KNU International English Church
Pastor Josh Broward
July 2, 2006
Chicken Little: “The sky is falling. … It’s the end of the world as we know it.”
Sometimes when Christians talk about Revelation, they sound like Chicken Little. Throughout history, at different times and in different places, Christians have predicted the end of the world.1
In the 2nd Century a group called the Montanists believed that Christ would come again in their lifetime and establish the New Jerusalem. Their most famous member was Tertulian, who introduced the word “Trinity” to describe God. Christ did not come again in their lifetimes. They were wrong.
You remember the Y2K panic a few years ago. The same thing happened in Y1K. As the year 1,000 came and in the decades following, there was great panic that this could be the end of the millennial reign in Revelation. They were wrong.
In the 16th Century, Martin Luther, the great Christian Reformer, believed the End would come no later than 1600, and he declared that the Catholic Pope was the Beast described in Revelation. He was wrong.
John Napier, the math genius who discovered logarithms, applied his math to the Bible and came up with two possible dates for the End: 1688 and 1700. He was wrong both times.
Here’s the last and best example. In 1988, Edgar Whisenant, a NASA rocket scientist, wrote a book that swept through the USA: 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Could Be in 1988. 4.5 million copies were sold. When 1988 came to a close with no big bangs, Whisenant could not be stopped, he published more books almost every year with predictions until 1997. Apparently, after 10 years of failed predictions, he finally gave up.2
All of these prophesies have two glaring things in common. 1) They were all basing their predictions on the Bible, especially Revelation. 2) They were all wrong!
What happened? They weren’t stupid or crazy. Some of these people were great theologians or mathematical geniuses. These were smart, God-loving people, trying to be faithful Christians. Where did they go wrong? Why do so many people in so many different times misunderstand what the Bible says about the End and misinterpret the book of Revelation? Why do good people with good minds end up sounding like Chicken Little (“The sky is falling!”) when they read the Revelation?
Let me suggest three basic mistakes people often make when they read or interpret the Book of Revelation.
First, most Christians actually misunderstand prophecy. We usually think that to prophesy means to “predict the future.” We usually think that every time a prophet speaks, God is enabling that person to predict some events in the future. That is not true. Sometimes prophecy involves prediction, but often not, and prediction is really a side issue for the main point of prophecy.
The point of prophecy is that God speaks to people. A prophet is someone who hears a message from God for the people and then tells the people what God wants to say to them. Nazarene scholar Dennis Bratcher summarizes this point: “OT prophecy was overwhelmingly concerned with speaking God’s message to people of the prophet’s own time, interpreting God’s will for them in light of then current historical events.”3 If some discussion of the future needed to part of that, then so be it, but the point was to understand the present.
So if we look to Revelation (or any prophecy) as a means of predicting the future, we are missing the point. Revelation, like all prophecy, was given to a specific group of people to help them hear God’s word to them, not to predict events hundreds or thousands of years later. To understand any prophecy, we have to understand first what it meant to the people who originally heard it. They must have understood the message, or else they would not have kept reading it until it became part of the Bible.
Now we’re moving into the second basic mistake: forgetting the context of Revelation. Today we read two Epistle readings because I wanted you hear the similarities between the way Paul starts Ephesians (and all of his letters) and the way John starts Revelation. Paul says who he is, who the letter is to, pronounces a blessing, and then starts praising God and Jesus (1:1-3). In a very similar way, John says who he is, pronounces a blessing, says who the letter is to, and starts praising God and Jesus (Rev. 1:1-6).
Scholars, preachers, and Bible readers usually understand that we need to understand something about Ephesus before we can understand Ephesians. We need to understand the context of the letter before we can really understand the letter. Revelation is a letter much like Ephesians. Its different style does not mean we can take it out of context and apply it like it was written express mail for people in the 21st century.
Revelation was written to the seven churches in the province of Asia, which is now modern day Turkey. Chapters 2 and 3 have specific messages for each of these churches in Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philidelphia, and Laodicea. Even though, these churches are all in the same general area, they are each experiencing different struggles. Some are facing significant persecution. People are being killed because they believe in Jesus. Some are facing false teachers, people who want to change the message of the gospel to blend in more with the world. Some are facing a slow death of Christian faith. Their faith has lost its fire and love, and they are becoming arrogant and cold. Jesus tells some of the churches to repent and some to persevere, or both to repent and to persevere. Whatever Revelation means for us, it first of all means something for these seven churches. When we understand what God was saying to them, then we can understand what he is saying to us.
The last most common mistake in understanding Revelation is misunderstanding the genre. “Genre” is an unusual word that means: “a special type or style,” in this case a special style of writing. Revelation is apocalyptic prophecy. Apocalypse is a special style of writing most popular from BC 200 to AD 100.
Apocalyptic writing has two characteristics that are especially important for understanding Revelation.
1) Apocalyptic writing often moves in a circular or cyclical motion around repeated themes. Apocalyptic writings do not usually move logically from step one to step two to step three. They are like a fly circling around a piece of bread looking for a good place to land.
Let me give you an example. Sarah and I have different walking styles. When I walk, I want to go somewhere. I want to get on a mountain or on a trail and make visible progress. Sarah, on the other hand, is very happy to walk around track. She likes just going around and around the same track, seeing the same things again and again. You might say that Sarah is an apocalyptic walker.
What this means is that we cannot draw a timeline from the events in Revelation. John describes the same events again and again from different angles using different images. For example, in Revelation 6:14 it says, “And the sky was rolled up like a scroll and taken away. And all of the mountains and all of the islands disappeared.” But a few chapters later in 8:10, “The third angel blew his trumpet, and a great flaming star fell out of the sky like a burning torch.” I thought the sky was taken away! How did a star fall out of it? And again in 16:20 it says, “And every island disappeared, and all of the mountains were leveled.” Didn’t they already disappear? Did they reappear and disappear again? It sounds like God is turning a switch on and off: “Mountains and islands, poof! … No mountains and islands, poof! … he, he, he. That’ll really freak ‘em out!”
If we are reading Revelation like a straight line, this and other repetitions create serious problems for understanding. But if we let Revelation be what it is, apocalyptic writing which works in thematic cycles, then the repetition stats to make sense. It is like John is flying a small plane around a big mountain, slowly moving up to the peak. Each time he flies around we see that side of the mountain from a slightly different angle, but it’s still the same mountain, and we’re still getting closer to the same peak.
2) The second important point about apocalyptic writing is that it uses emotional images not code language. John talks about some very weird things in Revelation: a lion with six wings with eyes all over, a Lamb with seven horns and seven eyes, riders on different color horses, beasts and dragons and world wide battles – and that’s just getting started.
Down through the centuries, Christians have tried to identify what each of these symbolic expressions mean. The Beast is this. The seal is that. The mark is this. Looking for a one-to-one relationship of images with real events or persons misunderstands John’s method. John uses words like Picasso used paint. Picasso’s obscure pictures with upside down heads and rearranged arms don’t relate directly to reality. He is trying to create an emotional impact on the person looking at his work. In a similar way, John uses shocking word pictures to make an emotional impact on his readers (or hearers).
I remember the poems of one my roommates in college. He was a long-haired singer in a hardcore rock band, and when he wrote poetry about the pain in his life it was vivid. I remember one particular poem went something like this: “crawling over broken, bloody glass … screaming into the night, my throat bleeds.” There was no one-to-one literal relationship for his images. He was just trying to express with word pictures how he was feeling. The poems definitely made an impact on me.
John is using similar word pictures to make an emotional impact on his readers as he moves round and round the same themes, building up to a climax toward the end of the book. There can be no timelines or codes to break the symbols of Revelation.
If this is true, and if teachers and preachers usually “get it right” on other books of the Bible, why do Christians usually miss it on Revelation? Dan Boone suggests we miss the boat on Revelation because of our desire for control. We believe if we study hard enough, we can know everything. Once we know it, we can control it or manage it or at least prepare for it. We want to have a detailed map of the future, so we go looking for what we want in Revelation.
If many good Christians through the centuries have gotten it wrong, and if popular Christianity often gets it wrong today, how can we get Revelation right? Basically, we need to let Revelation speak for itself within its own context.
That is what we’re going to try to do as we study this book. When we let Revelation speak for itself, we will see one basic message: Jesus Christ is the King of the universe, and his Kingdom is coming to earth despite the apparent power of the kingdoms of this earth. Jesus’ Kingdom gains victory through defeat (like dying on the cross or dying as a martyr), but through all the struggle, God is in control. Through it all and beyond it all, we will learn to worship God in Jesus Christ as our beautiful, redeeming King. Therefore, we can have an unshakable hope no matter what happens in this world. Jesus is King, and Jesus is coming to establish his Kingdom with his people.
So, church, don’t be a Chicken Little. The sky is not falling, yet. And don’t be chicken (afraid). Read Revelation for yourself. Read it, and live with deep hope and courage. For Jesus is King, and he is coming to establish his Kingdom.
As we read and study, we will be blessed. In fact, we are already a blessed community. For Jesus is King, and he is coming to establish his Kingdom in us. “Give to him everlasting glory! He rules forever and ever! Amen!” (Revelation 1:6).