We come this morning to the first of three sermons on the book of Revelation, concluding our series on the books of the Bible. It is the only example we have in the New Testament of a form of writing called 'apocalyptic literature' which the people of Jesus' day were very familiar with. We sometimes call Revelation 'The Apocalypse' in the same way that, if 'The Maltese Falcon' was the only story we knew of its kind, we might call it 'The Detective Story.' I hope that, by the end of the third sermon, most of you will feel much more familiar and comfortable with this type of book.
I do not promise to explain every detail to you, or to give you the date of the Second Coming, but I do promise that if you are willing to lay aside your expectations and come with an open mind and an expectant heart, you will hear God speaking to you clearly and powerfully through this extraordinary book.
I have been a Christian for a little over 25 years, and for most of this time I have been talking, and possibly on occasions arguing with people about the book of Revelation. Perhaps it is the case that people with strange ideas and weird beliefs get attracted to me, but it seems when I look back, that the book of Revelation, along with some bits of Daniel, arouses more interest and matters more to most people I have met than the rest of the Bible put together.
Now, don't get me wrong, I am not saying it is more important than other parts of the Bible. But when I talk with people outside the Church about the things they believe and the questions which matter to them, time and time again I find it is the book of Revelation which speaks to them, or which they refer to in support of some strange idea.
If you allow people to tell you what they believe about the book of Revelation, you will hear over and over again the most incredible beliefs coming from the mouths of people who appear to be relatively sane and normal. People today do believe the most amazing things. The same person who mocks your gullibility in believing a man can come back from the dead, may well sit in a cardboard pyramid and recite a meaningless chant for hours on end. And if you give them a chance, folk will tell you what they believe.
This is why I wanted to ask Monica Mills how she interpreted the book of Revelation and what she understood to be its relevance to us today. I didn't think she was a crackpot, but for a Christian, that question is often a very good way to discover oddities in a person's beliefs, and I wanted to ask it just in case.
With Monica, I would have been very happy to hear she had studied the book very little, and didn't know what to make of most of it. I would have been quite worried if she had some pat answer ready to hand, and especially if she offered to explain it in more details if we decided to call her.
Years of listening to people explaining their pet theories have taught me to be very careful of people who want to speak about the book of Revelation, and to tell you what it means.
Having said that, I must admit that I asked to be given this book to preach on. I even asked to be allowed a seven week series, but this was before we knew a certain David Bedford was interested in coming. So, instead of a seven week series, you have a three week series spread over five weeks. There is no way we can explore this book in three weeks, but what we can do is to begin to reclaim it from the cranks and the cults.
I believe that doing this is important for at least three reasons.
Revelation 1:3. Blessed is the one who reads 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 time is near' We will come back to this point. But for us, in one sense at least, the time is most certainly near. As people approach the turn of a new century, there is always a renewed interest in prophecy, in secret knowledge, and we can expect this to be even more the case as we look to the dawn not only of a new century but of a new millennium.
I want to help you understand something of this by giving you an example. It could have been the X Files or the Turin Shroud. It could have been the Freemasons and the Knights Templar. But the best example at the moment is probably this book: the Bible Code.
How many of you have read this book? Parts of it? Who has heard about it? For some time now, a book about the Bible has been a best seller in this country and in the United States. Non-christians are buying and reading it. Don't you think that we as Christians have a responsibility to understand something of what it says and have some way of answering the questions it raises?
This is not a book plug. I am not asking you to buy it, just to be aware of some of the information it contains. The words of the original Hebrew text of the Old Testament - the Bible Jesus used - are made up of 304,805 letters. You could write them in a single line, missing out the blanks, 304,805 characters long. You could write them in five lines, each 60,906 characters long. As you can imagine, there are thousands of ways you could fit the letters of the Old Testament into a grid. And in each of these grids, you get the words of the Bible text when you read across, and sometimes other words are formed when you read down, like in a crossword.
It is not surprising that you can find words in this way. What is surprising is the number of words you find this way, and the way they link to each other. When you do this exercise on the text of War and Peace, you get the occasional random word on its own. When you do it on the Bible, you find meaningful combinations over and over again.
Some of the combinations are about significant events in history: 'Newton' is paired with 'gravity', 'Shakespeare' with 'Macbeth' and 'Hamlet', and 'Napoleon' with 'France', 'Waterloo' and 'Elba'. The date of the first Moon landing is combined with 'Moon', 'Apollo 11' and the phrase, 'Done by mankind, done by a man'. The name 'Kennedy' is combined with 'to die' and 'Dallas'.
This cannot be explained by chance. The effect is highly significant in a statistical sense, and only occurs with the text of the Hebrew Bible. This number of words and combinations could only be found once computers were available to do the brute force work of searching and pattern matching.
But people have known about these patterns in the Bible for some time. Earlier this century in Prague, a Rabbi called Weissmandel noticed that if you take each 50th letter at the start of the book of Genesis, it spells the word 'Torah'. This was a bit surprising, especially when he realised that the same thing happened in Exodus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.
And how many of you have come across the ancient subject of Biblical Numerology? Every word in the original Hebrew and Greek text has a numerical value, and if you start looking at these numbers, you get some very strange results. If you count the number of times important words occur in the original text, you find over and over again the answer is a multiple of 7. These unlikely effects, numbers and patterns are there in the text, especially in the first chapter of Genesis.
So these results in the Bible should not be surprising: we have known there is something very special about the sacred text for a long time, and computers have now given us the ability to uncover the hidden pattern and content much faster and more reliably than ever before.
People have always been interested in the uncovering of secret or hidden knowledge, and they are becoming increasingly open about this desire. It is, if you like, part of the 'spirit of the age' in which we live. What does this mean for us as Christians? We cannot simply ignore it. On the other hand, it is not a tool for use in evangelism: nobody is going to get saved because they are convinced by the statistical improbability of the Bible. But it may open a few doors in peoples' minds, and give us a few more opportunities for conversations.
If you are like me, you have probably tried to keep conversations to areas you are familiar with and comfortable talking about. And if, like I did for years, you have avoided studying the book of Revelation, then you are simply not as available to God as you could be in this area.
Why do we spend so little time studying this book? I would like to suggest six possible reasons.
Are these valid reasons to avoid the book? Only in part. They are valid reasons to make us treat it with care.
It is more difficult for us to understand than most of the rest of the Bible. But we do not have to understand all the details in order to receive the blessing God intends for us through this book. We do not have to be spiritual giants to gain benefit from this book, any more than we do for the rest of scripture.
It may appear frightening, but God does not intend us to be frightened by it, and I believe as we hear the message over the next few weeks, this will no longer be a barrier.
Getting the meaning wrong is only a problem if we are trying to work it all out - to treat the book as puzzle to be solved, to read it as a future history in coded form. We are not supposed to work it out - we are supposed to allow God to speak to us through it, which is completely different. The distinction is not between using our mind to puzzle it out and using our spirit to listen, it is between using the talents He has given us to get what we want, and using our mind and spirit to discern what He wants us to get out of it.
The key question is our purpose in studying the book. We have a natural human desire to know what will happen and when. This is why since the dawn of history people have used astrology and visited oracles, mediums, soothsayers and fortune tellers.
As with everything good God gives us, from physical health to spiritual gifts, God gives them to us for good use, but Satan first tempts us to mis-use, and then so scares us with the consequences that we end up with dis-use. The answer, as always, is firstly a right understanding of the gift and how it is to be used, and then a willingness to be obedient and use it the way our Father intends. So, over the next few weeks we will be trying to learn how to use this book our Father has given to us.
Our main problem in understanding the book of Revelation comes from the fact that we do not read or write apocalyptic literature any more. You see, we interpret what we read very differently depending on what we are reading. We do not read an advert like a news report, or a spy story like a biography.
Most of the rest of the Bible may be strange to us in many ways, but we are familiar with the type of literature. We are familiar with history books. We read poetry. We still write letters. But we do not write this type of book, just like the people of Jesus' time did not write adventure stories or romances.
Imagine the problems you would have if you read a detective story as if it were a factual record. You might have difficulty believing the faithful side-kick is really as thick as he sometimes sounds. When, near the end of the final chapter, he says, "There's just one thing I don't understand" you won't recognise the tradition embodied in that phrase.
And then there is the question of motivation. By the end of the book, you know what all the bad guys did and why they did it. But you may struggle like crazy to work out what motivated the hero to stand in the rhododendron bushes in the middle of the night - his excuse for being there is so thin and implausible. You worry about it because you don't understand that the hero's motive for being there does not matter: it is simply part of the plot, an excuse to enable him to overhear the vital conversation.
God does not seek to trick or fool us. Nothing in the Bible is intended to be misleading. The book of Revelation only seems strange to us because we are not familiar with apocalyptic literature. The people John wrote it down for would have been as familiar with this type of book as we are with detective stories and political satire. They did not expect to read any of it literally. Almost all the places, people, objects, events and numbers have a meaning, they point to something else. What they point to is sometimes vague and ambiguous, but it is always clear enough for the revelation to communicate what God intended.
So, because we are not familiar with this type of literature, we worry about aspects of the book which the original readers would never have thought twice about, and so we end up missing the simple, clear message.
Revelation addresses the question: who is in control? It is not a subject which troubles us much, these days. We think we live in a predictable world. We have insurance, medicine and hospitals. If something goes wrong, we can call in someone to fix it.
But think about the people to whom it was written. If we had lived then, we would all have worked in the fields. I have just turned forty, and can reasonably expect to see another forty years. But in Jesus day, I would be among the oldest people in the community. I may have had eight or ten children, but most of them would already be dead. We would be starting to arrange marriages for the eldest grandchildren. If we get ill, we either die or recover. If the crops do not grow well, or people come and raid our fields, we go hungry, and the weakest starve. We cannot control our health, the weather, the crops, or the armies.
We work hard, but our work does not guarantee success, happiness or comfort. It does not even guarantee survival. Life is difficult and dangerous, the future is very uncertain.
In that situation, we would desperately need to understand that there is a God who is in control, whom we can trust despite our difficulties. You and I today need to understand that we live in that same world. Our future is uncertain. We may get our food from Sainsbury's, but it is still God's provision for us. We do not know how long we will retain our health or our jobs. Insurance may cushion us financially, but it does not prevent the unexpected from changing our lives.
Our lives are in God's hands, and we need to understand that and believe it just as much as the people of Jesus' day. We need to learn what it means to believe that God is in control, and His will shall be done. I believe we shall do that, with the help of this book, in the next few weeks.
This is the second of a three part series on the book of Revelation. The purpose of this series is not to explain every detail of the book, but to give you the ammunition you need to read it and benefit from it yourself.
We said two weeks ago that Revelation is an example of a type of book the people of Jesus' day were very familiar with. We call it 'apocalyptic literature'. The word 'apocalypse' makes us think of disasters, cataclysmic events and the end of the world. Actually, it is simply a transliteration of the Greek word for 'revelation', just as 'baptism' is a transliteration of the Greek work for 'soaking' or 'immersion'.
We also said that God does not play games with us: the book of Revelation is not a puzzle with one correct answer, one solution. It has not been given to us as an intellectual challenge. God reveals what he wants us to know: there is no hidden, secret truth waiting to be unearthed. As with all scripture, there are riches for anyone to pick up. There are also other riches which require a little work to obtain, and the more you seek the more spiritual food you will find, but all God's truth is like that.
By the way, we need to remember that revelation, in the Bible, is one of the important ways in which God communicates with us. In prophecy, God gives words; in revelation He gives visions. The two often go together: the prophet will see visions, the seer will hear words. Whether we call it 'prophecy' or 'revelation' often depends on whether we find the words or the pictures more important.
The essential point to remember about Biblical revelation and prophecy is that they are both essentially the self-revelation of God. Prophecy is not primarily fore-telling but forth-telling: telling forth God's word; and God's word is, in essence, His nature, His character. In the ultimate self-revelation of God, His word becomes The Word, incarnate in the person of Jesus the Christ. The visions of revelation, then, are to be understood primarily as God revealing Himself.
I don't want to leave you with my interpretation of this book, but on the other hand, it is only fair to let you know my starting point, the assumptions I bring to the book. You can then decide whether you think they are helpful.
Firstly, and we have already mentioned this point, the book is a revelation of Jesus. There is more we need to say about that.
Secondly, I assume that the book was written for first century Christians. It was written in their language, it was expressed in concepts and images they were familiar with. I cannot believe that God would give them this book if it was impossible for them to understand.
Thirdly, I assume that this book was written for us. The early Christians may have expected Jesus to come back within their lifetime, but God knew when it was written that we would be here two thousand years later, reading it and seeking to get to know Him better through its pages.
And finally, I assume that the central message of this book and the most important truths are communicated simply and clearly. I believe you do not need a degree in theology, or four years of New Testament Greek to understand the main points. Spirit and truth - sensitivity to God's spirit, and a willingness to accept his truth are all we require.
The book of Revelation has been understood in many ways over the centuries. While everybody disagrees about the details, there are four main schools of interpretation.
I suspect that all four schools are right. Like every work of systematic theology - now I know this is a terrible piece of over-simplification, but I will say it anyway - like every work of systematic theology, they are right in what they affirm, but wrong in what they deny. They are true, but not the whole truth.
What truth should we be looking for in this book?
God did not write a book which most of His children would be unable to understand. God does not waste His words, or His visions. If He reveals, it is because He wants us to understand. If He wants us to understand, it is because He wants us to act. The action may be prayer, it may be to do nothing, but it will be different from what we would have done without the understanding granted by the revelation.
The Wise Men took a different route home because of the revelation they were given; Joseph took Mary and Jesus to Egypt. Most revelation in the Bible has a less immediate application because it is of more general relevance, but the basic principle is exactly the same.
God does not reveal things simply to satisfy our curiosity. When He reveals things about the future, it is to enable us to understand how to act. We cannot predict what will happen from prophecy or revelation: they enable us to recognise the events when they happen, and respond accordingly. We have many question which God has not seen fit to answer: God is not obliged to provide an answer just because we can think of a question. He answers the ones which show us how to live, and the rest will just have to wait.
I would like to suggest that prophecy and revelation together are given in this book for four main reasons.
We said last time that God does not seek to trick or fool us. So nothing in the book is intended to be misleading. But while nothing is intentionally misleading, sometimes there are several levels of meaning. A prophecy which fore-tells the future can be fulfilled in several ways: the initial interpretation or fulfilment is not wrong, it is simply incomplete. While it is helpful to discover what people in the first century would have understood by the words, we need not be limited by their understanding.
To take a simple example: 'Out of Egypt have I called My son' was, when written, a description of the time God brought the children of Israel from slavery in Egypt into the Promised Land. It was also fulfilled when Joseph brought Mary and Jesus back to Israel. It is also fulfilled in each of our lives when we were brought out of slavery to sin and death by the blood of Jesus, and again when we are each called from somewhere familiar to the place where God wants us to grow and exercise our ministry. Because it is true history, it shows us how God behaves. It is, at the same time, the record of an historic event, a prophecy fulfilled in Jesus, and a description of the way in which God steps into human lives and experience.
We have not been granted complete revelation and understanding, only the degree which we need today. It is possible some of the visions of Revelation will be fulfilled in a literal way - some of the plagues and disasters could happen very much as described.
Perhaps the Beast or False Prophet will be an individual who is instantly recognised, or perhaps they stand for groups of people, multinational corporations, advertising agencies, popular 'movements', or perhaps something completely different - maybe something we can not imagine because it has not yet been invented.
The question of the final fulfilment of these images does not make any difference to us. We - or those who come after us - will only need to identify them when the time arrives. We only need to find out what God is saying to us today.
So we are not expected to understand everything the book says. But some of the content - in my opinion, the most important part - is very, very simple. We talk about 'The Revelation of Saint John' but that is clearly wrong. According to John, it is the revelation of Jesus Christ. This revelation of Jesus was given to His servant John so that John could pass it on to us.
This phrase, 'the revelation of Jesus' is very important. It can be understood in two distinct ways, and they are both right. Jesus is revealing to us things we need to know and understand. But also, it is fundamentally a revelation about Jesus, revealing to us aspects of Jesus which we may otherwise miss or fail to appreciate fully.
As soon as we start to try to understand what God is saying to us through this book, we have to face up to the images and symbols which pour out of its pages in such quantity. It is actually not difficult, as long as we limit ourselves to what God wants to tell us. After all, it is His desire and intention to communicate with us. He always tells us what we need to know in a language we can understand.
Many of the symbols we find are explicitly explained; others relate to other passages of scripture; and yet others to well known aspects of the culture of the time. While these different types of symbols operate in slightly different ways, a good starting point is to ask if it is referred to in the rest of te Bible, and if so, how is it used? The Bible, as always, is the key to interpreting the Bible.
Many of the symbols are functional: we know what many objects do, and what they are generally used for. It doesn't take any great intelligence to know that...
Of course, this does not exhaust the meaning of the symbol. But it does give us a good starting point.
Many of the symbols are straight out of the earlier pages of the Bible. A basic familiarity with the rest of scripture makes many references clear.
Many of the cultural symbols used elsewhere in the Bible are also found here. For example, horses were used in war, so they refer to the military.
Possible our greatest difficulty is with the symbolism of the many numbers we find in this book. But again, if you look through the Bible, time and time again, number are given more meaning than their arithmetical value.
One final thing to point out before we move on is that many number are present but not explicitly mentioned in the book. If we look at the structure of the book, it is clear that it is not intended to be read as a simple history of the future, any more than a panel game on TV is intended to teach us about current affairs.
The main part of the book consists of seven distinct chunks. As you always find in a letter, this is sandwiched between an introduction and a conclusion, giving us nine major sections in all. Each of these main sections can be divided into seven parts, and some of them divide into seven parts in two distinct ways.