Dragons, beasts, plagues and trumpets

Dragons, beasts, plagues and trumpets

Presenting the book of Revelation to a secular mind

Bruce Norman, Ph.D., is associate professor of New Testament and systematic theology at Southern Adventist University, Collegedale, Tennessee.

The book of Revelation is difficult to understand. It confronts us with dragons, beasts, plagues, trumpets, a woman standing in heaven with white garments, the number 666, the mark of the beast, angels flying with books, plagues coming from jars held by angels, a woman sitting on a red beast consuming human blood, a king coming dressed in a garment drenched in blood, and more. These images remind us that not only is the book of Revelation difficult, but it is different. As a result, the book is sometimes abandoned or presented in such a way as to leave its hearers confused. 1 For many, the Apocalypse, which means "unveiling," has become the Apocrypha, which means "hidden."2

If the book is so difficult for Christians, how much more so for the "secular" person who has had very little contact with our understanding of Christianity? How can this person, who lives in a scientific and often anti-religious world, be expected to receive any benefit from the maze of images that appear in this book?

This article attempts to show that the book of Revelation has something to say to secular persons who feel that "science" and "humanism" have failed to assist them in their quest for identity and meaning. Our "age of science" has seen a proliferation of astrologers, seers, mediums, and other latter-day "prophets" who pretend to know the future, but with few satisfying results. This makes understanding the book of Revelation of vital interest to the secular person, as the book itself claims (Rev. 1:1,10,19) to deal exclusively with what's going to happen in the future.

But the task of sharing the message of Revelation is not easy. To make Revelation meaningful to the secular person requires a twofold preparation. First, a familiarity with the foundational message of the book. Second, an understanding of the culture to which we want to communicate. Then we will suggest some specific ways in which the message of Revelation can be used to meet the needs of the secular person and lead him or her to Christ.

The foundational message of Revelation

The foundational theme of Revelation is the centrality of Christ and His love that re deems, judges, and establishes the kingdom of God. The theme is placed within the perspective of the moral purpose of prophecy.

The centrality of Christ. The person of Christ is of supreme importance to the Apocalypse. Even the chapters in which signs and symbols seem uppermost, in which the cataclysmic judgments of God eclipse all other interests, Christ remains the central focus (see Rev. 4; 5; 14:6-20; 19:11- 21). He is the arbiter of the destiny of both the church and the cosmos.3

The structure of the book itself emphasizes the importance of Christ. After the introductory section (Rev. 1:1-8), the very first vision is not an account of the terrifying and destructive forces of evil, but of Christ standing in the middle of the lampstands, watching over His church (Rev. 1:9-20). Everything that follows Revelation 1:9-20 is related in one way or another to the first vision of Christ.

The reference to the sanctuary should not be missed. The presence of God there assures salvation to His people. That Christ is walking in the middle of these lampstands indicates His constant vigilance for the purity and safety of His people. Nothing takes place in regard to His people that Christ does not know of or control. There is an assurance that this world is not out of control and moving disconsolately to chaos. We need not fear the future, because Christ has us in His hand (verses 16,20), and God is in charge of the future.

Three great themes. From the centrality of Christ flows three great themes of Rev elation. The first is redemption. 4 Redemption reminds one that God really does care. He sent His Son to die that we might have life. On the cross we find our value; it does matter whether we live or die (verses 5,6).

The second theme, equally important, is that of judgment. Regardless of how it appears at the moment, men and women will have to be responsible for their actions. But this is not a time to fear, because it is during this time that Christ, because of His love for us, gives His saints their inheritance, covering them with His life while at the same time destroying those who are attempting to destroy God's people (Rev. 11:18). God does provide the ability and power for all to have permanent character change, since there will be no immoral people in His kingdom (Rev. 21:6-8). In other words, all the injustices that life can dish out here in this world will ultimately be made right by God (see Rev. 18:6- 8; 19:1-3). Closely related to the previous two themes is the establishment of His kingdom. This means a new earth in which relation ships with God, each other, ourselves, and the world are once more in balance (Rev. 21, 22). This kingdom tells us that human life has a goal and purpose.

The moral purpose of prophecy. The fact that Christ is the center of Revelation brings to light in a clearer way the very purpose of prophecy. While it is important to under stand that symbols have meaning for the future, Revelation is not simply to tell us about last-day events. It is to provide us with an opportunity for spiritual growth.

Second Peter 1:19-21 tells us that prophecy is given to make us ready for the dawn of the new day, when the Morning Star will arise. The Morning Star is none other than Christ Himself (Rev. 22:16). Thus the main focus of prophecy is not to foretell the future (although that is a part of the process), but rather to have the character of Christ regenerated in our hearts so that we will be like Him when He appears.

This is the moral purpose of prophecy.5 In other words, studying and understanding prophecy should lead one to live an ethical life, during which permanent character change is not only possible but accomplish able through the changes that God's power can bring. The saints, as represented in the apocalyptic prophecy, are moral, ethical people who are changed by Christ to be like Him and who inherit the kingdom prepared for them because they have had God's name (character) written on them (verses 1-5).

With this understanding of the basic message of Revelation, let us turn to the second part of our task: understanding the secular culture we are trying to reach.

Understanding the secular mind

The secular mind grapples with a number of questions on the existence, meaning, purpose, and spirituality of human life. Who am I? Does it matter who I am? Is there any thing I can believe in? If I die, would any one really miss me or even care? Is my day meant to work and make money to spend on things that cannot help me identify my true self? What is the meaning and purpose of life? What is its goal?

These questions deal with personal identity, existence, and survival. The secular mind is disillusioned because it cannot find ad equate answers in scientific achievements or in humanistic laurels. The Christian has the opportunity to answer these questions and speak effectively to such a mind. The answers, however, cannot come in the context of a sterile scientific formula or an intellectual emphasis upon the meaning of symbolic language. These are the very things that the con temporary mind rejects as irrelevant answers to questions that are not being asked.

Rather, these concerns must be answered within the context of spirituality and the ethical emphasis upon character development and the corresponding power to accomplish this. When sharing from the book of Revelation, one must be cognizant of the deep needs of the secular person. It must be shared so as to meet the felt needs of that person. What is shared must change lives permanently and give personal identity. The secular person needs to see the relevancy of prophecy for the individual life and how to live it now, transformed by the power of Christ.

Revelation and the secular mind

The book of Revelation is more than ad equate to deal with the foundational questions raised by the contemporary mind. Those questions can be grouped into three basic categories: knowledge of absolute truth, meaning of and in life, identity and purpose.

Truth. Knowledge of absolute truth is not possible, according to the secular mind, and hence the question "Is there anything I can believe in?" However, the book of Revelation points to God as one in whom we can place our absolute confidence. He is the alpha and the omega (Rev. 1:8; 21:6), the be ginning and the end, and encompasses everything in between. He is the one who was, is, and is to come (Rev. 1:8). He is the one who holds the keys of history past, present, and future. A study of history will confirm the great prophecies given in this book, showing that there is absolute truth in God. What He says does come true.

Life. The Apocalypse is interested in life not so much the social and the economic, but the spiritual, one of the primary quests of the contemporary person.6 Revelation presents the two acts of God that give meaning to human existence: Creation and redemption, with an overwhelming emphasis on the absolute truth of the latter. 7 If God does not exist as absolute truth, then one must ac knowledge that all is lost because this world does seem abandoned to the destructive forces of evil. But God has not deserted us. In order to eradicate evil, however, He must provide a way of stopping men and women from endlessly producing the means of their own destruction. He must provide a way to release them from the tyranny of demonic forces (see Rev. 15; 16; 19-22). 8 And this is precisely the truth that the book of Revelation is attempting to get across. God will end evil. We can fully believe this because He sent His Son to deal with sin and die for us that we might have life.

The emphasis upon the creation of the world by a personal omnipotent God who also superintends the cosmos explains the order and design in the universe. It also gives us insight into the answer to the question "Who am I?"9 This Creator-God reminds us that we mean something to someone. Creation gives us personal identity, as opposed to the modern worldview that perceives the human being as a biological organism struggling for survival. The book of Revelation reminds us that we are the crowning act of Creation and that as such we have intrinsic value.

The secular world also sees us as the pawn of circumstances, and as such we have no responsibility for our acts of violence against each other. We crush anyone who stands in our way in order that we might make our mark on the world. This leads us to view each other as things to be conquered rather than human beings with value. Some one is good only as long as we can use them. But Revelation reminds us that we are ethical beings, initiators of our own actions, with full accountability for the results of their actions. Because God created us in His image, we should treat others as God treats us. We are not to use or abuse people to get our own way; we are to relate to them as they really are created by God and valuable no matter what.

The Apocalypse also teaches us that in order to be independent we must be dependent. Autonomy is not the noble characteristic the secular thinker may see it to be. We live in connection with each other and with God. God meets our needs. He provides for us. We are valuable because we are God's. His character is the norm. Thus the apocalyptic worldview accords great meaning to human existence, great worth to human life, great responsibility for human choice, and great importance to human character. 10

Identity and purpose. Personal identity and purpose in life are interrelated. The former is confirmed by the fact that the Lamb who holds the scroll in His hand is the Lamb who was slain for us from the be ginning of the world (Rev. 5:6-14). The cross underscores our value and worth. Does it matter if we die? For the book of Revelation, the answer is an overwhelming yes. Does anybody care? Again, yes. Christ cared enough not only to die for us but also to minister for us in heaven. He cared enough to warn us of His approaching judgment so that we may be ready (Rev. 18:1-4).

He gives us purpose in life by making us priests in His kingdom with the express purpose of sharing His love not only here but also forever. Ultimately, we will go where He goes and live where He lives. We are here for a purpose, and we must fulfill that purpose. The ultimate goal of life is to see God face-to-face (Rev. 22:4). And we will have become like Him not because of who we are, but of who He is. That can give a person real hope hope for something better, hope for permanent change, hope for the future.

Conclusion

Dragons, beasts, plagues, 666, and trumpets can be and are relevant to the secular mind, and can be shared with evangelistic fervor and power. But this must be done from a felt needs approach that takes into account both the message of the book of Revelation and the cultural milieu of the secular world.

The emphasis should be upon Christ, the center of the Apocalypse. We need to stress the moral purpose of prophecy. Our preaching should not be limited to dealing with the symbols, although that is certainly part of the message. Preaching should deal with the change in ethical behavior that Christ brings to every believer. Studying the prophecies should lead to character formation, not intellectual stimulation. To reach the secular mind, we should stress not just the mechanics of prophecy, but its life-changing message.

1 William Barclay, The Revelation of John
(Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), vol. 1, p. 20.

2 Henry Morris, The Revelation Record (Wheaton,
111.: Tyndale House Publishers, 1983), p. 20.

3 Merrill C. Tenney, Interpreting Revelation
(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), pp. 29,117.

4 Ibid., pp. 29,30.

5 This term was coined by Louis Were in his book
The Moral Purpose of Prophecy (Berrien Springs,
Midi.: First Impressions, 1981).

6 Tenney, p. 23.

7 Beatrice Neall, The Concept of Character in the
Apocalypse With Implications for Character Education
(Washington, D.C.: University of America Press,
1983), p. 203.

8 G. B. Caird, A Commentary on the Revelation
of St. John the Divine (New York: Harper and Row,
1966), pp. 295, 296.

9 Neall, pp. 196,197.

10 lbid.,pp. 184,205, 206.


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Bruce Norman, Ph.D., is associate professor of New Testament and systematic theology at Southern Adventist University, Collegedale, Tennessee.

December 1997

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