money. So if you went to the market to buy or sell goods, you first needed to give an offering acknowledging Caesar as Lord and that you were an obedient subject of his kingdom. If you didn’t, you couldn’t take part in the economy, which meant you wouldn’t make any money and you’d eventually starve. It is believed that a system was developed to identify who had made the offering to Caesar and who hadn’t and this system involved some sort of mark you received to acknowledge your confession of Caesar as Lord and your ability to take part in the market.
Third peace: The Roman army would march into a new land or region, one they had not conquered and announce they were taking over. They would demand that the citizens of that land confess Caesar as Lord. If they refused, they could be killed, often crucified, as a public demonstration of what happens when you defy Caesar. This had a way of bringing people in line with the Roman way.
Fourth exile: The Caesar in power at the time of John’s writing understood just what a challenge the church of Jesus was to his rule. These Christians believed that someone else, someone not him, was the true Son of God and that he alone deserved their worship and acknowledgment of divine status. Caesar believed that the way to get rid of this threat was to send the pastor into exile so that he couldn’t lead his people.
Revelation is a letter written from John, the pastor, to his church during his time of exile. He writes in a subversive literary style called apocalyptic. It uses a vast array of symbols and images and stylized language to convey profound truths about how the world works. John refers to a beast, which is his word for the corrupt, destructive system of violence and evil that is pervasive in our world. He writes of a dragon, the one who does the work of the beast on earth. And then he talks about a mark of the beast.
We can assume John’s audience knew what the mark was – how you bought and sold in the market. The mark was a symbol of your participation in the military-economic complex of the Roman Empire. The mark represented an all-encompassing system aligned against people doing the right thing. The mark spoke to all of the ways humans misuse power to accumulate and stockpile while others suffer and starve.
The mark was anti-kingdom, and John says don’t do it. Don’t take the mark. Don’t take part in the animating spirit of empire: Resist – Rebel – Protest. Revelation is a bold, courageous, politically subversive attack on corrosive empire and its power to oppress people. The people who read this letter would have been confronted with a fundamental question: Who is Lord – Jesus or Caesar? Whose way is the way – the way of violence or the way of peace – the way of domination or the way of compassion – the way of building towers to the heavens or the way of sharing our bread with our neighbor - the way of greed and economic exploitation or the way of generosity and solidarity?
Who is your Lord?
Imagine how dangerous it would be if there were Christians who skipped over the first-century meaning of John’s letter and focused only on whatever it might be saying about future events, years and years away. There is always the chance that in missing the point, they may in the process be participating in and supporting and funding the various kinds of systems that the letter warns against participating in, supporting, and funding.
That would be tragic.
That wouldn’t be what Jesus had in mind.
That would be anti-Jesus.
That would be anti-Christ.
Were the people in John’s church reading his letter for the first time, with Roman soldiers right outside their door, thinking, “This is going to be really helpful for people two thousand years from now who don’t want to get left behind”?
It’s a letter written to a real group of people, in a real place, at a real time, enduring excruciatingly difficult times. Christians were being killed by the empire because they would not participate.
John comforts them, challenges them, warns them, teaches them, inspires them – don’t’ take the mark of the beast.