[Topic of Orange Grove Meeting Bible Study: January 15, 2017, at 9 am.]
The Book of Revelation is one of the most complex books of the Bible, coming at the very end and describing the “last days” of the world. Its title is derived from the first word of the text, written in koine (common) Greek: apokalypsis, meaning "unveiling" or "revelation.” This book was so important to early Friends that they named Philadelphia after one of the cities mentioned in the Book of Revelation. (Philadelphia, which means “brotherly love,” was “steadfast in faith, kept God's word and endured patiently” (3:10)).
The Book of Revelation was written during the time of the Emperor Domitian who enacted the second great persecution of the Christians in AD 81 (ten years after the destruction of Jerusalem). A man of inordinate cruelty, Domitian “commanded all the lineage of David be put to death. Among the numerous martyrs that suffered during this persecution was Simeon, bishop of Jerusalem, who was crucified; and St. John, who was boiled in oil [but somehow survived and supposedly preached from the boiling pot] and afterward was banished to Patmos [where he wrote the Book of Revelation]. Flavia, the daughter of a Roman senator, was likewise banished to Pontus; and a law was made, "That no Christian, once brought before the tribunal, should be exempted from punishment without renouncing his religion."
The book of Revelation was written in highly symbolic language as a critique of Rome and also offered consolation to persecuted Christians, assuring them that Rome would fall and a new Jerusalem would descend from heaven and usher in God’s rule on earth. It consists of letters to various churches as well as prophecies about the future. It foresees a great spiritual battle, in which God’s enemies would be vanquished and those chosen by God would be saved. Early Quakers called this the Lamb’s war, since Christ is symbolized by a lamb in the Book of Revelation. One of the enemies of Christ is a figure called “the Whore of Babylon.”
Babylon had come to symbolize for the Jews and early Christians everything that was contrary to God’s will—empire, hierarchy, idolatry, injustice, oppression, greed, materialism, consumerism, and violence. The Book of Revelation shows that the power of the Lamb—the power of non-violence—is greater than the power of Babylon. The Lamb doesn’t use conventional weapons; he uses the “sharp sword” of God’s word that comes out of his mouth and slays his enemies with the power of Truth. (See Rev 19:15 Hebrews 4:12).
The fall of Babylon described in Chapter 18 occurs right after a great spiritual battle in which Satan, symbolized by a dragon, is defeated by the Lamb.
The Book of Revelation was extremely important to early Friends who saw themselves as living in the “last days” when genuine Christians (i.e. Quakers) were persecuted by false Christians much as they were in the times of Domitian. Quakers suffered imprisonment and some were killed for practicing their religion. Quakers renounced violence (the way of Babylon) because they believed they were fighting a “Lamb’s war” using spiritual weapons (truth and love). In their declaration of 1660, when King Charles is restored to the throne, Quakers wrote: “All bloody principles and practices, we…do utterly deny, with all outward wars and strife and fightings with outward weapons, for any end or under any pretence whatsoever. And this is our testimony to the whole world.”
Modern Friends still find truth and wisdom in the Book of Revelation because it challenges the empire and a world order based on violence, greed, and inequality.
Recommended works by Quaker authors:
· Doug Gwyn, The Apocalypse of the Word. (1986)
· William Durland, The Apocalyptic Witness: A Radical Calling for Our Own Times (1988)
The British publication The Friend also recently published a pamphlet called “Quakers and the Apocalypse.” Here are some excerpts:
At one level, [the Book of Revelation] is about its time and place: circa 80 C.E. in the eastern part of the Roman Empire. It is about the persecution of early Christians by Rome, and can be seen as a cherished tract for hard times. However, at another level, it is as much about empire as it was about Rome, which is never mentioned by name. Instead, the Apocalypse speaks of “Babylon”, the first destroyer of Jerusalem; Rome had become the second shortly before the Apocalypse took its final written form. Using the term “Babylon” was not a code—it is much too thin a veil on meaning to be code. It is an echo or evocation. The Apocalypse is an echo chamber of images and scripture; it alludes to the Old Testament in nearly every verse. The echoes give its images and symbols a time-transcending resonance.
Of all the books in the Bible, the Apocalypse is our [i.e. Quaker] book. It is the cry of a small, marginal group of believers who have held on to their faith even though it meant being out of step with Babylon. This faithful band had come through hard times. In the 1650s, the wars of the Reformation had decimated Europe, leaving it politically unstable and spiritually wounded. Now the outlook is scarcely better, only it is now the scientists who prophesy our doom as the carbon fuels that we have nearly used up have overheated our planet and changed its climate. Still we go on consuming, and borrowing so much to buy it all that our overheated financial system implodes. Babylon the Great is very nearly fallen, but meanwhile, thriving as ever….
18 After all this I saw another angel come down from heaven with great authority, and the earth grew bright with his splendor.
2 He gave a mighty shout, “Babylon the Great is fallen, is fallen; she has become a den of demons, a haunt of devils and every kind of evil spirit.[a] 3 For all the nations have drunk the fatal wine of her intense immorality. The rulers of earth have enjoyed themselves with her,[b] and businessmen throughout the world have grown rich from all her luxurious living.”
4 Then I heard another voice calling from heaven, “Come away from her, my people; do not take part in her sins, or you will be punished with her. 5 For her sins are piled as high as heaven, and God is ready to judge her for her crimes. 6 Do to her as she has done to you, and more—give double penalty for all her evil deeds. She brewed many a cup of woe for others—give twice as much to her. 7 She has lived in luxury and pleasure—match it now with torments and with sorrows. She boasts, ‘I am queen upon my throne. I am no helpless widow. I will not experience sorrow.’ 8 Therefore the sorrows of death and mourning and famine shall overtake her in a single day, and she shall be utterly consumed by fire; for mighty is the Lord who judges her.”
9 And the world leaders who took part in her immoral acts and enjoyed her favors will mourn for her as they see the smoke rising from her charred remains. 10 They will stand far off, trembling with fear and crying out, “Alas, Babylon, that mighty city! In one moment her judgment fell.”
11 The merchants of the earth will weep and mourn for her, for there is no one left to buy their goods. 12 She was their biggest customer for gold and silver, precious stones, pearls, finest linens, purple silks, and scarlet; and every kind of perfumed wood, and ivory goods, and most expensive wooden carvings, and brass, and iron, and marble; 13 and spices, and perfumes, and incense, ointment, and frankincense, wine, olive oil, and fine flour; wheat, cattle, sheep, horses, chariots, and slaves—and even the souls of men.
14 “All the fancy things you loved so much are gone,” they cry. “The dainty luxuries and splendor that you prized so much will never be yours again. They are gone forever.”
15 And so the merchants who have become wealthy by selling her these things shall stand at a distance, fearing danger to themselves, weeping and crying, 16 “Alas, that great city, so beautiful—like a woman clothed in finest purple and scarlet linens, decked out with gold and precious stones and pearls! 17 In one moment, all the wealth of the city is gone!”
And all the shipowners and captains of the merchant ships and crews will stand a long way off, 18 crying as they watch the smoke ascend, and saying, “Where in all the world is there another city such as this?” 19 And they will throw dust on their heads in their sorrow and say, “Alas, alas, for that great city! She made us all rich from her great wealth. And now in a single hour all is gone. . . . ”
20 But you, O heaven, rejoice over her fate; and you, O children of God and the prophets and the apostles! For at last God has given judgment against her for you.
21 Then a mighty angel picked up a boulder shaped like a millstone and threw it into the ocean and shouted, “Babylon, that great city, shall be thrown away as I have thrown away this stone, and she shall disappear forever. 22 Never again will the sound of music be there—no more pianos, saxophones, and trumpets.[c] No industry of any kind will ever again exist there, and there will be no more milling of the grain. 23 Dark, dark will be her nights; not even a lamp in a window will ever be seen again. No more joyous wedding bells and happy voices of the bridegrooms and the brides. Her businessmen were known around the world, and she deceived all nations with her sorceries. 24 And she was responsible for the blood of all the martyred prophets and the saints.”
a. Revelation 18:2 every kind of evil spirit, literally, “every foul and hateful bird.”
b. Revelation 18:3 have enjoyed themselves with her, literally, “have committed fornication with her.”
c. Revelation 18:22 no more pianos, saxophones, and trumpets, literally, “harpers, pipers, and trumpeters.”
How would you paraphrase in your own words this description of the fall of a great commercial center called Babylon? Who will mourn its downfall? How were Christians supposed to act during the fall of this evil empire?
What do you find challenging and/or encouraging about this chapter?
What meaning does it have for your life?
What application or meaning do you feel it has for today’s world?