By Kyle Mercer, Director of College Ministry
Editor’s Note: Kyle Mercer serves as Director of College Ministry at FBC Durham. Earlier this year, he led his college Bible for Life class through a study of Revelation.
I don’t have any hard data, but I would suspect that the Book of Revelation is probably the book of the Bible people are most curious about. Yes, David Plotz at Slate thinks that Ruth or maybe Job is the most popular book of the Bible, but I’m not really buying that. At the same time, I also know that many pastors don’t want to teach Revelation, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence.
So why do many pastors and teachers want to stay away from this apocalyptic book? Most likely because when we think of Revelation, we tend to think of seven-headed dragons, creatures with tons of eyes, and let’s be honest … weird people who study it. In my experience—and I know I’m generalizing—the type of people who have been most interested in Revelation seem really strange to me. They seem way too excited about millennial charts, about Israel becoming a nation in 1948, and about current world leaders. Of course, not helping their reputation in my mind are the widely publicized false teachings of Harold Camping and others, who have wrongly predicted exact dates for the world’s end and the return of Christ.
Now, I’m not saying that none of those things are important or relevant. I’m just saying that they weren’t my focus when I recently taught Revelation to college students and young adults at my local church. Instead, as I taught through the text, there were certain themes and ideas that I hoped to communicate and help people see as I taught through what Michael Wilcock has called, “God’s picture book.”
And, as I did this, there were four major ideas that I returned to again and again, and I found each one very helpful in my Bible study setting. So, I simply wanted to share these with you, and I hope that highlighting these very basic themes and ideas might be helpful for your own study.
1. The Clarity of Scripture
The first thing I wanted to emphasize to our college students as we were studying this difficult book is the clarity of Scripture. As evangelicals, we believe not only that the Bible is God’s authoritative and inerrant Word, but that God in his kindness has also given us a clear Word. It may take some hard work—and a commentary or two—but we can come to understand Revelation to the extent to which God has intended for us.
God gave us his Word to be useful for those who have received it, and he desires for it to be understood. What that meant for our college Bible study is that I wanted to show that Revelation is not—at least in my opinion—meant to be read under a microscope so much as it’s meant to be seen through a telescopic lens. What I mean by that is that Revelation was given to us in order to give us insight into the big picture ideas of God’s glory, Christ’s exaltation, the salvation of sinners, and the destruction of Satan, sin and death forever. And so, if any study of the Book of Revelation focuses so much on something other than these key themes, then I have to question whether it’s a legitimate study of the book as God intended it.
2. The Devil is a Real and Active Person
Another idea that I have found important to emphasize from studying Revelation with college students is the constant reminder that the devil is a real and active person. When Jesus addresses the seven churches in Revelation 1–3, Satan is mentioned in four of the letters! This has got to be an important reminder for us today, because so often people like to think of the world as a closed system, believing that all their problems, struggles and sins can simply be explained in human or natural terms.
Even in evangelical circles, it seems to me that we often speak more about struggles that we have with the flesh and the world, but more rarely do I hear people discussing the fact that Satan has a real and active role in opposing God and his church. In just a quick tour of the letters in Revelation, we see that the Apostle John sees the church’s enemies as a “synagogue of Satan” (2:9, 3:9), and that they are ministering as where Satan’s throne dwells (2:13). One of my desires, then, in teaching Revelation is that we would be challenged to be more aware of Satan and his tactics, which I think will help us better be prepared to stand against his schemes (Eph 6:11).
3. Living with an Eternal Perspective
The third truth I tried to communicate to college students in our study is that we must live with an eternal perspective. Jesus speaks to us in Revelation as the one from eternity past who will live forever (1:18). When Jesus speaks to the seven churches, he ends each one with a promise of eternal life for those who are faithful, giving us images of eating forever from the tree of life, receiving a crown, and judging the world together with Christ.
As the book goes on, we are given glimpses into the throne room of God (chapter 4), the final marriage supper (chapter 19), the final judgment (chapter 20), and the New Heavens and New Earth (chapter 21). All of these pictures that God has given us in this book are meant to cause us to long for Christ and his Kingdom, and to hate all remaining ungodliness and wickedness that we see in ourselves.
The awful and breathtaking pictures of the Great White Throne and the Lake of Fire should make us all the more thankful for Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf, and they should also humble us and make us joyful that we’ve been forgiven and spared from all that we deserved. Apart from Christ, we too would be asking for rocks to crush our heads (6:16), and we too would die the dreadful second death (21:8).
4. The Greatness and Glory of Jesus Christ
The last major idea of Revelation that I’ll mention is the most important one: that we should see in this book how great and glorious Jesus Christ is. The Book of Revelation has as high a view of Christology as any other book in the Bible. Revelation is the only book in the Bible (apart from the account of the transfiguration) where we get a physical description of Jesus Christ in the fullness of his glory. It’s an amazing description, from his hair to his eyes, feet and clothing—each description filled with rich imagery that’s grounded in the Old Testament that should make us all, like John, want to fall down as though dead before Jesus.
As Jesus speaks to the churches, he comforts them by reminding them of who he is and what he has done. Again and again, the text focuses on his victory over death and the promise that he lives forever. And, Revelation ends with yet another glorious picture, this time of Christ returning to earth to judge the living and the dead, and to establish his kingdom forever.
I have found over the years that when students have a big view of Christ, everything else in their lives are better ordered as they should. It is when their view of Christ diminishes and is small that sin begins to look appetizing, witnessing seems impossible, and suffering seems overwhelming.
So those are a few of my thoughts about studying Revelation with college students. I have found that by focusing on these themes that it helped center us. The book is, after all, a revelation of Jesus Christ, meaning that it is both from him, for him, and about him. And, when Jesus ceases to be front and center in our thoughts and interpretation of this final book, I think that’s when all we are left with are weird images, charts, and timetables.