Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Gospel and the Apocalypse

Last night, I was a guest teacher for the Pastor's Bible Study at Liberty Heights Church. What follows is the manuscript of my lesson. You may notice quite a bit of overlap between this and some other things I've written. But, since I haven't had the time to write anything else recently, I thought I'd share anyway. I hope it provides good food for thought. I know we had some great conversation afterwards.
The Gospel and the Apocalypse
My topic for tonight is “The Gospel and the Apocalypse.” This may seem a little strange to some. First of all, the Apocalypse isn’t really about the Gospel, is it? I mean it’s about the End Times, right? It’s about when Anti-Christ loses, Jesus wins, and God finishes everyone off, right? And, second of all, why talk about the Gospel when you have so much cool stuff to work with in the Apocalypse? Just flipping through the book, you encounter a red dragon, ghoulish demons, creatures with giant horns and hundreds of eyes, not to mention a tremendous amount of violence and bloodshed. This stuff sounds more like the makings of a successful Hollywood action film, not a message of Good News.

So, why talk about the Gospel, or Good News, and the Apocalypse? I want to address this matter tonight for two interconnected reasons: (1) The Apocalypse has a message about God’s salvation that must be included in our view of the Gospel. That is to say, there is something in Revelation that we must add to our view of God’s Good News in Jesus. (2) The Apocalypse must be read in light of the full view of God’s Good News. We cannot separate the visions and prophecies of this book from the rest of the Bible’s message to us.

Now, as I layout my view of how the Gospel and the Apocalypse intersect, some of this will be new to you. So, I ask for your longsuffering and open-mindedness as we explore this together. I believe that if we can grasp the fullness of the Apocalypse’s vision of the Gospel and read it in light of the rest of God’s Word, we will have something truly remarkable to preach to the whole world.

Let’s begin by looking at several verses in the book of Revelation. I’m not going to expound at length on these verses, but I want to use them as a way to “get the juices flowing.” All of these will play a part in our lesson tonight. I’ll be using the Holman Christian Standard Bible.

Rev 4:11: “Our Lord and God, You are worthy to receive glory and honor and power, because You have created all things, and because of Your will they exist and were created.”

Rev 5:11-13: “Then I looked, and heard the voice of many angels around the throne, and also of the living creatures, and of the elders. Their number was countless thousands, plus thousands of thousands. They said with a loud voice: ‘The Lamb who was slaughtered is worthy to receive power and riches and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and blessing!’ I heard every creature in heaven, on earth, under the earth, on the sea, and everything in them say: ‘Blessing and honor and glory and dominion to the One seated on the throne, and to the Lamb, forever and ever!’

Rev 14:6-7: “Then I saw another angel flying in mid-heaven, having the eternal gospel to announce to the inhabitants of the earth—to every nation, tribe, language, and people. He spoke with a loud voice: ‘Fear God and give Him glory, because the hour of His judgment has come. Worship the Maker of heaven and earth, the sea and springs of water.’”

Rev 21:1, 5: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea existed no longer… And, he who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!’”

Rev 21:22-26: "I did not see a sanctuary in it, because the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb are its sanctuary. The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, because God's glory illuminates it, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk in its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Each day its gates will never close because it will never be night there. They will bring the glory and honor of the nations into it."

Let’s observe a few things about these verses. First, notice the way they emphasize the all-encompassing nature of God’s role as Creator. You know this as well as I do, but it helps to be reminded. Every single thing on the earth is a product of God’s handiwork and he exercises ruler-ship over it. There’s not a speck of dust on this planet that God cannot point to and say, “That’s mine.”

Second, notice that when worship takes place, it is not just angels and humans worshipping God, but “every creature” (5:13). This includes the 5,400 mammal species roaming around our planet, from the teeny-tiny Bumble-Bee Bat to the gargantuan Blue Whale. Not to mention the 10 million different species of insects crawling all over our planet. All of these things are God’s and all of them will worship their Creator.

Third, notice what the ultimate goal of God’s plan is: “a new heavens and a new earth.” This is very different from the popular notion of heaven: ghost-like souls playing harps as they float through the sky on clouds. And, it’s different from the common Christian understanding of heaven as an eternal “worship service” in the sky. Revelation reveals that, as God restores all things, humanity will be live upon a redeemed earth in the holy city of Jerusalem that comes down out of heaven (21:2). So, we’re not headed for heaven. We’re headed for heaven on earth.

Finally, notice that at the end of Revelation, John speaks of, “the nations” and “kings” of the earth walking in the light of the Lamb and bringing “their glory and honor” into the city. This can seem to be a curious description, but the words used here speak of valuable things, or things of renown. My understanding is that this refers to all the good, beautiful, valuable aspects of every culture and people has a place in God’s city. From the Auca Indians to the Zulu warriors, what is good and pure will have a place in the light of God. This may be a new concept to some of you, but I think it will make more sense as we proceed.

God Created Everything
Now, I said at the beginning that I want us to read the Apocalypse in light of the full story of God’s plan of salvation. To do this, we need to go back to the beginning, where we learn the foundational truth of the Bible: God created everything. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1). Of course, as you know, when the writer of Genesis says “heavens and earth,” what he means is everything—every, single thing in the universe is made by God. And, according to later verses in Genesis, God considered his world good—very good.

Now, most of us understand that God’s creation includes all material and living things: planets, stars, comets, rivers, trees, animals, bugs, etc. But, there’s more. As human beings interact with the created world and one another, they produce language, culture, art, architecture, business, agriculture, technology, science, history, government, and many other human innovations. Because God created us and we create these things, we know that they are reflections of God’s creative nature and that each of them are infinitely valuable attempts to understand God’s world. This includes the 482 musical instruments around the world. This includes the 6,912 living human languages. God is the author of everything and everything is designed with excellence and purpose.

Sin Broke Everything
Unfortunately, as we all know, God’s good creation did not remain good for long. Sin broke everything. The testimony of the Bible reveals that sin and evil have marred God’s beautiful, orderly creation. Our first parents rejected God’s rule for their own and their choice has been and will be perpetuated in every human being to follow. As a result, rather than the harmonious, loving relationship that God intended, humanity chose a position of alienation and enmity with God and the rest of the created order became subject to the resulting chaos.

Now, personal sins are committed through willful choice by human beings to be and live contrary to the rule of God. These sins are perpetrated on God and one another: pride, idolatry, hatred, murder, envy, greed, theft, and many more. And then, arising out of this tendency for human beings to reject God and cruelly mistreat one another is systemic or structural evil, which is the active procreation and power of sin in corporate or social structures. Systemic evils include extreme poverty, misogyny, and racism, all of which infect society like viruses and work in tandem with the personal evils.

We see the evidence of this brokenness everywhere. Where God intended human government to provide order, justice, and security, the rulers of Burma deny their citizens vital relief following a deadly cyclone, causing the deaths of tens of thousands and prolonging the suffering of 2.4 million more. Where God intended marriage to be a reflection of God’s loving, interdependent relationality, today, in the US alone, every 15 seconds a woman is battered by her husband and every five years, more women are murdered by their husbands than the number of American lives lost in the Vietnam War. And, where God intended industry and business to enrich lives and create opportunity, this year Florida tomato pickers had to fight “tooth and nail” just to convince Burger King to pay them an additional one-cent per pound of tomatoes picked.

So, not only are humans broken, but human endeavors and creations are broken, too. And, not only are humans and human endeavors broken, but the entire cosmos is broken, too. We are familiar with the words of Paul, which declare the desperation of the entire creation suffering under the effects of sin:

For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption, the redemption of our bodies.

Jesus Restores Everything
So, let’s review the story of God so far: God created everything and sin broke everything. As you know, the rest of the story is: Jesus restores everything. Now, I want to stretch your thinking here just a bit, so bear with me. In the evangelical world, we think of Jesus’ focus being upon the forgiveness of sins and salvation of souls only. That’s why we tend to invite people to believe in Jesus to escape hell and get heaven when they die. Sadly, I think this perspective undermines the whole testimony of Scripture and is not a full understanding of the Good News. I want to submit to you tonight, that although the Good News of Jesus is at least forgiveness of sins and escape from hell, it is not only these things. In fact, there is much, much more that we must recover if we’re going to preach the Gospel faithfully and understand the Apocalypse rightly.

Colossians 1:19-20 says: “God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in [Christ], and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” If you read that carefully, you’ll realize that what Paul means is that Christ’s death, burial, resurrection, and ascension brings about the redemption and restoration of all the things that were broken by the Fall. The point is not salvation from creation, but salvation of creation. Because the kingdom of darkness has been overcome in Christ, there is nothing over which Jesus doesn’t reign as rightful King. Every inch of this planet, every plant and animal, every art form and language, every academic discipline, every invention, every family, Jesus points to from his throne and says, “That’s mine.”

God is making all things new: new heavens and new earth, and everything in between. God has refused to abandon the work of his hands. Humanity, which has totally botched its original mandate and the whole creation along with it, is given another chance in Christ. We are reinstated as God’s managers on earth and the original good creation is to be restored. In the Good News of Jesus, you get to be a part of it of God’s work of restoration.

Albert Wolters describes the implications of this truth in this way:

Emotions should not be repressed, but purified. Sexuality is not to be shunned, but redeemed. Politics should not be declared off-limits, but reformed. Art ought not to be pronounced worldly, but claimed for Christ. Business must no longer be relegated to the secular world, but must be made to conform again to God-honoring standards…Wherever there is disruption of the good creation…there Christ provides the possibility of restoration. If the whole creation is affected by the fall, then the whole creation is also reclaimed in Christ.

The Gospel and the Apocalypse
So, how does this connect to the way we should interpret the Apocalypse? I believe this fuller, deeper, broader view of the Gospel will contribute to three major changes in the way we approach this most interesting of biblical books.

First, we will have a change in emphasis. Instead of emphasizing the Apocalypse as merely a frightening depiction of future events, meant to scare you straight, we can begin to portray the book as a symbolic narrative of assurance. The Apocalypse uses incredible imagery and powerful story to encourage God’s people that his redemption of all things is continuing victoriously, even when it seems that evil is winning.

Second, we will have a change in viewpoint. It is very common for Christians in our circles to speak of God’s world and everything in it as disposable and fruitless. This comes from a view of salvation that is limited to souls and doesn’t include all of creation in God’s plan. If God truly made everything and Jesus truly redeems everything, then God has a plan for the world, for every human endeavor, and every vocation. In the end, God has a place for all things in his world—remember the glory and honor of the nations being brought into the New Jerusalem?—and we should live in light of this truth now.

Finally, I think we will have a change in tone. Although they make for great books and entertaining movies, violence and bloodshed, plagues and demons, are not the end of the story in the Apocalypse. Whereas the message of the Apocalypse has typically been presented as “bad news” to people (how would you like to be “Left Behind”?), if it is read in light of God’s whole plan of redemption, it is truly good news. God is working to make all things new. This means that even his acts of judgment are carried out with the intention that repentance and restoration will take place. Yes, disasters take place. Yes, evil continues to abound. Yes, God’s people can expect martyrdom, persecution, and death. But, God’s is making all things new.

After all, listen to climactic verses of Revelation 21:1-5:
Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband…And, he who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

So, I guess I need to wrap this up, so we can ask questions and discuss what I’ve presented. The Good News of God, which is told cover-to-cover in his Word, is that God made everything, sin broke everything, but Jesus restores everything. And this must be the framework by which we read and interpret the Apocalypse. If we do this, we find that the message of the Apocalypse is really about whole-heartedly joining God’s reconciling work before its too late.

Jim Wallis tells a story from the life of South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, that I think illustrates this very well. During the fight against apartheid, the notorious Security Police broke into the Cathedral of St. George during one of Bishop Tutu’s sermons at an ecumenical service. The diminutive bishop stopped preaching and stared intently at the intruders as they filled the cathedral like scurrying ants, lining the walls from back to front. Some carried guns, some carried knives, and some carried writing pads and tape recorders to document whatever he said and threaten him with imprisonment, or worse, for any audacious utterances.

Although the people gathered in the cathedral squirmed in tension and fear of more violence, Bishop Tutu met the eyes of the soldiers with his own steely gaze. In a defiant tone, with narrow eyes and wrinkled forehead, he said, “Yes, you are powerful, very powerful…but I serve a God who cannot be mocked!” Then, Bishop Tutu’s countenance changed and he smiled with genuine warmth. Extending his arms to the gun-toting representatives of South African apartheid, the slight preacher offered this challenge to tyranny: “Since you have already lost, I invite you: come and join the winning side!”

The Apocalypse announces this same truth to us and to our fallen world. You have already lost. Your ways have lead to death and destruction. But, the Lamb has made the Way to make all things new. Will you join the winning side? Will you invite others to join the winning side? Will you invite all of creation to join the winning side? I hope so.


Joel said...

Great overview, it is really good for putting things in perspective.

Do you always preach/teach from a manuscript? Is this the way Truett does it?

Emily Hunter McGowin said...

No, at Truett, Dr. Gregory had us prepare a manuscript, but he didn't encourage that we preach/teach from it. He didn't mark you down if you did, because I did it every time, but he didn't encourage it either.

I do my best to know the material well enough that even if I have a manuscript, I'm not using it much. I think I got in the habit of writing it full-out because I'm a writer and I'm obsessive about getting my words right. You know how that is, I'm sure.

Luke said...

have you checked out Greg Carey's Ultimate Things? he's the best scholar on apocolyptic literature out there! i think you'd enjoy the read.

traveller said...

Giving this talk (sermon?) in a Baptist church no doubt created a some interesting discussion. Thanks for being courageous enough to open hearts and minds to God's redemptive plan for all creation.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for ministering God's Word to us at LHC. The reports are filled with encouraging words and hope. LHC appreciates and honors God for your teaching gifts.

Pastor Rick Garner

Mel said...

Third, notice what the ultimate goal of God’s plan is: “a new heavens and a new earth.” This is very different from the popular notion of heaven: ghost-like souls playing harps as they float through the sky on clouds. And, it’s different from the common Christian understanding of heaven as an eternal “worship service” in the sky. Revelation reveals that, as God restores all things, humanity will be live upon a redeemed earth in the holy city of Jerusalem that comes down out of heaven (21:2). So, we’re not headed for heaven. We’re headed for heaven on earth.

Em, This is my favorite part of all that is revealed!! I want to be able to approach any big exotic cat and not fear being eaten! Yea God!!

UnderMidnight said...

All I ever hear about the apocalypse is from slightly sociopathic people who enjoy saying that the end is when all of the sinners are going to die die die sinner die!
These people can often be seen yelling at random university students on college campuses.

In the 80s that included all russians. But then the wall came down and everyone had to come up with a new view of the end.

I think that now, according to these slight sociopaths, the host of heaven will be led by Ann Coulter, whose armies will slay all jews, muslims and people who don't like george bush.

UnderMidnight said...

My idiocy seems to always kill the comment threads.

Emily Hunter McGowin said...

Haha. You are not an idiot. You make good points in very different ways. I like it. And I like you.

traveller said...

undermight, if your comments kill the comment thread it is because they are so brilliant. I really laughed hard reading it. Insightful as well.