Revelation is the Scariest Book in the Bible

By Cindy Koch

Revelation is the scariest book in the Bible, says almost everyone. I just mentioned the word to my high school Sunday school class, and life long, baptized-as-a-baby Christians shuddered at the name. I asked if anyone had actually studied the book before, and two kiddos who grew up in other church traditions sheepishly raised their hands. One of the Lutheran gals, who had never even flipped through those terrible pages at the end of the Bible, cringed deep into her seat. “Ooooo, it gives me shivers just saying it – Revelation.”

Now, as a teacher of the beautiful good news of Jesus Christ, this wasn’t right. To have a whole classroom of young kids terrified of an entire book of the Bible, avoiding the words at all cost. A young man, excited to learn nearly everything about the Word of God, was less than thrilled to hear that we would be reading this one together. He tried in vain to excuse himself from a couple of months of Sunday morning youth study simply because he had been beaten over the head with these words before. Taking stock of the downcast and afraid faces that surrounded me, hovered around the table in our little church library that morning, it was clear that this was the perfect Bible Study to tackle next. I do not have this same aversion to the vision of the Apocalypse that St. John was instructed to write, and so I was immediately fascinated by their fear.

Now, I guess I take that back. I can imagine why there is so much fear associated with this book of the Bible. We have all heard snips and clips of the impending judgment day, whether you have read it or not. Plagues and horsemen, earthquakes and destruction, the end of the earth and life as we know it. I heard even more about it from our youth on that Sunday morning, fear and trembling used by bad teachers to shock these little ones into righteousness. I even hear a story about Revelation camp, where young happy minds were shipped off to purposely be scared into submission. If you don’t believe, they say, Revelation will get you. I began to envision the fire-breathing, drooling monster that most of my kiddos were hiding from who answered to the name “Revelation.”

Even Martin Luther, a great teacher and preserver of the Gospel of Jesus, admits that Revelation is a hard sell to understand and teach. He writes in the introduction to his commentary on Revelation, “Finally, let everyone think of it as his own spirit gives him to think. My spirit cannot fit itself into this book. There is one sufficient reason for me not to think highly of it, — Christ is not taught or known in it; but to teach Christ is the thing which an apostle is bound, above all else, to do, as He says in Acts 1:8, ‘Ye shall be my witnesses.’ Therefore, I stick to the books which give me Christ, clearly and purely.”

I’m not one to usually argue with dead Reformers about their scholarly opinions on books of the Bible, but today I wish Luther and I could talk it through. According to his own philosophies, returning to the source of God’s Holy Word alone, using Scripture to enlighten Scripture, centering the message of every God-breathed word on the cross of Christ, there is no better key to understanding St. John’s rich and comforting Revelation of Jesus Christ.

Contrary to Luther’s one sufficient reason for distaste, the very first three words of this book set the tone for the entire apocalyptic letter to follow. “The Revelation of Jesus Christ.” Ἀποκάλυψις Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ (Rev 1:1) Notice it is not a revelation of the scary end of the word, nor is it a revelation of what you should do to make your life more worthy to be spared, nor is it a revelation of obscure metaphors with no referent; this is a revelation of Jesus Christ.

This simple focus means all the difference. Images from the Old Testament prophets appear in Revelation – it’s about Jesus. Visions of victory at the same time death and tribulation overtake the world – it’s about Jesus. White robes covering all who have been washed in the blood of the Lamb, all who hear and cherish what God speaks no matter what he sees – it’s all about Jesus.

Yes, Luther certainly right, “stick to the books which give me Christ clearly and purely.” Revelation is not the place to start drinking the spiritual milk. But our deep heritage of discerning the Gospel of Jesus has prepared us well to receive this Revelation as comfort, not fear. We have been taught since Baptism to see with our ears and recognize the Gospel of Jesus is the center, even in Revelation.

3 thoughts on “Revelation is the Scariest Book in the Bible

  1. The early passages of Revelation, concerning God’s evaluation of the faithfulness of the various church types, the rich ones, the lukewarm bodies, and so forth, seems easier to explain….but when you dig into the difficult imagery later on….you have probably confused most Christians. I do not understand Revelation, even after reading a few commentaries from various sources. Like Leviticus and Numbers, as well as Deuteronomy, there are sections which are downright incomprehensible regarding the rigidity of the Law, the penalties for disobedience, and the violent punishments inflicted for wayward sons, witches, and blasphemers. The Gospel and the epistles are easier to understand, even if the church stil debates some of the doctrines which originated from the passages we read. End times and prophecy are also always debated, and how do we teach adults, let alone Christian youth, how to properly understand these things? Luther gives us good guidelines in the Catechism. Someday we will understand it all perfectly, but not on this side of glory.

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  2. I preached from Revelation chapter 5 yesterday. When I read that Luther did not think that the book proclaimed Christ clearly, I have to wonder where Luther started reading the book of Revelation. Chapter 1 explicitly lays out the purpose of the incarnation and accomplishment of Christ’s death on the cross and the implications for the priesthood of all believers. Chapter 5 is all about the praise of Christ. Luther’s stance disturbs me deeply. I’m relieved that it bothered you, too.

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    1. I guess we have to give Luther a break. He was just a man, albeit brilliant, but in many respects as confused as the rest of us. He found Revelation a tough book to read, let alone teach others from it. Luther also didn’t care for the book of James (one of my favorites…especially…” Show me your faith by your works!” What are mere words when action is absent?). I digress. I like Luther’s plain speaking and even his often coarse and off handed remarks, revealing he is very much the flawed icon of our Synod and world Lutheranism. Heck, he didn’t set out to start a church or denomination bearing his name, as he merely wanted to reform the RCC! It was others who started calling those who agreed with him…Lutherans. Back to Revelation, I am glad some pastors preach from it anyway, and you are right about chapter 1 and chapter 5.

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