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Wholly Bible: Preaching Revelation

The book to end the Book is an incredible book. Some look at it as a road map through which they can navigate modern events. Therefore they go slow. They stop to gaze at the magnificent visions in Revelation, and as they gaze they wonder exactly why it is written this way. They poke and prod, they squeeze and mix, until what is extracted from this vision becomes a blend of modern events glazed over with speculation and hope.

And then there are the rest of us. On the whole, Christians look at the back of the book, and they understand that we win. That is quite enough. If you know the end, then why read it? After all, the freakish images are beyond interpretation anyway. Perhaps it’s for this reason that the book of Revelation is largely neglected today. It’s neglected from a mix of apathy and a fear of the unknown. Why take the time to understand and unpack this for people when they do not care for the bizarre? How does understanding the book of Revelation actually help people? Why bother?

The answer is found in the first verse.

The book of Revelation, from beginning to end, is a book about Jesus. The book never gets past the first verse, “The revelation of Jesus Christ.” This is Jesus Christ revealed. You do not have to love end times prophecy to love Revelation; you simply have to love Jesus. To love Jesus is to love Him revealed.

The preposition “of” implies that this is the Revelation from Jesus Christ. 1 This is what Christ said to John. However, what Christ said is all about Christ. So Revelation is about Jesus, but more specifically it is how Christ wants us to understand Christ. This is the self-portrait of Jesus. How could this be anything but fascinating? What is there not to love, given the Author and the content?

The challenge for the preacher is how to extract this. How do you preach the book of Revelation in a way that will give people a full glimpse of its content yet not be intimidated by the details? There are many strategies to preaching the book of Revelation. However, for this short post let’s look at one unique feature of the book—its structure.

Revelation has a unique structure

This unique structure is identified in 1:19. John is told to “Write therefore things that you have seen, those that are and those that are to take place after this.” This has commonly been seen as an outline of the entire book. The things that he has seen: chapter 1. The things that are: chapters 2, 3. And the things that will take place: chapters 4-22. This has to do with the content of the book, since the first chapter deals with introductory matters, chapters 2 and 3 are the letters to the seven churches, and the rest is the revelation of the future. Another note is that the genre shifts as well. The first chapter has unique introductory features. The second and third chapters are direct addresses to the churches filled with judgment, commendation, and commands to change. The last chapters are filled with prophecies containing vivid images.

Remember also that this structure has a visionary feel to it. John is telling us the things that he has “seen.” The preacher’s challenge is to tell the vision. John wrote what he saw, and we speak what he wrote about that vision. In the translation process, make sure that people see what you are saying. 2 Because of this unique structure, here are a few strategies for preaching Revelation.

Mix it up.

Since there are shifts in the genre, there can be shifts in the sermon structure. A sermon from chapter 1 might feel like it has too much biblical backgrounds information for our liking, but it is a necessary framework for the message that is coming. The letters to the churches are favorite preaching material. They are clear and explicit. Major portions of what follows are descriptions of events that will come. A sermon from this last section may feel like a list of descriptions. That is simply how the genre feels. And the variety this provides in preaching is very compelling. The point is, preaching through Revelation is, by definition, a sermon series that may need multiple sermon structures.

Point to the structure from time to time.

The book seems like a labyrinth. The listener may wonder how they will wade through all of the information that is coming their way. It is always wise to point to the macro-structure of a book and maybe more so in Revelation than in other books. This will help them see the momentum of the book, leading up to the climactic ending.

A good way to do this would be to present the book visually as you preach through it, assuming the technology is available. There is much that video technology cannot do, but one thing that it can do well is provide a view of the macro structure of a book. People will enjoy seeing where you are, and this will create much-needed signposts in such a dense book. You can do this by first choosing a simple outline for the book. Then graphically recreate it in a normal list, or a time-line format, to point your people in the right direction. Then, from time to time, show it to them. This can be overdone. But done well, this could help them get their bearings as you walk through a dense book.

Preach the Text not the System

In the seminary context in which I live, when you talk about Revelation the question that follows is often, “Well, what are you?” The question is not begging for your nationality or college football allegiance, rather the question is trying to identify your eschatological disposition. In other words are you a-mill, pre-mill, post-mill, etc. This eschatological identification is such a real part of one’s theological development that when students finally come to the pastorate, they often gravitate to two extremes: They ignore the book of Revelation altogether, or they preach their theological system using the book as a means to defend their position. Jesus is coming back to defend His bride. However Jesus is not revealed in the book to come to the aid of defending our theological system. It’s bigger than that. So, yes, preach the book and show them how it fits into a systematic whole. But, only after you have preached Jesus revealed.

This post is one of a series on preaching the genres of Scripture. Dr. Smith’s forthcoming book on Genre Sensitive Preaching will be available from B&H Academic, Fall 2014.


Notes:

  1. See Grant Osborne, Baker Exegetical, Revelation, p. 52. Osborne understands the preposition as a subjective genitive, not an objective genitive, thus it is revelation “from” Jesus, not necessarily about Jesus. Yet, it is no matter since the content of so much of the book is the identity of Christ.
  2. See Kostenburger, 532. Kostenburger and Patterson provide an outline of the book based on the visions of the book 558-59.

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Steven Smith

Steven Smith

Steven W. Smith serves as vice president for student services and communications and professor of communication at Southwestern Seminary. He is author of "Dying to Preach: Embracing the Cross in the Pulpit."

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