Read Revelation because…

whyIn response to a blog on Revelation, one of my friends observed that early on in my series (perhaps even better beforehand) it would be good to help people answer the question, ‘Why read this book at all?’ Many people mistakenly believe that it is either a complicated irrelevant fantasy, or a prophecy that gives minute details of the ‘end times’ that are upon us, such as the beliefs expressed in the Left Behind series.

He’s absolutely right, of course, and I immediately wanted to answer, ‘We need to encourage people to study Revelation because…’ – and there were a whole lot of ‘becauses!’ This blog is not meant to be comprehensive, but it gives some reasons and illustrations of why grappling with Revelation will prove to be a very positive experience for our Christian life and growth.

because

  • Because of what it tells us about God. There are descriptions of the majesty of God that make us bow down in wonder and worship to God the Creator. If we take them seriously they will transform our worship. But there are also more challenging pictures of who God is and what God does – how are they to shape our understanding of a God whose essence is love?
  • Because of what it tells us about Jesus. We can learn lots about Jesus from the vast range of titles and descriptions John uses to convey his significance, but none more than the recurring theme of the victorious Slaughtered Lamb.
  • Because of how it describes the church. One of the reasons I love the music of the Taizé Community in France is because its songs and Scripture readings reflect many of the languages of those who worship God around the world. The church is the Bride of the Lamb, purchased from every tribe, tongue, people and nation, and this will shape how we see our sisters and brothers across the globe.
  • Because of the way it challenges and encourages the churches. Apocalyptic is the literature of resistance in times of threat and oppression. It demands that those who have been lax in their allegiance to Jesus repent and change their ways; it assures those who do that they will overcome and receive a special reward from Jesus himself; it gives hope to those whose suffering is unto death, that they will find both justice and eternal life.
  • dragon winsBecause it tells us about the mission of the church. ‘No matter how hard you work, no matter how right you are, sometimes the dragon wins.’ That was the theme of President Tom Gillespie’s message at my DMin graduation in 2004, taken from Ezekiel and Revelation. The battle we face in the mission of the church is not always successful. The dragon may defeat us for a time, but ultimately the Lamb wins, and the sacrificial witness of the church is crucial to that victory.
  • Because of how it challenges our concept of Empire and the use of Power. We either belong to the Empire of Babylon (in those days Rome, in our day a variety of entities) or the Kingdom of God. There is no in-between. Babylon enslaves, extorts, oppresses – and Babylon will fall, or rather, has fallen. Power in the Kingdom of God is expressed in self-giving, as in the sacrifice of the Slaughtered Lamb and his army of martyrs.
  • Because of the hope of justice and judgment. Yes, the Lamb and his followers may suffer injustice, but Revelation gives us hope that there is a day of reckoning coming, when injustices will be made right and those who perpetrated them will experience the judgment of God – what that judgment looks like is debated because of the nature of the symbolic language used, but judgment there is, and it brings vindication to the witness of the church.
  • tears-wipe-awayBecause of the picture of New Creation and New Jerusalem. The echoes of Eden in the city that comes from heaven to earth tell us that God is bringing to fulfilment the purpose that was planned from the very beginning. From a garden to a garden city, the picture of God’s Kingdom is one of activity and satisfaction in life in the light of the ever-present God. It is creation transformed. Death shall be no more and God shall wipe away all tears.

We could, without doubt, add more ‘becauses’ to this list, but there is more than enough above to justify any attempt to grapple with the meaning and implications of the Book of Revelation. It brims with good things, and it speaks in a loud voice to issues of our time. Eat it, digest it, make it part of you and your journey with God and the Slaughtered Lamb will be all the richer.

If you want to explore further how Revelation speaks to us, you could do no better than read Richard J. Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation. NTT. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993. I receive no reward, except knowing that you will grow in understanding and make progress on the path of discipleship.

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Finding my voice

It is impossible to engage with a process of study like this without one’s personality and circumstances affecting the way in which one reflects, shaping what one thinks is being learned that will address the present time. Before proceeding to preach from Revelation there is a need to be self-aware and note some of these personal data: data about self, culture and historical situation.

the gospelI was born into a Christian family within the group of Churches calling themselves “Open Brethren.” The Brethren movement began in the 19th Century partly as a reaction against the theology and institutionalism of, particularly, the Anglican churches. While some of its Assemblies took on a more inward looking form, many of the congregations saw themselves in the context of God’s mission in the world – the Sunday evening service was often known as a “Gospel Meeting” where a message of sin and redemption was preached, and the buildings were often known as “Gospel Halls,” to reflect the belief that the group meeting in the building was both founded on and declared the Gospel.

lstWhile my spiritual journey has taken me away from these roots, there is much from this background that I have carried with me, and early days are always very formative. I am still a ‘Gospel’ (Good News) person. A theological degree from the London School of Theology (formerly London Bible College) gave me a broader understanding of the Christian faith and Biblical studies, and a Master of Theology degree through Aberdeen University gave me the opportunity to rationalise why I had departed from the theological framework of most Brethren people, known as Dispensationalism, towards a more Reformed position. Seen within the context of studying the Apocalypse, Dispensationalism interprets sections of the book in a very literal way, and distinguishes between a Jewish earthly people of God and a Christian heavenly people of God. To depart from a particular theological framework in favour of a different framework is one thing; to make that a thoroughgoing paradigm shift is another, and it is especially hard to do in reading Revelation without a prolonged period of study and reflection.

waco_18188Now, in my 63rd year looking ahead to retirement, and having preached many series from both Old and New Testaments, I am asking myself the question, ‘Where shall I turn in Scripture to bring a word from the Lord to our times?’ Some months ago, as an aside, I said that Revelation was on my ‘retirement bucket list’ because I believe that it has a message of warning and hope that will speak to us. I have never preached a series on it before. There is, I believe, a danger that we leave this strange and awesome book to those who may crudely be referred to as ‘nutters,’ and who, because of the charismatic power they may have over others, use this book as an instrument of oppression, self-referencing some of the salvific symbolism. If I am to preach from this majestic book, then I need to know more about it and hear what the Spirit is saying to the Churches through it. But I also need to know about me, and the times in which we live.

check-box-296589_640So I come to this study of Revelation as:

  • a Christian whose formative years were spent in a sociologically mature, and declining, version of the emerging church of a previous century, shaped by Dispensationalism;
  • a student of the Bible, who believes that Dispensationalism is not a viable theological framework, but who has questions about how Revelation might help to shape a Biblical theology;
  • a Chaplain to young people, concerned that the Church should seek to engage with the culture of their enthusiastic and activist generation;
  • a preacher who believes that the Scriptures as the Word of God will speak to this and every age;
  • a Parish Minister of the Church of Scotland, concerned with the decline of the Church and its lack of will, ability and success in reaching out to transform the world around us for the Kingdom of God;
  • a minister of mature years and limited future opportunities for preaching, asking myself what God might want me share in the pressing times in which we live, believing that Revelation has a part to play in that legacy;
  • a Christian who has lived all his life within Western Christianity, but who has become more aware of the global shift in the numbers of confessing Christians, from North/West to South;
  • a follower of Jesus who has had very little by way of personal persecution for my faith, but who is increasingly aware of sisters and brothers in other parts of the world being martyred for their faith, often, though not exclusively, within an Islamic context;
  • a ‘first world’ consumer, whose purchasing power, within the globalisation of economics, may contribute to the real or virtual enslavement of workers within the ‘two-thirds’ world;
  • a citizen of the former Imperial power that is the UK, with a recently elected right of centre Westminster government, which to many seems less concerned about the poor than the rich;
  • a resident of Scotland, which, though deeply divided, has recently rejected independence, but which also elected to the Westminster Parliament 56 Nationalist MPs from a total of 59 constituencies, and which has a majority SNP Scottish Government.

All of these things shape me, and how I will read and interpret the text of the Apocalypse. I must not be afraid to acknowledge them, for in using them as my ‘lens’ to focus on the text, the prophetic voice of John the Seer might just be heard by me and by others who listen to the messages I will preach.

Book-and-reading-glasses-007

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Revelation – the story of a Scroll

John_Theologian_the_Vision_of_the_7_Churches__70873.1411765231.490.588Revelation appears to be a complex book – I say appears because the more one reads the book the more one can get the general drift of the narrative and how each part connects to the others. And although there is no universally agreed structure, there are various indicators in the text, such the occasions when John writes about being ‘in the spirit,’ that the story is moving on. But it is true that for our times some of the symbolism is complex, and perhaps some of it will never be fully understood. So how can people frightened of this complexity, and who keep Revelation at arm’s length, be helped to see the shape of the book and encouraged to engage with the text. Is there a relatively simple heuristic tool for them?

When I was younger, so much younger than today, there were slogans around to summarise the message of the book – like, ‘God Wins,’ or ‘God rules ok.’ There is more than a measure of truth in what these slogans affirm, as we can appreciate from the constant use of the themes of ‘victory’ and ‘the throne.’ But deeper engagement with the message of Revelation shows that they do not give anything like the breadth needed to sum up the message of this puzzling book. While pondering about a way to convey in relatively simple terms how to understand the book as a whole, I was reading Craig Koester’s mIMG_1631agisterial Anchor Yale Bible commentary on 5:1, and it reminded me that the events that take place on the opening of the seals of the Scroll are not themselves the contents of the Scroll (383f). It was then that the idea came into my head that might be a solution to my problem. Whether I have come across it already elsewhere I don’t know (will keep you in touch if I find it!), but it was as if the whole structure of the book fell into place all at once. Revelation is the story of a Scroll. In fact, it is a scroll telling the story of a Scroll (see below).

Having had this alleged epiphany (rather than apocalypse!) my first question to myself was, ‘does this fit the evidence of the book?’ so I quickly scribbled down how the various movements in the book might relate to the idea of the story of the Scroll. I believe that the evidence does support the idea, although I’m not necessarily arguing that John saw his own scroll this way. It is simply a tool for getting a handle on the whole book.

rev - unity or compositThe first thing we must grasp, and which comes across clearly in the ‘narrative commentaries’ of scholars such as Barr and Ressiguie, is that Revelation has an unfolding story. Whatever disputes there are about ‘editions’ and ‘compilations,’ it is the threads and themes of the narrative that drive it forward and hold it together. The book is comprehensible as a unity when we realise it is a story with various episodes. But what is it a story about? Good arguments could be made for a variety of answers, such as ‘the victory of the Slaughtered Lamb, and his Martyr Army, over the forces of evil.’ However, I believe that while that theme is a dominant one as the contents of the Scroll are delivered to us in John’s scroll, it does not give us the heuristic tool needed to encompass the whole book. How might we see the narrative episodes of Revelation using the idea of the book being the story of a Scroll?

Many interpreters of Revelation see the Throne Room scenes of chapters four and five as crux point of the book, and crucial to the ‘story of the Scroll’ idea is the significance of the βιβλίον in 5:1. Καὶ εἶδον ἐπὶ τὴν δεξιὰν τοῦ καθημένου ἐπὶ τοῦ θρόνου βιβλίον γεγραμμένον ἔσωθεν καὶ ὄπισθεν κατεσφραγισμένον σφραγῖσιν ἑπτά. ‘Then I saw in the right hand of him who sat on the throne a scroll with writing on both sides and sealed with seven seals (NIV).’

papyrus-sealed-with-seven-seals_1246685_inlWhat is this Scroll? It is held in the right hand of the one who sits on the throne, so ‘it presumably expresses the will of the God who holds it (Koester 383).’ Its seven seals underscore ‘the gravity of the contents (Koester 383).’ Whoever opens and reads this Scroll must be a worthy ambassador of the one who sits on the throne. As yet we have no clue of its contents but there is no doubting its importance.

We are prepared for its appearance from the very beginning of the book. An ‘apocalypse’ is on its way from God via several intermediaries, and while the word could apply to the whole book, I would argue that the narrative suggests the term might be equally, or more, applicable to the Scroll of 5:1. However, there is a prior scroll referred to in 1:11, and that is the scroll John is instructed to write, sending it to the seven churches of Asia. So Revelation is John’s scroll telling the story of the Scroll in the right hand of the one sitting on the throne.

The seven churches are prepared in advance for the contents of God’s Scroll by the fact that John’s scroll (within which God’s Scroll is contained) is authorised and instructed by the Risen Christ. The various messages of salvation and judgment are prior echoes of God’s Scroll and show that they are required to respond to its contents.

The following Throne Room scene has, literally, brilliant descriptions of the worship of heaven to the one sitting on the throne and to the slaughtered lamb (creation and redemption), showing how foundational gatherings for worship are to the ecclesial experience of the seven (and all) churches. But the main narrative driver in this scene is the appearance of the Scroll and the worthiness of the lamb to unseal it. From now on, the narrative of John’s scroll is dominated by preparation for seeing the contents of God’s Scroll (its unsealing), conveying its contents and responding to them.

Whether it is argued that the content of God’s Scroll is relayed to us from the beginning of the unsealing (6:1), or (around 10:9) when John is give the ‘little scroll,’ – or ‘Scroll,’ in our terms – will not matter much to our thesis. Either can be encompassed in a ‘story of the Scroll’ metanarrative. What is significant for us is that the scroll/Scroll theme appears yet again at the end of the book, when the contents of God’s Scroll have been told. In the space of a few verses ‘scroll/Scroll’ is used seven times (22:7, 9, 10, 18 twice, 19 twice). John is instructed not to seal up the prophetic words of this scroll, and a positive response to its words is urged. I believe it could be argued that the uses of τοῦ βιβλίου τούτου (‘of this scroll’) here could be bringing to a close the contents of God’s Scroll rather than John’s. But again, it may matter little to our thesis. It is clear that the story of both is coming to a close.

john scrollTo sum up, at the beginning of Revelation, John is instructed to write in a scroll (1:11) and circulate it to the seven churches. That scroll contains preparation for and the introduction of God’s Scroll (5:1), tells its story (from 6:1 or c10:1) of witness, suffering and new creation, and draws the story to a close by emphasising the importance of this scroll/Scroll (22:7ff) for communicating the prophetic message John is passing on, obeying it and not adding to or subtracting from it.

It seems to me, therefore, that the idea of Revelation as ‘the story of a Scroll’ could be a helpful heuristic tool to help people understand how the book fits together.

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God shall wipe away all tears – Remembering 7/7

In truth, I don’t remember much about the day itself – like where I was when I heard. But I do remember vividly some of the images: the roof of the bus, opened like a tin can, and the blanket clad bloodied travellers being helped by the emergency services, medics and paramedics running, always running, because time was of the essence in saving the lives of those who were bleeding out.

It’s ten years since that day. 7/7 the British equivalent of 9/11. Where has the time gone, for those of us whose lives have moved on, changed jobs and homes, watched children grow up and faced our own domestic dramas. There will be some for whom time has stood still, the daily consequences of that day being lived out as if it’s still a nightmare from which they hope to awaken.

7/7 – ironic really, from the point of view of Revelation. 6/6 might have been more appropriate. John would not have failed to see the irony with his keen awareness of the significance of numbers.

On this tenth anniversary, as chance would have it, my reading in Revelation has brought me to chapter 21: Then I saw ‘a new heaven and a new earth,’ for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Look! God’s dwelling-place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death” or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.’

tears-wipe-awayAmid the violence, disaster, suffering and tears of life in this beautiful world so marred by sin, there is hope. 7/7 was a day for the ‘old order of things’ but, through the victory of the slaughtered lamb who has triumphed over death, we await a day when these old ways have gone – for ever. There is, I think, no more beautiful and compassionate picture of God in Scripture than this, that God will wipe away our tears. On this day of painful remembrance may those who sorrow know the divine embrace and handkerchief as a proleptic experience of that day when there will be no more death.

Below is a Youtube link to the moving musical expression of this text by Karl Jenkins. I prefer the Polyphony version, and there’s an Amazon link to that too. It is the music of heaven.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Ddigital-music&field-keywords=god+shall+wipe+away+all+tears

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Pulling back the Curtain – first draft of themes

The books keep dropping through the letter box and I realise that this Study Leave, although an extended period compared to my usual, will only be the start of what is in danger of becoming an obsession that may last a lifetime.

paradigm shiftOne of my aims, going forward beyond the SL, will be to help people see Revelation with new eyes – and hear with opened ears! Perhaps most importantly, to imagine with a creativity from the Spirit that will make this Apocalypse the multi-sensory experience it was designed to be. It may be that we need to pack up our preconceptions about the book in a box and put them to the side in order to experience the paradigm shift that relegates the views of people like Hal Lindsey to the past in order to see things John’s way. Paradigm shifts are hard and take time to work through, so walking with people through that transition will be an important part of the next few months.

Over the last few days I have unexpectedly travelled further along the road of putting the series of Sunday Studies and midweek Forum discussion themes. You can find them in the  PDF below. Comments and suggestions welcome, along with ideas for songs and presentational methods. Let me know of any books you have found helpful in the past, and thanks in anticipation.

Hay – JW – Schedule – Revelation 2015

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Is Revelation a unity?

So far, in my Study Leave, I’ve been mainly concerned with getting to grips with the overall flow of the book. One of the questions raised by the material relates to the structure and unity/disunity of the material.

rev - unity or compositDr Ian Paul, in his blog, reflects here on whether or not Revelation is a unity or a composite book. David Aune, in his Word Commentary, suggests the latter partly based on the discontinuity of characters appearing in the story. Ian assesses this and finds a remarkable degree of continuity. Link below to his blog post, based on a paper due to be published in a multi-author volume.

http://www.psephizo.com/biblical-studies/is-revelation-a-unity-or-a-composite/comment-page-1/

Hi Ian,
thanks for this. I’m working on trying to understand the overall structure of Revelation at the moment, and have been impressed by the sheer variety of ‘structures’ in commentaries. Some of them have descriptions for sections that are so broad they are useless at describing the contents. Many seem to work with two main sections in the body of the work, with subdivisions.

The description that I’ve found most attractive, in part because of the use of the idea of ‘closure’ at certain points, is the that of David Barr in his ‘Tales of the End.’ A ‘Three Scroll’ (Scroll being used metaphorically I think) structure: Letter Scroll ( to 3:22) Worship Scroll (to 11:18) and War Scroll (to the end). I suspect that because there are so many ‘sevens’ in the book that the temptation is to look for (& find/manufacture) a seven-fold structure that does not adequately describe the contents of the various sections.

Will post a link to your Blog if I may to let my FB friends know about it.

Blessings
Jared

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The Shape of Things to Come

Those who  may have seen my study leave photo on Facebook will know that I have over thirty commentaries on Revelation, and a myriad of other books. Some of these are introductory, and some are on specialist subjects. There are more on the way! I have yet to find two of them that agree on an overall structure to the book – there seem to be as many structures as readers, yet all working with the same material nineteen centuries or so old. One might have thought that by this time we would have reached consensus, but no.

Occasionally, one finds people who think that the book shows signs of editorial work, being published in more than one edition, although I’m not aware of any textual evidence for that. In getting more acquainted with the text itself (in Greek and English), and becoming more aware of what some people have written about it as a complete entity, I have become more convinced that Revelation is a unity. I can see how what some think of as Interludes, even interruptions to the flow of the story, are actually integral to the way in which the book works, simply because it is a book to be heard.

Searching online for illustrations of the variety of structures around, I came across this picture, put together by Rob Turnbull of Australia, who calls himself The Backyard Bard. I share this with you both for the pleasure of seeing his creativity, and in the hope of us learning how important the public reading of Scripture, especially this Scripture, is. You’ll find a link to Rob’s website below.

Structure - Rob T

http://www.thebackyardbard.com/revelation/

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