Preaching from the Book of Revelation
Addressing difficult texts, Part 4
What do you think of when considering the Book of Revelation? Dire warnings of demons and dragons rising from the sea? The end of days and the beginning of eternity? A snapshot of heaven with the slain Lamb center stage?
You may be the type who gets a bit nervous when your Bible reading plan opens to the final book. What we read in those visions and prophecies have confounded scholars for nearly 2,000 years. As a preacher, how could you even begin to settle those issues in under an hour?
No text is off-limits to the pastor. “All scripture,” Paul reminds us, “ … is useful for teaching” (2 Timothy 3:16). That includes the often confusing, sometimes frightening but always enlightening apocalyptic writings of John.
The Book of Revelation offers hope and promise. It’s a book that tells of God’s bight future that includes us. We can and should find a way to share that message with our people.
What’s the Big Deal?
I know many preachers who don’t avoid Revelation. They confidently map out the historical picture of the end times. And they’ve neatly woven together vision and verse to compel listeners to live better lives.
In my own work, however, I’ve noticed most pastors avoid the Book of Revelation like one of the plagues that are so prominent in the text. Of all the preachers I’ve helped with research and sermon prep, not a single one has ever chosen to handle these Scriptures. A couple of them planned on it, but then thought twice about it.
So, what’s the big deal? Why are so many of us more comfortable skipping that last book? Well, let’s be honest, it can be confusing. And scary, too. Many worry that they don’t know enough about it to handle it appropriately. With so many voices and so much debate, they feel the chances of getting something wrong are pretty high.
Another big issue with the Book of Revelation is a perception that it’s only a book of predictions. And if we, as preachers, are going to preach those predictions, we had better have everything laid out just right. And since none of us really has a complete blueprint for the end of the world, maybe we should just put it back on the shelf.
Approaching the Future From the Present
One way pastors have approached the text is to see it through the lens of the daily news. It’s popular to take current events and spin them as partial fulfillment of Revelation. It’s a sign that God’s Word is coming to pass.
If that’s your first inclination, can I warn you to draw those conclusions with pencil and not pen? I don’t doubt that God’s Word is true or that everything He says will happen will, in fact, happen one day. But I’m also sure that He has obscured some things from us. Jesus said in Matthew 24 that no one will know the day or hour of His appearing. So be very careful when predicting the future through news soundbites.
God’s truth will never fail, even if the news gets it wrong from time to time.
Over the years, there has been no shortage of false alarms and missed predictions. When you attempt to connect current events to the words of Revelation, you might slip into that trap. For instance, at the height of the Cold War, many were convinced that the USSR would play a major role in the prophecies from John’s pen. But since the fall of the Soviet empire, those prognosticators have had to shift their focus and rewrite their predictions.
I believe a better approach is just the opposite. Instead of interpreting current affairs to point to prophecy, use the prophetic visions as a way to make sense of the present. As the future plans of the world are laid out, what do they tell us about the stability of Christian witness, the grace of Jesus in a fallen world, and the plan of God for His faithful people? God’s truth will never fail, even if the news gets it wrong from time to time.
Using Major Themes
Rather than taking a predictive approach to the Book of Revelation, try searching out some of the book’s themes. Preach a sermon or an entire series from one of these topics. Here are a few to think about:
Worship. When you think of Revelation, you might not think worship. But a surprisingly large number of classic hymns and modern worship tunes borrow directly from the book. “Songs of Revelation” would make a powerful series, especially when coordinated with your worship team.
True victory. Perhaps the most remarkable vision in the book is that of Jesus in Revelation 5:6. Our conquering King is depicted as a slain Lamb. Throughout the book, John repeats this theme of power from faithfulness rather than strength. It’s a different way to view victory, but one that we can easily apply to believers’ current circumstances.
The reversal of fortunes. In Revelation 21:5, Jesus calls out, “I am making everything new!” The reversal of the curse is the beginning of the remade heaven and earth. But throughout the book, we see other reversals of fortune. Martyrs are given favor, the poor are enriched, the sick are healed and the mourning are comforted. What reversals of fortune does your audience need to hear about from the Book of Revelation?
So, what’s the point in the Book of Revelation? Is it just to prepare us for some future event, whether soon-coming or far-off? Or is it a way to reveal the hidden evils of a fallen world? (The emphasis on death and disease can make you think that.)
However, the whole book has one basic theme, and that’s Jesus. He is at the heart of each vision. The opening verses talk about the revelation from, and the testimony of, Jesus Christ. He is the One personally giving the message to the seven churches. He takes center stage in John’s first glimpse of heaven in Chapters 4 and 5. And the final declaration in the book are the words of Jesus Christ himself: “Yes, I am coming soon.”
However you decide to approach this book, make sure that Jesus is front and center. Each page seems to echo His name, every prophecy pointing us to our Savior. To do otherwise in a sermon from Revelation would be hiding the truth.