I get a good impression of Jeremy Duncan whenever I meet him at Jesus Collective events. I think he and his crew are doing an inventive and reparative job at Commons Church in Calgary, which he founded. Now he has written an inventive and reparative book called Upside-down Apocalypse: Grounding Revelation in the Gospel of Peace. Once I started it, I could not put it down. What’s more, I could not resist telling anyone who would listen about the book I wish I’d read when I first started getting into the Bible.
If you ever listened to me speak or write when I was a pastor, you didn’t hear too much about the last book in the New Testament: Revelation. I basically assigned it to obscurity in seminary. In high school I read (and was inspired by) a best selling book about Revelation and the “end times” called The Late Great Planet Earth by Hal Lindsay. It ultimately soured me on the prevailing interpretation of apocalyptic literature among Evangelicals.
Lindsay made a career out of teaching his misreading of the Bible. I was so intrigued by his best-selling first book, I actually looked up the Bible verses he quoted. I discovered that even a cursory reading revealed he was making stuff up. When I read Revelation, I did not understand it well, but I did get the idea it was mainly about encouraging the Jesus-followers of John’s day (and, by extension, me) to hang in there even if the world seemed like a disaster. It did seem like a disaster, but not really for the reasons Lindsay and the Left Behind writers were popularizing.
Free the Revelation!
I would have done better if I had owned a copy of Pastor Duncan’s book. He articulates what I only suspected and frees Revelation from its bondage in conspiratorial, power-seeking, Empire-spawned speculation. Jarrod McKenna kind of skewers people who get it wrong in the Prologue:
All that Christ embodied and instructed is sidelined with pietistic sincerity as Christians vote, act, and desire for history to side with their end-time speculations. Most telling of all, these so-called revelations don’t reveal but rather obscure Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus of the gospels is displaced by diabolical readings of a murderous messiah who saves not with provocative, nonviolent, suffering love but like a Marvel villain wanting to make his enemies bleed.
Duncan brings Jesus out of obscurity and restores his central place in the book of Revelation. Here is his central premise, which you did hear if you ever heard me speak:
If we are going to read the Scriptures well, we need to read them on their terms. And even though the New Testament is written by a collection of authors addressing various contexts, two presuppositions hold all these diverse texts together. First, God is love. And second, the person of Jesus is the closest we will ever come to seeing that love embodied in human history. These are the assumptions that sit behind everything we read in the New Testament, including the book of Revelation.
If you put on this Jesus lens and read Revelation you see the Lord John knew and wrote about in his Gospel and Letters. It is easy to find Him in Revelation, even if you’ve been flooded with the cinematic gore of “end times” hysteria.
Duncan starts by retrieving the word “apocalypse” from its twisted use as a “disaster” or “final reckoning.” As he was doing it, I found myself having a hard time accepting its true meaning. Maybe you were influenced, like I was, by brilliant uses of the corrupted definition like in the movie Apocalypse Now. The opening scene, above, is etched in my memory as an appropriate way to see Vietnam. R.E.M. later similarly protested with “It’s the End of the World as We Know It.”
When John titles his prophetic writing Apocalypse he is not talking about a huge crisis or the end of the world. The word means the “uncovering of something hidden.” An apocalypse, Duncan says, tells us two things: “First, there is more to the story, and second, the more will change everything we thought we knew.”
John uses the common form of apocalyptic literature and, first, turns it upside down to fit how Jesus turns the common imagination of God upside down. “Jesus shows us the complete nonviolence of a God who would rather endure death than inflict it,” Duncan says. The second way John uses the form for his own ends is to reveal Christ, to give witness to “the unveiling of Jesus’s victory that turns our expectations of power upside down, replacing them with divine renewal.”
Reassert the structure.
Like I told you, I did not study Revelation too hard, so I am glad Jeremy did. One of my big takeaways from his book centers on how John’s prophecy is actually structured. It is usually seen as a linear story leading from the present and looking into the future, right up to the end of time. But as early as 270 A.D. Victorinus taught the book was synchronous, not successive. Like the Hebrew prophets often do, John tells one story three times, with an expanding scope: local, national and cosmic.
John borrows his structure from the book of Isaiah. Like Isaiah, he starts small and builds from the lived experience of individuals. Duncan sees the synchronous stories as three “rounds.”
The first round opens with seven letters to seven churches, “addressing everyday experiences of injustice and anxiety and Christ’s call to live with each other well.” Like the other rounds, it begins with a vision and ends with Jesus enthroned in the world:
To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. (3:21)
In the second round, John pushes out the story further. Like in the first round (1:10), the second round begins with John “in the Spirit” in 4:2, receiving his further word from the Lord. If Jesus is Lord, that understanding does not stop at the heart level; it must change society, too. Directly opposed to the wicked Roman emperor, Domitian (ruled 81-96 AD), a wounded lamb comes to sit on the throne.
Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, saying,
“The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord
and of his Messiah,
and he will reign forever and ever.”
Then the twenty-four elders who sit on their thrones before God fell on their faces and worshiped God, singing,
“We give you thanks, Lord God Almighty,
who are and who were,
for you have taken your great power
and begun to reign. (11:15-17)
Our worship leader had us singing with those elders on Easter Sunday last week.
In the third round the camera is pulled back to view the whole cosmos as God sets her sites on the final defeat of evil. At 11:18 the final cycle begins. At that point, the nations are angry over the reign of God. Just like when the rulers killed Jesus, there is a contest between God and those who destroy creation. Unlike Isaiah, who saw a day when God would destroy evil among us, Duncan says Jesus transforms that vision into a day when God saves the world by destroying the evil in us. These famous words end the final round:
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life. (21:3-6)
Most of the book has to do with an explication of these three rounds. I hope this little taste entices you to pick it up and do some Bible study with a Jesus lens.
Renew your hope!
I think Duncan is especially interested in the second round. The first round represents the too-small, individualized Christianity where most churches are stuck these days. And the third round is so cosmic it does not need to be understood, fully, just anticipated with gratitude. But in the second round we see that our struggles for transformation are not futile but elemental to faithfully living in the upside down kingdom revealed in John’s upside-down apocalypse.
After showing how John is writing to people under the tyranny of Domitian, Duncan shows how he cleverly sets up his readers to see that fighting Rome with Rome’s tools corrupts us and produces Domitian-like leaders and strategies.
Just as we are ready to despair, and as the scene turns from worship to tears, the Lamb emerges to take the scroll from the one who sits on the throne. The true son who “did not consider equality with God something to be used for his own advantage” (Philippians 2:6), who did indeed ascend to the heavens, but who made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant unto death – even death on a cross (2:7-8). God is not like Domitian. Jesus is not the imperial child. Destiny is not written by the violent.
In self-giving love, Jesus unveils the hidden, authentic history of the world. Faithfulness was not the illusion. Power was.
Reading that quote made me want to read the book again! In the age of Trump (and who is this Harlan Crow billionaire with a collection of dictator statues?), many Christians are coopted by the pursuit of power on the political right and the left. And many more people, it seems, are long-gone from the bankrupt church and fully given over to acquiring power in an attempt to dominate some piece of what remains of the empire. John’s Revelation was a corrective to the despair of his time and Duncan’s restoration of Revelation is a similar blessing. As we read his book, may our hearts again feel the strength to take our stand in an evil day and open our souls to hope again.