Facing Revelation’s Beasts
The Opportunities and Challenges of Pastoral Ministry at the Edge of History
[a short summary]
Loren L. Johns
We are standing at the edgeof history. Our collective consciousness of time and history is being piqued in a special way today. One who considers the pastoral challenges related to the current Y2K interests in light of biblical apocalypticism will beimpressed with the sheer diversity of pastoral situations pastors mustface. We have premodernists, modernists, and postmodernists all tryingto read the book of Revelation at the same time in the same room. Talkabout a challenge! In this essay I will identify five challenges or opportunitiesfacing pastors at the end of the second millennium.
The Ministry of Understanding Your People
I see three aspects of understanding your people in the light of the gospel. First, eschatology is a powerfulforce and we would do well to understand why. Second, there is in the subtextof some popular eschatology today a thinly veiled glee about the sufferingthat evildoers must undergo when Christ returns. I find this glee troubling.Third, another subtext in popular eschatology today is a bald sense ofself-importance and self-interest expressed in an ethic of survivalism.Such a spirit is apparent in the "Left Behind" series. Christians todayhave a responsibility to avoid the temptation of survivalism. Congregationalawareness of this issue begins by drawing attention to the issue, by namingpublicly the dangers of self-importance, self-interest, and survivalism.
The Ministry of Understanding the Book of Revelation
Pastors have a wonderful opportunity
to learn about and to teach the book of Revelation as the new millenniumdawns.
This book is a wonderful resource for congregational life. Revelationis valuable
today because: (a) it resists powerfully the trivializationof the gospel;
(b) it unmasks idolatrous powers in the government and insociety generally;
(c) its central throne-room scene in chaps. 4–5 portrayspowerfully
the central biblical dramas of creation and redemption; (d)it maintains a
vision of God’s sovereignty in the midst of competing versionsof reality;
(e) it reflects a robust theology of evil; (f) it lifts upthe Cross of Christ
as the center of the revelation and the key to theunfolding of history; and
(g) it encourages an ethic of nonviolent resistanceto evil, including the
idolatry of civil religion.
Revelationis not primarily about eschatology, if by eschatology we mean anunderstanding of the mechanics of the end; it is primarily a revelationabout how God deals with evil and redeems the world, and about how thisvision empowers believers to live faithfully in the midst of Babylon.
Revelation contains more hymns and scenes of worship than any other book of the New Testament. The deconstructive and reconstructive rhetorical power of its worship scenes should not be underestimated. These hymns and worship scenes are constantly at work to create in the believing community a new and empowering visionof God and of what is going on in the world today. The book creates andsustains the sort of belief system and worldview that support an ethicof nonviolent resistance to the idolatries of Babylon. It is best readand speaks most powerfully in the context of the community gathered forworship.
The Ministry of Hope
One of the central tasks ofpastors
is to minister to people who are hurting deeply. The ministry ofhope takes
many different forms, one of the more important being simplypresence. But
one form of the ministry of hope is that of affirming andmaintaining a vision
of the righting of history—a time when wrongs willbe righted, when
evil and evildoers will be judged, when God will bringsorrow, death, and
pain to a merciful end. With such a hope, theodicy isdifficult, troubling,
unsolved, but survivable; without such a hope,theodicy becomes a deadly
challenge to faith and faithfulness. For peoplewho suffer, hope in the righting
judgment of God is wonderful and sustaining.For comfortable people, cosmic
judgment is not a matter of hope, but soundstroubling and even unthinkable.
Such a vision canlead to escapism. When life is unbearable and the future is unthinkable, it can be tempting to check out of this world and simply wait for the next one to come along. So the integrity of an eschatological hope needs anethical check. When future hope provides the spiritual and emotional stabilityto readdress present challenges, when an eschatological vision informsan ethic of social and spiritual engagement in the present world, thensuch hope is legitimate and from God.
The Ministry of Warning andCaution
If providing hope is the primary need for the church when faced with an external threat like persecutionor oppression, then warning and caution may be the primary need for thechurch when faced with compromise and accommodation in times of ease.
Walter Klaassen’s Armageddonand the Peaceable Kingdom is remarkable in part for the polemical natureof the first half of the book. Klaassen’s central insight here is usefuland correct. Eschatology is not just a branch of theology that is particularlyinteresting at times like ours. It is a view of the future that embodiesand reveals its theological foundations. And the eschatology of at leastsome premillennial dispensationalists depends upon a doctrine of God, aChristology, and an ethical vision that are theologically questionable, if not heretical.
Doctrine of God
The novel LeftBehind, by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, and the subsequent books inthis "Left Behind" series have influential in part because, though fictional, it is a narrative construction of the future not unlike the book of Revelation in its rhetorical strategy. People in the believers church traditionshould not underestimate or disparage the power of such constructions ofreality .
The centralsymbol for Christ in the Apocalypse is that of the lamb. The word is usedat least 28 times for Christ—more often than Jesus, Christ, Jesus Christ, Son of Man, or any other christological title. Prophecy writers seldom know what to do with this image. Their eschatologies draw them more powerfully and naturally to the image of the lion, which occurs just once in the book as a christological symbol (5:5). The juxtaposition of lion and lamb inRevelation 5 quickly falls apart. It is not sustained throughout the book.Instead, the lion immediately disappears from view, never to be heard fromagain, and lamb becomes the controlling image.
The imagesof the lion and the lamb speak to competing visions of how the messiahwields power. The rejection of Christ as Lamb in favor of Christ as Lionis typical among Fundamentalist Evangelicals in North America. For instance,Hal Lindsey says, "When Jesus came to earth the first time He came in humilityto offer Himself as the Lamb of God to die for the sins of men. But whenHe comes again He’ll return in the strength and supremacy of a lion." Butthat is not what Revelation says.
These theological and christological problems relate closely to various ethical visions that are anemic at best and dangerous at worst. Ethics begins with a properunderstanding of God and of God’s work in Christ. One ethical danger inherentin eschatological visions noted above is the danger of escapism: the temptationto disengage from the present and the suffering of people in the presentbecause it is the future that counts.
The Challenge of Communication
It is difficult to communicate with parishioners who have eschatologies that are vastlydifferent. Indeed, paradigms of understanding are not easily formed orchanged. Because they control how we read the Bible itself, it is oftenuseless to argue over exegetical details. Yet it is the Bible itself thatshould be shaping our worldview! On the one hand, adopting the paradigmsof one’s conversation partner is to give away too much. On the other hand,if one cannot speak his or her language, little communication can happen.
I wouldlike to suggest several ways to approach this communication challenge.First, begin where the conversation partner is, recognizing the dangersof adopting his or her language categories. Second, maintain a criticalawareness of the theological importance of the paradigms involved. Third,maintain perspective on what is important. Fourth, build and maintain relationships.Finally, maintain a sense of humor and humility. These five considerationsshould lay the proper groundwork for communication. With that groundworklaid, pastors can use two tools to change paradigms of understanding: teachingand worship. Teaching can take many forms and focus on many different kindsof content. Biblical, exegetical work and theological teaching are certainlyimportant here. But the pastor should not underestimate the power of historicaldescription for changing paradigms. People see theological options differentlywhen they understand the histories behind those options. Worship itselfis a powerful tool for deconstructing and reconstructing universe-sizedparadigms of understanding. In worship we reaffirm who is on the throne,we challenge false allegiances, we confess again our own commitments, werepent of our failures to live as if God’s reign were palpably present,and we ask again in prayer for God’s kingdom to come, God’s will to bedone on earth as it is in heaven.
The Ministry of Edification: Proclaiming the Good News of God’s Reign
There is no higher calling for
the pastor than to build up the church. By "building up the church" I amnot
referring to the ministry of comfort and existential encouragementor even
to effective administration, important as these are. Rather, Iam referring
to the ministry of calling and enabling the church to be thevisible, active
body of Christ in the world.
One of themore important and exciting things a pastor can do at the turn of the millennium is to get clear about the nature and significance of the kingdom or reign of God. The reign of God was the central focus of Jesus’ teaching. Thenature of God’s reign as taught in Jesus’ parables is ignored, misunderstood,and misrepresented in the teachings of many popular prophecy preachers.
One couldnot ask a more crucial theological question than, What is the nature ofGod’s reign? What is this "kingdom of God" about which Jesus constantlypreached, according to the synoptic Gospels? This question is not easilyanswered, since it draws together most of the rest of the classic categoriesof theology, including the doctrine of God, Christology, ethics, ecclesiology,and eschatology.
Mark 1:14-15 says, "Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaimingthe good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news."
We mightparaphrase it thus: "Time’s up. God’s reign is present. Get your life out of tune with that old "realism" and invest in this new reign of God thatis just now being realized." Pastors would do well to preach this messageas we greet the new millennium.
[This is but a short summary
of the full essay, summarized and posted by permission of the publisher.To
read the entire essay,
clickhere to purchase the book,
Apocalypticismand Millennialism: Shaping a Believers Church Eschatology for
the Twenty-FirstCentury, edited by Loren L. Johns, published by
PandoraPress of Kitchener, Ontario.]