Richard B. Hays, the Church, & Revelation

As I’ve been reading through Richard B. Hays The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to the New Testament Ethics (see my “books I’m reading” sidebar), I just finished the chapter in which he surveys the implied ethics in the book of Revelation.  Here is a couple observations he makes that I thought I would share.

On the calling of the church:

The church follows Jesus by bearing prophetic witness against the violence, immorality, and injustice of an earthly empire that claims the authority that belongs rightly to God.  This means that Jesus’ followers worship God, not the empire; they refuse to receive the mark of Beast, thereby excluding themselves from the normal activities of the economic system (13:16-17; 14:6-11).  They imitate Jesus’ example of powerless suffering and refuse to succumb to the illusion that power equals truth.  (p. 176)

Of course, if that observation seems strange, extreme, or even absurd in light of what you always though the book of Revelation taught the try this observation on:

…Revelation can be read rightly only by those who are actively struggling against injustice.  If Revelation is a resistance document, its significance will become clear only to those who are engaged in resistance…  Something very strange happens when this text is appropriated by reader in a comfortable, powerful, majority community: it becomes a gold mine for paranoid fantasies and for those who want to preach revenge and destruction.  (p. 183, italics mine)

So what are your thoughts?  Is Hays’ description of the church’s calling coherent with what you have understood to be the message of Revelation?  Why or why not?  What do you think about his observation of those who interpret Revelation from the seat of comfort and power?

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11 responses to “Richard B. Hays, the Church, & Revelation

  1. Revelation- and non-conformity to the world.

    The book’s premise seems right on to me. in my Church Revelation was considered so fraught with possible danger that it was not incorporated into the Liturgies and prayers of the Church. However, Divine Litugy, our central act of worship, existence, and Kingdom realization, is considered to be something that is taking place in the setting of the heavenly vision from Revelation.

    I have been out of the Atlanta prison camp for two years now, after serving two years for ‘resistance’. In order to stay on the good side of the IRS I was required to lie on tax forms and the Holy Spirit wrestled me to the mat, so that when I told the truth on the forms and said the truth in a public forum, they managed to convince a jury I was an evil-doer. I kept my conscience, and an open heaven. I lost my podiatric medical license, most of my worldly goods. But there was a quantum leap in my relationship to my Lord, my marriage was rejuvenated with a mighty baptism of Divine Love that came upon my wife, and I was resurrected into employment in a green industry making solar cells, of all things, in this world.
    In a certain sense I refused the mark of the Beast, and was excluded from the world’s economy. On the other hand I was resurrected into a new way of earning a living. Having tasted death and resurrection, I am much emboldened in confidence in the ultimate death and resurrection in Christ. My politics has become ‘maranatha’ after the book of Revelation, because the Kingdoms of this world offer false hopes, and false salvations, and we are in the time of the end, since Jerusalem is back in Jewish hands.
    I believe my experience will be of a practical help for many as this Nation and the whole world descends at ever increasing speed into a hatred for Christ and all this is his.
    Rejoice for our redemption draws nigh.

    • Ben,

      I don’t know why we must suffer from the things we do in life but if our sufferings help “emboldened [our] confidence in the ultimate death and resurrection in Christ” then I believe we can see in hindsight the value in such suffering.

      Grace and peace,

      Rex

  2. I’ve long taught that Revelation 5 is a key passage to understanding the book, when John looks to see the Lion of Judah and instead sees a slain Lamb. The idea is that victory comes not through power, but through sacrifice. (I preached that at Echo Lake the other night)

    I find the second quote to be a bit of hyperbole (if it can only be read rightly by those people, I hope Hays was struggling against injustice or he couldn’t read it rightly). However the italicized sentence rings very true to me.

    Grace and peace,
    Tim Archer

    • Tim,

      Hays also believes Revelation 5 is key to interpreting the book and deals with that chaper as one entire section in the chapter in order to expound on the ethical immplications of Revelation. I happen to agree with him as well as you.

      Like you, I don’t think being able to read Revelation requires that we are actually involved in a resistance movement (unless that means understanding the church as a resistance movement to the kingdoms of this world). I think what is required for us to read Revelation and make the appropriate hermeneutical conclusions is to have a worldview that is shaped by God’s kingdom mission rather than nationalism or blind naivety to the ways in which the nations and tribes of our world (including America) vie for power, utilizing utilitarian ethics to rationalize the use of violence necessary to gain and maintain such power. When the worldview of a Christian is dominated by such nationalism and blind naivety, the likelihood of seeing the difference between the Kingdom of God and whatever worldly kingdom is patronized will be very minute.

      Grace and peace,

      Rex

  3. Rex,
    I wish I had the understanding of Revelation that would be appropriate to weigh in on your discussion. I am the typical lay person who is mostly confused by the book and could use an in depth study at some point as I do understand it is and probably has always been a highly misunderstood book. However, I can’t help but wonder if it is best understood in light of the rest of the scriptures. That God reveals His power over those who seemingly think the power is in their hands is a story of old. Thinking of Moses and Pharaoh, many of the Kings challenged by prophets, Jesus and Pilate. God seems to be telling us over and over just how powerless the mighty are. And He has always called His people to bear witness to His justice. Is Revelation a book that testifies to all that He has spoken? I find great peace in knowing our Lord will return to bring an end to all of the injustice. That Satan really is on the losing end. Perhaps fire and brimstone are no longer popular to preach but it is at times appropriate. Knowing (and we can be certain!) that His justice is coming should cause us to bear what we must, to have our names written in His book. As Christians our best possible stance is prayer, that in that place we can truly fight what is evil, that and by being what our Lord commissioned us to be and do. This has always been what God has called His people to do and that is the example of those saints who have gone before us have done. I personally have been praying more and more for His return, to bring down once and for all all that sin and its deceit has done. I have rambled, I apologize, but just sharing a few thoughts.

    • Amy,

      We’re all just “lay” people. I don’t claim to have everything about Revelation understood either and I am generally skeptical of those who do…especially the ones who think it is all about – as Hays puts it – paranoid fantasies and vengence.

      While any bible-study would hopefully deepen our understanding and when necessary, nuance our understanding a bit, I don’t think your understanding is off the mark. Revelation is an application of the God story of scripture to the Christians in Asia minor. It is about victory and a reminder that those who think they are mighty live under an illusion that is coming to an end where the victory of God and his people is complete.

      Any ways, sometime I do want to preach/teach from Revelation but that will have to wait for a while. I am going to begin telling the story in Genesis.

      Grace and peace,

      Rex

  4. Revelation. What an awesome book. But I want to comment on Hays The Moral Vision of the NT. John Mark Hicks practically twisted my arm to read that book in the summer of 1999!! So while I was NOT listening to Prince I devoured that work. Community, Cross and New Creation! Thinking out of the integration of these categories to live as a Christian has had a profound effect on my life. Great book. You will return to it often I assure u.

    • I actually had the blessing of hearing Hays both lecture and then preach at the Rochester College Sermon Seminar a few years back. THe seminar was on preaching the Gospel of John. Any ways, Hays was a very good teacher and preacher who seemed very prophetic to me in his outlook of the gospel within human culture. I also knew that many of my professors (including JMH) had refered to this book so I went ahead and bought. However, I was still in seminary and having to read great books that were being assigned to me for classes. So I am now finally getting the chance to read it and it is well worth the effort.

      Grace and peace,

      Rex

  5. Without reading his book, I’m not sure what he is saying.

    Revelation testifies that God has all power and authority. You be faithful to Him, trust in Him, and leave the consequences to God. That is something that is relevant to all people, whether you are in the majority or the minority, in a position of power or weakness.

    I believe Revelation was written to Jewish Christians that had recently fled from Jewish persecution in Jerusalem and had come to Asia Minor. Only now, they went from the frying pan and into the fire, as Roman persecution under Nero was starting up.

    Revelation is a prophecy about what was the near future. Yes, things are bad. Yes, things are about to get worse. But don’t worry, God will soon take care of both Nero and Jerusalem, and later, God will one day deal with Satan and all the wicked once and for all. You don’t worry about them, you worry about remaining faithful to Christ. If you are among those who are called to suffer and die, it is OK, God will take care of you (Rev. 2:10, 14:13). So keep the faith and continue to be a source of light in this world of darkness.

    • Steve, what Hays is implying is that those read Revelation from the position of power (as many American Christians do) rather than the powerless miss what it means in Revelation to be “faithful to Him, trust in Him, and leave the consequences to God.” as you state. The reason for such miss is that the position of power blinds us from seeing how corrupt the power are which said believers are intertwined with, serving and protecting, and are part of. Thus, by way of example, in many American churches when one encounters a discussion on the relationship between Christianity and the state, it will be common to hear Matthew 22.15-22 and Romans 13.1-7 discussed but rarely will anyone raise the question of how Revelation 18 ought to shape such an ethical discussion. And I think the reason is that for many American Christians (or other Christians mixed in with the powers) such a passage might stand against rather in support of their being co-opted into the political power of this world.

      Thus when you right that Revelation teaches that Christians are to be “faithful to [God], trust in Him, and leave the consequences to God”, I would not disagree with that and neither do I think Hays would. The question though is what does it mean in Revelation to be faithful and trusting in God alone. This is what Hays is getting at. Whether you agree with him on that or not is another matter. I happen too.

      Any ways, I hope that helps explain a bit more.

      Grace and peace,

      Rex

      • Ah, I think I understand a little better now.

        In response to why American Christians rarely bringing up Revelation 18 into the discussion, that is probably because most people aren’t really sure what Revelation is about. Speaking from years of attending churches of Christ, most preachers don’t even talk about Revelation, apart from chapters 2 & 3 (either because they aren’t really sure what the book means, or they are sure about what it means, but don’t want to start a fight). =)

        I don’t see how Revelation 18 really addresses the issue. I understand Revelation 18 to be a specific warning: God is about to judge this city, so you Christians need to get out of town. Much like what God told Lot.

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