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.
I 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.
While 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.
Now, 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.
- 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.