Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Book of Revelation: Is This The End?

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Revelation 1:1-19:

In the lead-up to the election this week, one news stations reported on, in their words “a hellish post-apocalyptic world in which all you saw were political ads.”  That would definitely be hellish, although if you were here last week, then you know that that is an incorrect usage of the term apocalyptic.  It is certainly eschatological, which has to deal with the end of times, or with cataclysmic events, but it is an incorrect usage of the term apocalyptic.  Does anyone remember what apocalyptic means?  That’s right it’s an unveiling or revealing.  The Greek word Apocalypsis, translated into Latin becomes revelation, which is why we talk about the Book of Revelation, and it reveals something to us, just as all apocalyptic literature does.  It seeks to reveal earthly realities through visions of Heavenly truths, and this was a very popular literary genre at the time that Jesus was alive, and after, and we are spending a few weeks looking at this genre, and our only full-blown apocalypse, which is the Book of Revelation.

My sister in law says that when she hears a sermon she wants to laugh, she wants to learn something, and she wants to be moved.  I sort of hold onto that as my guiding principle when writing sermons.  Sometimes I’m successful and sometimes I’m not, but today I am only going to be touching on the first two.  If you want something deeply moving from the sermon, you’re going to have to come back next week, as this is the first part of a two-part message, and the moving stuff comes next week.  Today we are going to look at different ways to interpret apocalyptic literature, and the Book of revelation in particular, and we’ll do a little more defining of terms which will then set us up for next week when I will tell you what I think Revelation says and what we are to take away from it.

But before we delve into everything else, let me clear up one thing.  Last week I said that if you disagreed with something I said during this serried, that it was okay that you don’t have to agree with everything I say, but that you shouldn’t come up to me and try and make a point by point argument from scripture about how wrong I am.  Some people thought that was a little dismissive, so let me apologize and say that was not my intention.  I am open to having a discussion on anything I say, but what I don’t want to do is sort of have to have a point by point scriptural argument about things, because neither one of us are going to be better for it, but if you would like to sit down with me and discuss these things, please consider this an invitation to do so.

The Book of Revelation has been a controversial book right from the start, with some challenging whether it should be included in the Bible and others questioning who wrote it.  During the time of the Protestant reformation, which we celebrated the 495th anniversary of on October 31 of this year, Martin Luther said that John did not write Revelation, that he could see no inspiration of the Holy Spirit in its writing, and that it should be removed from the Bible.  If Luther had gotten his way, the landscape of American Christianity would look very different today.  Now it should be noted that this was not the only book that Luther wanted to remove.  He also thought the letter of James should be removed as it was but he lost that argument too.  Luther was successful in removing the books we know as the Apocrypha, which are found in what are commonly referred to as Catholic Bibles, although it is becoming much more common to also find the books in “Protestant” Bibles.  While Luther did go on to write a commentary on Revelation, it was not originally in his list, and the other great Protestant reformer John Calvin, never wrote a commentary on Revelation, although he did write one for every other book of the Bible.

How Revelation should be interpreted has also been greatly debated, although there are four standard interpretive methods.  We’ll start with the one that is most prevalent today, although it was basically unknown, most especially in Protestantism until the 19th century, so roughly 150 years ago, and it is known as the futurist model.  The futurist model holds that although Revelation was written around the year 95, that nothing from what it says will happen has yet happened.  Everything in Revelation after chapter 3 has yet to unfold and all will take place at the end of the age.  This is the view taken by those who subscribe to the ideas presented in the Left Behind novels.  Now a true futurist will, in looking at events taking place around them, not claim that the events themselves are what was prophesied, but instead they are the signs that the end of times are near.  Now that does not stop people from making such predictions, but it does fall outside of the typical interpretation.  This might be the most prevalent interpretive lens being used today, certainly in fundamentalist churches.

Now one of the great ironies about the futurist model, and there are lots of ironies well dealing with this subject is that while it is new in the Protestant tradition, it actually comes out of Roman Catholicism.  Many of the Protestant reformers, Martin Luther amongst them, claimed that the Pope was the whore of Babylon, or perhaps the Anti-Christ discussed in Revelation, a  common theme still today.  But in order to combat this interpretation, a Franciscan monk by the name of Francisco Ribera, said that this can’t be, because the anti-Christ has not yet come, because the events of Revelation have not yet occurred.  Ribera did this in order to protect the integrity and standing of the Pope, but in doing so he created, and as I said this is greatly ironic, the modern American fundamentalist position on the Book of Revelation.  Ribera’s position remained within the Roman Catholic church until 1826 when the librarian to the archbishop of Canterbury published a pamphlet promoting the futurist idea, which was then picked up by John Nelson Darby, who began his professional career as a lawyer, then became an Anglican priest, before leaving to form the Plymouth Brethren, which also sounds like a failed car design, and put Ribera’s ideas, along with his own, to form the ideas that have come down to us today.

But before Darby popularized the futurist perspective, the most common perspective, and the one held by most Protestants, was the historicist.  The historicist model says that the events told about in Revelation began happening in 95, or whenever the book was written, and they have continued happening over time.  Some see every chapter as a different period of time, both past and future, so that Revelation speaks to the church in all ages.  As one scholar put it, Revelation is said “to sketch the history of Western Europe through the various popes, the Protestant Reformation, the French revolution, and individual leaders such as Charlemagne and Mussolini.”  While there are some who still subscribe to the historicist model, its adherents are much smaller in number.

The Preterist Model believes that the events that are talked about in Daniel, and in Revelation, are events that were taken place at the time they were written, and need to be understood as such to understand what the writer is saying.  The term preterist comes from a Latin term meaning “gone by” or “past.”  Preterists understand that the churches to whom John was writing were undergoing, or about to undergo, persecution and suffering because of the growing emphasis in emperor worship, which they could not do because of their faith in Christ.  While there are strengths and weaknesses to all of these, this model takes seriously the injunction at the beginning of Revelation that these things “must soon take place,” but there is little way to see the final victory of the final chapters of Revelation, a victory also largely ignored in the Left Behind novels as well.

The final interpretive method is known as the idealist, which sort of breaks into two categories.  Some idealists say that the events portrayed were never meant to be heard or understood as being literally true, while others take a preterist approach, but what idealists want to highlight is that every generation faces this battle between good and evil and so the text speaks to us not because it is forecasting what might happen, but instead taps into the timeless truths that we can find in the imagery about the battle of good and evil and the need to explain suffering, and encourage faithfulness in the face of suffering.

Each and every one of us will approach scripture with our own lens, it’s impossible not to, but what we should be aware is the lens that we use so that we can be aware of it and try and test it off against other interpretations in order to try and guard against forcing ourselves onto scripture to make it say what we want it to say, rather than having scripture speak to us itself.  My own lens is that of a sort of combination of preterist and idealist, falling into the first type of preterist.  I believe that we have to understand the context in which Revelation was originally written in order to understand what John is saying, but also know that it has to move beyond that understanding for it to still speak to us here in our own day.  So let me give you an example to illustrate.

In 1 Corinthians, Paul encourages people not to get married and even later says that the celibate life is better, which has obviously had major impact on the church and what is held up as better, but why does Paul say this?  Because he says “the appointed time has grown short… the present form of this world is passing away.”  In other words, Jesus is going to return at any time, and so don’t worry about long term commitments because there won’t be long-term commitments.  So we have to understand Paul’s original context so that we can understand what he is talking about, and when we don’t do that then we are liable to make statements and leaps that are troublesome and sometimes even dangerous to make.  Now Paul’s words still have a lot to say to us in our day, but that’s for another message.

Now these are all ways to understand the last portion of Revelation, but what we have to understand is that Revelation is not only an apocalypse, but it is also a letter, just like the other letters in the New testament, like those from Paul.  That means that there is a specific audience that John is addressing, and they are the seven churches in modern day turkey.  John does not begin his letter, “John, to the Christians in North America, who live in the twenty-first century.”   We need to understand this original audience.  But, one of the arguments that futurists will make is that in addition to being a letter, and apocalyptic, that John is also writing prophecy, and with that I would also agree, but this brings us back to our task of defining things, and that is of a prophet and of prophecy.

Normally when we think of someone who is a prophet, it is someone who is making predictions about things that will happen in the future, and we would say that if someone makes a prediction that is not true they are a false prophet, although ironically that position is not applied to all the people who have made claims about when the end will come that have not come true, which would be nearly all of them.  But that is not a biblical understanding of prophecy.  We certainly think it is because we look at what we are Christians claim are prophecies about Jesus, which we will begin to hear again in just a few weeks as we begin Advent, but prophecy was not about predicting the future the way we understand it now.

Instead, prophecy was about trying to get people to repent, to return to God and to turn to righteousness, and it was also to convey the word of God.  Anyone who said, “thus says the Lord,” or something similar, was making a prophetic utterance.  Abraham was a prophet, as were Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Deborah, Esther, Joshua and Abigail, not people we normally assume with being prophets.  Probably the best, and maybe most successful prophet the way prophecy should be understood is Jonah.  Why?  Because he goes to Nineveh and tells them to repent or that God will punish them, and the people repent and so God gives them a reprieve.  He does not give a timeline of exactly how things are going to happen and what is going to happen in the future, his goal is to get the people to repent and begin to follow God, which is what happens.  What the prophets do not do is to say that this will happen 500 of even two thousand years in the future, but instead that it will happen right now, but it need not happen.

What they prophesy is a warning that if things don’t change, then bad things will happen, and a call to faithfulness, and the same thing could be said here. John’s prophetic voice is to these seven churches, some of whom are being faithful and are suffering, or about to suffer, but that they need to remain faithful to achieve “the crown of life,” which is what he says to the church in Smyrna, but he tells the church in Ephesus, that while they have been “enduring patiently” that they have “abandoned the love you had at first,” and so what is the solution?  They must, in John’s words, “repent, and do the works you did at first.”

We are in the mainline churches have ignored apocalyptic books and passages because we are uncomfortable with them, they make us uneasy and we’re not sure what we are supposed to do with them, and so we ignore them completely, not only to our detriment, but to the detriment of the church and the proclamation of the gospel message.  Fundamentalists churches have a tendency, through their over emphasis on the Book of revelation, and other passages, to ignore the rest of scripture, or simply to use it to support their eschatological claims.

Leonard said to me last week that the Book of Revelation is just as important and other pieces of scripture, that it’s in the bible for a reason, and I couldn’t agree more.  As I said a few weeks, the tree of life is found in the book of Genesis in the Garden of Eden and it is also found in the Book of Revelation, most especially  in the final two chapters, and I don’t think it’s just a coincidence.   Jesus says I am the first and the last, the alpha and the omega.  Revelation is the completion of the scripture story, it does tell us about what we can expect from God, that God writes the final chapters, and that we must not give up that God is proclaiming a message of hope for us and for the world, a message of hope that we will look at next week.  Amen.

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