This is a small excerpt from an article by Gordon Fee, “Preaching Apocolypse? You’ve Got to be Kidding Me!?” in Calvin Theological Journal 41 (2006).
The first question is: Why? Why in the world would one offer to do this, to give a lecture on preaching from apocalyptic texts of all things? On the one hand, one would think that in a world of Star Wars and Star Trek this should be easy. Unfortunately, it is also a world in which the creators of the Left Behind books and movies have become millionaires. These books and movies are so seriously flawed as literature and art, not to mention as impossible interpretations of Scripture, that one feels a sense of despair over the mental and spiritual flabbiness of contemporary North American evangelicalism.
How, one wonders, did this kind of selective literalism gain such a strong foothold in so much of the contemporary church? Then one realizes that it is ultimately the result of one of the twentieth century’s greatest ironies: that a church culture whose rhetoric railed against a world shaped by modernism and historicism had itself been so thoroughly permeated by the basic tenets of this worldview that it was the only way they could read their Bibles. The idea that God could inspire apocalyptic, or that God could inspire the telling of a story whose truth did not lie in whether it actually happened or not, sent chills of horror up and down the spines of people whose mindsets were fundamentalist, but who preferred to be known as evangelical.
The further irony of this worldview, the worldview that not only created Left Behind—and was bought into to the tune of billions of dollars—is that when it came to the Apocalypse itself, John’s marvelous revelation that concludes our biblical canon, they could only make it work by abandoning their so-called literalism. The scheme that was brought to the reading of the book was the Darbyism that gained its foothold in North America through the Bible Conference movement and the Scofield Bible at the beginning of the last century.
This scheme insisted that all Scripture must be read literally, which of course they did not really mean. After all, the absolute central feature of the scheme was a doctrine called the rapture of the church. Because the Revelation of necessity had to be read through dispensational lenses, then the Rapture, it was assumed, must be embedded in the Revelation. So sure enough, in 4:1, John’s being told to “come up here,” where he is to see his marvelous visions of God and the Lamb, was not to be taken literally as having to do with John. John, we were told, is now representative of the church; and this is where the Rapture takes place in the book. What happens to the church in chapter 10, one wonders, when John again appears on earth?
At the end of the day, that kind of reading, which has no appreciation for the genre of biblical texts, turns out to be more apocalyptic than the Apocalypse itself. Thus, my primary concern in this lecture is to urge you to recapture this great book for the sake of the contemporary church. Here, indeed, is a biblical book that is not only worth recovering for today’s church, it is absolutely crucial that it be heard the same way in our day as the Word of God that it was for the churches of western Asia Minor at the end of the first Christian century. Here is a truly prophetic word, spoken with power and insight into a world dominated by a secular power that would soon be hell-bent on wiping out all resistance to the Empire and to the policies of emperors, whose greed and power were raping the world of its natural resource treasures for the sake of the few filthy rich who ruled the world from Rome.
I have set for myself a twofold task this evening: First, I would hope to whet your appetite, indeed to create in you a longing to preach and teach from John’s Revelation for the sake of today’s church; and second, I hope to offer some very practical helps as to how you might set yourselves on such a path. Before I do that, I need to say a few words about what we are about in this conference: Preaching Apocalyptic Texts. Our difficulty is not with the noun, apocalypse—the technical term that refers specifically to the Revelation. This is what John himself calls his book. Our problem lies with the adjective apocalyptic. Here is an “accordion” word, if ever there was one, having to do with how much air one can pump into or out of a word to give it meaning. When it has all the air pumped into it, apocalyptic refers to something about to happen that is foreboding and huge and disastrous. When some of the air is pumped out of it, it comes closer to its original meaning, having to do more specifically with the unveiling (the word’s actual meaning) of the future, and especially with the return of Christ.
When all the air is pumped out of it, apocalyptic has taken on its technical, but derived, sense of referring to a kind of literature represented in our Christian Scriptures by Daniel (especially chapters 7-11) and the book of Revelation. Thus, when we refer to apocalyptic texts we primarily mean these two biblical books, plus parts of other passages that belong to the second meaning of this word. Now to the Revelation itself.
At the outset, let me encourage you to buy three books.
- The first is Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation (Cambridge University Press, 1993), which is the absolutely best book on the Revelation that has ever been written. Written by one who has unusual expertise in apocalyptic, he has captured the essence of the theology of this book in seven brief chapters. This is a book that should set your heart on fire to take this great biblical book and make it known to your congregations. When I teach the Revelation, it is the one book that I require everyone to read and write a review of within the first three weeks of term. I want them to be on the same page with me, so that we can get on with hearing God’s Word in this great book without getting bogged down in the apocalyptic details.
The other two books are two of the most recent, and easily the best, commentaries on the Revelation, in terms of their usefulness for pastors.
- Pride of place right now goes to Grant R. Osborne, Revelation, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002). Here is a readable, sane interpretation of the text that every pastor should own.
- For “keeners,” who want more detail, and especially want to know how the Revelation works in relationship to the rest of the biblical revelation, you will find an enormous amount of good help in: Gregory K. Beale, The Book of Revelation, New International Greek New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999).