In the earlier days of the pandemic, I decided to translate the book of Revelation from its original Greek.
It turned out to go more quickly than my current project, the book of Luke. Revelation’s author, John, tends to use language that is (relatively) simple and straightforward in Greek. So, I’m not sure how many specifically translation-focused thoughts I’ll be sharing. But I do want to share some general reflections on some parts of the book.
The year 2020 has felt like such an apocalyptic time, in so many ways. Perhaps it’s as good a time as any to take a(nother) look at the book of the Bible called the Apocalypse―Greek for Revelation.
I hope it’s helpful to reflect a bit on how this ancient apocalyptic text might connect with our time and everything that’s happening in the world―or at least in the US, since that’s what I’m familiar with. I’d love to hear your thoughts, reactions, questions, points of connection, points of objection, etc. in the Comments section. (Please call me out if anything I write sounds at all like Left Behind :).)
Let’s get started with Revelation 1:4-8. Here is my translation of it:
(4) John, to the seven churches in Asia; grace to y’all and peace from the one who is and who was and who is coming, and from the seven spirits, the ones before his throne, (5) and from Jesus Christ, the witness, the faithful one, the firstborn of the dead ones and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To the one who loves us and released us from our sins in his blood, (6) and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and father, to him the glory and the dominion forever and ever; let it be so.
(7) Behold, he comes with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even whichever ones pierced him, and all the tribes of the earth will beat their breasts in grief over him. Yes, let it be so.
(8) I am the Alpha and the Omega, says the lord God, the one who is and who was and who is coming, the all-ruling one.
I’m struck by John’s description of Jesus as the ruler of the kings of the earth (v. 5), and, similarly, as the all-ruling one (v. 8). This word all-ruling one―in Greek, παντοκράτωρ―can also be translated as Almighty, or all-powerful, or ruler of all. It’s used a total of ten times in the whole New Testament; nine of these times are in the book of Revelation.
John seems to really like this word. Perhaps he especially likes this word in the context of all of the violence and destruction and woe and suffering he describes throughout the book of Revelation. As everything is changing, and lots of long-held things are falling apart, and lots of faces of evil are being revealed, and lots of people are suffering, and lots of earthly kings are being corrupt and brutal, somehow, Jesus is the all-ruling one, the ruler of the kings of the earth.
I find this kind of language comforting because my goodness do we have some “kings of the earth” who are less than one might hope for!
I think sometimes people take this all-ruling one kind of language in the Bible to mean that all earthly leaders are doing what God wants, all the time. That they’re appointed by God. That we should check our hearts and minds and consciences and intuitions and relationships at the door and obey these leaders, regardless of whether it seems right or wrong to us.
I’m not about that.
I don’t think that seeing Jesus as the all-ruling one means that everything that happens is God’s will.
What I do think it means―in John’s world, with all of its mercurial, cruel, self-interested Roman authorities, and likewise in our world today, with all of our mercurial, cruel, self-interested politicians―is that earthly leaders are not the highest power. They do not get to do whatever they like with impunity, even if it looks like that is exactly what is happening.
I think the idea of Jesus’ all-ruling-ness, and his being ruler of the kings of the earth, reminds us that earthly rulers will be called to account. It reminds politicians and other powerful people that there is a power above themselves―and above anyone else they might be trying to impress or appease―to whom they will be held accountable. And it reminds the people stuck and suffering under the rule of these powerful people that there is one more powerful still―one who sees their suffering and will judge justly.
From this perspective―remembering that Jesus, not any earthly ruler, is the all-ruling one―I think we find ourselves empowered to resist any laws, decrees, rulings, oppressive language, etc. that comes down to us from earthly authority figures but does not embody the love and justice central to Jesus’ character. We can say, with Peter and the apostles in Acts 5:29, we must obey God rather than people. Jesus is the ruler of the kings of the earth.
The spirit of Jesus can empower us to be loyal to Jesus’ authority above any other. This spirit can empower us to protest unjust laws, to try to change things where we can, to make room for voices that have been marginalized, to speak up for justice, to seek accountability for the powerful.
God does not stand behind the actions of earthly rulers when these actions are empathy-less and cause so much needless suffering. God is not in agreement with these rulers just because they are powerful.
I also appreciate that these verses give us a picture not just of how much power Jesus has, but also of the kind of ruler Jesus is. John describes Jesus as the witness, the faithful one, the firstborn of the dead ones, and as the one who loves us and released us from our sins in his blood, and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and father (v. 5-6).
For John, Jesus is the witness―the one who sees everything, does not miss anything, and testifies truly about it all. The one who always speaks the truth. The one who never tries to twist or misrepresent or straight-up manufacture information to mislead others, gain support for himself, or push his own agenda.
Jesus is the faithful one―the one who shows us what it looks like to serve a loving, compassionate, merciful, justice-bringing God. Jesus serves this God with complete faithfulness, to the end, regardless of the personal cost.
Jesus is the firstborn of the dead ones―the one who gives us hope that death is not the end. Even, and especially, when earthly leaders enact policies that cause death.
Jesus is the one who loves us―the one who deeply cares about us and wants us to flourish. He is about love, not about self-aggrandizement, political ambition, or amassing power for its own sake.
Jesus has released us from our sins in his blood―he empowers us to know that we are loved and forgiven. He empowers us to live a free and whole and loving life, marked by love and justice rather than greed, selfishness, envy, pride, and other sins.
Jesus makes us a kingdom―he invites us to live out a different kind of power from what we often see in this world. (See my recent mini-sermon on your kingdom come, your will be done for more on this.)
Jesus makes us priests to his God and father―he empowers us to see and know and be connected with God. And he empowers us to help others see and know and connect with God, as they do the same for us. He doesn’t hoard his priestly authority for himself.
All these things stand in contrast with so many of our earthly authority figures.
Jesus is the all-ruling one, and he is a different kind of ruler. This reality can give hope and comfort to those who suffer under earthly rulers, and can empower all of us to resist the injustice that comes down from these rulers.
As John writes in v. 6, to this Jesus be the glory and dominion forever and ever; let it be so.