This is the first in an Easter season series on Revelation.
When I was in seminary, one of my pastoral duties was to provide support for a very large assisted-living apartment complex in Lexington, Ky. A dozen ladies there asked if I would lead them in a Bible study focused on the Book of Revelation.
What surprised me was the reason they wanted to have the study. In short, they were afraid.
At the time, there was a lot of talk about Revelation, in particular because a set of books known as the “Left Behind” series had been getting a lot of attention. Not one of these ladies could have been younger than 80, and I’m sure most of them had been going to church most of their lives. But all of a sudden, what is essentially the end of the biblical story kept them awake at night.
That was when I first began to understand that teaching—or in this case, preaching—is a special case where Revelation is involved. A lot of Christians have poorly formed or misinformed ideas about the book, and I generally have to convince people to put their preconceived notions aside if we are going to travel to the place Revelation wants to take us.
The author’s name is John, a man we know to have been imprisoned for his faith on the island of Patmos. He may or may not have been the Apostle John; that matter is highly debatable, although ultimately irrelevant to the message the book sends. John’s point in writing Revelation was to communicate a powerful vision he had to churches who apparently knew of him.
The first thing I want to note is how, in his greeting to the churches, he used a couple of important words to set the tone for his vision. “Grace to you,” he told them. “Peace.” And he rooted this greeting in the holy, loving nature of God, as expressed in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
His greeting expressed freedom, particularly freedom from the power of sin. John spoke of power and hope for Christ’s followers, not punishment. Fear was not an emotion he seemed to be trying to elicit.
John’s greeting continues to remind us of where our story is headed. Christ will return in a most undeniable way. The “tribes of the earth” may wail, but only because they failed to acknowledge a great truth still serving as the core of our faith, the truth of Jesus Christ as savior for all of humanity.
These words of hope and peace make Revelation a wonderful way to explore the continuing Easter season. Christ’s resurrection was just a beginning, a promise of more to come. A remaking is underway, and it will continue until it ends with everything in heaven and earth conformed to the will of God, made holy by the sacrificial work of Christ on the cross.
I want you to keep that good news of the ultimate outcome in mind as we go through the next few weeks. Because, again, Revelation is a strange book, and it is easy to become confused.
Part of the problem arises because we have no other forms of literature like it. Westerners try to read it like a story, a standard kind of narrative familiar to our culture, but it was never intended to be read in such a way.
Instead, it is:
A special genre known as “apocalyptic.” Time flows differently than it does in a standard Western narrative. Viewpoints shift from heaven to earth with little warning. Reading Revelation as a straightforward narrative can generate some bad theology.
Highly symbolic. Very little of it is intended to be taken literally, but at the same time, there’s a deeper meaning communicated by the symbols. For example, after the text we’re hearing today, John launches into a vision of Christ in heaven. This description symbolically shows our Savior’s deeper nature—his purity, his all-knowing mind, and his uttered words as the purest truth, capable of cutting through worldly confusion.
An invitation to imagine. Apocalyptic literature was written for audiences facing persecution. They were being asked to see a better day, a great Day of the Lord promised since the Old Testament. We also are being invited to imagine and work toward the same dream.
Back to my ladies in Bible study: When we were finished studying Revelation, one of the oldest ones, a lady around 90, came up to me with tears in her eyes. “I’m not afraid any more. It’s about joy!” she said.
I pray that when we’re done with this series, we will all feel the same way.