I’ll skip the chitchat and move to these 2 important points.
1. My hiatus of not posting regularly during the last half of 2013 comes from the confluence of sunspots, climate change, and premature hibernation. But I am back for a while now, deo volente.
2. My commentary is providing some speaking opportunities. Second weekend in January I was at a congregation in Jackson, MS, and the first weekend in February I will be speaking at a congregation in Kennett, MO.
The American holiday of Valentine’s Day is almost here, and it is not too late to give your sweetheart a copy of my commentary on John’s 7 letters in Revelation 1-3. Just click the photo of my commentary on the right of your screen, and it will take you to Amazon for an order. This way Amazon gives me a little credit, and it does not cost you a penny more than if you went directly to Amazon.
The next few posts will be coming at you rapidly. These are from an address I gave a few months ago at the W. B. West, Jr. Lectures at Harding School of Theology (Memphis, TN). It represents the manuscript which I used that evening for my talk on Revelation 21-22. Since these posts belong together as one unit of thought, I will be posting them only a few days apart. After that, I will resume my normal pace of posting.
Introduction to the New Creation Idea in Rev. 21-22
It was not the practice of the Apostles to use a “form letter” to respond to the distinctive issues of each congregation or each Roman province they addressed. Every person reading this presentation knows that the construction and contours of Biblical texts often reflect the special circumstances of each audience being addressed, however diversely the audience is imagined. Consequently, each portion of Scripture makes a unique as well as partial contribution to the entirety of the biblical witness about God. Likewise, authors of the NT did not have a single, fixed template to use when addressing various settings that required a response expressed through the genre of prophetic eschatology. I remind us of this so that we don’t expect an overview of Revelation chapters 21-22 to contain even most of the elements of a large and detailed biblical theology of the New Creation. Rather, we will look briefly at what threads Revelation chapters 21-22 might contribute to that much larger tapestry.
Introduction to Interpreting the Book of Revelation
Even though words and imagery from Revelation 21-22 have appeared in Christian hymns, sermons, funerals, and pious clichés for centuries, they are often used without much regard for the historical, the literary, or the exegetical context of the book of Revelation. In light of the mercenary motives often evident in the interpretive history of Revelation, let me give a few admonitions about not misusing Revelation in your future ministry. It was almost half a century ago when I was introduced to an important concept by the Quaker scholar, apologist, and theologian Dr. D. Elton Trueblood. I remember very clearly the Wednesday night at church, in the mid-1960s, when Prof. Trueblood spoke at the Broadway Church of Christ in Lubbock, TX while I was a student at Texas Tech University. Although I am not well read in Trueblood’s 30+ books on Christian theology, one observation in particular pertains to an important point I want to make regarding the misuse of Revelation. In the midst of the cultural and theological upheaval begun in the mid-to-late 1960s, Prof. Trueblood used the metaphor of “cut-flower” to describe failed attempts to maintain a coherent system of Christian morality removed from its theological soil. That is, once you cut flowers and remove them from their vital connection to the soil in which they were planted and grew, they will still look beautiful for a brief period of time, but ultimately they wither, die, and end up in the trash, or, perhaps, in the compost heap. Even if you beautify and briefly prolong the journey of the “cut-flower” with an elegant and expensive vase, as most do, its journey to the garbage is nonetheless inexorable.
And so, the metaphor means that you, you followers of the Lamb, that you must be cautious and self-aware. You will certainly encounter and possibly be attracted to ethical, confessional, and theological floral arrangements that claim to represent New Creation theology, and even perhaps the entire book of Revelation. I encourage you to make sure that their roots, even of the “New Creation” flowers, are rooted deeply in the spiritual and doctrinal soil of the book of Revelation and the larger witness of Scripture. Otherwise you might discover that you have invested in a floral arrangement that is very attractive, especially so in stained glass, but that is ephemeral, like cut-flowers.
In my opinion far too many TV evangelists as well as those preaching Christian funerals do not know the biblical language of the New Creation. To be sure, very few Christians recognize this widespread problem since they themselves often can no longer converse in biblical language either. The typical Christian’s unfamiliarity with the images and symbols of Scripture that John employs has allowed, even encouraged, superficial interpreters to exploit, distort, and twist John’s descriptions and theological message.
This leads to my second word of caution. I ask you to remember Lewis Carroll’s work, Through the Looking Glass, and its depiction of the encounter between Alice and Humpty Dumpty. The encounter goes this way,
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean –– neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you CAN make words mean so many different things.”
My own counsel to the church and her teachers is to run hard and fast from the ubiquitous Humpty Dumpty Hermeneutics that is so popular among believers and non-believers. Do not surrender to those who want to make the words and imagery of Revelation mean whatever they want them to mean. I implore you to join the cause of Alice, not Humpty-Dumpty. Invest the time and effort to learn what the Scriptures meant in the 1st century, so that we can excel in teaching and preaching what they might mean in the 21st century; Remember when you are debating whether to get behind Alice or Humpty, Humpty is probably destined to become an omelette.
The use of imagery from Revelation at funerals provides some of the most egregious examples of both cut-flower and Humpty-Dumpty interpretations. Imagery, for example, designed by John to describe the destiny of the elect in Revelation is often misapplied to anyone who lived in a civil way and attended church occasionally. Likewise, images of the heavenly Jerusalem are distorted. To be sure, hearts are vulnerable and emotions raw at the death of loved one. We are, nevertheless, discussing the distortion of God’s Word. We need to declare a moratorium on letting maudlin piety masquerade as New Creation eschatology.
The following recent example regrettably demonstrates how far Christian eschatology can be distorted for personal needs. Setting aside partisan politics, I do admire Senator John McCain because of his endurance in the face of barbaric and horrendous torture at the hands of his North Vietnamese captors while serving in the US military in the late 1960s. I must take umbrage, however, at his recent statement that in his future experience of heaven he anticipates hunting pheasants in something like “an Iowa cornfield” (CNN July 29th, 2013). If the Senator were correct, then I can only suggest that he keep an eye out for Vice President Dick Cheney if he is hunting nearby. The difference between McCain’s eschatology with pheasant hunting in an Iowa cornfield and Muslim eschatology with men anticipating voluptuous virgins in heaven is a difference only of degree and not a difference of kind. The same criticism would be true for those anticipating golf courses, video games, exciting cars, or anything else they might imagine in a “Six Flags Over Jesus” heaven. All of this bespeaks Humpty-Dumpty and cut flowers.