For middle-aged nerds like me, one of the great defining works of twentieth-century literature is, of course, Hitchhiker’s guide to the Galaxy.
If you haven’t heard of it, then either you’re too young, too old, or you’re the sort of person who relies on other people to fix your computer. Either way it doesn’t matter. For now, all you need to know is that it was a popular book and TV series about 30 years ago in the comedy Science-Fiction genre. A true nerd can quote it chapter and verse, like the Bible.
One of my favourite parts is a brief history of a battle between two planets. It all begins as a misunderstanding. One side overhears a casual remark made on a distant planet – our planet as it turns out. But it’s interpreted as an insult made by their nearest neighbours, and it quickly escalates into an interplanetary war. Let’s see how it plays out:
From their own perspective, their battle was significant. From their own perspective, the opposing forces looked imposing and fearsome. As they headed off to battle earth, they felt powerful and important. Until the true scale of the universe hit home, and they were swallowed by a small dog.
This is what the book of Revelation invites us to do. To get a better appreciation of scale when it comes to power and importance.
A couple of months ago we saw seven churches under varying degrees of threat. Opposing forces looking fearsome and powerful. Leaders of synagogues excluding them from their community. The ever-present empire and the pressure to bow down before Caesar. Even their own members giving in to compromise and apostasy.
And what’s worse: everyone seems to be getting away with it! God looks powerless – almost irrelevant. And his people are getting knocked around day after day simply for bearing his name. A picture of life in the first century, or the twenty-first century – take your pick.
Because against this, the book of Revelation invites us to step back, look up, and get a better perspective. To see the conflicts that we’re involved in and the powers we’re up against on a different scale. A cosmic scale.
Where the might of the Roman empire looks pathetically pale in comparison to the one true God. Where all of the forces that are arrayed against us get swallowed up – not by a small dog, but by a slain lamb who is now victorious.
That’s the point of the throne room scene in chapters 4 and 5 (which is our focus this week on Coffee with the King): to give us perspective; to show the true scale of things; to remind us that God is on his throne, and everything is under his control.
Overview of Rev 4-11
In fact, I think the purpose of the first set of visions (Rev 4–11) is best understood as giving answers to a series of underlying questions:
Given all the injustice in the world (toward us, and toward God himself), is God really in control of this world?
Chapter 4 says ‘Yes, he most certainly is’.
Well if he is in control of this world, what’s he doing about it?
Chapter 5 says ‘He’s already done something about it – in Christ. God is on our side.’
But what about those who aren’t on God’s side; who continue to oppose and mistreat his people? Are they just going to get away with it?
Chapter 6 says ‘No. In fact, God is already judging them as we speak – giving them a foretaste of the judgement to come if they don’t repent. That’s why the world is how it is.’
If God is already pouring out a measure of his judgement on the world, what about Christians? Aren’t we going to get caught up in that, too?
Chapter 7 says ‘Yes. But we are sealed with God’s protection. No matter what happens to us physically, we’ll be kept safe from eternal destruction.’
What happens if unbelievers ignore the warning of God’s judgement?
Chapters 8 & 9 say ‘God will keep sending even greater judgment.’
But it doesn’t seem to be working (9:20-21). Is there anything else that can be done?
Chapters 10 & 11 say ‘Yes, I’m sending someone to interpret that judgement. And that someone is you, who will be my witnesses.’
Keep this big picture in mind over the coming month as we work our way through these 8 chapters.
Read now the text of Revelation 4, and write down your first impressions of this scene. (Even try to draw it, if you’re artistically inclined.) Tomorrow and the day after, we’ll look at the significance of all of this bizarre, other-worldly imagery.
So, when do we get to the end-of-the-world predictions?
I don’t think that’s what Revelation is all about. You may have picked up a couple of months ago – when we looked at the letters to the seven churches in chapters two and three – that I take the situation Revelation was written to at face value. That is, it was written in the late first century to a group of marginalised, sometimes persecuted believers in Asia Minor. The seven letters, I believe, were real letters to real churches, encouraging them to keep going and calling them to account where they were falling short.
The rest of Revelation, while containing more fantastical imagery common to apocalyptic literature, is no different in function. It’s not a map of the future of the church and our world – although it does depict, in general terms, the future restoration of all things when Christ returns (chapters 20-22). But it’s focus – as a “revelation” – is to reveal the truth about the first century world through symbols and stories. By portraying the world in this way – from a “God’s eye view” – it gave the original audience comfort and proper perspective during a very dark time. It speaks to us, today, in the same way – helping us to see our world how God sees it. That’s the approach we’ll be taking in this series through Rev 4-11.
For a thoroughly readable introduction to this way of understanding Revelation and general End Times speculation, I recommend John Dickson and Greg Clarke’s 666 and all that. Especially chapters 1-3.