A SLAUGHTERED LAMB: Revelation and the Apocalyptic Response to Evil and Suffering. By Gregory Stevenson. Abilene, TX: Abilene Christian University Press, 2013. 240 pages.
The Book of Revelation is one of the most polarizing books of the Bible. The continuum of responses ranges from the Hal Lindsey types who read every event in the newspaper into Revelation to those, like the late Robert Funk, a co-founder of the Jesus Seminar, who suggested that we would be well served by removing it from the canon. My expectation is that few Mainline Protestant preachers delve into this book for preaching resources. Better to ignore than open cans of worms – thus out of sight, out of mind. But are these the only options? Since the book is in the canon are there responsible ways of interpreting this book that has lent itself to misinterpretation and misapplication? It may be a dangerous book, but it is firmly ensconced in the canon of Christian Scripture.
Fortunately there are skilled and thoughtful interpreters. One of these interpreters worthy of giving a hearing is Gregory Stevenson, a professor of New Testament at Rochester College (Rochester, MI). Stevenson, like Rochester College, is affiliated with the Churches of Christ, a faith tradition related to my own, that has a reputation of being conservative. Whether Stevenson’s interpretation is conservative or not is likely in the eye of the beholder. What I see in it is a careful scholar who recognizes that this often misunderstood and misinterpreted book of Scripture has a message that is accessible and necessary for our day.
His approach is scholarly, but also informed by a commitment to the sacredness of scripture. That is, as he reads it, he does so with a spiritual intent. He expects to hear a word from God in the words of Scripture. That expectation guides his work of interpretation. While this is a book that has deep scholarly roots, the intended audience is much broader than the academy. He writes with the person who wants to engage this text responsibly, but could be a preacher or maybe the general reader.
As he writes his commentary, Stevenson believes that Revelation has something to say to the contemporary Christian. He doesn’t read it as a blueprint for last days. He believes that the original recipients would have recognized themselves in it. He sees it as an apocalyptic response to evil and suffering – thus the sub-title. But, Revelation is not a theodicy in the traditional (modern) sense. That is, John is not trying to defend God in the face of suffering and evil. That would not have been part of John’s understanding of God or reality. It is too modern. But, John makes two assumptions – God is sovereign and that evil and suffering exist. The question then is what is the meaning of this reality?
It has become common interpretation to see Revelation as a word of comfort to those who are experiencing suffering because of their faith. The assumption has been that this book was likely written during the imperial reign of Domitian. While Domitian did require worship of his image, it is unknown as to how much official persecution was meted out to Christians. But, being a Christian did put one on the margins of society and could lead to suffering. Thus, there is a word of comfort – that is, God will reign victorious.
There is another group, however, to whom this is directed. That is, it is directed to those who have chosen to collaborate or to embrace imperial culture. That such persons might be addressed is seen in the letters to the seven churches. While some churches are experiencing suffering, others are described as complacent and accommodating to a culture that stands opposed to the teachings of Christ. To these persons the word is different. John wants them, according to Stevenson’s interpretation which I find compelling; to understand that this culture they’ve assimilated themselves too stands under divine judgment.
The key image is that of the Slaughtered Lamb, which Stevenson interprets not as a sacrifice for sin, but as one who endures suffering with and for those who follow the Lamb. In line with this interpretation, Stevenson writes that for John, the Slaughtered Lamb stands as a contrast to the imperial systems (not just Rome, but all imperial systems), that rule by way of violence. In other words, Jesus, the Slaughtered Lamb, turns the tables on the system. Yes, God will reign supreme, defeating evil, but not in the way we might expect, viewing things from an imperial perspective.
In exploring this text, Stevenson helps us better understand apocalyptic language, including its dualism. For the writer of Revelation, there is a battle going on, a spiritual battle, between two kingdoms, the Kingdom of this World and the Kingdom of God. It is not a battle of equals, for the Kingdom of God will prevail, but the Kingdom of the World, over which Satan presides, is offering significant resistance. Thus, a key message in this text, a word offered to those who suffer and those who collaborate, concerns allegiance. To whom will you pledge your allegiance?
It is a word to those who suffer promising that God will prove victorious over evil, but shall do so in the form of the Slaughtered Lamb (via the cross). But there is another audience -- that is the folks who compromise with the world, the collaborators. They are informed that the imperial system in which they've placed their trust stands under judgment and will not survive. Thus, it is a word concerning allegiance -- to the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of the World.
While Revelation is clearly a dangerous book, we needn’t shy away from engaging with it. What we need, however, are adept interpreters. We’re fortunate to have a number of them in our day, and one of these interpreters is Greg Stevenson. With his skillful guidance, we can hear a word from God. And in our American situation, where real suffering for one’s faith is rare, the word we might take away from this reading is a challenge to our complacency. Living as we do in a Christian majority country, it is easy to equate culture with religion. We can become comfortable with our situation, thinking that the aims of our culture are those of God. In reading Revelation, we might find that the system in which we’ve placed our allegiance stands under divine judgment.
It is because this is a word in season that we should read this book.