Sunday, May 12, 2019

The Plainest Book Ever Written


            In 1843, the Prophet Joseph made a remark that probably came across as somewhat strange, when he declared that “the book of Revelation is one of the plainest books God ever caused to be written.”

            As on so many other matters, what Joseph Smith said does not match the prevailing opinion, either in the wider world, or within modern Mormonism. In my experience, most Latter-day Saints, like Christians in general, shy away from the Apocalypse of John, confessing that it is too hard for them to understand. The book is seldom read or studied.

If confronted with Joseph’s statement, these Mormons might say that, even though Revelation is a very difficult book, Joseph was able to understand it because he was a prophet.

Except that Joseph Smith didn’t say that Revelation was a confusing book which he himself, on account of his unusual spiritual enlightenment, was able to make sense of. He said that it was one of the plainest books God ever caused to be written.

I happen to believe Joseph Smith on this point.

The first time I read Revelation was when I was eight or nine years old. I had received my own Bible at the time of my baptism, after which I slowly worked my way through Genesis. I wasn’t very good at understanding what I read – I could follow the creation and flood narratives, but KJV dialogue is a bit tough when you think that ‘nay’ is nothing more than the sound a horse makes, and circumcision went completely over my head. After finishing Genesis, I became impatient and wanted to see the end of the story – so the next thing I read was Revelation.

As with Genesis, I didn’t really follow most of it. But I remembered the otherworldly throne-room scenes with many-eyed beasts singing praises to God; I remembered the end of the world, with the wicked being destroyed by ghastly and unbeatable plagues, and I remembered how, even in the midst of these plagues, the survivors “yet repented not of the works of their hands.”

That last notion scared me – I was afraid that, if these events happened in my lifetime, then even though I would know the end was near, I would be incapable of repenting.

And all these years later, I still believe that what I got out of the book as a nine-year-old was the plain and simply truth. God is enthroned in the heavens, surrounded by glory that doesn’t make sense to man. Sooner or later, the world will end amid splendiferous calamities.

And throughout all this, the wicked would refuse to repent, although I no longer see this last point as a matter of spellbound men who can’t repent even though they desperately want to, but of men who, through long experience rejecting their God, have lost the ability to desire anything better.

I have read the book of Revelation many more times since then, each time understanding a little more of it. And I still believe that it is the plainest book in the Bible.

But what about all those beasts? You might ask. And the signs of the end times? Which of the catastrophes are occurring in the world today? Which have yet to come?

Except that I haven’t tried to answer those questions. Matching up the seals and plagues to the current news cycle is usually done by the same sort of people who predict the world will end in their own lifetime. Every generation of Christians has had people who thought like this, and so far, they’ve all been wrong – which shouldn’t surprise any of us, since Jesus told us that we don’t get to know the timing of the his return.

And the same sort of Christians that go about tying the seven last plagues to events they saw on the nightly news will also pile on evidence that the beasts are representations of their favorite political enemies. This science seems to have been perfected by the late Robert W. Faid, a nuclear engineer from South Carolina who won the Ignoble Prize in Mathematics for publishing a book in which he calculated the exact odds (710,609,175,188,282,000 to 1) that Mikhail Gorbechev is the Antichrist.

I would argue that the descriptions of the Dragon, the Beast, and the False Prophet which John provides are a bit too vague to support such firm conclusions.

What we do know is that the Beast will persecute Christians, and many will suffer martyrdom for not worshipping him. So we can either look at all the centuries of Christians who have endured such things and say, ‘you were persecuted by ordinary enemies, but in my time, we will be persecuted by the Beast of Revelation himself,’ or else we can conclude that the Beast is a symbol of all earthly powers that war against the Saints, and that one generation of Christians has as good a claim at being up against the Beast as the next.

These things are symbols to be understood, not codes to be deciphered. The message of Revelation is aimed at Christian men, women, and children throughout the centuries whose hearts are pointed toward God; it was not written for the benefit of a handful of mathematicians.

And what of the number of the beast, six hundred and threescore and six? Well, on my second reading of Revelation (I didn’t know what a ‘score’ was the first time around) I simply understood it to mean that 666 is a symbol of the Devil and ought to be avoided.

I suppose that at some point in the future, some tyrant will demand that his subjects be branded with the number 666, and a few of them will refuse and lose their lives over it. Also, at the present time there are thousands of milquetoast American Christians driving around with that number on the backs of their cars, even though there is still enough religious freedom left in this country that they could easily go to the DMV and demand new license plates.

But leaving aside the favorite topics of debate, I will say that every time I study Revelation I see more plain and precious truths. I can’t go over them all in a single blog post, but I’ll talk about a few.

One thing I remember is how, when the Two Prophets are slain in Jerusalem, the wicked celebrate by giving gifts to one other. The idea of present-giving to celebrate a death seemed very bizarre to me at the time; then Margaret Thatcher died, and it was in the news that a lot of Brits who had hated her were taking advantage of the occasion to give presents to each other. Not exactly a fulfillment of prophecy, but it does show the level of depravity to which our world has sunk.

When Babylon the Great falls, and the plumes of her smoke are seen from afar off on the oceans, there will be a lot of mourning for her. But it isn’t lamentation on account of all the death and human misery that such an event entails; it is, rather, a pathetic spectacle wherein “the merchants of the earth shall weep and mourn over her; for no man buyeth their merchandise any more.”

Nearly half of Chapter 18, which describes Babylon’s fall, is about the merchants and all their fine goods that Babylon will no longer purchase. The whole mood fits in quite well with modern American politics, where the magnitude of human death inflicted through abortion and undeclared wars takes second place to the ups and downs of the stock market as the driver of national emotion.

And then there is my favorite Bible verse, Revelation 3:17, part of Christ’s rebuke to the lukewarm Church at Laodicea: “Because thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked.”

Why would I choose that as my favorite verse? Because I have experience with thinking that my conduct is pleasing to God, and then realizing that I am wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked.

What I have time to write here only scratches the surface of my insights from studying Revelation – and I won’t even go into some of the connections I made when I began looking at the text in the original Greek. Suffice it to say that there is a lot to be learned from what John wrote, and like any book of scripture, you will get more out of it the more you study it.

But you don’t need to worry that studying Revelation will be too difficult. The Prophet Joseph said that it is plain, and easy to understand. And even when I was a small child, I grasped the basic message of the book: The wicked have no hope of victory, and although the faithful Saints will suffer great tribulations, in the end, Jesus wins.

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