Revelation Introduction Part 1

Admittedly, one of the named mentors of most of us reformed folk is John Calvin.  When we’re asked, the name rolls off our tongues at the top of the list… or maybe close to the top of the list. 

Surely, that name is “spat” from the lips of many… or it’s maybe whispered: “He’s a Calvinist?”  Calvinism isn’t held in very high esteem in our postmodern society.

And, of course, the name “Calvin” doesn’t mean anything to lots and lots of people, because they’ve never heard of him anyway.  Who wants to hear about (let alone read) sixteenth century theologians?  A vast majority of us are too interested in what’s on TV or on our IPODS to read anything!

But when the totality of his work is considered, we can only be amazed.  In his relatively short life-span of sixty-four years, while preaching and teaching most every day (sometimes several times a day), he managed to complete several editions of The Institutes of the Christian Religion (beginning the first in his twenties), and a commentary on many of the books of the Bible.  The treasure that he left us, and its effect on the world, is immense.

Although not an infallible man, Calvin’s work constitutes a cache of wisdom which can only be attributable to the Spirit of Christ the King.  We can praise the man; but the ultimate praise is to the reigning King of Kings.  He alone raises up men to perform the work of the Church as He wills.

However, John Calvin never wrote a commentary on The Revelation.  (I mentioned before that he wrote a commentary on “many” of the books of the Bible.  As a historical footnote, he also passed up the books between Joshua and the Psalms.) 

Now, I suppose we could speculate on why he omitted John’s Revelation, but I don’t think anybody really knows why.

BUT… if we were to speculate on the reasons why he didn’t write the commentary, we could probably come up with a number of reasons why I should stay away from it.  Such as: “I don’t know how to do it!!”  (That’s a good one, isn’t it?)  Or, “it’s just too difficult”!  Or, maybe, “my time could be better spent”.  But of course we’re just being frivolous here, and we’re not going to attribute to pastor Calvin reasons why he didn’t do this.

But this diminutive prodigy (born in Nuyen, France of all places, in 1509 [we missed his 497th birthday party, by the way, as this sermon was being developed])  (Calvin) was raised up by the Spirit of the risen and ascended Christ to be one of the most powerful forces for the kingdom in all of Church history!  All of the Church, world-wide, OWES him!

Not many give him the honor owed him; but they still owe him.

And I look at the fact that he didn’t approach the Revelation, and I have to ask “who am I?”  I haven’t done much.  And I’m slow.  And I’m now older than he was when he finished his work on earth.  What am I doing here!!   If Calvin (and many others) didn’t engage The Revelation, what right do I have?  

It’s a very good question; and one for which I have few solid answers.

As far as the time it will take, we’ll just have to see how much time The Lord gives me.  I have no illusions that this is going to be easy.  And there may be occasions in which I’m just not ready to preach; so we’ll have to do something else on those Sunday mornings.  Perhaps a series in God’s Law-word might be helpful.

What we’re going to do here in the first introductory sermon in St John’s Revelation is to just set the stage for our approach to it.  I only know one way (I take that back….  I know OF a lot of ways to approach the Scripture, but I only DO it one way).  But I want to describe that for you so you’ll know what I’m doing.  And I’ll do a bit of comparing and contrasting between that way and some other hermeneutic approaches.

The word I just used – hermeneutics – simply has to do with the approach to the text.  It’s the means of exegesis – or finding what’s there… getting out what’s there.  Eisegesis (on the other hand) is the opposite of exegesis.  Eisegesis means putting in something that’s not there… adding something to the text simply because one thinks it should be there (or maybe one thinks it might be there).  But hermeneutics has to do with the approach to Scripture.

So, what we’re going to do, then, is go through the method of approach to the text of Scripture – the hermeneutic – that I use.  In other words – how I do exegesis… how I approach the Scripture to get out what’s there.

Now.  Through the two (plus) millennia of the Church since the resurrection of the Christ, there have been quite a number of “methods of approach”.  Although a thorough discussion of them would be a rather tedious thing to do in a sermon, it’s important.  But, so it isn’t tedious I’m just going to mention the most important of these approaches so you get the idea.

First we ought to just mention the allegorical method.  Everything in the text, according to this method, has a “secondary” meaning, and that’s the plain reading of the text.  Hear that well: the secondary meaning is that of the plain reading; but, in actuality, it all has a higher, “spiritual” meaning….. a “primary” meaning (if you will)!  So, the plain reading of the text of Scripture is only secondary.   The reader/exegete ought to be looking for the “higher” meaning (the primary reading).  And what that is is usually left up to the imagination of the exegete!  That’s what is meant by the term “allegorical”.

Here’s one you’re familiar with… the dispensational approach.  In this hermeneutic the text of Scripture is broken up into (up to) seven dispensations; and the one we’re in – and the one to come – are all that are really important!  So the hermeneutic approach to the text will all but eliminate everything in the Bible except what’s important to us right now and in the immediate future.  We’ve come through (maybe) five dispensations; and we’re through with them.  What is of particular interest is the Scripture having to do with us in this dispensation and the one immediately to follow.

What should be evident, even to the most naïve of believers, is the fact that the continuity of God’s Word is obliterated by this approach.  And it leaves the reader or the exegete with very little other than his own clever and capricious fantasy.

Another you’re acquainted with… the “moral” approach.  Read a particular text of the Bible and try to find a “lesson” for me (or for you) for today, so we can be better persons and lead better lives.

Those who have frequented baptistic churches in the past know about the “application” principle (as well as the moral approach).  This hermeneutic method has the teacher, or preacher, hurrying through a cursory explanation of his text in order to get to the main part of the teaching or preaching – which is the application of perceived Biblical principles to life.  And, of course, those perceived principles are gleaned from a passage which is taken completely out of context.  So, if the preacher’s good at what he does, people leave with a sense of gratification that they’ve heard something worthwhile.  They also leave knowing nothing about what the text says!

Just one more and then I’ll quit, since you’ve probably got the idea.  There’s the hermeneutic principle called the “golden rule of hermeneutics”, which says, "If the Plain Sense Makes Common Sense, Seek No Other Sense."  So, if it makes sense when you read it, that’s it!  The problem there is, of course, it probably will make different sense to different people!  One person’s “common sense” may be totally different from that of the next person!

But there are a number of these; they are “hermeneutic” approaches… it’s the mind-set of the reader or the preacher/teacher when he addresses the Scripture.  And it is tedious.  Or at least it would be if we went through the whole list (a lot of them overlap).  But the purpose here is not the history of hermeneutics or the study of hermeneutics.

What I do need to do for you is to go through what is really required to do good Biblical exegesis.  (And remember, that the word “exegesis” means getting ‘out’ of the text everything that’s there, and not putting ‘in’ stuff that’s not there.

I made a comment a couple of minutes before about “not knowing how to do this”!   I probably need to explain that a bit, because, at first glance, the Revelation “seems to be” different from all the other books of the Bible.  And therefore it’s daunting to consider doing this.  And it is so, because the first impulse is to wonder how it’s supposed to be done!

“What should I do to prepare?”   “If it is, indeed, different from all the other books of the Bible, should my hermeneutic approach somehow be different?”  And “if my approach is changed, in what way should it be changed”?

 I have to admit to you that the comment about not knowing how to do this was a little bit on the self-deprecating-humor side in the midst of some frivolous speculation about pastor Calvin, because I do know how to approach this text.  I’m going to approach it the same way I approach any other text!  The “secret” here is that there’s no secret!  And that’s the subject of this introductory sermon.

Don’t let that be too much comfort to you though.  Just because I know how it’s supposed to be done doesn’t mean I’ll do it well.  Your job is to receive the preaching of the Word with gladness of heart; and, at the same time, to be like the Berean Christians… making sure I stay straight!  You have to do this because my life is just as full of interruptions and disappointments and day-to-day issues as yours are (in addition to all the delights as a believer).  And I have to work full-time in order to make a living!  Just think about adding twenty-five to thirty hours a week to your schedule in order to get ready to preach on Sunday morning!  Add to that an age-affected energy level!  No excuses here... just cautioning you to be awake and on guard as every member of the body should be.

Now.  Before I give you the specifics on the right hermeneutic approach to Scripture, let me just give you some presuppositions with which we begin.  I consider these “axiomatic”; not only to The Faith but also to the process of preaching and preparing to preach.

So we begin with the first statement on our (yet to be completed) Church web site.  And it is “God IS, and He IS Who He says He is!”  Expanding on that a bit, the Scripture (the capstone of which is The Revelation of the apostle John) is God’s special revelation of Himself; and it provides us with all we need to know about Him.  AND it provides us with everything we need in order to rightly interpret everything else!

Second (and remember these are presuppositions with which we begin), God has unilaterally, in the relationship of His triune Godhead, covenanted to act in a certain way with regard to His creation.  In other words He has “bound” Himself (since He cannot lie); and He has revealed what He covenanted to do!  I’ll expound on that more fully in the third introductory sermon.

Third, God has not changed; the way He is acting (in order to complete what He covenanted to do) has not changed ... therefore there is no “change of direction” at the end of Malachi (which is the last book of the Older revelation) or anywhere else in Scripture!  So the Scripture is ONE!  It is one, thoroughly Christian Revelation.  And it all has to do with the salvation of God’s beloved creation for His Own glory!

And lastly, the creation that God so loves, and the covenant that He entered into in the relationship of the Triune Godhead, isn’t all about us!  It doesn’t all revolve around us; it isn’t all about us; it doesn’t center on us; all of this is not FOR us!  According to Scripture all the glory of the covenant and the creation and the Scripture centers itself around the Christ of God until all His enemies are placed under His feet.  And then all will redound to the glory of God the Father!

So the creation is about God the Father, God the Son and God the Spirit.  His covenant is about God the Father, God the Son and God the Spirit.  And the Scripture, His Revelation in history, is written from His viewpoint; and it’s all about Him, His work, His salvation, His glory!  And we make an egregious error – a damnable error – an abominable error, in thinking that we are the center of the universe, and that this is all for us; and then, with that as our starting point, reading the Scripture from our own viewpoint!

How stupid is that?

The apostle asked what right the pot has to say to the potter, “why did you make me like this”?  We have no right whatever to begin with ourselves and work backward!  God considers that unsavory – and aggressive on the part of His creatures!  It’s offensive!  It’s rebellious!

So we don’t begin the process with us….  We begin the process with God.  We are creatures; He is creator.  His covenant; His creation; His creatures.  The catechism writers got it right, didn’t they?  Our chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.  And, in order to do that, we must see His creation and His revelation and His covenant and His salvation from His perspective; isn’t that right?

 So, now we have a beginning point, don’t we?

Now let me give you the steps that I go through in order to get ready to preach.  This is the hermeneutic approach that begins with God and is the best way to see things from His viewpoint.  And it is the only way, in my opinion, to get out that which is in the text – i.e. exegesis!  And if it worked for our preaching through Matthew, then it ought to work for John’s Revelation.  As I said earlier, The Revelation is the “capstone” of the Scripture; that is, it is the terminal point – the finale – of Scripture.  And it concludes all that came before it.  Therefore looking at it separately from all that comes before it is a terrible mistake.

First, the text of Scripture is to be translated.  There are several reasons for that, not the least of which is, it helps me to focus on what’s there.  I get to zero in on the verbs and the nouns and the structure of sentences and paragraphs, and all the other nuances of language.

I write the Greek down on paper; parse the verbs; check the noun endings; look at the sentence structure, and do the word studies and phrase studies. 

I like to give it to you then in its simplest and most rarefied form (even though it may sound stilted or strange); and then explain it.  This avoids somebody else’s idea of how it might read if it’s put in equivalent English.  Translators call that “dynamic equivalence”.

And it also helps to nullify those instances in which others have read their own ideas about the meaning into the text!  So the translation process involves several steps in itself, doesn’t it?  It requires textual and grammatical exegesis.  And it requires some in-depth word studies.

Secondly, because of our axiomatic presuppositions regarding the unity of God’s covenant (being a covenant within history), a historical exegesis is required.  And that involves carefully looking at all of the rest of God’s Revelation.  What I’m looking for are words and phrases and events (that God Himself has inspired) that match up with the text we’re in, and prefigure and prophesy the text we’re in!  In the Decalogue, in the historical books, in the wisdom literature, and especially in the prophets, and in the other books and letters of the Newer Scripture, there are things that have great bearing on our text!  You see, the same God Who inspired Genesis and Deuteronomy and I Kings and Joel, also inspired John to write The Revelation!  And He is always consistent in bringing His covenantal promises to a conclusion!  It all has internal cohesion, you see.  So, every time we address a passage in John’s Revelation, we’ll also look to all the rest of Scripture to see more clearly what John’s talking about!  It’s all related; and it all coheres.

Then comes the step in which I check myself with others who have come before me in order to determine whether I’m way off the mark.  If I’ve made some linguistic errors or some historical errors, this is the time to go back and make corrections.

Then, of course, I begin thinking about writing an explanation of the text, which most of the time will include exhortations to repentance and faithfulness to our God.

So this whole process, including the preaching, is for the purpose of our knowing God, and knowing what He said.  For by His Spirit and the Word we are enabled to glorify Him and worship Him in spirit and in truth… which is what God requires of us, isn’t it?