With my small group I’ve been reading through the New Testament, doing the “Community Bible Experience” sponsored by Biblica. You read through the whole New Testament in eight weeks, discussing it like a book club. It’s been a mind-expanding experience–much more so than I expected.
Biblica thinks that “versification” has become a problem in Bible reading. That fits. I just finished Revelation, a book I had not read whole in a very long time. I realized I have repeatedly read certain passages, like Revelation 21. But many of the other parts of Revelation I had managed to skip entirely. Reading the whole book, I found myself thinking new thoughts.
There is a lot of Revelation I don’t begin to understand. It uses many vivid but obscure symbols. Its literary form hasn’t been used for 2,000 years, so it’s radically unfamiliar. I can see why the book has attracted so many “experts” with detailed predictions that turn out wrong.
All the same, a few messages come through extremely clearly:
1) There will be continual, Satanic opposition to God’s people, violent and bloody. Suffering and death for God’s people is part of the package.
2) God will triumph over that opposition, preserving the lives of his people who remain faithful (even if it takes resurrection).
3) Evil and death will be done away with for good, and God’s kingdom will unite heaven and earth in a new and wonderful world.
If I lived in Egypt today, or Indonesia, or Sri Lanka, or China, those messages would be very relevant. Many Christians in such places are persecuted, and some are killed for their faith. For them it’s not so different than it was for the Christians who wrote the New Testament, experiencing great pressure from Jewish communities that evicted them from their synagogues, and from Roman communities that saw them as a threat to civic peace. If you became a Christian, you stood a fair chance of facing great suffering as a result. The drama of Revelation made sense.
I find it difficult, however, to relate in sunny Santa Rosa. I live in a very tolerant, very secular environment.
This is the dilemma that Lesslie Newbigin wrote about so searchingly almost thirty years ago. The west, inoculated with its Christian heritage, has become the toughest missionary challenge we face. It resists God not by violence or threats, but by scorn and the substitution of other gods, such as pleasure. Revelation’s sounding trumpets and rivers of blood and monsters rising up out of the deep seem oddly out of touch and unhelpful, as far as I can see.
The only passage in the New Testament that seems to speak to western, tolerant skepticism is Acts 17, which records Paul’s brief sojourn in Athens. There he was treated cordially, listened to with curiosity, and (in the end) scoffed at. But not stoned.
The New Testament doesn’t seem to directly advise those whose neighbors, like the Athenians, treat us politely but with heavy skepticism. Perhaps historically speaking this era of tolerant western skepticism is only a momentary break in the unrelieved hostility that Revelation foresees. To me it seems like something else: a challenge for which we have few directions.