Today, I can think of no better book to give hope and encouragement in dying than the book of Revelation. My sister asked me to read it to her while she was on hospice care, battling cancer, two years ago. I wasn’t very fond of this idea, I must admit. The cryptic language and the violent scenes didn’t communicate much “hope” or “encouragement” to me at the time. Tucking her weightless body under the cozy blankets, a fading ball of grey fluff on a leather couch, she signaled to me that she was ready. And so, I began the reading of the text in Romanian. For her part, my sister craved the Word of God on Heaven for peace of mind and soul. After all, Heaven was closer to her than ever before. What I didn’t realize then was that this very reading would change my understanding of the book, and shape my theology of dying through the cruciform hope and encouragement clearly evident from its start to finish.
1. The book of Revelation is more hopeful than confusing. The difficulty of the symbolic text confused us both. The apocalyptic signs and the allegorical language were just as enigmatic in Romanian as, I am sure, they are in English. But the weight of this book is not so much in the signs themselves as it is in the rich, accessible material throughout. Anticipating, perhaps, the people’s baffled reaction to the futuristic images, God begins his revelation by communicating encouragement in the form of blessings: “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near” (1:3, emphasis mine). In all the confusion, in the text and in our own trials, it’s impossible to miss the persistent and faithful blessings of God no matter the circumstances. We were blessed when we began the text, we were blessed as we continued, and we were blessed as we finished (14:13; 22:7).
The fast paced, climactic, and vivacious images also brought life in our lecture. I must admit, we chuckled many times through it all. Trying to envision the symbolic descriptions showed us how truly limited (but funny) our imaginations were. The reality that the eternity after death contains glorious movements, noisy exuberance, and indescribable places must be God’s intentional literary expression to both excite and comfort any Christian facing their own death. God planned the ending of the Bible to usher his people from earthly tents into the most hopeful and exultant Home ever.
2. The book of Revelation is for today, not just for tomorrow. She wanted to hear the sound of Heaven in her ears and have the images of her next home on the forelobes of her mind. I can see now why she yearned to hear about it in God’s own words. The book of Revelation speaks immediately into our dying even as it describes the life afterwards. As we read through the book, we heard God’s reassuring promise of being known. “I know,” God sovereignly affirms over and over in chapter 2. The comfort of being known in any time in history is true even in the very moments of dying. Life known is life loved—the banner of intimacy with God. Recorded in these pages are transitions back and forth from our earth to the glories of Heaven—faithful reminders of God’s remembrance of us.
This was our last reading together, but also the only reading that we’d both reference soon after her dying. My sister stands before God’s throne, serving him day and night, sheltered by God’s own presence. She is weak no more. Her physical body needs no more food or liquid to hold her alive. The sun of her trials has long set and the burning attack of the cancer has stopped striking her organs. The Lamb seats in her midst and shepherds her unto living water. Every single tear cried has been wiped away from her eyes, even the tears she couldn’t cry the day she moaned her life away (Revelation 7:15-17).
She heard it and died a few weeks later. I read it and lived, filled with hopeful peace not only that it is well with her soul, but that it shall be well with mine, too. Revelation stands to call “for endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus.” (14:12). It joins Isaiah in his reminders that indeed, in Christ, our wilderness and dry land will be made glad again. Our desert will rejoice and blossom like the crocus that one day; it will blossom abundantly and will rejoice with joy and singing. The blind eyes will be opened, the ears of the deaf unstopped, the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute shall sing for joy. As we look unto Heaven, we must allow the descriptions of the Bible to become our comforts. See the waters breaking forth in wilderness, and each stream in the dessert; notice the burning sand becoming a comforting pool, and the thirsty ground springing with water. There is a highway called the Way of Holiness and only the redeemed shall pass over it. Hear the ransomed of the Lord singing in Zion. Picture their heads crowned with everlasting joy. And watch them be glad and joyful, and wave goodbye to any sorrow and sighing for these will flee away (Isaiah 35:1-10).
3. The book of Revelation is more familiar than we think. Not all reading was cryptic and heavy. There was this One name we were both familiar with. Through all the symbolism and hard-to-understand sections, this One man drew us in even more. We read of Christ as “the Amen,” “the Faithful Witness,” “the Firstborn of the dead,” “the Ruler of kings on earth,” “the First and the Last,” “the Beginning of creation of God,” “the Lion of the tribe of Judah,” “the Root of David, “ “the worthy Lamb,” “Faithful and True,” “The Word of God,” “King of kings and Lord of lords,” the Root and the Descendant of David,” “the bright morning Star.” It turns out that Jesus Christ is truly in every book of the Bible. And he is everywhere in living, in dying, and in life after death. He is even in the darkest of circumstances we can’t make sense of. His names reflect attributes of character that bring comfort and peace in all times.
The rest of Heaven doesn’t look that strange either. Besides God, Son, and Holy Spirit, there are familiar descriptions of peoples, languages, places, events, activities, and even songs. Heaven is a glorious “tabernacle” filled with holy communion and fellowship. My sister ended her life surrounded by a faithful community of friends and family. But she also began her new life in full swing of some pretty glorious heavenly hussle and bussle.
More than a final chapter filled with some enigmatic and cruel content, Revelation stands out as a most hopeful, powerful, meaningful, and lively announcement regarding new things to come for believers. In the face of living and dying, we remain blessed to persevere, remembering that ours is the glory of Heaven. In our Christian walk, God always proves good and faithful. Revelation promises us that he remains good and faithful unto eternity, also. The events about to come are indescribable, enigmatic, hard to understand. But we know that even these are good and faithful because Jesus is in each one of them still. As we finished the reading, we were silent. The children were playing in the background, mom was cooking in the kitchen, and the crisp spring air cuddled the dried earth. But our souls feasted on the most encouraging of gospel news: it’s always good and faithful to be where Jesus is, in living, or in dying.