Getting the Mix Right: 3 Things You MUST Know about the Book of Revelation

How you hear the Book of Revelation determines how you interpret it. If you think it’s primarily futuristic, you’ll see it as a blueprint of what’s coming. If it’s ancient sci-fi, you’ll read it like Dune. If it’s rendering history through symbols, you’ll navigate accordingly. And if it’s a discipleship manifesto, you’ll respond with action.

The key is how you hear it. If you want to do that right, then you’ve got to hear it the way it was meant to be heard. This is true for anything you read. Gary Larson’s Far Side doesn’t help me fix my furnace; I don’t read up on ice cream to understand how to drive a car.  To hear the Revelation right, we need to know what kind of literature it is so we can engage it as designed. So many headaches and misunderstandings would be solved if we did just this one thing.

DJ-spinning
The Revelation is a literary mash-up, masterfully combining three classic genres into one, great party mix.

So what kind of literature is the Revelation? This simple question has three answers (I know, welcome to the Revelation), laid out in the first eight verses. I love musical mash-ups, where two songs are artfully combined to create something unique and beautiful–the Revelation is a literary mash-up, masterfully combining three classic genres into one, great party mix.

#1. The Revelation is an Apocalypse.

The first thing we hear in the Revelation is the starting note: The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants . . . The English word “revelation” is the Greek word “apocalypse,” the word that has come to our common speech to represent a horrible, devastating end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it kind of event. But that’s not it’s original meaning. Apocalypse meant, well, just as it’s been translated: revelation. Something’s being revealed, like a curtain being pulled back or a door being opened. Something, or more accurately, someone is present whom we had not seen.

Jesus Revealed
We called our Revelation message series “Jesus, Revealed” to keep its apocalyptic purpose central.

The Apocalypse pulls back the curtain and shows us true reality, what is really going on, who is really in charge, where history’s actually going. Apocalypse is an art form, a known style of writing, and the Revelation mixes in that genre throughout. But at its heart, the Apocalypse is the Revealing of Jesus Christ. Every page, every symbol, every note that’s struck or table that’s spun, everything serves this purpose: to reveal Jesus to his people. So when you read the Revelation, ask this Key Apocalyptic Question: How is Jesus revealing himself to us? Ask it every turn of the page.

#2. The Revelation is a Prophecy.

The second genre joins the Rev mix by verse 3: Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near. The fact that the Revelation is a prophecy will come as a shock to exactly no one. Of course it’s a prophecy. But all prophecy (anywhere in the Bible) must be heard in stereo, played both as a something that is about the future and something that is about the present. In fact, I would argue that all the future orientation of prophecy (new Listening in Stereoheavens/new earth, death being destroyed, beasts slain, people redeemed)  is given to inspire present faithfulness. The Revelation offers a resounding blessing on all who read this prophecy aloud and all those who receive it obediently. That’s powerful. So what’s our Key Prophecy Question? It is this: How is this prophecy inspiring me to faithfulness today? Again, ask consistently throughout.  

#3. The Revelation is a Letter.

Apocalypse and prophecy have barely hit their opening chords when genre #3 spins in. In classic letter form, we read: John, to the seven churches in the province of Asia: Grace and peace to you . . . it’s how letters started back then. The Revelation of Jesus Christ is a letter written from a pastor to seven particular churches in the Roman province of Asia (modern day Turkey). No one disputes that for the opening chapters, as Jesus himself addresses each church with a specific memo. But when the letter continues in chapter 4 with a vision shift, readers easily forget that we are still reading someone else’s mail! icon_youvegotmail-150x150From 1:1 to 22:21, the Revelation is a circular letter, written and delivered to real Christian churches. Keeping this in mind is crucial, especially when beasts start showing up; it’ll keep Revelation’s purpose central: to encourage and challenge Christians to remain loyal to Jesus during difficult times.

The genre of letter applies the other two genres of apocalypse and prophecy to their context, making it practical to everyday life. Our Key Letter Question is this: How is this letter helping these ancient Christians understand what was going on (apocalypse) and how to respond faithfully (prophecy), and, by extension, how does it help us now? Okay, that’s two questions, but the dual lens of “then” and “now” is critical. Ask these questions every step of the way through the Revelation.

There’s the Revelation mash-up, and each type of lit is essential to the mix Jesus wants us to hear. Here’s the point: in the Revelation, Jesus wants to reveal himself to us so we can faithfully follow him in our present reality and into his good future.

Want to hear more? I’ve been walking my friends through the Revelation in a series of messages at the Erickson Covenant Church; you can find them here. You can also subscribe and download through iTunes under “Erickson Covenant Church”.

Which genre of the Revelation surprised you?

How could this triple mash-up help your community hear the Revelation?

 

Note: I owe my understanding of the Revelation to so many authors, including Bauckham, Fee, Wilcock, Beale and Wright. But premier among them is Darrell Johnson and his work on the Revelation. I highly recommend Discipleship on the Edge: An Expository Journey through the Book of Revelation if you want to find out more.

Want to make people feel included? Drop insider talk

Make people feel included by dropping insider language.

One of the most important ways we include people is by dropping insider language.

Within any particular subculture, such as the medical profession or among sports fanatics, insider talk makes sense. Jargon is a kind of short-hand that makes conversation more fluid. I get it. Everyone is on the same page, speaking from the same dictionary, and that works.

But what about when your group exists to include people who are not part of your group? That is the case with the church of Jesus: we have been given the job of including “outsiders”–people who have not previously identified as following Jesus–in the life of our community. If we actually want to include outsiders, then we must include them from the very start by dropping insider talk, or (second-best) at least taking the time to explain the meaning of the short-hand words we are using.jargon

I’ve learned this through failure. I remember sitting with a friend years ago, trying to mentor him and encourage him, when he finally said, “Tom, please be patient with me. I don’t get half of what you’re saying. You use words I’ve never heard and don’t understand.” Folks, that was my fault, not his. All my theological and Christian jargon, comfortable to me, was not helping me do what Jesus had told me to do. So I started breaking down the big words and simply stating what they mean in ways that outsiders, or new insiders, could understand. I don’t do it perfectly, but I do try to make my language more understandable to the people I’m passionate to reach. And it’s not about dumbing down the message; it’s about actually conveying one.

My everyday conversations have become more accessible, but it’s my preaching that I’ve worked the hardest to change. Believing that our worship gatherings are a crucial time when outsiders (non-church people) begin to be included, I use everyday, common words in my preaching. I avoid Christian cliches (sometimes called “Christianese”, which is itself a “Christianese”!), long theological terms, terms that have a long Christian history but are no longer known culturally, as well as words known only to the literate few.  Sometimes I can’t avoid it. For example, I’m currently preaching through the book of Revelation, and while I’ve managed to avoid the word “eschatological” (meaning the study of last things), I’ve had to lean into the meaning of the word “apocalypse” (meaning “revelation”, not some catastrophic event) because of its centrality to the book and because of its helpfulness in explaining the Revelation . . . er . . . the Apocalypse of Jesus Christ. When I have to use a word that is longer or lesser known, I take time to explain it.  I don’t always succeed; I know that. For example, I’m fairly confident I used the word “Messianic” last Sunday without explanation, and I know there’s people who didn’t know what that meant!

A few days ago, in a group conversation reflecting on people’s experience in our church, I heard something encouraging. An elderly man, who is himself a new insider who came to trust Jesus within the last year, said, “I like how this church uses everyday language so I understand what’s going on.”  That’s a win, folks.

While I know that there are people who will defend the importance of theological terms and their use in our common gatherings, I think others who agree with the need to drop these terms in certain contexts face one particular challenge: we’ve used these words so often and for so long that we are no longer aware of them and how foreign they are to most people. Growing in our awareness of our insider talk takes work and self-reflection, as well as candid conversations with others in our church about how we can become more welcoming to new people among us. Remember, it’s all about including people and helping them find and follow Jesus.

So let me ask you:

What “insider” words do you tend to use without thinking?

What ways have you made your language more accessible without sacrificing depth of conversation? 

 

 

Why I haven’t quit the church (and why you shouldn’t either)

The church of Jesus is a marvelous mess, filled right up to overflowing with sinners and saints.  As a pastor, I hear my share of criticism about this mad collection of the Jesus-bought. Maybe you’ve heard it, too.

The church is . . . too inward-focused,  too liberal, too conservative, too spiritual, not spiritual enough, too performance-oriented, too shoddy and backward. Hypocritical, fake, needy, imperfect. Sinful. Broken.

Sigh. 

It’s all true. And believe me when I say that I ache over the mess.  The mess that eats away at people’s lives, the mess that happens when sinners forget their dearly won sainthood, and the saints forget their status as grace-covered sinners. But it’s in the midst of the mess of the church that I also worship Jesus. It’s in this messy, beautiful mix that I pray and give and serve and love and learn. It’s among these people I experience forgiveness, joining in wonder and worship, bearing for each other the burdens of life.

 

Why don’t I give up on the church? Why don’t I just quit?

Because Jesus refuses to give up on the church. Jesus loves his church — broken, sinful, beautiful and alive. Blood-won, Spirit-filled, lurching in grace toward God’s good future.

At the beginning of the book of Revelation, we receive a compelling vision of Jesus.  With vivid imagery, Jesus our High Priest stands with the white hair of wisdom and the bronze feet of strength, face shining like the sun and a voice like a waterfall. The focus is all on him, standing in splendor and wisdom and strength and love.

But, if you can stand back for just a moment, ask yourself: where is Jesus, when he first reveals himself to John in this vision? Where is he located, exactly?

I’m very struck by this fact: Jesus, in all of his brilliance and grace, is standing right in the middle of his church.  He’s not standing off to the side, he’s not somewhere in the distance, not on the outside looking in. Jesus is standing right in the middle of the church, depicted here as lampstands. And he’s not standing in the middle of some generic “church universal” either. Jesus is standing in the midst of the local church–seven local churches to be precise–churches with an identifiable address, meeting in a house just across the way, embedded within a city with a history, a mix of cultures, steeped in idolatry, with a story of where they’ve been and where they are going. A church made up of an odd menagerie of real and imperfect people, sinners and saints, people like you and I.

Lister Fun
Photo credit: Meme Prier

As the Revelation unfolds, Jesus has some challenging and comforting words for these particular churches, each message crafted for each unique congregation. Some of these churches are severely compromised; others are barely holding on. Some are affluent; some, poor. Some are well-known; some, backward and unfamiliar. And as Jesus speaks to his church words that are sometimes difficult to hear, let us not forget where he’s located when he speaks: right in the middle of the mess.  He speaks from the centre, not the periphery, of his people.

Jesus knows his church, situated in each community, each city, each block in the world. He knows my church; he knows yours. And he loves his church, and when he speaks to his church, he speaks right from the middle.

Jesus hasn’t quit his church.

I’m not either.