Lesson 12: Reasons for Reading Revelation (Part 1)

The separation of church and stateFor approximately half of my life, I thought we all would be better off if the Church had never included Revelation in the Bible. Then a friend, who became ill, asked me to teach his seminary course. Although he had written a respected commentary, he suggested I do my own research before consulting with him. Facing the daunting task of becoming an instant expert, I turned to the internet. Not that I sought knowledge about what then appeared to be a very strange book, I simply wanted to see if I could discern who were scholars worth reading. Months later when I reported my findings, my friend said my readings included all those he respected save one. Ever since I have had better feelings about being able to find out what you need online, if you take the time to carefully evaluate the results of your searches.

My research opened up an entirely new world. I found there were other reasons to study the Apocalypse than to correct the bizarre interpretations flying around. At the time large numbers of people were fascinated and scared by works such as The Late Great Planet Earth and the Left Behind series. Some families in my parish worried that they had lost their children to strange cults that proclaimed we were living in the Last Days. Most seminarians reported they were taking the course so they could answer questions they expected to be asked by their parishioners about this craziness. I, too, welcomed more information that would help my ministry in this area. However, my study soon produced insights that enriched my personal religious life.

Let me mention some of the reasons I now think people should be studying Revelation. Since I started from this perspective, I’ll present them in the context of my personal experience. I am convinced, however, that John’s prophecy offers essential guidance needed by the entire Church for living the Christian life in our time and place.

The last two lessons examined the two reasons I would put at the top of my list. Revelation broadens my understanding of church-state relationships. I was raised with the Lutheran two- kingdoms theory that teaches we owe obedience to both of these orders. God rules through his right hand that uses love in the Church and his left that uses power in the government. I was well aware that our experience in Nazi Germany revealed the deep flaws in the theory. Still I fumbled around trying to find New Testament guidance for living out the confession “Jesus is Lord” when the government engages in ungodly practices. I was especially frustrated when my own government asked loyalty for programs that were clearly unbiblical and many church groups granted it. The Prophet called a spade a spade. He refused to support a satanic government and its agents that he included among those he labeled false prophets.

I think John compliments his critique of the government with a radical depiction of the Church that I desperately needed to hear. Although I dearly loved my Christian community, I was underwhelmed by her commitment to a Christian lifestyle. For the most part, the Church operated like any other self-serving institution. Most of its acts of charity were really programs provided for the benefit of its affluent members, such as retirement communities and counseling services.

Revelation offered a picture of the church that clearly followed Jesus with integrity. No matter what the circumstances, Christians practiced nonviolent, sacrificial love. Their faith in the God of the Christian narrative included trusting his promise that unconditional love would ultimately be victorious. John claimed that meant that the Church relied on the Word of God alone to unveil the truth that shall make us free. She also used prayer to maintain her relationship with the loving Father, realizing her petitions contributed to the salvation of the world. The final way in her lifestyle was her members’ readiness to sacrifice their lives for the mission. It was here that John especially challenged me. I could never remember the Church describing her message as something for which I should be willing to die. John made clear if I truly believed the resurrection of Jesus and all his followers, I should take it for granted that Christian love included self-denial and might even demand a sacrificial death.

Next week, I’ll report other reasons I have come to think are important ones for studying the Apocalypse.

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