Within the span of weeks, the United States has gone from having a handful of cases of COVID-19 to leading the world in cases of infection. This has left much of the world bewildered. Seeing how the virus was affecting other nations, with months of notice, we were still left unprepared. What is it about the structure and function of our country that left us so vulnerable to what should have been a more manageable situation?
For two millennia, in times of turmoil Christians have turned to the Revelation of John for insight. The text has wisdom to share in this time of pandemic as well. By understanding the nature of apocalyptic literature—a type of writing that would have been familiar to the earliest church who experienced Pentecost but is strange to us—American Christians can begin to address difficult questions about our nation’s response. More importantly, we can turn to the biblical text to learn how the church can faithfully respond in this time.
The translation Revelation in the book’s title comes from the Greek apokalypsis, which literally means uncovering or revealing, like removing a veil. In the case of the Apocalypse of John, Jesus Christ has opened something up to the Seer that is meant to be shared. When Pentecostals share a dream or vision with the church, they are engaging in the continuation of this tradition. Paul uses the same Greek term to refer to the spiritual gifts when he writes that “each one of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation” (1 Cor 14:26, NIV). In the same verse he names the purpose of these gifts: “that the church may be built up.” And if there was ever a time the church was in need of building it up, it is now.
In the midst of unprecedented polarization, both in secular culture and tragically within the church, and a worldwide pandemic that has stripped away so many of our illusions, we are more in need of a word than ever. Thankfully, Jesus Christ is always with us through the Holy Spirit, revealing wisdom to those with eyes to see. The Seer’s words offered wisdom, comfort, rebuke, and instruction to his community 2,000 years ago. What new wisdom made known through the Spirit are they revealing in the midst of this worldwide crisis?
I would resist the temptation to find a direct correlation between the words of the text and specific events in a predictive fashion, as though one were filling in the blanks of a crossword puzzle. Rather, the imagery of the text opens up the Christian imagination to a broader view. When we read scripture prayerfully, and in concert with the teachings of the one who saves us and calls us to the peaceful work of reconciliation throughout the Gospels, we can see more clearly that which had been hidden under the veil and is now in view.
I led my own church in a study of Revelation in January. We drew from the book Tales of the End by David L. Barr, and found it to be an excellent guide. Reading the Revelation together, considering the way the earliest church would have read it and what the Spirit continues to reveal, we were opened up to a deepening of our faith and commitment. In light of our own prayerful study, I will share some of my own observations about the COVID-19 crisis and how it has unfolded in the United States. I believe John’s wisdom continues to speak to us as we see these truths revealed. Rather than an exhaustive list, I share these thoughts as the beginning of deeper communal reflection and conversation.
Beyond the ravaging of individual bodies, the societal effects of the virus itself reveal underlying spiritual and economic sicknesses. We see the precariousness of an unjust economic system in which workers live paycheck to paycheck while billionaires separate themselves from their own civic responsibilities. Racial, geographical, and economic disparities are brought to light: people of color and the rural poor are at much higher risk of contracting and dying from COVID-19. Also, an elected official has suggested that the elderly sacrifice their lives in order to sustain this unjust economy. Placing the market above God’s human lives, and Jesus’ concern for the least of these, is a clear demonstration of idolatry, which John repeatedly sees and names.
We see the cruelty and hypocrisy leveled against immigrants in our country. When a scapegoat was needed for our own fears and inequalities, our now-president labelled them as drug dealers and rapists. However, now that job losses from COVID-19 may threaten the food supply chain, undocumented farm laborers are considered essential workers. Yet this valuation of their labor does not provide them protection: neither their bodies from COVID-19, nor their legal standing (they can still be deported). One could hardly imagine a clearer parallel with John’s Babylon, in which human lives valued only for their labor are counted as no more than cargo (18:13).
Much more ugliness is being revealed in our time as well. This raises another question: in light of these revelations, how do we as followers of Jesus Christ faithfully respond?
The Revelation ends not in destruction, but with the beauty and promise of the new creation. We are called not to sit idly by, but to participate in God’s continuing work. In Christ, we ourselves have already become part of this new creation, entrusted as ministers of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:16-19). As Christ’s body on earth, we are to continue to do as he instructs us: healing the sick and preaching the gospel.
We can see one such example of faithful witness in New York City’s Central Park. NYC has become a hotbed of COVID-19 infection. Refrigerated trucks in the city must hold the bodies of COVID-19 victims, as morgues have run out of space. In light of the strain on hospital systems, the Christian organization Samaritan’s Purse has answered Jesus’ call to heal the sick by setting up an emergency hospital in Central Park. In a faithful move toward unity, the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine is partnering with the evangelically aligned Samaritan’s Purse to create even more space for COVID-19 patients. Churches across the country are prayerfully shifting their ministries and providing food to the hungry, as well as other resources. In addition, individual church members working in the healthcare field at all levels are putting their bodies on the line to respond to the crisis, answering Jesus’ call to heal the sick, empowered by the prayers of their congregations.
As Pentecostal and charismatic Christians, we are confident that the gifts of the Holy Spirit empower us for ministry. As you read the Revelation afresh, how do you hear the Spirit calling your church to faithfully respond?
For Further Reading: Barr, David L. Tales of the End: A Narrative Commentary on the Book of Revelation. 2nd Ed. Salem, OR: Polebridge Press, 2012.
Faith Van Horne received her Master of Divinity degree from the Methodist Theological School in Ohio. In Fall 2020 she will begin her PhD in Theology and Religion at University of Birmingham (UK).
Pentecostals & Charismatics for Peace & Justice is a multicultural, gender inclusive, and ecumenical organization that promotes peace, justice, and reconciliation work among Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians around the world. If you like what we do, please become a member!