What is the shape of hope in the Apocalypse (part i)?

Hope is central to Christian understanding, and not simply because of St Paul’s summary in 1 Cor 13 of ‘faith, hope and love’. Most would recognise the primacy of faith: we are invited to put out trust in God in light of his faithfulness to us. And of course love of God and of others fulfils the greatest commandment. But hope sits in the middle, since it represents the most important reality of Christian understanding: that we long for a better future based on our experience of a better present as ‘God’s love is poured into our hearts by his Holy Spirit’ (Romans 5.5). Christian faith is not, as Bertrand Russell parodied it, believing in things for which there is no evidence. We hope for the future based on something real in the present. But we do not, contrary to those who preach a gospel of unlimited blessing and prosperity, yet see that future fulfilled. What we see now points us to what we do not yet see, but believe confidently we will.

But where does the Apocalypse, the Book of Revelation, fit in with this? There are two immediate problems. The first is that the word ‘hope’ occurs nowhere in its text. But ‘hope’ as a concept does not appear in the gospels either, only in the letters in the NT. That is because the letters talk of it, expound it, and exhort us to live by it. By contrast, the gospels and Revelation embody it in their narratives—though in rather different ways. That highlights the second problem: most Western don’t think Revelation, with all its violence and catastrophic judgements, looks very hopeful at all, even though it has been a text which has sustained generations of Christian readers in contexts very different from our own.

But Revelation sits within the covers of our Bible, not outside it, and has therefore been judged to be part of the apostolic message of hope articulated in the other parts of the New Testament—and careful reading of the text confirms that this is the case, even though (like other sections of the Bible) it has its own distinctive perspective. Here are 14 aspects of home as we find it in Revelation.

1. Personal hope: ‘I was on the island of Patmos’ (Rev 1.9)

One of the most striking things about the Book of Revelation is that it is expressed as a very particular form of personal testimony. Other contemporary apocalypses talk of a personal journey or experience of revelatory vision—but universally on the part of some great prophet from the past. By contrast, Revelation is presented as the experience of someone who seems to be known to his readers—and makes his personal situation very clear. He locates himself spacialy (‘on Patmos’), temporally (‘on the Lord’s day’) and spiritually (‘in the Spirit’; the Greek text uses ‘in’ for all three of these factors). John is telling both his first readers and us that the sights and sounds of the hope of God’s victory that he is about to share are ones that he knows of personally. We cannot talk theologically about things that are not meaningful personally. We cannot share what we do not know as a reality for ourselves.

2. Communal hope: ‘I know your deeds’ (ergoi, Rev 2.2)

One of the perennial questions asked of Revelation is whether it is a message of comfort for those who are being challenged in their faith, or a message of challenge for those who are complacent and compromised in their faith. Even a cursory glance through the messages to the seven assemblies in the cities to whom John writes will find plenty of challenge to complacency! The messages are not dogmatically communitarian, in that the fault lines of faithfulness verses faithlessness appear to run as much through the communities as between them and the wider population who do not share their faith. Individuals within the ‘churches’ need to make decisions about where their loyalties lie. And yet, in the end, the messages are offered to the communities as a whole. Our hope is personal, but we are not merely to be collections of individuals of hope. Rather, we are called to be communities of hope, living out the possibility of a new future in our corporate lives together as much as in our individual witness.

3. Transcendent hope: ‘Before me was a throne…’ (Rev 4.2)

The narrative of Revelation makes a particular use of space, appearing to move in turn from an earthly perspective to a heavenly one and back again, repeatedly throughout the book. But the separation of these spaces is not as clear as it appears; for example, John sees the ‘earthly’ plagues unleashed in chapter 6 whilst remaining in his heavenly vantage point. And (as with the Lord’s Prayer) the direction of travel is for heaven (in the form of the New Jerusalem) to come down to earth, not the other way around. The image of the throne, introduced in chapters 4 and representing God’s kingly rule, is a central motif—not just for the ‘heavenly’ aspects, but for the ‘earthly’ ones too. It represents a hope that is expressed drawing extensively on themes from the canonical Old Testament—God as king, the rainbow of hope from the flood, the sights and sounds of the encounter at Sinai—but also draws extensively on ideas from the Roman Imperial cult. God is the ultimate emperor, and it is his kingdom—and not any human empire—which offers the real hope for peace and prosperity. We cannot save ourselves, but can only look to the transcendent offer of the God of hope.

4. Christological hope: ‘I saw a lamb standing…’ (Rev 5.6)

We are so used to the narrative of heavenly worship in chapter 4 and 5, and so used to the language of the ‘lamb standing as though slain’ through Christian hymnody, art and devotion that we miss how shocking and surprising this image is. It is not only inherently contradictory—’standing’ denoting life, whilst having the appearance of being slaughtered—it is also quite unexpected. We have also been given a description of Jesus in his risen glory in chapter 1, and this new image is introduced without explanation or any connection. And there is already One on the throne, with no indication there is space for another to join him! But this surprising image communicates a key conviction: that the hope found in Revelation is centred on the atoning work of Jesus’ death and resurrection, by which humanity from ‘every tribe, language, people and nation’ might have the chance to encounter this redeeming hope for themselves. And the placing of the lamb on the throne with God sets off a convergence of the identity of Jesus with the Father that forms the foundation for later Trinitarian expression of the nature of God.

5. Hope in the face of cosmic catastrophe: ‘Its rider was named Death’ (Rev 6.8)

With three ‘sequences of seven’ in chapters 6 (the opening of the seven seals), chapter 8 to 9 (the blowing of the seven trumpets) and chapter 16 (the pouring of the seven bowls) we have some of the most powerful and evocative of the images of the book. The image of the ‘four horsemen of the apocalypse’ as harbingers of doom is well known amongst people who have never opened their Bibles. These series continue the structural moves in Revelation, from the heavenly to the earthly—but the key question for interpretation is whether these are envisaged as past, present or future? The grammar doesn’t help us, as most of Revelation, being vision (and audition) report, is written in the past tense (with one major exception: can you work out where?). But the things described here, especially the things associated with the four horsemen, would have been very familiar to anyone living in the first century—as they have been to most people in most ages through history. If we are aware of the apocalyptic state of the world, plagued by violence, conflict, environmental catastrophe and economic inequality, then now is the time to reach for apocalyptic hope.

6. Hope embodied: ‘And I saw a great multitude’ (Rev 7.9)

The saints under the altar cry out ‘How long O Lord?’, pleading with God to provide an answer to the state the world is in. And the first part of God’s answer, offered in the ‘interlude’ between the sixth and seventh seals, is not an abstract theological answer, nor a detached action of judgement, but the personal intervention of raising up a faithful people who will testify to the world. John redeploys the image from Ezekiel 9 of a faithful remnant preserved from the judgement of Jerusalem and reconfigures it to described a faithful people preserved from the judgement of the world. The careful counting John hears indicates a census being taken to establish the fighting strength (compare Numbers 1) of this disciplined spiritual army. The striking apparel that John sees shows that this uncountable people from every nation has come through (not been extracted from) suffering and have been shaped by it. And he sees and hears that they are caught up in praise not merely for the past or the present of God’s acts, but for the future of God’s deliverance. God’s immediate answer to a world of cosmic catastrophe is found in you and me, as we are formed in spiritual discipline, embrace the suffering of the world with empathy, but overflow with eschatological anticipation that the best is yet to be. If we have seen in chapters 2 and 3 that ‘judgement begins with the house of God’ (1 Peter 4.17), that is because we are to be the bearers of divine hope which our world so badly needs.

7. The paradox of hope: ‘sweet in my mouth, bitter in my stomach’ (Rev 10.10)

After returning to images of earthly catastrophe with the second sequence of seven (trumpets), we have a second interlude, focussing again on God’s forming of his people. Ezekiel was given a scroll to eat, which tasted sweet, and he was to prophesy a message of hope to God’s people (Ezek 2). But John’s commission in Rev 10 is different. His scroll is sweet in his mouth, but bitter in his stomach; he is to prophesy not just to those who will accept his message of hope, but to the nations who will reject it. The message will bring both joy and pain, to those who hear it and to the one who proclaims it. The second half of this interlude shifts (in chapter 11) from John’s prophetic ministry to the prophetic ministry of the whole people of God—all the followers of Jesus—who exercise the ministry of Moses and Elijah before a hostile world. Their testimony does bring repentance, but it also brings opposition, so that they experience death at the hands of others, though resurrection life by the power of God.

Question for reflection: Which of these aspects of hope can you relate to most easily? Which are harder to grasp or live by—both personally and corporately?

(This is a summary of the first half of a presentation given in Manchester Cathedral in February 2018. The second half will follow in a second post later this week.)


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2 thoughts on “What is the shape of hope in the Apocalypse (part i)?

  1. Many thanks, Ian. I increasingly feel that hope is a key differentiator of the people of God. A question, however. You seem to identify the New Jerusalem with heaven, whereas John seems to see more of link with the bride of Christ (21:3,9-10, cf 3:12), a link borne out by the symbolism of the names of the tribes of Israel on the gates and the apostles on the foundations. To me this suggests that it indicates the redeemed community of God’s people (so, eg Beale). But perhaps I just have to wait for the commentary to see your take on this.

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