In the 2016-2017 academic year, our school has read through the Book of Revelation during chapel services. I have been greatly aided by the commentary of Anglican systematic theologian, Joseph L. Mangina. In the final chapter of St. John’s apocalypse, he addresses the perplexity of time. As one who celebrates the eucharistic meal on a weekly basis in church, I welcome the deep analogy about how time is connected in the Passover, Eucharist, and Revelation.
One of the most disorienting features of Revelation is the way it scrambles our sense of time. It is not that past, present, and future do not matter, dissolving into a timeless “eternal now.” It is rather that our usual ways of reckoning these things has to yield before the one who is and who was and who is to come, the God who holds time itself in his hand and disposes of it as he will. The time of Revelation is the time of the Eucharist, which means that in important ways it is like the time of the Passover. God freed Israel from Egypt, an event in history; but that event is not simply past, it is the living reality of Jewish existence, as a family gathers around the table each year for the Seder meal; and it points to the day when every Pharoah, Haman, and Hitler will have been defeated, and all that is left is celebration. Memory and hope converge and release energies and expectations of an appropriately this-worldly sort: “Next year in Jerusalem!”
This is something like the spirit in which we should approach the question of time in Revelation. If we ask ourselves “when will these happen?”—this is course the question for commentators in the decoding tradition—we arrive at the disconcerting answer that, in a certain sense, they already have. [David] Barr makes the point in the bluntest terms possible: “There is nothing described in Revelation that Christians do no believe has already happened in the death and resurrection of Jesus.” The slaughtered Lamb has conquered, and is acclaimed in heaven—and in the assembles of Asia Minor! He is opening the seals of history even as we watch. The woman clothed with the sun gave birth to the child of destiny, who grew up to defeat the dragon and his angels. The ancient dragon fought back by sending the beast, chief among the powers that determine the character of life in this world; his seat is in Babylon, the great empire that fattens itself on the world’s wealth and enslaves kings; call it Rome, for now. Yet which of these powers was not subdued at the cross, so that—terrifying as they remain in certain ways—they are in a very real sense living on borrowed time, belonging to the old eon that is passing away. The “hallelujah” choruses in Revelation would be impossible, apart from the conviction that the cosmos is determined by what might be called life in the aorist tense: “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever” (11:15).
To say less than this would not be Christian, for it would suggest that there is something deficient in the Lamb’s victory. The worship of Jesus in the early church makes both a high Christology and a high doctrine of the work of Christ inevitable, indeed each implies the other. A Christ who is given the same honor as the Creator—how could his victory be less than complete and world encompassing? A Christ who has redeemed his people and liberated the enslaved earth itself—how could this be less than the eternal Son of God? Here it can truly be affirmed that lex orandi lex credendi, “the law of worship is the law of belief.”
On the other hand, it would also not be Christian if this were the only thing we said. The gospel forbids any collapsing of the present or future into the past. Already Paul confronted this heresy among the Corinthians, who believed that they own resurrection had already occurred, and it has been a perpetual temptation ever since. While Desmond Tutu was certainly right to say that he had read to the end of the book and determined that “We win!” he was saying this in the midst of the struggle against apartheid in the 1970s and 1980s. It is the knowledge that the Lamb holds this scroll securely in his hand that enables the church to live confidently in the face of powers it cannot defeat, but also does not have to defeat. The church is not—to invoke the hoary but still useful World War II metaphor—the Allied forces invading across the Chanel. It is more like the resistance, holding out, bearing witness, entering without reserve into a life where God is worshipped and not the powers. Like the historical resistance, the Lamb’s resistance army is an odd and imperfect group of warriors, whose motives for joining up are perhaps better not examined in detail. Although the question of what motivates a person to request baptism or to undertake a new seriousness about the Christian life is always interesting, it is much less important than what the new Christian undertakes to do: negatively, to renounce Satan and all his works; positively, to embrace Christ, to “follow the Lamb wherever he goes” (14:4).
The first coming of Christ does not make his final coming redundant, nor does it erase the life of God’s people stretched out between these two events. As Jews do not simply remember the Passover, but are themselves present with Moses and Miriam at the Red Sea, so Christians do not just look back on the apocalypsing of Jesus Christ, but are caught up in it, in a life that Revelation describes as that of the conquerors. The tribulation of the Lamb’s followers is their entrance into his victory.