preaching from revelation

As I posted earlier in the year, a project for me in 2012 has been figuring out how to preach from the Book of Revelation. I've had the privilege of training people in Indonesia, Pakistan, China (in my work with Langham overseas) - and also people in Dunedin, Mt Roskill and New Plymouth (back home here in NZ).

I am excited about what I have learned. The 'fear factor' has been overcome. When I was speaking to young people in my home church (Mt Roskill), I began by showing the first image to appear on google-images for the word 'apocalyptic' (which is what Revelation means). Here it is:

I asked them to tell me the first words that come to mind when they look at this image. Back came the words: hopelessness, defeat, dark, fear, doubt, death etc. It is true. All over the world 'apocalyptic' attracts a censor's warning for its bleak and violent images of the end of the world. When I finished my presentation I came back to this image and suggested that nothing could be further from the truth. Those words are the polar opposite of what the words 'Revelation' and 'apocalyptic' should spark in our lives. Revelation is about hope, victory, light, courage, faith, and life...

How is this possible? Well - here are ten guidelines which give me confidence now to preach from the Book of Revelation (NB: I started with Rev 7. 9-17 - loved it!):

1. Revelation is the answer to a prayer
The Lord's Prayer, to be exact. 'Hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.' Revelation describes what life looks like when these prayers are answered. 'The whole of Revelation could be regarded as a vision of the fulfillment of the first three petitions of the Lord's Prayer' (Bauckham, Theology of Revelation, 40).

2. Revelation is an invitation to worship
Even a quick reading of Revelation can't miss the way it breaks out into song, again and again. Fabulous songs. One of the great studies is to go through this book and ask, 'what is worth singing about?' For many of its first readers - it was midnight, but the message of the book is that dawn is on the way and so there is reason to sing and worship.

3. Revelation is a mixed genre
Read it carefully and Revelation is obviously a letter, a circular letter written to seven churches in Western Turkey. But it is also prophecy. So put Romans and Ezekiel into a big pot and give it a good stir and we are getting close... But then it is also 'apocalyptic literature', an odd type of writing that lasted 600 years and finished 1000 years ago. It is this combo that makes Revelation such a challenge for us. As we read we have to keep the principles for interpreting all three types of literature in our minds, all at the same time. And with 'apocalyptic' there are five features, expressed in a gradually expanding sentence, to keep in mind:
Revelation is a battle.
Revelation is a battle on a big stage.
Revelation is a battle on a big stage which comes as a vision.
Revelation is a battle on a big stage which comes as a vision filled with symbols.
Revelation is a battle on a big stage which comes as a vision filled with symbols in which there is a victor.

4. Revelation is a letter - all of it.
This was a huge discovery. It is not just ch2-3 that is letter-material. The whole book is a letter (1.4-8; 22.21). That means that the entire letter needs to make sense to its first readers, before we ask what it means to us. Just like it is when we come to 1 Corinthians or 1 Peter. Boy, in one simple observation we have swept away a lot of rubbish in the interpretation of Revelation. But then it is not just for those seven churches in the first century. Given the significance of the number seven (a symbol that suggests completeness), these are not just real churches, they are representative churches. They 'embody every major issue with which the church has struggled in every age in every cultural setting' (D Johnson, Discipleship on the Edge, 51).

And one more thing... Don't think that Revelation is just for persecuted peoples. Not all its first readers in ch2-3 were being persecuted. Revelation is not just about comforting the persecuted, it is also about persecuting the comfortable. There is a message here for everyone. 'It is the complex relationship between the presence, or absence, of accommodation and persecution that drives this letter' (M Gorman, Reading Revelation Responsibly, 25).

5. Revelation is more like a circle, than a straight line
Here we are talking about its structure. The view which sees Revelation as kinda like recording history before it happens is not true enough. It is more likely that the chapters circle around the same events at the end of the age, rather than follow a sequential, straight line toward those events. 'What is revealed next does not happen next' (D Johnson, Discipleship on the Edge, 182). There is no need to get tied in knots about the sequence of events in Revelation.

Two images help me so much here. It is like multiple action replays from different angles and in slow motion, as the same events repeat and resound with growing intensity. Alternatively, if you are more into music than sport, it is like a symphony - with its themes, bridges, variations played by different instruments in the orchestra, before a final climactic flourish. Revelation is so symphonic. It is uncanny.

6. Revelation is more political cartoon, than cryptic crossword
There are symbols everywhere in Revelation. Numbers, colours, animals... We need to resist the impulse to decode them. Don't come at them trying to solve them like a cryptic crossword. Leave them as they are, and then live in the ancient world a bit. Listen for the biblical echoes. Tune your ears to what is going on, a bit like fine-tuning a radio that is a little off the channel. Read up a bit on what the symbols may suggest in the first century.  

It is like being impacted by a political cartoon. On a NZ news website a cartoon (like this one) may mean a little to someone in the USA. They will recognise 'Rosa Parks' and the bus - but they still won't 'get it'. What is the padre doing? Who is Louisa Wall? They are listening to another channel. They are living in a different world. And if the cartoon has to be explained to them, or decoded, it will be ruined. The impact is lost. Far better for the American to learn a bit about NZ, tune themselves to this channel, with the issues engaging the attention of its citizens. Then the impact will be felt with a glimpse, in an instant - as it should be. This is kinda like how we need to approach the symbols in Revelation. Remember, Remember. 'To interpret a symbol literally ... is simply to misinterpret' ( R Tate, Biblical Interpretation, 137).

7. Revelation is about two spaces - down here and up there
Any teaching from this letter engages the present situation which the readers face ('down here') with its injustice and idolatry - but it also lifts people to focus on how things look from another transcendent perspective - God's perspective ('up there'). Grasping the forest, not just the trees. The message of Revelation - to which we return in every single sermon - is that God's perspective is the real one, the one that matters.

8. Revelation is about two times - now and then
The Bible may be read forwards, but it is to be lived backwards. It is the certainties of the end ('then') - the Christian hope - which can transform things for us 'now'. Fear and despair may be real, but hope can really triumph. 'Things are not as they seem' (D Johnson). I love the way Greg Liston uses the movie imagery to grasp this. We are to live a 'now showing' life in light of the 'coming soon' reality.

9. Revelation is about two people - 'our Lord and his Christ' (11.15)
Every single sermon comes back to two truths: God is in control and Jesus wins. We must not shy away from the judgement of God. It may be bad news for some, but it is also good news for so many. Their hope is in the judgement of God, that he is in control and able to deal with evil finally and fully. 'God spoke creation into existence ... (and will be) speaking evil into non-existence' (M Gorman, Reading Revelation Responsibly, 152-153). And Jesus wins - not as the mighty Lion, but as the vulnerable Lamb (5.6). 'We have been redeemed from a culture of death by the death of the Lamb for faithfulness to death ... conquering the temptation to give up or give in' (M Gorman, Reading Revelation Responsibly, 177).

10. Revelation is about big truths sweeping across time, not just little details for our own time.
I love the flourish Craig Keener gives to this in the opening pages of his NIVAC commentary on Revelation. This is the stuff which must capture our sermons and fill our preaching...
'God is awesomely majestic, as well as sovereign, in our troubles
Jesus' sacrifice as the lamb ultimately brings complete deliverance to those who trust him
God's judgements on the world are often to serve notice that he will avenge his people
Regardless of how things appear, sin will not go unpunished and God will judge
God accomplishes his purposes through a small and persecuted and powerless remnant
Worship leads us from grief over our sufferings to God's purposes from an eternal perspective
Proclaiming Christ invites persecution which is the normal state of believers in this age
Jesus Christ is worth dying for
A radical contrast exists between God's kingdom and the world's values
The hope God has in mind for us far exceeds our present sufferings
God's plan and church ultimately include representatives of all peoples' (41)

PS - Why Revelation?
to inspire people to hope, faith and courage
to call people to remain faithful and to persevere
to refresh people as imagination and emotion is engaged
to 'follow a slaughtered Lamb wherever he goes'

nice chatting



Ian Guy said…
Thanks for this Paul,

Revelation should be preached yet often we shy away from it. A few years back I was encouraged to preach through it after reading "Joy in our Weakness" by Marva Dawn. Like you Marva sees the Revelation as a nook of hope, strength, promise, and victory.

After reading your blog I'm wondering if it's time to tackle it again,there is probably more misconception and confusion in the church in regards the Revelation than any other part of Scripture.

Thank you for the chat!

Paul said…
Your comment, Ian, reminds me of the final sentence in Gorman's book (a stunning one in many ways - and simple too) ... "Perhaps in a profound way, the last book of the Bible needs to become the church's first book". It certainly meshes with that great advice about 'reading the Bible forwards, but living it backwards'.

Trust that you are travelling well. Some of my friends have bumped into your ministry in Queenstown (?) and loved it.

Regards to Amanda

arabkiwi said…
I've got absolutely no idea what that political cartoon is about - and I'm a Kiwi. Obviously I've been out of the country too long.
binksie said…
Great post again Paul.

The political cartoon highlights the Marriage Redefinition Amendment Bill before parliament in NZ, with Louisa Wall being the MP putting forward proposals to redefine equality in marriage. The "church" and other groups as Paul says "are living in a different world".

We're all on the same bus, some have a good idea of our destination, others not....
Dale said…
Great post! I enjoyed dipping into a few of those authors for my little research essay supervised by Picard. And I wouldn't be surprised if he's been a conversation partner for you recently!

Amazing how the pop-Christian end times stuff masks the message of Revelation! Like Hananiah & Jeremiah! :)
Andy Morrison said…
Great post.
I heard Carson talk in Brisbane earlier this year about how to read revelation, and what stuck out for me was how inadequate our language is to express what John was seeing in heaven.
The example painted was if you went into a tribe in PNG that had never had outside contact, learned their language, could communicate using their ideas and their concepts, then tried to explain to them about electricity. the words available just couldn't capture the ideas in anything like what the original looked like.

Thanks for the comments, friends

And Andy, thank-you so much for mentioning the Carson electricity/PNG example. I have heard him say it - but had forgotten it ... but now with your 'comment' I have it for posterity and won't lose it. Very helpful.

Best wishes


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