Reflections on Preaching Revelation
Last November I made the decision (as a newly ordained minister) to preach through the book of Revelation. This decision may have been driven by a touch of hubris, or perhaps merely by my own curiosity. More than anything else, I wanted our congregants to make this book their own–to have it demystified and made plain for their spiritual growth in grace.
When I announced this series, one of my mentors told me that after starting to preach through Revelation years ago he made the decision to stop halfway through. During my time in seminary, I remembered how one of my professors had sometimes joked that most pastors have preached the book of Revelation – at least the first three chapters! Calvin famously never wrote a commentary on the book of Revelation (a fact that I often lamented as I worked through this series). Knowing these things, and hearing the warnings, I resolved that as soon as I felt I couldn’t press through the book, I would follow my mentor’s example and wave off from this series to follow a different course.
At the end of the series, I discovered that I had preached thirty-seven sermons. I wouldn’t dare claim that it was a homiletical masterpiece. An objective evaluation of ones own sermons is nearly impossible. Those sermons ministers enjoy preaching the most often seem to garner no response, and those they feel the worst about often seem to be those that impact God’s people the deepest. I can, however, reflect on what I found most helpful and what I found most challenging when preaching through this book.
The greatest challenge came from the repetition of themes we find in the book of Revelation. Toward the middle of John’s heavenly vision we read about recurrent judgment cycle. These judgment cycles are different perspectives on what is ostensibly the same event. When a minister preaches through theses cycles, the people of God hear multiple takes on the idea of God’s judgment. We are given ample time to reflect on God’s judgment, why it’s important, and how we can love and treasure a God who must necessarily pour His wrath out on sin. In light of the Gospel, the people of God can delight in God’s wrath and judgment as they remember that the wrath he showed to the Son is the doorway to life for wrath-deserving sinners like us.
Still, preaching through this repetitive theme of judgment cycles, is one of the most challenging aspects of preaching through the book of Revelation. Finding ways to discuss the same issue while keeping it fresh helps to stretch the minister. Homiletical commentaries on the book become the most helpful resources in this regard.
While I own quite a number of commentaries on Revelation, in the end, I consistently relied on two of them. G.K. Beale’s excellent, comprehensive commentary on Revelation was the primary source to which I constantly returned in my sermon preparation. Anyone who plans to preach on Revelation would be foolhardy to approach the book without an overall plan to approach to the book. This book provides the minister with a variety of ways to outline John’s visions. Beale’s introduction helps us understand what we are getting ourselves into as we approach a sermon series in the Apocalypse.
Beale often draws the connections between Old and New Testaments. No one is more insightful into the use of the Old Testament in the New better than Beale. Whenever a symbol or image surfaced, Beale shows the connection to Old Testament passages and attempts to give it the proper theological and spiritual meaning. While I didn’t always find myself agreeing with his conclusions, Beale was the most excellent guide when dealing with the text.
One benefit of jumping back and forth between Testaments when preaching through Revelation is that ministers teach their congregants to have the Bible memorized in order to understand or appreciate the interconnectedness. Of course, sparing appeals to Old Testament texts--even when preaching a book as Old Testament-rich as Revelation—is always in order. It is altogether possible to exhaust your readers and strain their minds to stay with the main text if you move away from it too often. The minister’s goal should be to make it the book more accessible, not like a code that has to be deciphered. It is too easy for a minister to take his hearers on a sightseeing tour, showing them how many Old Testament references are in some passage or another. People aren’t excited by the Old Testament references unless it illuminates the text and helps the main point of the sermon to come alive for the well being of their souls.
The other resources upon which I relied heavily is Joel Beeke’s recent commentary on Revelation. It is a homiletical commentary. When I was puzzled as to how I should preach a certain passage, I appealed to Beeke and his outlines. In the end, I resolved not to let too many cooks into the kitchen when preaching this series. It is better to have two or three guides than to have a dozen.
It is my sincere desire that other preachers would open up this book for their people. There are no pictures of worship in the entire Bible like there are the book of Revelation. While I frequently found myself intimidated by the grandeur of the content of the book (especially as the vision comes to a close), the problems that I encountered in preaching through the book were never on account of the text itself. There is no shortage of extraordinary vistas of the beauty of God in this book. Ministers shouldn’t be intimidated by prospect of preaching through this magnificent book. Everything passage we preach will be a pale image of the text that we aspire to explain and apply; but, that should never dissuade us from tackling the task God sets before us.