April 10, 2016
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
THE REVELATION OF JESUS CHRIST
The second in a series of two.
One great thing about working with computers is that you get all those wonderful pop-up messages from time to time. I got one just as I was starting to prepare for this morning. It said:
ALERT: REVELATION 18:2 JUST HAPPENED!
That made me curious, so I took the bait and looked up what it was referring to. I’ll let you do that for yourself, because I don’t want to dignify that particular pop-up by giving it more time than I already have.
The point is that a lot of people see the Book of Revelation as a detailed description of specific events that have happened or are happening or are about to happen during our lifetime. So an expert Bible student would be able to say with some confidence that this in Revelation means that in today’s world. That is one way of understanding this book. If that’s your way, I’m not trying to talk you out of it. But if you were here last week for the first part of this series, you know that’s not my way. And that’s not the only way Christians have and do understand this book.
Before we get into the book itself — and I do intend to take you from the beginning of this book to the end — I think it would be helpful to look at various ways of reading Bible prophecy. There are four approaches or four “schools” that have commonly been used.
The first is the futurist school. Whoever produced that pop-up ad on my computer is a futurist. This is simply reading Bible prophecy for what it is saying about the end times. And if you believe we are living in the end times, it means that we are reading books like Revelation for what they are saying about events that are happening right now. That’s why they can say that Revelation 18:2 “just happened”.
Last week I mentioned the “Left Behind” series. The authors, Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, ascribe to the futurist school. They wrote all these page-turning novels about what they think is about to happen in the very near future based on their understanding of Bible prophecy. And of course, once the books were such a success, they made a movie. More than one. Here is the trailer for the first one.
One thing a lot of people don’t realize is that it was about 1880 when this way of interpreting the Bible caught on. It’s so common today, that may surprise you. But before about 1880, very few people held to the futurist school. Most of the Protestant reformers and most Christians through the ages have been historicists.
The historicist school sees Bible prophecy as applying to all of history, not just to the end times. For example, someone reading the Book of Revelation this way would find past historical events in that book. So Revelation 6, 7, and 8 might be about the fall of the Roman Empire, chapter 9 about the rise of Islam, chapter 10 about the Protestant Reformation, and so on. You won’t find many Bible scholars who are historicists today.
You will find quite a few Bible scholars today who subscribe to the preterist school. “Preterist” means “past”, so if you’re a preterist you understand Revelation as describing events that were happening during the lifetime of John, its author. He does say in the verses we read today that he is writing about what will “soon happen” and that “the time is near”. So it sure sounds like he at least thought he was writing about the present and the very near future, which of course to us is the distant past.
Finally, we have the idealist school. I’m not sure why it’s called this. I didn’t make these names up. But idealists agree with preterists that John was writing about events in his own age, but they would add that there are spiritual truths in this book that apply to every age.
So that’s just an introduction to the introduction. If you were sleeping through that, you didn’t miss much. But it’s time to start paying attention now.
The title of today’s sermon is found in the beginning of the book. “The revelation of Jesus Christ.” It is by the way, Revelation, singular, not Revelations, plural. A revelation is a supernatural disclosure to a human being. This particular revelation is very strange. If you’ve read it, you know what I mean. It’s not recommended as a bedtime story unless you enjoy nightmares. It’s filled with all these bizarre and scary creatures. Many of them have multiple heads. Even the good guys have multiple eyes.
You read it for the first time and your reaction will likely be “what the heck??” But if you are familiar with the rest of the Bible, you will recognize that this isn’t the only part of the Bible that is strange like this. It’s a style of writing that is called “apocalyptic literature.” There seems to be a direct correlation in the Bible between apocalyptic literature and times of great crisis. For example the exile to Babylon 600 years before Christ. The Temple was destroyed then, too. And many died. It seemed like that was the end of the world. And out of that, we get the Book of Daniel, which in many ways sure sounds like Revelation.
In Revelation, the crisis has to do with the Roman Empire. They had burned Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple, killed over a million Jews in AD 70. And now it’s Christians who are being targeted. We think Revelation was written around AD 95. Emperor worship was beginning to be enforced and so Christians faced a terrible choice. Do they worship the Emperor and live or do they refuse to worship the Emperor and very possibly die for their faith?
The question Revelation is asking is this: Who will you worship? Will you worship Christ or will you worship Caesar? And the answer Revelation is giving is this: If you choose Christ over Caesar, persecution is coming, but don’t be afraid. God is in control. And in the end, the kingdom of the world will become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever (11:15). So the whole point of the book is not to scare you to death and give you nightmares. It is to give you hope and give you courage and help you stay strong and keep faithful no matter how difficult things might get.
I promised to take you through the whole book, and I also promise to get you home eventually, so here in eight minutes or less is the Book of Revelation. You can time me.
Chapter 1 is an introduction. It answers the basic what, why, and where questions. What? It’s “the revelation of Jesus Christ”. Why? It’s to show God’s servants “must soon take place”. Where? John received this revelation while he was exiled on an island called Patmos and he wrote this all down specifically for “the seven churches that are in Asia”.
Here’s a map to get you oriented.
Basically we’re talking about the western part of modern day Turkey, although the island of Patmos is part of modern day Greece.
Chapters 2 and 3 consist of seven letters to these seven churches. This part of Revelation is not so strange. Each letter gives us a feel for what was unique, positive or negative, about each of these churches. A lot of it we can take and apply to our churches today. One example might be the letter to Laodicea: “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So because you are lukewarm — neither hot nor cold — I am about to spit you out of my mouth” (3:15-16). I don’t think it’s going out on a limb to say there are too many lukewarm churches today.
Chapters 4 and 5 give us a vivid picture of worship in heaven. Remember, the key question is: Who will you worship? From chapter 4 we get the beautiful newer hymn, “Thou Art Worthy”. And also the old favorite, “Holy, Holy, Holy!” We read about “casting crowns” before the throne of God (4:10). There is a modern praise band that gets their name from this verse, “Casting Crowns”. And this is a reminder of whom we worship. The Emperor expected competing kings to cast their crowns before his throne. But Christians cast our crowns and give our worship and praise only before God’s throne.
By chapter 6, the strangeness of this book is in full display. Here we have the opening of the seals, the first four of which unleash the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Usually this has been understood as plagues visited upon the world. But it makes sense to understand these four horsemen also as commentary on the Roman Empire. Conquest, war, famine, and death. That’s what Rome stands for.
We’re back in heaven for chapter 7. Here we are introduced to 144,000 martyrs who did not worship the conquest, war, famine, and death of Rome. It ends with a beautiful verse telling us that “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (7:17).
Chapters 8, 9, 10, and 11 are filled with multiple judgments. Over and over we see God’s judgment on Rome. The message is that no evil empire, however powerful it might appear to be, can stand against God’s ultimate judgment and justice.
In chapter 12 we meet a dragon who wages war up in the sky against a pregnant woman. The dragon is Satan. That part is pretty clear. But who is this pregnant woman? Maybe Mary who gave birth to Jesus. Maybe the Church which gives birth to new Christians. The main thing here is that God casts the dragon out of the heavens and down to the earth. Satan is strong. God is stronger.
But the dragon isn’t done. In chapter 13, he calls forth two beasts, a big one and a smaller one. The bigger one is the Roman Empire. The smaller one is Rome’s representatives in that area of the seven churches. It’s here that we come to the mark of the beast. 666. It was required to buy or to sell. What does that number mean? You’ve heard of Roman numerals. These are letters that stand for numbers. If you take 666 and go from the numbers back to the letters, you get “Nero Caesar”. Nero was the emperor who was hated more than any other. He died in AD 68, but there was a rumor, kind of like the rumor that Hitler didn’t really die, that Nero was still alive.
In chapter 14 angels pronounce God’s judgment on Babylon, which by the way is code for Rome. That gave John plausible deniability if he was accused of writing bad things about the Roman Empire.
Then in chapters 15 and 16 great bowls of wrath are poured out on the Empire. In chapter 17 we find a harlot riding on a scarlet beast. You see this isn’t getting any less strange, is it? Rome is destroyed in chapter 18. In chapter 19 there is a great celebration. Jesus comes riding in on a white horse. He is called “King of kings and Lord of lords” (19:16). In chapter 20, Satan is utterly destroyed. There is a new heaven and a new earth and a new Jerusalem in chapter 21.
Finally, in the final chapter, chapter 22, we enter a garden. The river of life is flowing from the throne of God through this garden. There are trees on either side of this river. “And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations” (22:2). Remember the garden at the beginning of the Bible? The Garden of Eden. We have now come full circle to another garden. In the first garden, there was a curse. In the last garden, there is no curse. “There shall no more be anything accursed” (22:3). In the last garden there is a blessing, a wonderful blessing, that will never end.
The last two verses of the Bible: “He who testifies these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen” (22:20-21).
It’s a strange and awful book. But it has a wonderful ending. It wasn’t written to scare us. It was written to encourage us. It was written to show us how it’s all going to end, so we don’t need to be afraid. And it was written to impress upon us that the time has come for us to make up our minds. To whom will we give our hearts? To which kingdom will we give our loyalty? Rome and Caesar and the new incarnations of Rome and Caesar that keep popping up in every generation? Or God? And God’s Son? The King of kings and the Lord of lords?
I cannot study the Book of Revelation without thinking about Dean Hamilton. Dean and his wife, Maxine were part of a Bible study Helen and I led when we were in Burley. One of the books we studied together was Revelation.
It’s not an easy book to study. It’s not an easy book to preach. There are big sections of this book that are so strange and so confusing that I think only God knows what it really means. But we struggled through. And the group kept trying to correlate what we were reading in Revelation with what was going on in the news in the modern world of 30 years ago. The “FuturistSchool” we talked about earlier was well represented in our Bible study group.
I appreciated the point Dean Hamilton made again and again. We would be speculating about the end of the world and the second coming of Jesus, and Dean would remind us that the end of the world is coming for all of us. When we die, that will be the end of the world for us. And the beginning of a new world. That will be when we meet Jesus. And the odds are far greater that we will meet Jesus in that way than that we will live long enough to see Jesus return to earth.
As it turned out, that was true for Dean. He died suddenly and tragically in a car accident in 2001 at age 78. That was the end of the world and the beginning of a new world for him. For him these words we’d read together in that Bible study were suddenly truer than true: “God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:3-4).
Revelation is a strange book. But it need not be a scary book. It’s a book meant to bless us. “Blessed are those who read aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written therein; for the time is near” (3:3). It’s near for all of us. Maybe nearer than we think. So keep faith in God. And know this: At the end of all the trials and tribulations of this world there is waiting for us and for all God’s people a great blessing.
Come, Lord Jesus! We don’t know when it will be, but we do know that it will be. And we know that there is no reason to fear. Remind us, Lord, when we pass through our times of trial and temptation and persecution that you are in control. And that your way, though it is often not the easiest way is always the best way. So give us courage. And more than just the gritting our teeth and holding on kind of courage. Give us joy. The joy that comes from knowing that you are our risen Lord and that we belong to you. The joy that comes from looking forward to the beautiful garden that is waiting for us. Come, Lord Jesus! Amen.