Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Another Way of Reading the Book of Revelation

I remember sitting in a McDonald's restaurant one night, after a Sunday night worship service, and hearing outright blasphemy from one of the older teenagers in our youth group who was sitting on the other side of the table. She said, "All my life I've been hearing that Jesus is coming soon, but after all these false alarms I just don't believe it any more." I was shocked. I knew- not from personal experience, but from the witness of preachers and evangelists- that there were 'nominal Christians' out there who did not believe the Bible, but this gal was one of us! She was saved, she was sanctified, she had been filled with the Holy Ghost (that qualified her as a true Christian in our way of thinking), and yet here she was questioning the basic concept of one of our favorite songs, "Jesus is coming soon!"

I have, since that time, moved over to her side of the table- the skeptical side, if you must. And while my own move over here is insignificant in the larger picture, I've discovered that there is some very good company on this side of the table. Today, I am going to yield my own insignificant voice to the words of Martin Luther, the great Reformer of the church, as he writes in his Preface to the New Testament. I found this quote in Christopher Rowland's introduction to the Book of Revelation in The New Interpreter's Bible, v. XII, p.537. The only thing I disavow is the non-inclusive language.

About this book of the Revelation of John, I leave everyone free to hold his own ideas, and would bind no man to my opinion and judgment: I say what I feel. I miss more that one thing in this book, and this makes me hold it to be neither apostolic or prophetic. First and foremost, the Apostles do not deal with visions, but prophecy in clear, plain words, as do Peter and Paul and Christ in the gospel. For it befits the apostolic office to speak of Christ and his deeds without figures and visions but there is no prophet in the Old Testament, to say nothing of the New, who deals so out and out with visions and figures. And so I think of it as I do the Fourth Book of Esdras, and I can in nothing detect that it was provided by the Holy Spirit.

Moreover, he [John] seems to be going much too far when he commends his own book so highly- more than any other of the sacred books do, though they are much more important, and threaten that if anyone take away anything from it, God will deal likewise with him. Again, they are to be blessed who keep what is written therein; and yet no one knows what that is, to say nothing of keeping it. It is just the same as if we had it not, and there are many far better books for us to keep. Many of the fathers rejected, too, this book of old, though St. Jerome, to be sure, praises it highly and says that it is above all praise and that there are as many myteries in it as words; though he cannot prove this at all, and his praise is at many points, too mild.

Finally, let every one think of it as his own spirit gives him to think. My spirit cannot fit itself into this book. There is one sufficient reason for me not to think highly of it- Christ is not taught or known in it; but to teach Christ is the thing which an apostle aove all else is bound to do, as He says in Acts 1 "Ye shall be my witnesses." Therefore, I stick to the books which give me Christ clearly and purely.

It is worth noting that virtually all of the great reformers sympathized with Luther's view of the book of Revelation. In short, Luther rejected the book of Revelation itself as being unworthy of its place in the canon (the Bible), and relegated it ito a subordinate place, as he did the book of 4th Esdras. So, I guess the other option that we could offer regarding Revelation is that it is not a book that rises to the level of canonicity- not a book that clearly and convincingly proclaims the gospel aright.

Personally, I am not ready to relegate the book of Revelation to a subordinate place- who am I to do such a thing? In fact, I feel that there is vaue in reading Revelation and that it does proclaim Christ. But, I agree wholeheartedly with Luther's way of subordinating the content of the book of Revelation to the understanding of Christ that we find in the gospels. This is the point that I think a lot of "Left Behind Theology" get backwards. I'll write more about that next time.

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