I’m not sure I understand

Revelation 1:1-11

The revelation from Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, 2 who testifies to everything he saw—that is, the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ. 3 Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.

4 John, To the seven churches in the province of Asia:

Grace and peace to you from him who is, and who was, and who is to come, and from the seven spirits before his throne, 5 and from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.

To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, 6 and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father—to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen.

7 “Look, he is coming with the clouds,”/and “every eye will see him, /even those who pierced him”; /and all peoples on earth “will mourn because of him.” /So shall it be! Amen.

8 “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.”

9 I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus, was on the island of Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. 10 On the Lord’s Day I was in the Spirit, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet, 11 which said: “Write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches: to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea.”

I remember my father telling the story about a book that he had read on how to learn the art of juggling. Every juggler has to start somewhere and you don’t just start with flaming bowling pins and chainsaws. The author of this book suggested that all beginners start with three balls. You take the balls, two in one hand, one in the other, and the first step to learning how to juggle is to…drop the balls on the floor.

The author suggests getting used to that sound: thud, thud, thud. Get used to bending over, looking under the bed, and picking up the balls. Get used to it, because if you are going to learn how to juggle, you are going to be dropping an awful lot of balls.

I sometimes feel like doing theology is a lot like learning to juggle. I think that the first thing that anyone needs to do when beginning to think about God is simply to recognize that you are not going to get God all figured out and you are going to make mistakes. You are going to drop the ball and you are going to find out that your old way of thinking might have been wrong. And that’s okay. We get used to the sound of the thuds along the way, but we keep picking up the balls, overturning the bed, and trying again.

Perhaps no book of the Bible has caused more people to drop the theological ball along the way than the book of Revelation. I have never preached a sermon from this book, so why in the world would I look to start a multiple-week sermon series on Revelation? Did I just get bored? Or perhaps I am a glutton for punishment? Neither, I assure you, is the case.

While I have traditionally been a little frightened by this book, I have recently come across some teachings that make Revelation much more approachable. So for the next few weeks we are going to be looking at different ways to read this book that I have found to be helpful. And hopefully along the way we can see that Revelation was never meant to be scary, but to be a beautiful show of God’s power and glory.

Today’s sermon is one that you can feel free to disagree with me on and I will not be hurt one bit. Neither your salvation nor my own is contingent upon getting this one exactly right! We are trying to come to a better understanding of who God is and what God is calling us to, and we do that together as a community, juggling and dropping balls together.

Before we get into today’s teachings, I want to give credit where credit is due. I have never had an original thought in my life, and most of my information is coming from one of four different places. I have been reading through three books: Reading Revelation Responsibly, by Michael Gorman, Apocalypse and Allegiance, by J. Nelson Kraybill, and N.T. Wright’s commentary on the book of Revelation. Furthermore, I am shaping my messages on a sermon series by Greg Boyd, the teaching pastor at Woodland Hills Church in Minnesota, who just recently finished a Lenten series on Revelation. I found this interesting because I first approached our Worship Planning Team about doing a series on Revelation just before Lent, just before Boyd began his series. So it is obvious that he is listening in and stealing all of my ideas!

In his book, Michael Gorman asks the question, “What comes to mind when ‘The Book of Revelation’ is mentioned?” He gives a list of possible and common responses: the end, the rapture, the number seven, the four horsemen, the antichrist, the number 666, judgment, vengeance, the second coming, heaven. Gorman then notes that it is interesting that of this list – which seems like a pretty good list capturing the essence of Revelation to me – there are two words that are not even found in the book of Revelation. Those words are antichrist and rapture.

I was surprised to learn this because these words seem to be so important in popular Christianity. Go into any Christian book store and you will find popular books about the end times that go into great detail about the antichrist and the rapture with the claim to be based on Revelation. Indeed, the antichrist is found in other books of the Bible, but these books take a few verses from the Bible and make an entire series of novels out of them. However, these books are not meant to be works of great theology. They are meant to be fiction books that pick up on a few themes and then make a story out of them. Unfortunately, many people read these popular books and assume that they are based on the Bible. And I think that people assume that to be the case because it is a lot easier to pick up a Left Behind book and understand what the author is saying rather than doing the work required to understand the book of Revelation.

I don’t want to spend a lot of time explaining why some of this popular theology seems to miss the point of Revelation, but I will note that what we often call “Rapture Theology” wasn’t really developed until the 1830’s by John Nelson Darby and it was later popularized by the Scofield Reference Bible. It was this rapture theology that led to some of the debates, which many of us are glad to not be taking part in, around the millennium, pre-tribulation or post-tribulation rapture. And if you were to ask me if I am a pre-millennialist or a post-millennialist, I would probably answer that I am neither. I am a pan-millennialist, which means that I trust God and believe that it will all pan out just fine.

But here is the thing, I don’t believe Revelation is about a pre-millennial rapture, or a post-millennial rapture like the popular books tend to make it out to be. Last week I threw out a big, fancy word and encouraged people to do some homework. I said that we would be looking at Revelation from a semi-preterist perspective. The word “preterist” comes from the Latin word ‘praeter,’ which simply means “past,” as in, it already happened, it is in the past.

I do not believe that everything that is found in the book of Revelation has already occurred. That is why I use the phrase “semi-preterist.” Don’t misunderstand me, I do believe that Revelation speaks of the end times when there will be a new heaven and a new earth and Jesus will defeat evil. But if we read Revelation as being entirely about what is to come, we miss a lot of important things that are very relevant to the church today (and perhaps a few things that are less than relevant). Does Revelation have a message for the church of the 21st century? I believe so.

As I read, I am a little confused as to why some people think of Revelation as a book that is entirely about the end times. This book, which was written by some person named John who may or may not have been John the disciple, though he is likely a different John, is believed to have been written between the years 60 and 95 AD. So we are still within a generation or two of Jesus when this work was penned.

Let’s look at verse 1a: “The revelation from Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place.”

If John’s readers didn’t get the point yet, he repeats himself in verse 3: “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.”

When we are finishing up the book of Revelation in chapter 22, we are reminded once more that these things are not far off. Verse 6 says: “The angel said to me, ‘These words are trustworthy and true. The Lord, the God who inspires the prophets, sent his angel to show his servants the things that must soon take place.’”

The “time is near,” “what must soon take place.” I often hear people saying that the end times are near, but this was written over 1,900 years ago. That isn’t soon by anyone’s standards. Now I will admit that we all have different understandings of what “soon” means. When I tell my children that we are going to the park “soon,” they understand that to mean within the next 30 seconds. I might mean within the next 30 minutes, or even the next 30 days.

It is also true that God’s timing is not like our timing and that a day is like a thousand years to God. I get that, but it seems a little deceptive for God to say that these things are going to happen “soon,” meaning in the next 2,000 years, without explaining that to us. No, I think that when God said that these things were happening soon, God meant that they were going to happen within the lifetime of the original audience to which John was writing.

And who was John’s original audience? Verse 4 tells us exactly that: “To the seven churches in the province of Asia.” Those churches are named in verse 11: “Write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches: to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea.”

The vision from God that was given to John is said to be about something that is going to happen soon and it is written to seven real churches that existed in the 1st century. The vision that John is given is about the things that those churches will face in their day and age and how they are to live out their calling as the church.

Keep in mind that circulating letters was a common way for a person to teach in multiple churches in the first century. Today we have many “multisite” congregations where a gifted speaker preaches in one location on a Sunday morning and the message is either beamed in by satellite to various other locations or watched on video the following week. But if there was a gifted teacher in the 1st century, he or she wrote letters and sent it to churches who would read the lesson and pass it on to other churches. This was done with Paul’s letters to the churches in Rome, Corinth, Ephesus, and so on. Revelation was meant to be read by one church and then passed on to the next. When the church received the letter they would gather together and read this letter out loud (and you thought our worship service was long and boring).

But just because Revelation was written for a particular set of churches in a particular time dealing with particular issues does not mean that it is not relevant today. We still find things to learn from Paul’s letter to the Roman church today, and we will find things to learn from John’s letter to the seven churches in Asia. Just because these things are in the past doesn’t mean that they are not still relevant.

So if the book of Revelation isn’t just about the end times but a letter meant to give instruction to the churches, what is the main point? This is going to be important, so if you have been sleeping for the last 20 minutes, wake up and pay attention.

The focus of the book of Revelation is on worship and faithful living. And not just worship for one hour on a Sunday morning, but worship throughout your day, throughout your week, and throughout your life. Revelation is an attempt to communicate what it means to be faithful to God in a world that is hostile toward Christianity. Gorman says, “Revelation is fundamentally a book about Christ, worship, and discipleship, and final hope for the world. But it is such in contrast to a kind of false religion and allegiance.”

Let’s look quickly at chapter 1, verse 9: “I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus, was on the island of Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.”

John mentions suffering and patient endurance. One of the words that is used quite often in the book of Revelation is “martyr.” A martyr is someone who is killed for their faith, or for their witness to others of their faith. Obviously, John is not dead at this point, but he says that he is on the island of Patmos “because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.” He is in exile because of his Christian faith.

The persecution of Christians began early in the years immediately following Jesus’ resurrection. We find stories in the Bible about Stephen being stoned for his faith. History tells us that Jesus’ disciples were all put to death because of their belief in Jesus. But that persecution was nothing compared to what would come around the year 64 AD.

Christianity was still a pretty small sect of Judaism in 64, but it had started to find its way into places like Rome, in large part because of the missionary work of people like Paul. Rome had a Caesar at that time named Nero. Nero was a megalomaniac, meaning that he was a power-hungry, blood-thirsty, ruthless leader. Some believe that Nero was trying to build himself a new palace in Rome in 64 AD, but in order to do that he needed to clear some land of old buildings and other structures. So Nero order a part of the city of Rome to be burned to the ground. But the fire got out of control and burned close to three quarters of the city, leaving many without homes and businesses, killing many Roman citizens.

Nero needed a scapegoat to deflect the accusations that he had started the fire, so he pointed his finger at this small Jewish sect called Christianity. Nero had Christians rounded up and tortured. Historians write that Nero had Christians impaled on spears high above his home, soaked in flammable materials, and burned to light his gardens for nighttime parties.

When did I say Revelation was likely written? Between 60 and 90 AD, during the reign of Nero or Domitian, who wasn’t any better to the Christians.

The words “revelation” and “apocalypse” simply mean to reveal something. What John’s vision revealed was how to worship a different king in the middle of the Roman persecutions.

Verses 4b-5, “Grace and peace to you from him who is, and who was, and who is to come, and from the seven spirits before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.”

That is a clear a statement as you are going to find in Revelation. Jesus is the King of kings, Lord of lord. But saying such things under Nero’s watchful, paranoid, and sinister watch will get you killed.

So if you were living at the end of the 1st century and you wanted to circulate a letter to seven different churches declaring who is the rightful Lord and God, how would you do it? Would you come right out and say it, knowing that anyone that was caught with the letter would be put to death without trial, and likely in a painful way? No, you would use a code of some sort. Perhaps images that represent something else; maybe numbers that stood for something. And these images and numbers would not be easily interpreted by a Roman soldier who happened to come across the letter, but these things would make sense to anyone who had spent a significant amount of time studying the Hebrew scripture and living among the Jewish people.

Revelation is a book about worshipping the one true God and his son, the Lord of lords, King of kings. Today in worship we sang “Holy, Holy, Holy!” and “Crown Him with Many Crowns,” both songs based on the book of Revelation. A few of the selections from Handel’s Messiah are based on this text, as well as some popular Christian songs, like Michael W. Smith’s “Agnus Dei.” Revelation, with all of its strange images and gory pictures is really nothing to be afraid of. It is something to be celebrated. It is the worship of our King in a world hostile to his rule.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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One Response to I’m not sure I understand

  1. Pingback: The Problem: Beastly Worship | Staunton Mennonite Weblog

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