Revelation 1:1-3, “The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show His servants — things which must shortly take place. And He sent and signified it by His angel to His servant John, (2) who bore witness to the word of God, and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, to all things that he saw. (3) Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written in it; for the time is near.”
When you heard I’d be starting a series through the Book of Revelation what was your initial reaction? Some of you were excited for one of three reasons: you’re a weirdo — if you’re an Alex Jones fan and love global conspiracies you fit into this category, you were homeschooled or really isolated from the world growing up — if you have a complete collection of all 16 Left Behind books this is you, or you’re morbid — you find gory movies filled blood, death, destruction, zombies, and the apocalypse entertaining.
The truth and I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb when I say this, while you may be interested in what I have to say, the majority of you aren’t really excited about this series! If that’s you, don’t worry I’m right there with you! In fact, if you told me a year ago — when we were just a few studies into our series through the Book of Leviticus — that Revelation would be on the 2020 docket, I’d said you were completely nuts.
My first experience with the Book of Revelation was back in 1993. I was 10 and for whatever reason had to spend an evening at the church with my Dad. At the time, Calvary Chapel — the church my Dad still pastors to this day — was located in a little building on 2nd Street right in the heart of downtown Stone Mountain. Seeing I was board, he suggested I sit in the secretary's office and read my Bible while he took care of a few meetings.
Unsure where to begin, I landed on “the Revelation of Jesus Christ.” Now keep in mind, I was in 4th grade with a decent level of reading comprehension for someone my age. In retrospect, with its PG13 rating, Revelation was not a good place for a 10-year-old to start.
Roughly an hour or so later, my Dad came through the office, with briefcase in tow, telling me it was time to head home. When I didn’t answer, he found me hiding under Mrs. Judy’s desk in tears. “Zach, what’s wrong?” he asked. “Dad, I’m scared! The world is going to end! A quarter of the population is going to die! All the vegetation will be burned up. All the seas will turn to blood killing the fish. There will be no fresh water to drink! Dad, war is coming! The Antichrist is going to behead anyone who doesn’t take the mark of the beast!”
My Dad looked at me rather perplexed, “Zach, what have you been reading?” I replied, “The Book of Revelation!” At this point my Dad calmly helped me out from under the desk, we turned off the lights, locked the front door, and loaded up in his ’85 Corolla. As we made our way home he explained to me that, while all of these things were going to happen, Jesus was going to Rapture the Church first! “Zach, because you’ve given your life to Jesus you won’t be here to experience any of these terrible things!”
To be honest, though I took solace in this reality, that night as I tried to fall asleep I was still completely freaked out. I didn’t understand why God would judge the world in such a way. I was worried about those who’d be “Left Behind.” As I continued to think about these things I decided I needed at least one friend who wasn’t a Christian. I reasoned that since they wouldn’t be Raptured there would be at least one person who could come over and let my dog out of the house so she wouldn’t starve to death.
Aside from this — and you’re unlikely to hear a pastor make such a confession, I remember praying against the Rapture! Yes, I loved Jesus. Sure, heaven sounded cool — cooler than hell! But I wanted Jesus to wait a while so I could live and experience life. Can you relate?
My second significant experience with the Book of Revelation came as a 16-year-old. 1999 was about to give way to 2000 and the entire world was geeked up over Y2K. All the computers systems that controlled everything from banking, to air travel, to our nuclear arsenal were going to crash the moment there internal time sequences flipped to 00.
To make the entire situation even more stressful, prominent church leaders were warning that Biblical prophecy indicated our New Year's Eve parties may end in the Rapture! Again, while we were supposed to be excited about this, I remember asking Jesus to hold off because I didn’t want to spend all of eternity a virgin.
Clearly God answered my prayers for Y2K came and went without incident, and the church wasn’t Raptured to heaven when the clock struck midnight. As a teenager, I recall thinking to myself how absolutely silly it made Christians look getting so worked up about these things. I blamed it on the church’s obsession with the Book of Revelation.
Over the last 20 years, I’ve personally studied the Book of Revelation in great detail. I’ve taken a collegiate class on the book — well kind of, I slept through most of it. I’ve read several of the most comprehensive, respected commentaries and have listened to more than a dozen expositions. I’ve even taught through the book twice as a youth pastor — once was a complete verse-by-verse study and the other during a weeklong beach retreat.
While I’ve come to greatly appreciate the Book of Revelation, my greatest hesitation in teaching it from this pulpit centers on the fact I believe the book has been used in the past to address real cultural issues — really poorly. As a result of the way the book has been used by Evangelicals, I believe we’ve distorted the purpose of the revelation itself and in turn, fostered a perception that Christians are tinfoil-hat-wearing escapists.
In order to explain what I mean and in doing so establish why I believe it’s vitally important we study this book while demonstrating how our approach will be different, I need to take some time to unpack the interesting and complex history of American culture and it’s unique relationship with the Book of Revelation.
I know our world seems chaotic and who knows what the next 9 years of this decade holds, but let’s be honest the 1960s proved to be one of the most difficult 10-year stretches in American History. First, the military was quagmired in Vietnam giving rise to the Antiwar movement. While Bob Dylan sang in protest, Muhammad Ali sat in a cell over his refusal to be drafted. Thousands would take to the streets to make their voices heard in protest.
Aside from this, racial tensions were at the forefront of the national consciousness. In ’64 the Civil Rights Act passed expanding voting rights, ending discrimination in the workplace, and forcing schools to desegregate. Sadly, these deep-seated cultural divisions between races were not aided by the reversed racism of the Black Power Movement and later the assassinations of MLK and Malcolm X. In spite of the progress, the 1960s saw increased violence, riots, cities burn, and an explosion of crime in urban communities.
While all of these things were taking place, the culture itself was also experiencing revolutionary times. Disillusioned with the status quo, high school and college-aged kids were breaking from the norms and long-held traditions of their parents. The black and white world of the 1950s transformed into a kaleidoscope of color in the ‘60s. Cotton trousers were exchanged for polyester bell-bottoms — Leave It To Beaver for I Dream of Jeannie.
With Elvis busy attempting to make a career in film, America changed on February 7, 1964, when Beatlemania officially swept the country. From there, in ’66, Hendrix shared a stage with Cream. By the late ‘60s Pink Floyd, Jefferson Airplane, and the Grateful Dead had taken psychedelic rock mainstream. Along with the music came an explosion of drug-use which ultimately led to a sexual revolution that exchanged monogamy for free love.
In the midst of a culture in flux, the growing confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union was an inescapable part of everyone’s life. Both of these superpowers were rapidly developing their nuclear stockpile — all the while attempting to expand their strategic alliances and ideologies around the globe. The Space Race dominated politics and consumed national budgets creating an explosion in debt. In ’61 the USSR successfully put a man in space. Eight years later, in 1969, the United States planted our flag on the moon!
In October of ’62, a missile crisis 90 miles off the coast of Florida brought the world to the brink of a full-scale nuclear disaster. With Communists now in Cuba, basements were converted into bomb-shelters. Food was stockpiled and gas masks procured. Fire drills in school were exchanged for duck-and-cover simulations. In the end, the assassinations of JFK in ’63 and his brother Bobby in ’68 only heighten our senses to the growing Communist threat and exacerbated many of our concerns with Washington.
As America transitioned from the 1960s to the ‘70s there is no question people were truly worried about the future and concerned where everything was rapidly heading. Cities were ablaze by countercultural groups rebelling against the establishment. In fact, between January of ’69 and April of ’70, America sustained 4,330 bombings resulting in 43 deaths. Racial tensions were red hot. Societal norms had been flipped upside-down.
Faith in our institutions and the ruling class would further diminish when, on August 9, 1974, President Richard Nixon was forced to resign the office as a result of the Watergate Scandal. By the end of the decade, the country would be facing gas shortages, double-digit inflation, and a hostage crisis where 52 American’s were held in Iran for 444 long days.
The simple truth is while the media may have celebrated Woodstock in ’69, this cultural and sexual revolution had left a generation of hippies burned out, drugged up, and empty. Over the course of a 10 month period between 1970 and ’71 rock hero’s Hendrix, Joplin, Wilson, and Morrison were all dead from drug overdoses. To make it all worse, on top of everything, there was this daunting fear World War 3 could happen at any moment.
It’s with this backdrop in mind that something interesting took place within the American Christian Church grappling with how to reach such a culture. Again, the fundamental cultural question on everyone’s mind coming into the ’70s and all through the ‘80s centered on an uncertain future. Was the world going to come to an end? What if I die?
As we turned the page on the ‘60s, in 1970 Christian book publisher Zondervan took a chance on a Campus Crusade for Christ evangelist named Hal Lindsey by publishing his first nonfiction titled, “The Late, Great Planet Earth.” Having spent a large portion of the 1960s ministering to students at Berkeley and UCLA, Lindsey was convinced young people were hungry for a Biblical understanding of the End Times.
He was right! The cultural appetite was enormous. According to an article written in the National Endowment for the Humanities titled, “The Late Great Planet Earth Made The Apocalypse A Popular Concern” columnist Erin Smith notes how people gravitated to this book “in order to reconcile disturbing events in the news with predictions made in prophetic books of the Bible. The Late Great Planet Earth made it appear that the world was completely under God’s control, and history was unfolding exactly as God intended. Readers were told they had a special role in convincing others of the truth so they could accept Jesus as their savior in time to be rescued from the impending apocalypse.”
The book was so successful the New York Times says, “The Late, Great Planet Earth was the bestselling nonfiction book of the 1970s.” Today, it’s sold over 35 million copies!
Because of the cultural interest concerning the End Times in light of the things taking place in the world, beginning with Hal Lindsey, the ’70s and ’80s would see an explosion of Christian books and expositions dealing with the Book of Revelation. In 1976, Pastor Chuck Smith of Calvary Chapel would write a book on the Rapture titled, “Snatched Away!”
In 1977, he then published, “Revelation Commentary: What the World is Coming To.” A year later, in 1978, Smith wrote a bestseller, “End Times: A Report on Future Survival.” Everyone was captivated -- with Sunday sermon series in Revelation drawing huge crowds. Christians were more interested in the Rapture and study of eschatology than ever before.
But it wasn’t just Christians — the world was also interested. In fact, this phenomenon is perfectly illustrated in the reality most of the Gospel tracts during this time-period centered almost entirely on selling the idea accepting Jesus’ salvation would ensure you go to heaven not hell, and be Raptured so you’d escape the end of the world and apocalypse.
What’s interesting about all of this is that by the mid-1990’s the cultural climate in America had clearly changed. The Cold War was over and no one feared a nuclear winter. Peace and security were felt at home. Racial tensions had largely dissipated. There were no longer riots in the streets. The economy was booming. In fact, the countercultural “grunge” movement had become so intertwined with commercialism it manifested very little societal change.
Because no one was concerned about the future of the world which seemed secure and were instead consumed with how to get the most out of life today, Christianity again pivoted. In 2000, Multnomah Books released Bruce Wilkinson’s “The Prayer of Jabez: Breaking Through to the Blessed Life.” Not to be outdone, in 2002, Zondervan took another chance on an unknown California pastor named Rick Warren by publishing, “The Purpose Driven Life.” It quickly became a number one bestseller topping the NYT listing.
Since then self-help books have topped the Christian charts and seeker-friendly churches have become the trend. Over the past decade, very few churches even mention Biblical prophecy let alone spend any time on it from the pulpit. Even evangelical tracts focus not on your future destiny, but how accepting Jesus will improve your present life! As one can imagine, with such a shift in interest, books on the End Times are no longer in vogue, and sermon series dealing with the Book of Revelation few and far between.
So… Why are we going to spend the next few months working our way verse-by-verse chapter-by-chapter through this book? Personally, I believe the events of the last seven months have created another dramatic shift in the things people are concerned about.
Like the ’60s, the future of the coming decade is completely uncertain. Today, we’re all worried about the future — our jobs, health, children, safety. ANTIFA revolutionaries are once again rioting in the streets and setting fires to our cities. While everyone can agree there is always room to improve policing, the reversed racism of BLM and the Left pointing to White Fragility as the core ill of our society is restricting any type of meaningful progress. People don’t like having their children called racist simply because they were born white.
Culturally, there are forces seeking to transform our norms again through a new type of sexual revolution. For the first time in history, one’s gender can be as fluid as one’s sexual orientation — unless you already identify as gay then it’s impossible for you to ever change.
Just last month the largest state in the union, Californication, legalized pedophilia! According to a law passed by the Democratic legislature and swiftly signed by Gavin Newsom, as long as the sexual interaction is homosexual and occurs between a child and adult no more than ten years their senior it’s completely legal. Just wait — Polyamory, where three or more consenting adults want to marry, is going to be the next Civil Rights issue.
There is no question we’re experiencing cultural rot unseen in our country. Just think this the number one song this summer was Cardi B’s WAP. Not only does the song objectify women, but the sexual content of the lyrics is so graphic and perverse there’s literally no part of the song I could quote from the pulpit. It’s totally depraved.
To add injury to insult, this is the same Cardi B who’s been granted more interviews with Presidential Candidate Joe Biden than the largest news network on the planet. And then there is Netflix’s original movie Cuties created specifically for the Sex Offenders List.
As I relay the things that are weighing heavily on our hearts, I haven’t even mentioned the global pandemic we’re in the midst of… Since the first cases started emerging in Wuhan late last year, COVID-19 has spread around the globe. Not only has it recked the global economy, but it’s disproportionally targeted our most vulnerable — the elderly. Worldwide 30 million have been infected with roughly a million people dying in six months.
As we all seek to make the best decisions for ourselves and families, the grand struggle has been what to believe? Who do we trust? How deadly is COVID really? Can we trust the numbers? Where did it originate? Is a vaccine reliable? Does the disease affect kids or not?
To compound matters, the media lies. The WHO is corrupt. Our elected politicians are partisan. Our local leaders are drunk on power. Illogic is everywhere! Protesting in the streets or shopping at Walmart is completely safe, but going to church totally dangerous. Most alarmingly, many of our fundamental freedoms enshrined in the Constitution have been set aside under the guise of this Public Health Emergency. It’s crazy!
To make matters worse, the CDC guidelines are ever-changing. Remember 15 days to flatten the curve 215 days ago? You don’t need a mask because they don’t work. Wear a mask or you’ll kill grandma! Masking up to get to your seat in a restaurant is absolutely necessary, but don’t worry because COVID won’t affect you while you eat. Warning, your mask will not protect you from smoke particles that are larger than the Coronavirus?
Yes, while it may be true the USSR is no longer a threat, what about Communist China? What was their role in the release and spread of this virus? Did they manufacture it? Was it accidentally released from a lab or rise naturally in a wet market? Could the CCP have done more to stop the pandemic but chose to do nothing? What does this mean for the Chinese / US relations? Could a conflict be brewing? Are we about to witness another arms race?
Let’s be real… People are afraid and worried. There is a national uneasiness to where all of this is heading. You can feel it! Is America really ready to embrace socialism? What’s going to happen with the election? Can we trust the polls when we have zero confidence in the media? Is there really a silent majority of Trump supporters?
Will we know who wins on November 3rd? What about fraud with the mail-in-ballots? Will lawyers muck up the process? Are forces trying to steal the election from the will of the people? Will Biden concede defeat? Will Trump accept the results if they’re not in his favor?
For the first time in my life, our present lives have become so uncertain people are now once again concerned about the future? Where are all of these things heading? Where is my place in it? Even as Christians, it’s only natural that when everything seems out of control you question God’s sovereign hand? Is God off the job? Where is He? Friend, it’s in these cultural moments in history the Book of Revelation is of such vital importance.
Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s — while the Book of Revelation was the correct place to turn in the context of what was taking place in the world, the way the book ended up being used by Evangelicals was tragically misguided. Take for example Hal Lindsey’s “The Late, Great Planet Earth.” Instead of presenting the Gospel message of redemption from sin and the incredible transformation of the individual yielded through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the blessed Doctrine of Salvation ended up being marketed as a Golden Ticket that would grant you access to that great Willy Wonka factory in the sky.
What’s a shame and one reason eschatology developed a bad wrap is that the approach to reaching a culture genuinely afraid of the future was to use the Book of Revelation to stoke those fears. For years the common refrain from pulpits across America was that not only were your fears justified, but you needed to be afraid! This world was rapidly heading towards a reckoning. The Antichrist was at work. World War Three was on the horizon.
The Good News or what we’d call the Gospel during this season wasn’t the glorious truth Jesus wanted to change your life, but that He could save you from the Great Tribulation.
You see, in the end, Jesus was billed as your way out — an escape from Armageddon — your way to heaven the very moment things got bad on earth! Jesus was presented as a Savior, but a Savior from the coming Apocalypse not sin! During this time evangelical tracts coined popular phrases like “Get Right or Get Left!” and “Turn or Burn!”
Logically, for such a pitch to land, urgency was necessary. In order to foster this sense of urgency for people to accept Jesus, pastors would take the current events of the day and read them into the Revelation narrative. The entire point was to show how The End was coming quicker than anyone might realize and you didn’t want to miss the Rapture.
Even today, many churches birthed in the ’70 still do periodic Prophecy Updates where pastors theorize, speculate, and bloviate on where we currently stand on these things.
Tragically, in more extreme cases, in order to gin up the urgency of choosing Christ, pastors (including Hal Lindsey and Chuck Smith) started date-setting. In his book “The 1980s: Countdown to Armageddon” Lindsey predicted, “The decade of the 1980s could very well be the last decade of history as we know it.” Pastor Chuck Smith agreed.
At first, the Church was told the Rapture would happen sometime during 1981. When that didn’t happen people were then given “88 Reasons Why the Rapture would be in 88.” Sadly, when that prediction also failed, new calculations made popular by Chuck Missler in his book “The Millennial Bomb,” placed the Rapture happening in the year 2000.
Aside from the fact prophecy updates and date-setting using the Book of Revelation made Christians look stupid and foolish, it was during these years the Church had become so “heavenly minded” they were no longer of any “earthly use.” One of the criticisms within the Christian community of those who studied Revelation and believed in the Rapture was a church obsessed with leaving planet earth had lost sight of their mission to planet earth.
In a sermon given many years ago on the Olivet Discourse, Pastor Mark Driscoll made this interesting observation. He says, “There was a great outpouring and movement of the Holy Spirit in the ‘60s and ‘70s, called the Jesus Movement. It was amazing... It was a miracle of God. A whole generation just seemed to get captured with the love of Jesus. En masse, hippies and drug addicts and people who were sexually wayward met Jesus and there was a radical number of salvations. And a huge number of young people became Christians.
Nonetheless, what happened with the Jesus Movement, is I believe it got off track and off course. People started to get really fascinated with the rapture and the end times and the Second Coming and all of these things. All of a sudden, there was a love for Jesus, but there was more of a fascination around dates and times and events and circumstances.
All of a sudden, leaders began making predictions about when Jesus will return and the signs accompanying his coming. They were taking the Bible and taking the nightly news and combining them together. And it led to a short-sightedness. Some key leaders, even some who love Jesus and are brothers in Christ, started predicting the end of the world and sending their followers into a frenzy. None of that’s helpful.” I tend to agree with him!
Here’s my point and really the purpose of such a length introduction… In light of what’s happening in our world right now, I do believe the Book of Revelation is more relevant than ever as long as it’s presented the way God intended! Yes, this book addresses the coming future. Sure, it’s brutally honest as to the trajectory of where all of these things lead and how our world will end. And there is no question it can be a bit scary at times.
That said, you need to remember the future is revealed in this book for one simple reason — so that you might come to see Jesus in a new and radicle way! It is not an accident the book begins declaring itself to be “THE REVELATION OF JESUS CHRIST!”
I’m convinced what our culture needs most in these trying and difficult times is not a message of escape from a coming tribulation. Once more it’s totally inappropriate to use this book to stoke people’s fears by conjuring up more things to be afraid of hoping it will motivate a person to action. The Gospel is not based on escapism nor is it fatalistic.
Additionally, using the Book of Revelation to make grand predictions as to how or when these future events will occur isn’t helpful. In fact, it’s stupid! I have zero intention to use FoxNews.com as some sort of cipher by which we can understand prophecy. Are we closer to the End than at any other point in history? Sure, and tomorrow we’ll be even closer! Jesus was clear, “No man knows the day or the hour” — so it’s wrong for us to speculate.
When it’s all said and done it is my hope and prayer that you will walk away from each study in the Book of Revelation — not scared, freaked out, or worried about the future, but feeling as though you came to know your Lord and Savior Jesus just a little bit more than you did. I pray with each study you gain a fresh insight of Jesus as He reveals Himself to you.
When our series is finished I don’t care if you know more about the future or have all your eschatology figured out. In fact, my goal isn’t to explain all the nuances behind the symbolism or connect all the prophetic dots. It’s not the point of the book or why it’s important. Instead, I want you to leave our travels through this book having a greater understanding of who Jesus is and a deeper love for Him as a result. In the end, we’re going to study this book for, in such a time as this, we all need a fresh Revelation of the King!
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