We have come to the final week of our BYOB series and what a series it has been! This series was purposed to help make reading the Bible something you want to do. And from what we can tell the response has been good! Many of you have told us that you are reading your own Bibles and doing so with more confidence and understanding… and that is a big win all around!
Over the last 11 weeks we have looked at seven of the genres or different types of literature found in the Bible… genres such as the Bible’s Historical writings, its prophetic writings, and the Gospels to name three. And today we come to our final genre of Biblical literature and I don’t believe we could be ending our series with a more complicated, difficult, controversial or opinion-creating genre than what we are looking at today. Today’s genre is called Apocalyptic Literature. This is a type of writing that is only found in 2 of the books of the Bible; the second half of the Old Testament prophetic book of Daniel is apocalyptic and then there is one, big apocalyptic book right at the end of the Bible… the Book of the Revelation, a book that probably causes more controversy and confusion than any other book in the Bible. Generally, most people fall into one of two camps when it comes to the Book of the Revelation or Revelations as it is commonly called: first, there are the people who are certain that they know exactly what this book is about and then there are the people that have no idea what the book is about. I know this to be true because I taught an extended class on Revelations a few years ago and I had both sorts in my class. And when I say ‘extended’ I mean extended. It took me 52 two-hour sessions to get through the book. And can I say that I did my best to get to the bottom of things? I started by retranslating the entire book from its original Greek… and I used a multitude of resources, dozens and dozens, to help me understand this book. And even after expending all that time and energy, I still feel that this book is complicated and difficult. But… I also believe that that even in the short time we have today, we can find some handles for reading Revelations, handles that I believe will bring a deeper understanding of this complicated book and, most importantly, handles that will make you want to read the Book of the Revelation. Pray.
The first thing I think we need to talk about is: What does the word apocalypse mean? We tend to think of an apocalypse as a catastrophic event that ends the world… but, the Greek word simply means, ‘the revelation of something that has been hidden.’ And that is what Apocalyptic literature is at its core: a writing that reveals something that has been hidden. But the genre of apocalyptic literature is a little more complicated that. Here is what may be the most quoted technical definition of apocalyptic literature: Apocalyptic literature is a genre of revelatory literature with a narrative framework, in which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial insofar as it involves another, supernatural world. (John Collins). Okay then. Now, I’m going to try to restate that definition: ‘Apocalyptic literature tells the story of an angel revealing to a person the amazing mysteries of God’s hidden, powerful, spiritual world, a world that exists alongside the physical world. The angel’s purpose in revealing this hidden spiritual world is to give people hope in God’s salvation.’ Now, no one is writing this kind of literature today… in fact, this kind of literature only existed for about 300 years. Jewish writers wrote apocalyptic literature from about 200 BC to about 100 AD. This 300-year period was a time when the Jews were a down-trodden people. For the first 100 years they suffered under the yoke of numerous unscrupulous, Jewish leaders. Then for the next 200 years Rome ruled over the Jews with an iron fist. It’s easy to understand why the Jewish people created a type of literature that spoke to their longing for God to save them from this oppression. This literature, a literature filled with fantastic events, wild creatures, multiple numerical symbols and hidden references to the prophets of the Old Testament, told them that God’s powerful kingdom would someday conquer all earthly kingdoms and set them free. And while it may seem hard to imagine, this kind of writing was very popular at the time. We still have many examples of apocalyptic literature from this time period besides Revelations. Now, no other apocalyptic books made it into the Bible, but in their day, many apocalyptic books had great influence in the lives of the Jewish people: The Book of Enoch, the Apocalypse of Adam, the Apocalypse of Stephen, and the Revelation of Gabriel are just a few of the books that we still have. So, here’s the point: The Book of the Revelation isn’t some weird book that stands alone as something uniquely unusual. No, it was written in a style that was well-known throughout the ancient Jewish world… and just like all of the other apocalyptic writings it was purposed to tell a down-trodden people, and to tell us today, that God’s spiritual kingdom is much more powerful than the oppressive world all around us.
Now, I’m sure that many of you are thinking, ‘Tim, isn’t the Book of Revelation prophesy? What you are saying doesn’t sound much like prophesy? Isn’t Revelations telling us what is coming in the future?’ I’ll admit that the Revelations claims to be prophecy right in the 3rd verse of Chapter one and again in the final paragraph of the book. But let’s think back to what Barry said about prophetic writings earlier in this series. He told us that Biblical prophetic books don’t necessarily just predict the future; they also often tell us about God’s concerns, his truths, his priorities and his desires for his world. And so, yes, this book claims to be ‘prophetic,’ but I believe it is ‘prophetic’ in in the broader sense of revealing God’s concerns and priorities than simply being a book that forecasts the future. In fact, and this may come as a surprise to some of you, but the Book of the Revelation has four primary interpretations in Christendom and only one of them sees Revelations as having anything to do with telling us about our future. Here, I’ll quickly explain these four interpretations. First, there is what is called the Preterist position and this view holds that Revelations IS a prophetic book written in the early 60’s AD, BUT everything in the book was foretelling the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD. Preterists believe that everything prophetic in this book was fulfilled in 70 AD. Then there is the Historicist view: Historicists believe that Revelations tells us about the coming overthrow of the Roman empire by the Catholic Church. There are also some Lutheran Historicists who believe that Revelations foretells the overthrow of the Catholic Church by Martin Luther. But both groups of Historicists also believe that everything prophetic in the book has already been fulfilled. Thirdly, there is the Idealist view which holds that there isn’t any prophecy in the book at all; Idealists believe that the entire book is simply a phantasmagorical, literary way of telling us that God will win in the end. Revelations is simply a colorful, ancient story that tell us to hang on and trust God. And finally, there is the Futurist view which holds that that the Book of the Revelation is prophecy of what is still to come. Now, this is the view has dominated Evangelical Christianity since the early 1800’s. This view gives us ideas like there is going to be an anti-Christ who will rule the world and that there will be a rapture and a millennial kingdom. Truth is, most evangelicals think it is the only possible way to read this book because it is the only interpretation they have ever heard. But, to be honest, seeing this book as a book about a future that has not yet happened is not only the newest way of reading Revelations, but it is the minority position in larger world of Christianity. Now, I know that this may surprise some people…. but it’s true. There is a really great book called Revelation 4 Views: A Parallel Commentary by Steve Gregg that I highly recommend. Steve Gregg goes passage-by-passage without ever giving any of his own opinions and tells how each of these four views interprets each passage. It’s a great resource for thinking things through and deciding for yourself what you think might be the correct interpretation… and by the way, I’m not going to give my opinions today either as to where I stand on these 4 views. I want to talk about things that can help all of us as we read this book. One thing I will guarantee though: if you get this book and then use it as a study guide for Revelations, it will surprise you.
But with this said, I want to talk about two aspects of the historical context or, as we have been calling it ‘the world behind the text’ of Revelations that are relevant to all four ways of interpreting Revelations. Remember when I said the book was first written to down-trodden people? Well, we know exactly who these people where. They were the Christians living in the seven cities that this letter was originally written to. These seven cities, Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea were all in what is now Turkey. They were all important cities with small Christian communities… and the Christians in these cities were down-trodden because of one specific problem. All seven of these cities had grown to a size where, because of the poor soil in that part of the world, they couldn’t grow enough food locally to feed their populations. When the Roman Caesar learned of this problem he ordered that grain from Egypt was to be sent to these cities to keep people from starving. Well, you can imagine how grateful the people in these cities were for Caesar’s intervention. The result was that the citizens of these 7 of cities went to great lengths to show Caesar how grateful they were… and they did so primarily through holding festivals that honored him; actually ‘honor’ isn’t enough of a word… the people in these cities literally began worshiping Caesar as a god… they built temples to him, made sacrifices to him and celebrated him much in the same way they did their other gods like Apollo and Artemis. Well, as you can imagine, the Christians in these cities couldn’t bring themselves to participate in this worship of Caesar and their refusal to participate in the local emperor festivals made them look like bad citizens. And the last thing the non-Christian residents of these 7 cities wanted was for word to get back to Caesar that there were people in their town that wouldn’t participate in showing him special honor. And so, it was the local officials and the people who lived alongside of Christians who began persecuting the Christians because it looked to all the world that Christians were traitors. And it was into this mess that this ‘letter’ we call the Book of the Revelation came… a letter that was purposed to help the Christians get through this hard time of persecution.
But there was no way that John, the man who wrote this letter, could simply write, ‘Our God is more powerful than Caesar. Caesar is just a man and all blessings come from our God! Hold on and don’t lose heart.’ That would have been a very dangerous letter for the Christians to receive. But John was a crafty one. Here are some interesting facts about this letter… ‘world-of- the-text’ facts about the way this book was written that may surprise you. First, John wrote this letter in very rough, unsophisticated Greek… that’s a nice way to say bad Greek… and I believe purposefully! The thinking is that John used poor Greek so that if the local officials who were making life difficult for Christians happened to start reading this letter they would put it aside because it was so poorly written. They would never get to the part that says that God’s kingdom is more powerful than Rome because they wouldn’t want to read something so poorly written. Secondly, every sentence after the first 3 chapters of the book references an Old Testament passage… BUT, there isn’t a single direct quote of the Old Testament anywhere in the Book. This meant the first readers had to know their Old Testament, which, by the way, was the Bible of the early church. And it also meant that the local officials, who didn’t know anything about the Old Testament, wouldn’t make the connection between the message of this letter and the Old Testament. The last thing the Christians in these cities needed was for the local officials to think that the Old Testament was a subversive book. So, John wrote his apocalyptic letter to suffering Christians in a way that would both confuse local officials and subversively say, ‘We have already won… stick together and hang on and soon we will see the victory of God’s kingdom! And it still is purposed to tell us this today!
Let’s look at a passage together and I’ll show you why I am confident about all of this. Revelations 21:1-7 page ???? Before we read this passage, it is important to know that the passage right before today’s passage is a picture of the judgment of everyone and everything that brought evil and darkness into the world. In other words, God’s universe has been cleansed of all wickedness. And then we read, Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the old heaven and the old earth had disappeared. This is a clear reference to the very first verse of the Bible. ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.’ But this new creation happens after those that brought sin and temptation into the world have been judged for their actions. So, this new heaven and earth are free from the influence of evil. And the sea was also gone. 2 The sea was the scariest, most chaotic aspect of God’s creation to ancient people. People then didn’t go to the beach to swim and relax. The ocean was a frightening place filled with who knows what! And a world without an ocean represented a world without chaos. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. Though Jerusalem was the center of early Christianity, Jerusalem was a city that made life difficult for the early Christians. It was not a city that could be referred to as ‘holy.’ In fact, it was primed for destruction by the Romans. A New Jerusalem, a pure, beautiful Jerusalem, would have sounded like just the right thing for God’s new earth! I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. The great desire of God from the beginning of time was to have his home among his people. We see God’s desire to live with his people throughout the entire Old Testament and now it has come to pass through Jesus. 4He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.” 5And the one sitting on the throne said, “Look, I am making everything new!” And then he said to me, “Write this down, for what I tell you is trustworthy and true.” 6And he also said, “It is finished! I am the Alpha and the Omega—the Beginning and the End. John was revealing the hidden reality that Jesus is on the thrown… not Caesar. Jesus is the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end, not Caesar and Jesus is the one making everything new! This would have been a wonderful, encouraging reminder to people under great persecution! And where have we heard, ‘It is finished’ before? From this same Jesus when he finished his work on the cross. And now he is finishing everything! To all who are thirsty I will give freely from the springs of the water of life. 7All who are victorious will inherit all these blessings, and I will be their God, and they will be my children. Notice that this water of life is freely given. Life in these cities came from food that wasn’t freely given. It was costly and came with all sorts of strings. Actually, the Greek word (dor-e-ah) that gives us ‘freely given’ has two different meanings. The first is that it costs nothing – it is free to the thirsty one. The second meaning is that it is given ungrudgingly – given in abundance by the one who owns it without caring how much is given away. And both definitions work wonderfully here!
Now, I know there are multiple ways to interpret this passage. That it is a picture of what is coming… someday… or that it is a picture of what happened… sometime in the past… or that it is happening right now in heaven... continuously. I know that people fuss about this, but can I say that this passage, no matter how people try and slice it, is very important to me personally? I can’t help but see a direct application of this passage in my life… and all I did was ask myself these questions: Do I want to see God’s initial creation as it was meant to be… a world without the evil influences that so pollute our world? You bet! Well, this passage says I will! Do I want a world without chaos? You bet I do! This passage says that this is what God wants for me, too… no chaos! Do I want God to think of me as beautiful… of us as beautiful… worthy of being partnered with him forever? This Passage says he does! Do I want God to live with me… with us… to make his home with us? You bet I do! This passage says he does! Do I want an end to tears, death, sorrow, crying and pain? Who doesn’t? Do I long to hear Jesus say, ‘It is finished’ in a way that impacts all of life for all of eternity? Do I want every ‘thirst’ of my body and soul quenched? Do I long to inherit God’s blessings and do I want to fully experience being his child… for eternity? You bet I do! And all we are asked to do is ‘be victorious’ and this simply means hanging on, living faithfully through the deep waters of life and trusting that God is bringing these kinds of blessings into our lives now. This is Jesus with open arms showing us the wonders of our salvation and the majesty of His kingdom. I don’t think there is any greater statement of the hope we have in Jesus anywhere in the Bible than this passage. His name is Emanuel: God with us… forever! And Jesus is calling out to you and to me to come to him and drink from his spring of living water and find life today and for all of eternity!
We have been looking at the whole of the Bible over the last 11 weeks; we’ve seen how each genre plays into the grand story of God and how the word of God can change us, lead us and make us new people. And today’s passage, a passage that comes out of one of the most difficult books in the whole of the Bible, is the ribbon that ties everything together. It is here, in Revelation that all of God’s desires for his world and all our desires for our lives are tied together. Yes, we are a people who can feel downtrodden. Yes, we can tire of the difficulties of life. Yes, we can easily be misunderstood and seen as outsiders and yet the reality is that our king is on the thrown… he has been on the throne since the beginning of time and he will be on the throne for eternity. This is what the Bible tells us from its first words until its last. And when we read our Bibles with understanding and humility we’ll soon see that it tells us over and over and over that as we hang on… as we persevere… we inherit all of God’s blessings both in this world and the world to come. This is our hope… a hope that is deeply etched in every word of the Bible.