Here’s a sermon I preached at St Barney’s in Sydney which is a kind of taster for my book Enjoying God.
What do you think are the greatest challenges facing the church today? There are a number of ways we could answer that question. But I suspect near the top of most people’s lists would be increasing hostility from the world around us. A generation ago Christianity was part of mainstream culture. Our ethics were considered the norm, even if people didn’t live up to them. But think about how our society now considers our views on sexuality, homosexuality, marriage, gender identity and gender roles, not to mention our views on the uniqueness of Christ, the nature of sin and the reality of judgment. Ideas that were once mainstream are now not only marginal, but considered deviant. Christians have become the immoral people of our age. Social media amplifies this hostility until the ‘noise’ is deafening.
It’s not just our sexual morals which are questioned. We also live in an age of rampant consumerism in which who you are is defined by what you own or how you look. International trade brings benefits, but also leaves much injustice in its wake and the impact on the environment is reaching crisis levels. An economics shaped by love feels like a romantic fantasy.
We live in an idolatrous and unjust age. And so for contemporary Christians the challenge of remaining faithful to Christ is immense. Elsewhere in the world Christians face violent opposition, imprisonment and martyrdom.
A familiar context
This is precisely the situation for which the book of Revelation was written. The book is not an ambiguous description of events in some far off future. It’s a description of our world – with all its challenges and traumas – seen from the perspective of heaven. ‘After this I looked,’ says John, ‘and there before me was a door standing open in heaven.’ (Rev. 4:1) This is the ‘stand-point’ or ‘view-point’ of the book. Revelation is a book for our generation; a vital resource if we are to remain true.
John was writing to small Christian communities under the Roman Empire. Everywhere they looked they saw the propaganda of Rome. The coins in their hands, the standards carried by soldiers, the inscriptions on public buildings – all proclaimed the might of Rome. The elites of the cities in which John’s readers lived did well out of Roman rule and in return they were keen to impose conformity on those under their influence. To get on in life you needed to be part of a trade guild, but that involved sacrificial offerings to the imperial cult. Roman trade extended across the known world, but it had a dark side as John acknowledges when his inventory of traded goods ends with ‘human beings sold as slaves’ (Rev. 18:13).
So the book of Revelation is like any of the other letters of the New Testament. Just like 1 Corinthians, it addresses the specific challenges faced by its readers. But, like 1 Corinthians, it does so in a way that provides rich resource for us today.
Make sense of our turbulent times
What John does again and again in the book of Revelation is take on the critique of idolatry and injustice made by the prophets of the Old Testament, and reapply it to the idolatry and injustice of his day. In doing so, he provides a model of us to do the same in our day. So Revelation is a powerful tool to help us make sense of the chaos of our globalised world, to see it from the perspective of heaven.
So in some key ways Revelation is like any other New Testament letter. Except, of course, it doesn’t read like other New Testament letters! What are we to make of all the imagery and visions? How do we make sense of the beasts, angels, sevens, horsemen, dragons, angels and so on?
Fire up your imagination
Let me suggest Revelation is not as weird as we might first assume. We are actually adept at making sense of imagery. Imagine the opening scenes of a movie. Lightning streaks across a darkened sky as a streams of bats fly from the silhouetted shape of a castle tower. You know immediately you’re watching a Gothic horror movie. Or imagine instead a beautiful young woman, looking fraught, her arms full of files, collides with a young man, sending papers everywhere. With upbeat music in the background, they both bend down to pick up the papers and clash heads. We know we’re in Rom-Com territory and that after a few ups and downs this couple are going to end up getting married.
We just need to bring those skills to the book of Revelation. Don’t think of a John as an engineer designing a workflow for the future. Think of him as a composer evoking a mood and addressing the heart. The book of Revelation is a sustained appeal to the imagination.
If John’s readers were to survive they needed a bigger vision to sustain them. They needed an alternative to the propaganda of Roman power. That’s what the book of the Revelation provided. It is the same today. If we are to remain faithful we don’t just need information about Christ, vital as that is. We also need our imaginations to be fired. We need the perspective of heaven. We don’t just need a textbook; we need a drama, a sound and light show, a movie. We need something to capture our imaginations. That’s why the book of Revelation is a book for our generation.
Revelation For You by Tim Chester is available now. This is article first appeared on The Good Book Company website.
Revelation for You – my latest contribution to the God’s Word for You series – is published today. I fell in love with the book of Revelation around 20 years ago and this book is the result of that love affair! Here’s an extract …
Mark Twain is supposed to have said, ‘It’s not the parts of the Bible I don’t understand that bother me; it’s the parts I do understand!’ That is certainly how I feel about the book of Revelation. The problem with Revelation is not understanding it (though of course many of its details are difficult to be sure about). The real challenge is knowing how to live it. If John is re-appropriating the Old Testament prophetic critique of idolatrous and unjust power, what does it mean for us to do the same in our generation? For that is what a faithful reading of Revelation must involve. Where do we see idolatrous claims, imperialist agendas and unjust economics today? Where is the church under threat? How is it being seduced?How should the church respond to militant Islam or Chinese expansionism?How do we resist the idolatry of consumerism and the ideology of the self?
Throughout the book of Revelation John offers a penetrating social critique of the Roman empire. Conservative readings of the book of Revelation tend to mute this voice, de-politicising it or postponing it until the end of history. Radicals recognise the social critique, but then assume a certain kind of application, usually some form of political or consumer activism.
But when you look at the response John calls for from his readers, it doesn’t fit our categories. It’s a call to turn from the idolatry and ‘worship him who made heaven and earth’ (14:6-7). It’s a call to reject to seductions of the culture, to ‘come out of her’ whose judgment is sure (18:4). It’s a call to overcome ‘by the blood of the Lamb and the word of [our testimony]’ (12:11). Because this testimony or witness is contested, the book of Revelation is also a call to endure. ‘This calls for patient endurance and faithfulness on the part of God’s people,’ we’re told in 13:9-10 and 14:12-13. For some this may mean martyrdom; for all it means dying to self (12:11).
A version of the phrase ‘every tribe and language and people and nation’ is repeated seven times in the book of Revelation. John, for example, is told: ‘You must prophesy again about many peoples, nations, languages and kings’ (10:11) The book of Revelation is a sustained appeal to the imagination to inspire Christians to resist the seductions and threats of empire so they might continue the task of world mission.
The book begins with a description of Jesus as ‘the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth’ (1:5). Jesus is the archetypal witness, who did not love his life ‘so much as to shrink from death’ (12:11). But he has risen from the dead and those who die for Christ rise to reign with him (20:4). Whatever the power and seductions of this world, Revelation gives us a vision of the greater and better reign of Christ.
There is an accompanying Good Book Guide available.
My latest book The Beauty of the Cross is published today by The Good Book Company. It’s another Lent book, following the success of last year’s The Glory of the Cross. Both books are a series of short daily readings, each ending with a short meditation or prayer, which are designed to be used through Lent and Holy Week (though they can be read at any time of year). The Beauty of the Cross is based on Isaiah 53, going deep into this famous description of Christ’s death, but also spread out into the rest of Isaiah.
Here are some commendations.
Here is a book to treasure and to share. Tim leads us on a journey through some of the Bible’s most precious chapters, for a rediscovery of the Christ who has walked our road, and who goes with us still. The Beauty of the Cross will be a rich blessing to you.
This is a book to savour! Tim Chester has done an exquisite job in walking us gently through the richness of Isaiah’s vision of Jesus Christ, the Servant of the Lord, as he walks to (and through) his death in our place. Beautifully paced, theologically rich and deeply rooted in the real world—take it, read it slowly, and drink in its Christ-saturated truth!This compelling reflection on Isaiah’s extraordinary portrait of the Servant has a simplicity and directness which will provoke surprise, gratitude and worship. Pastoral and devotional in tone, it illuminates these remarkable chapters through thought-provoking illustration and application which will warm the heart, strengthen faith, and encourage mission. A wonderful resource for spiritual renewal!Tim brings readers right into the right light of Lent. Christ the Lord. Like the old hymn, Chester’s meditations and expositions from Isaiah invite you to turn your eyes upon Jesus, to look fully at the face of the suffering servant, and see how the things of earth grow dim in the divine wattage of Christ’s glory and grace.The Beauty of the Cross is a wonderful resource for meaningful reflection on our Lord’s finished work at Calvary. Tim Chester does a fine job of focusing on rich texts in Isaiah 52-53 and then leads the reader to pray, meditate and praise our Great God for his perfect plan of redemption. Poignant quotes from church fathers and others as well as personal illustrations are value-added to this well-organized devotional. It’s a treasure! The Beauty of the Cross will be a great addition to any believer’s library.
The cross of Jesus is the centre of the Christian faith. None of us thrive when we drift far from the foot of the cross. It is there that we discover that God is not like the world thinks he is, that our only hope does not lie in ourselves, and that the hideous instrument of torture, the cross, is actually profoundly beautiful. Tim Chester’s book, “The Beauty of the Cross”, will be a great companion and guide as you meditate on the cross of Jesus.