THE BOOK OF REVELATION is not only the last book to read in the Bible but the last book many Christians want to read. And if preachers venture into it, they usually bale out at the end of chapter 3, which unfortunately conveys to congregations the message that 'from here on be dragons' and undermines their confidence. It is therefore pastorally important, and perhaps especially as we approach the 'millennium', to preach from Revelation at least as often as we preach from other major New Testament books. Indeed, the book itself promises good things when we do so: "Blessed is he who reads aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written therein" (Rev 1:3 ).
In fact, the format of Revelation is not as different from those other books as is often presumed. Basically it is an epistle - as is attested by the formal greeting of 1:4-6 and the loose ending of 22:8-21 (cf, e.g., Rom 16). And the theological basis of Revelation is also familiar. 1:5b-6a simply reiterates the gospel: "To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father ..." (cf 1 Pe 1:1-2). As Christians we live in the light of this gospel, and 1:7 reminds us that we also live in the hope of Christ's return to establish his Kingdom. But the allusion here to Zechariah 12:10 is a reminder that this return will be in judgement on a world which has largely rejected the Messiah and which will therefore (by implication) reject his followers in the present.
It is therefore important to know, as 1:8 declares, that the beginning and end of all things is under the control of the "almighty". Our understanding of such a declaration will take on particular importance if some of the teachings of Clark Pinnock or Roger Forster on God's 'openness' gain popular status. As long ago as 1973, Forster said that "almightiness ... clearly cannot mean that God's will or plan is irresistible" (God's Strategy in Human History, p 36). Yet if it is not irresistible, God's will is (potentially) resistible indefinitely. And indeed, as we look at the world around us (just as John's first audience must have looked at the world around them) does not God's will appear to be comprehensively and successfully resisted at ever turn? And if this is so, how then are we to live as the servants of this God?
The concern of Revelation, however, will be to show us that these appearances are deceptive - as the great ones amongst the saints have always understood. It is precisely through the (ultimately inevitable) overcoming of resistance to God's will (in ourselves and others) that we enter the kingdom of God. John identifies himself in 1:9 as "your brother, who share with you in Jesus the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance". And we must remember that this the 'normal Christian life' - knowing that we have been redeemed by Christ's blood and looking forward to his coming, yet experiencing trials and tribulations which seem to suggest our faith is groundless.
Martin Luther once wrote:
Anyone who genuinely believes these words [Our Father who art in heaven] will often say, "I am the Lord of heaven and earth and all that is therein. The Angel Gabriel is my servant, Raphael is my guardian, and the angels in my every need are ministering spirits. [...]" And while I am affirming this faith, my Father suffers me to be thrown into prison, drowned, or beheaded. Then faith falters and in weakness I cry, "Who knows whether it is true?" (Quoted in R Bainton, Here I Stand, p 364)
As the parable of the sower reminds us, it is the Christian who can reconcile the almightiness of God with the temporality and trials of life who will not only endure but bear fruit (Matt 13:22, cf 23). Hence Revelation will be concerned to take us 'behind the scenes', to equip us for the present by a glimpse at the Divine perspective.
John Richardson is Anglican Chaplain to the University of
East London and author of Revelation Unwrapped (St Matthias Press/MPA
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