Every day the numbers go up—the sharp rise in confirmed cases of infection with covid-19, deaths due to the virus, and the number of weeks we have to live with social distancing. It’s easy to believe that we are facing the end of the way of life that most Americans have assumed would go on forever. Instead, terrors similar to those portrayed by H. G. Wells in his 1898 book The War of the Worlds and reimagined in later books, films, and TV series threaten to overtake us.
A much older story of the end times is told in the last book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation. Filled with strange visions, portrayals of distress and destruction, and visions of eternal destruction and everlasting bliss, this book (written near the end of the first century of the Common Era) is hard to understand. Because it can terrify and inspire, Revelation seems to be the right book for this year when Palm Sunday and Easter will be marked not with joyful congregations filling churches but with silent buildings echoing in their emptiness.
Revelation’s central theme is suggested in verse three of the first chapter. “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and keep what is written in it; for the time is near” (1:3).
Although I have read this series of letters to churches in Asia Minor from time to time, and paid attention to scholarly writings about it, Revelation has neither terrified nor inspired me. Maybe it ministered helpfully to the people to whom it was written, I have thought, laboring as they were under the terrible powers of the Roman Empire and living in what might be considered an age of superstition, but what can it possibly say to people like me and most Americans living in the early years of the twenty-first century?
But the corona virus is doing something to me, and to most of us. That’s all we hear on the news. Posts on social media are preoccupied with descriptions of how we are trying to live normal lives even though we can’t come and go in normal ways—and with feel-good posts, photos of peaceful places, and recipes for what we cooked yesterday for the first time in years. Virtual togetherness, however, and kisses thrown toward screened images are not enough.
Now, for the first time, many of us may be ready to read Revelation’s succession of strange letters and even stranger visions. As we read, we are likely to be mystified by what the book contains—dragons and beasts, wars and rumors of wars, and plagues bringing death and destruction. What does God have to do with all of this, we ask? We hope that the time is coming “soon and very soon” when life will be good for people here and everywhere. Most of us need someone to help us understand what we are reading.
I Will Tell You the Mystery, published in 2019, promises to be the guide that can take readers through the revelation that came to John who was “in the spirit on the Lord’s day.” Its author is my colleague and friend, Ronald J. Allen, Professor of Preaching and Gospels and Letters, Emeritus, at Christian Theological Seminary. In the subtitle he describes the book as “A Commentary for Preaching,“ but for people like most of us who are sitting in the pews rather than preaching from the pulpit, this book can serve as a guide for traveling through a spiritual landscape in which we can easily lose our way.
In the preface Ron writes that the book of Revelation can help preachers (other readers, too) “identify phenomena that are similar to the idolatrous, unjust, exploitative, violent, and self-destroying qualities of the Roman Empire.” Even more, he continues, people in our time can be helped to “discern the presence and coming of a new heaven and a new earth with its love, peace, justice, mutuality and abundance.” And for us, a world in which the pandemics of war and pestilence disappear.
In this column, I have introduced this book. In columns still to come, I plan to summarize some of the leading ideas that the book presents. I Will Tell You the Mystery can be ordered online at this address: https://wipfandstock.com/i-will-tell-you-the-mystery.html#author_bio.