01. Divine Peekaboo
The revelation from Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who testifies to everything he saw—that is, the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ. Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.
To the seven churches in the province of Asia:
Grace and peace to you from him who is, and who was, and who is to come, and from the seven spirits before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.
To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father—to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen.
“Look, he is coming with the clouds,”
and “every eye will see him,
even those who pierced him”;
and all peoples on earth “will mourn because of him.”
So shall it be! Amen.
“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.”
A poet once said, “Anything can make us look, only art makes us see.”1 Some might think that the silly sort of thing artists say, but the best of art aims to open the eyes of the blind. The best art aims to open our eyes. For it is we—not some other person somewhere else—who are the blind.
Our lives drift toward blindness.
Whether it’s autumn leaves or Christmas lights or spring flowers or our favorite scenic view or our beautiful significant other, give us enough time and we’ll drift into blindness.
Tourists may still stop and stare at the view.
Strangers may still double-take our significant other.
Children may still dance in delight at twinkling houses.
But we yawn.
Familiarity breeds blindness.
We’ve seen it all before
and become blind to our local world,
blind to our lives.
And before we know it—if our eyes refuse to open—
should we insist on slumber and sleepwalking—
the danger becomes blind to the entire world,
blind to all life.
Blind to everything.
The darkness spreads from lights and leaves and lilies
and eventually begins hiding love itself.
If we cannot see
the beauty and excitement and mystery and love
surrounding us every single day,
then what prayer do we have at glimpsing
the beautiful, compelling, mystery named Love
whom we cannot see?
The cold cloud of blindness—lifeless, loveless blindness—threatens to block the sun in all our lives. It’s almost like an Enemy is at work in these blinding billows.
Enter our protagonist—“The Apocalypse”—from stage right.
That’s the name of the Bible’s last book. It’s the very first word in the original language. The word “Apocalypse” frequently conjures images of Mad Max or The Walking Dead but that’s not really what the word means.
The word “Apocalypse” simply means “a revealing.”
It’s the kind of word that goes with flipping over a rock or swishing open a shower curtain or turning on floodlights or opening blind eyes.
My 10 month-old daughter enjoys the game of “Apocalypse.” I veil my face with something—my hands, a small towel, whatever is handy—and then I ask in an oddly involuntary high voice: “Where’s Daphne?… Peekaboo! Where’s Daphne?… Apocalypse!” It’s a game of tiny little apocalypses.
The word “Apocalypse” is frequently translated “Revelation.”
The book’s aim is in the book’s title:
Flip the rock. Swish the curtain.
Let loose the light. Unblind us.”
Despite its colorful history of interpretation and intimidating reputation as an impossibly hard professor, if there’s anything “The Revelation” aims to do, it aims to help us see. I mean, that’s the very first word.
If that’s the case, how exactly does the book work? I mean, it’s a STRANGE book. What exactly is the book trying to help us see with its armies of images? It’s chock full of exaggerated, larger-than-life characters, surreal scenarios, wild images, nightmarish worldwide disasters, strange patterns, and more than a few colors and numbers.
Much of the book feels like a trippy kind of cartoon.
If Revelation is a Peekaboo, what exactly are we playing peekaboo with? What exactly does this book want us to see?
Ask that to almost anyone on the street, and you’ll probably get a variety of similar answers: “The future, last days, closing time, the end of the world, the final judgment.” Popular consensus tells us that Revelation is primarily about seeing the future.
The elephant in any room where Revelation is being talked about is a series of novels Left Behind.
These books—which you can find in the Christian fiction section—have sold 65 million copies worldwide and reinforce Revelation as a strange, coded spyglass for seeing the future.2
The plot of this series focuses on the sudden vanishing of all Christians from the planet (“the rapture”3), a seven-year period full of terrifying catastrophes to rival Hollywood disaster movies (“the Great Tribulation”), the rise of the Antichrist as the head of something like the United Nations, and the appearing of a Jesus who blows up people with his voice. And the architects of this grand fiction utilize Revelation for much of their plot structure.
There are incredibly popular, best-selling voices who say that Revelation primarily wants us to see the future. Revelation is a super-long range forecast that gives us all the excitement of Mad Max or The Walking Dead christened for evangelical marketability.
Their reading of Revelation draws attention to places like the end of verse 3 (“the time is near) or verse 19 (“what will take place later”) and assumes this book is an Almanac that exists to provide us a strange weather forecast of the future. God gave the church a document to function like a monkish meteorologist:
“Looking ahead a few thousand years, the extended forecast calls for a 100% chance of hail and fire mixed with blood.4 Please plan your weekend accordingly, because they will be a vast locust army emerging from the Abyss.5 shortly afterwards. Don’t panic too much and don’t cancel your travel plans…again, this is a VERY extended forecast that really has nothing to do with most of you ever hearing it. It’s extremely unlikely that it’s coming THIS weekend, but it will be coming eventually.”
Given the ways it’s talked about, many of us assume Revelation is mostly interested in us seeing the future.
I remember sitting on the floor as a kid with an open Bible on my lap thinking just that:
“The future is just waiting here beneath the surface of all this strangeness. If I could just crack the code, if I could just un-strange all of this strangeness THEN I could finally see.”
I assumed that God gave us a book to let us see the future, but coded it like an Indiana Jones puzzle… so only the truly worthy would see it. The strangeness was ultimately a problem to solve so we could get to the really important stuff.
Given that assumption—that Revelation exists to show the future to a few lucky code-breakers—we get frustrated with the book. And God.
The book at back of the Bible where a strange and scary future lies just beneath the surface for those willing and worthy to crack the code. But for most of all the strangeness just stops us from seeing.
No one in church history has agreed on exactly how to read the letter of Revelation. That’s absolutely verifiable; there is no consensus. But our obsessive decoding of the future is really recent. I mean, the United States is still young in world history, and we’ve got bells and buildings older than this view. The White House is older than than this way of reading of Revelation. The Declaration of Independence is older than this understanding of the future. The vast majority of the church throughout the centuries simply has not seen (and could not see) the future so important to Left Behind.
If seeing that future were God’s primary point of inspiring John on the Island of Patmos to craft this literary masterpiece, then Revelation is a big fat failure.
But obsessively decoding the future is not the best way to read Revelation. To be sure, Revelation does indeed have important things to say about the future. But Revelation—at a more basic level—wants us to see something far more important than the future.
John’s opening words tells us what this Revelation reveals:
This is the revelation (v1)—
the revealing, the apocalypse, the peekaboo—
of Jesus the Christ, Jesus the Messiah, Jesus the King.
The NIV does a disservice when it translates the Greek as “from.” Many translations rightly choose to keep the Greek’s ambiguity. It literally reads something like “The revelation of Jesus Christ.” In English, that phrase can simultaneously mean a revealing from Jesus and a revealing about Jesus. The Greek is the same… and that’s the point.
What Revelation wants us to see is a Who.
Revelation wants us to see Jesus.
Revelation wants us to see a man who has shed his own blood (v5) to somehow set us free from our darkness and to include us in something big and beautiful and forever (v6).
To make us a kingdom.
To make us priests.
That’s the language used.
In all our discussion of Revelation, if we lose sight of this King and his kingdom then whatever else we might be doing we’re not seeing what the book claims it is in its opening words.
Revelation is message about Jesus AND a message from Jesus himself delivered through an angel to a guy named John who passes it along to us. That “from Jesus” implies that Jesus is still… well, alive.
That’s exactly what the early church claimed. Jesus—a real human being —is forever alive pointing us to what true humanity is like. Jesus is the faithful witness, the center of history, the first back from the dead (v5), and the King over the kings of the earth.
The early did indeed claim the man Jesus was alive, but even more besides that.
The scandal of what the early church claimed—the foolishness—the idolatrous insanity if they’re wrong—is that a crucified first-century Jewish peasant is the center of all reality. That’s the consistent claim all over the New Testament6 and that’s how Revelation immediately begins.
The popular American way of interpreting Revelation often makes it sound like the future is the primary thing, the main thing, the real thing… and Jesus happens to be somewhere in the future. But that’s almost completely backwards. The biblical witness ends with the Revelation of Jesus Christ… and the future happens to be somewhere in him.
John calls Jesus the faithful witness or martyr7(v5). What is Jesus witnessing to? What does Jesus point us toward? In a word, Jesus tells us—more faithfully than anything else in the world—what God is like.
What the Great Mystery behind the universe is like.
Something shocking takes place in verses 4-6, and the language is strange and disorienting and a great example of the way Revelation works.
Jesus gets included in the definition of God himself.
John could have just written “grace and peace from God” or perhaps “grace and peace from Father, Spirit, and Son” for those early Christians already recognizing the Trinitarian nature of God.
“But no,” thinks John, “Most of us will just sleep through that. We’re blind to almost everything. Let’s make sure God looks strange so that maybe we’ll finally see the hilariously good news.”
So in verses 4-6 he announces grace and peace from “him who is and who was and who is to come,” and “from the seven spirits who are before his throne” and “from Jesus Christ.”
That’s a strange way to describe God.
Especially that “seven spirits” part.8
John refuses to settle for boring words or vanilla descriptions or trite truisms. John wants to wake us up. God wants us to see. He wants to make things strange so that we’ll see again.
And the strangest part of all, is that a literal human being has been included in the definition of God. Before we talk about anything strange in Revelation—and there’s some strange stuff in this book—we should probably name this strangeness.
A shamefully executed first-century Jewish peasant is central to how Revelation defines God.
Forget anything else… that right there is strange.
Revelation frequently talks about what we’ve heard a thousand times in a strange new way. And Revelation does this intentionally. Revelation makes everything strange with the aim that blind eyes might begin to see.
We’ve all experienced moments where we can suddenly see with new eyes. Whether leaves or lights or loved ones, we’ve all experienced moments suddenly the familiar becomes strange. And then suddenly—for just that moment—we can suddenly see those things to which we’ve become blind.
We see the beauty again.
We see the goodness afresh.
We see the world new.
The Rocky Mountains west of Denver are a great example. My fellow Denverites and I see them all the time, and we easily become blind to them. But there are times when they look strange; and those are the times when we can see again. When sunlight paints the back range gold, or when snow falls in an unusual pattern, or low clouds hide the peaks… suddenly the mountains are mysterious again. And suddenly we can see.
This is something Revelation does really well—too well, we often think. It makes everything mysterious and strange and surreal—I think that’s part of its genius. What if the strangeness is not something we need to decode or un-strange? What if the oddness and mystery is there to help us?
I’m coming to believe Revelation’s strangeness is less about hiding things from us and more about revealing things we’ve stopped seeing.
Revelation helps us see by being strange.
It starts with God.
Let’s try to see God as clearly as possible: Jesus defines what we mean by the word “God.” If you want to know what God is like, then look at Jesus. Read the gospels and you’ll discover what God is like. Follow Jesus around, watch his kindness and service and mercy and love. You’ll see what God is always doing…God is speaking grace and peace.
And that’s what is doing in Revelation too.
Revelation is about God speaking grace and peace.
Verse 4 describes “grace and peace from” the God defined by Jesus. That’s what the story of Revelation is ultimately about—about God healing our broken world and broken lives. That healing is going to be painful, but the God defined by Jesus is fully committed to it. Devoted to the point of death.
That’s why verse 4 announces grace and peace and then verse 7 can say “all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him.”9God’s healing and our wailing are not necessarily at odds with each other. We assume that because we often consider grace and peace to be wimpy and spineless. But God’s grace causes groaning. Peace often means pain. When Love-in-the-flesh arrives, people wail.
Most of us want healing with no wailing. But Revelation reminds us that it doesn’t work that way. Ask those who have experienced deep and lasting healing in their lives, and they’ll tell you that grace and peace are often painful. Whether in relationships or destructive patterns or hard situations, deep healing almost always hurts like hell.
And the sicker we are, the more the healing hurts.
Perhaps chemotherapy provides a helpful (if flawed) metaphor for the grace and peace of God revealed by Revelation. When someone is undergoing chemo therapy, it looks horrible. The treatment is violent—they’re throwing up all the time, hairs are falling like stars from the sky. It’s like hail and blood and fire rain downing on their lives.
But the point of the chemo therapy is not to kill someone. The pain of chemotherapy is understandable because its aim is healing from deep and dangerous sickness. The point of chemotherapy is healing. The point is grace and peace.
So too with grace and mercy of God we call his judgment. God does judge, but his judgments are always aimed at destroying everything that destroys life.10
The visions of Revelation are like chemotherapy for all creation.
But make no mistake about the aim—God is always speaking grace and peace. Even when grace causes groaning and peace means pain. Even when we’d rather stay sick, God has committed himself to our healing.
If healing for the entire world required God himself to be pierced, then healing in our world—in our lives—will likely involve some pain.
And so Revelation begins by confronting us:
Are we truly tired of being blind? Are we really ready to stop sleepwalking? Do we want to wake up? Do we want to see?
Because if we want to really be fully alive, it’s time to stop avoiding God’s painful grace. No more half measures. We’ve got to open ourselves to his painful process of peace.
Revelation is less like an extended forecast of the future and more like an anthem of allegiance to Jesus. I will follow the Lamb wherever he goes, and allow his blood to flood my veins. When we commit ourselves to this treatment—when our lives start singing this song—of course we’re going to see the future differently.
But we’ll also see the present differently too.
And the past. And our suffering. And our shame. And our jobs and hobbies and everyday decisions and friendships and everything.
Alpha and Omega, may I be humbled by this book that makes everything strange and learn to see. May I recognize Jesus as the faithful witness—that you yourself bleed for me. And may you open my life to the painful healing of your grace and peace. Amen.
- Archibald MacLeish
- This “Left Behind” interpretation is a part of relatively recent tradition within Christianity called Dispensationalism (spear-headed by a fellow named John Darby in the mid-19th century and popularized by the Scofield Reference Bible in the early 20th century). If you’ve never heard of any of those names or terms before, don’t worry—you’re in good company. Most Christians throughout church history have never heard of them either.
- Never mind that the rapture of the church is decidedly absent from Revelation.The primary scripture used to support “the rapture” is found in 1 Thessalonians 4.16-18, with this pivotal event happening between the end of Revelation 3 and the beginning of Revelation 4.
- See Rev 8.7
- See Rev 9.1-11
- An accessible and easy example is Col 1.15-20
- It’s the same word in Greek… what we think of as a “martyr” is someone who “witnesses” to something to the point of death.
- As we read Revelation we begin to see that John loves using numbers not to count but to classify. Not to name quantity but to name quality. So by saying “seven spirits”—and even by choosing “seven churches” (v4)—John is evoking an ancient number of fullness and completeness and totality. He’s giving a quality more than a quantity. John isn’t saying, “one spirit, two spirits, three spirits…” Rather, he’s saying something like “the full and complete spirit of God who is everywhere, always, animating everything.”
- John is borrowing language from Zechariah 12:10 right here. Parts of Zechariah reflect early Jewish apocalyptic thought.
- See Revelation 11.18 for an absolutely key passage for beginning to understand God’s anger, wrath, judgment, etc.