Some revelation on how I’ll teach Revelation (prologue to end of the world as we know it)

Yesterday, I sent this out to all community life group leaders, staff and elders of Renovatus. As the blog is taking on a more “leadershipy” vibe (I make up many new words), I thought it might be an interesting glimpse into how we approach complex theological issues with our community and the tone I try to set. But on the other hand, it could be of interest to those of you who are just open to approaching Revelation in a fresh way. At any rate, I decided there is nothing in this address to leaders I would be bothered for anybody in our Church to read, so here goes:

Incredible Community Life Group Leaders (and staff, and elders, also incredible!),

I would love to write you all specific epistles (non canonical and non authoritative, of course) like the seven letters to the seven churches to celebrate the uniqueness and beauty of your individual groups. I continue to say, publicly and privately, how blessed I am to have such tremendous leaders in the trenches of pastoral work with us–leading the people of God into a life of discipleship and service in such tangible ways. I am ever thankful for you all.

I am writing you today to share my heart regarding our forthcoming series, “The End of the World as We Know It,” starting this Saturday and Sunday along with our new service schedule. The holy imagination of St. John has been stoking my fire for many years, one of my chief resources from which to draw adoration, comfort and hope in a volatile world. I have long been nourished by John’s vivid language and incisive words in my personal life, but have never preached directly on his visions at Renovatus. On the plus side…everybody seems really excited. On the other side…many of my friends keep coming up to me like I’m General Custer rushing to my death. “Diving into Revelation on Sunday mornings? We love you Pastor. Good luck with that.” I think I know what they mean. Over the centuries of Christian tradition, even the greatest of theologians and saints have differed on how exactly to interpret John’s dazzling but sometimes terrifying book. And beyond the images themselves, the great G.K. Chesterton famously quipped, “though St. John the Evangelist saw many strange monsters in his vision, he saw no creature so wild as one of his own commentators.” The world of interpretation fueled by Revelation is complex indeed.

I am fully aware that within any church community, there are a lot of different backgrounds/experiences that shape how people read the text. I am aware that these readings often differ sharply. I am aware mine will be different than many others. I am not in the least bit intimidated, bothered or frightened by this. If there is any area of Scriptural interpretation where a variety of views should be tolerated, it is in that of eschatology (the study of last things). I am especially sensitive to this because I myself differ from many of the folks I first learned Revelation under–and yet regard them as some of the greatest and most holy men and women of God I’ve ever known, the first people I would call on if I was sick (as I will share Sunday). While I will be plainspoken in my approach and probably still a little cantankerous towards what I see as a money-making enterprise built around speculative and misleading scenarios, I could not be more open-hearted towards brothers and sisters who hold different views from my own.

So I’m giving you a sneak preview so number one you aren’t surprised, and number two you can be prepared for how to lead your group discussions well in the days ahead. It is true that since many people have different “keys” that they feel are unique or significant to them, studies on Revelation can be prime for debate or even knock down drag out argument. But that is not the tone we are going to set. We are going to be looking at the major themes of Revelation and the extraordinarily practical, pastoral implications of this enigmatic book on our lives. It’s going to be full of life application. These aren’t going to be lectures on weekends, they will be Spirit-filled sermons that make people love Jesus more and incite supernatural encounters with God. We won’t lose sight of the forest for the trees. This is first and foremost “The Revelation of Jesus Christ,” and because of the reality of the Holy Spirit, Jesus is still being revealed in all of his stunning glory, beauty and terror to all who have eyes to see–or in the case of the seven letters to the seven churches, “those who have ears to hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church.”

So where are we going? We will see the central question that drives Revelation–”who is really Lord over the world?” We will talk about one of the most overlooked but most important themes of Revelation–that it is a book about worship, rivaling Psalms as perhaps the most remarkable book about worship in the Bible. Who is God going to speak to? People who, like John, feel isolated, alone and exiled–people who have experienced terrible things, living in a world where they feel they have no control. To those dear saints of God feeling left for dead on Patmos, there is still an opportunity like John “to be in the Spirit on the Lord’s day,” where they get a personal encounter of the slaughtered lamb, the one riding a white horse known as “faithful and true.” This will be for men and women who have been in Church but have “lost their first love,” who need to “repent and do their first works over.” This will be for men and women who are already being swept up into the idols of Babylon, living and dying by its economic system instead of trusting in God for their provision, to place their trust in the one who will rule and is ruling already over all principalities and powers. If that doesn’t sound good to you, I question whether or not you have a pulse :)

You need to know up front I am not doing a chart and graph kind of series, as I don’t personally see Revelation as a chart and graph kind of book. I make no apologies for that. I do not think all of Revelation’s images are in chronological order–I read some as different perspectives on some of the same scenes. I do not personally think of Revelation EITHER primarily as a detailed timeline of future events NOR just a historical book written in code about the problems of the early Church in Rome–but as a book given from heaven’s perspective that speaks profoundly to the Church’s past, present, and future. I do not personally subscribe to the popular teaching of dispensationalism, wherein the 7 churches are considered symbols of 7 church ages and John is considered a representative of the “caught up” Church in Revelation 4.1. I do not take this view because I do not see markers within the text that indicate to me that they are to be read as symbols. I take John and the seven churches very literally. There are some images in Revelation I do not believe to be literal but highly symbolic–based in the imagery established by Daniel and other apocalyptic writers. In interpreting those images, I will try to be very faithful to the language of Revelation itself, reading it on its own terms–as I believe that to be the key to reading Revelation well.

I DO believe that Jesus Christ will physically return soon, that His return is imminent, and that His return should endue our work and witness with both hope and urgency. I have studied these themes intensely on both an academic and deeply pastoral, devotional level, and am frankly not likely to change my mind about much of that anytime soon :) My aim in this series is not to do a verse-by-verse study (that would take years), but to give a really helpful “aerial view” of Revelation’s most prominent themes.

If you either a, don’t agree with any of that or b, don’t know what to think about any of that–it is totally okay. This is actually not going to be a combative series. After the first half of the message Sunday, where I do feel the need to express why I am approaching the text as I am and not other ways, it’s off to the races trying to communicate the beauty and splendor of Jesus in every sermon. I do not require everyone to agree with me.

But since there can only be one coach, I do call the plays and I do set the agenda. So I ask for your help in this regard: It is highly possible and perhaps probable that you might have folks in your group who are really passionate about their own approach to the text, which is cool. But I need you to help me keep the discussions as centered as possible around what I’m actually preaching–helping them to put what they hear into practice instead of just having theological debate. I promise, it will be real life and relevant. The idea that we sit around in our groups and have heated debate about pre, mid or post trib or get overly intense about the exact nuances of the 144,000 would make me want to actually poke my eyeball out with a plastic spork. I will be gentle and clear in setting up the parameters, just need you to help me keep it within those parameters. I don’t mean to sound too bold here, but even if folks quibble with me on some interpretive matters, I will be really surprised if most everybody doesn’t get knocked out by what they are going to hear and encounter. It’s going to be that rich. I just want to keep it as focused and on task as possible.

So let’s go get them, shall we? We have a beast to defeat and a dragon to slay. And among our CLG’s, I know for a fact I’ve got an army of overcomers who will be victorious because “of the blood of the lamb and the word of your testimony, loving not your own lives even unto death.”

Grace and Peace,

Jonathan

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