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.
13 thoughts on “The New Creation in Revelation 21-22”
Greetings from the Piney Woods. Many thanks for sharing the Mss. you presented at the W.B. West Lecture. I have to restrict my travel to the teaching assignments undertaken in Bear Valley’s Extension programs. I just figured you weren’t posting because of sleeping between midnight and four A.M. It is a habit I’ve somehow acquired and been unable to break. Blessings, Lindell MItchell
Lindell, Good to hear from you. As always, I’m glad you visit the blog and consider it helpful.
Grace and Peace, Richard
As always, this is a great post that teaches me and forces me to reflect on my own use of Revelation and “New Creation” eschatology in ministry. Your post seems really aimed at the hermeneutical use of Revelation, which is an important task of ministry. Yet part of this hermeneutical task is to theologically apply the teaching of Revelation and “New Creation” eschatology to our own pastoral contexts which is, in many ways, different that the context John is addressing in Revelation. Even for those of us who do wish to avoid pitfalls like you mention in your post, it is easy to misuse the words of Revelation when attempting to apply the text among a different pastoral context. So with that in mind, would you consider another post that address this issue?
Rex, If you will stay with the next few posts that give the remaining parts of the WB West lectures I give some hermeneutical perspectives, at least by example. Right now I am trying to work hard on volume 2 of my commentary on Revelation and cannot spend much time on broad discussion of the crucial topic you ask about.
As always, thanks for visiting the blog and raising good perspectives!
Richard, I read with great interest and appreciation your commentary on Revelation 1-3 and look forward to whatever you may write about Rev. 21-22. Regarding the New Creation, I suspect that it must be understood within the context of Creation (The first Creation). Creation is a central doctrine of Christianity. Surely God did not create the world willy-nilly, but for a purpose–a good purpose. I believe that God created the universe to embody the fullness of his love–in its height, breadth, and depth. Then the question is: “Is God’s will fulfilled?” Does God foreknow the results of his creation? Does God know the ending from the beginning? If he does not, then God creates blindly. Things may work out differently than he intends–for all God would know, Creation could be one huge catastrophe with little of his intention working out. Assume then that God foreknows the ending from the beginning. If God loves all Creation, then the New Creation will be the Final Fulfillment of all God’s loving purpose. As you point out, different people have different versions of what heaven would be like for them, and they may be wrong–even not understand what would make for their greatest happiness.
This brings us to Revelation. For the last four or five years I’ve been considering the Apocalypse and even anticipate writing about it. In all the reading I’ve done, I’ve never seen the book analyzed and interpreted in light of the worship of all Creation (Ch. 5). John is called up to heaven to witness worship during the Final Fulfillment. It is within this universal worship that the seven seals are broken in preparation for the reading of the scroll. Various catastrophes are released with the breaking of the seals, all penultimate to the final salvation, where it appears that even those who had been killed are in the worshiping community–not only martyrs but even those who had killed them. If this is true, then the scroll must contain some sort of explanation for the horrendous happenings that have been a part of this world, in light of which all Creation can worship the Lamb and praise him for his sacrifice–“Worthy is the Lamb who was slain.” The beasts and dragon are then metaphors and symbols for destructive powers, not conscious beings. The last enemy to be destroyed is Death.
I’d look forward to any insight you may have regarding the relationship between the first Creation to the New Creation. Also I would appreciate any objections or questions you might have in way of follow-up.
Bill, Thank you for your comments. I noticed, if my brief google search is correct, that you and I share PTS as our Alma Mater in Theological Studies.
I appreciate your visit to my blog and hope that my comments from time to time will resonate with your own studies of John’s prophecies.
Peace and Grace,
Rick: Joe here. Elton also came to Nashville in the mid 1960’s while Randy Becton and I were at Lipscomb. Note Jack Lewis said about him at Harvard in Jack’s recent autobiography. Glad the brothers in Kennette and Jackson invited you to speak on The Disclosure. Vaya con Dios, Joe Tomlinson P.S. will be buying Eva Revelation for Valentine’s Day. Visited briefly yesterday with Phil McMillian and wife at White Station. He told me was going to Scotland for a week to lecture on Ezekiel. We pray for your health and ministry.
This site will be such a wonderful blessing to so many of us. I am so interested in learning more and more about the Lord’s plan for us and your writing may very well clear up some of the questions so many of us have. Thank you and God bless!
Norma, I really appreciate your kind words. Thanks for visiting the blog.
Looking forward to Vol 2 of your Commentary !
Me too! 🙂
Hi, Dr. Oster. I have been teaching the Book of Revelation for several weeks now at nursing homes in the Shoals area. Glad I came across your comments. –Kevin Dillon
It is good to hear from you.