In 2012 I taught a series of lectures at my church on the book of Revelation. We had taken a poll to find out what people wanted teaching on, and this enigmatic book came out top of the pile, by quite a long way!
I’d never really understood the book before, truth be told. I’d grown up on a diet of Left Behind, and had managed to purge that from my system (primarily by actually reading the Bible itself!) So I had a few opinions on some of the major themes of the book, but was in no place to teach it in depth. This series, combined with an essay I was writing for my MA about political theology and apocalyptic literature, gave me an opportunity to give some time to getting my head round it.
I read as widely as I was able to in the year leading up to the series, and made some quick decisions. Across six sessions, we didn’t have time to cover every verse of the book, so I took a selection of the main themes – the ones I felt most confident about. By and large I was happy with the outcome and remain happy with the series. But I’ve always felt that if I were to teach it again, there are things I would want to change.
The other week, someone told me they were working through the recordings of the sessions and enjoying them, and they asked me how I’d come to some of my views on particular bits. As I answered their questions and expressed some of what I’ve written above, they then asked me “So, if you were to do the series again, what would you want to change most of all?”
I’ve been pondering that question since. There are a few gaps I’d like to fill in – passages I didn’t get to cover due to the restrictions of time. We skipped the letters to the churches. I didn’t get to explore much of the role of Babylon in the book, which I’d like to amend since it’s such a big theme with some challenging application. Whilst I devoted a whole session to New Creation, I didn’t spend a long time looking at the flipside; the theme of judgment. And the list could go on…
But none of these is the thing I would want to change most of all.
As I’ve reflected on recent events such as the beheading of 21 Egyptian Christians by the radical group ISIS, and as I’ve struggled to know how to pray and lead our church in praying about them, I’ve come to realise that I really should have thought more deeply on the theme of martyrdom.
A few reasons for this conclusion:
- In 2012 I was less informed than I am now about the violence people face on account of their faith. I’m sure it was happening, and I was less aware than I should have been. I think I have had a narrow Western view of the state of Christianity in the world, which skewed my emphasis when interpreting the message of the book.
- In my talks, I treated persecution like something that only happened in ancient times. Or if it does happen today, it happens in far off countries. This was naïve and disrespectful to those who are suffering for their faith far more than I am. It also gave the impression that Revelation has little to teach those who live in this generation and in my part of the world.
- I didn’t speak as clearly on the theme of peace-making as I wish I had. This was in part due to the fact that I know my pacifist views aren’t held by everyone else in my team, and also that I was still working out my position at that point. But I think that Revelation (counter intuitively, perhaps) has a strong message to offer about peace-making through non-violence, modelled on the example of the slain lamb (Rev 5:6). I’m more clear on that now than I have been.
- Even if none of my listeners is ever to be directly affected by persecution of this scale – either experiencing it personally, or losing others they know – all of us should feel the pain of it and all of us should know how to respond, if in no other way than through prayer. On this, I found Thomas Schreiner’s Biblical Meditation on the ISIS Execution of 21 Christians refreshingly helpful (and was interested to note that he is currently completing a commentary on Revelation, for which I eagerly wait.) We should not be surprised; we are more than conquerors; we grieve with those who grieve; we pray for both our enemies and our suffering brothers and sisters; and we plead for God to bring justice.
I’m sure there is plenty more I would change, and I have no doubt that I will read and re-read Revelation differently as I continue to learn more about it. But I think that’s where I would start. To those who think Revelation is all future-oriented, and those who think it refers to events long-passed, I would want to offer a strong wake-up call: The dual cry of the martyrs’ “how long?” (6:10) and John’s “come Lord Jesus” (22:20) is as relevant today as it ever has been.
Image: Reflection of the Apocalypse? by Giampaolo Macorig, used under CC