Preaching Apocalyptic Texts

Most congregations include at least two types of people.

Some folks place a heavy emphasis on their eschatological hopes. These persons may or may not attend to the popular Bible prophecy teachers, and few of them will purchase those “last days” books at the local Christian bookstore. Still, they care a great deal about what happens when we die or how history will turn out.

Others simply don’t bother themselves with eschatology. These people live out their faith in the here and now. A heavenly future wouldn’t motivate them in the least. For this group, apocalyptic texts seem irrelevant, mysterious, distasteful, or even offensive.

We preachers struggle to pull these disparate groups along. For those who place their hope in an otherworldly future, apocalyptic texts articulate visions that can guide our “this-worldly” discipleship. For those put off by bizarre images and pie in the sky hopes, we recall how apocalyptic texts inspired our ancestors to perceive the ways of God in the midst of the crises of their own times. This is a high calling, and many preachers find themselves stumped by apocalyptic passages. May I suggest a few guidelines for preaching apocalyptic texts?

First, assess the rhetorical function of the passage in question and what it is designed to do. Apocalyptic texts perform many diverse functions. For example, the apocalyptic discourses in Mark 13, Matthew 24-25, and Luke 21 discourage frantic apocalyptic speculation, calling disciples to discern the significance of their present moment. Paul’s teaching concerning the return of Jesus in 1 Thessalonians is designed to comfort his audience: “Therefore comfort one another with these words” (4:18). In 1 Corinthians, however, his long discourse on the same subject functions as a corrective to believers who boast in their own spiritual accomplishments. Look at the seven churches in Revelation: some receive comfort, others exhortation, and others admonition. As you structure your sermon, ask yourself whether and how the sermon might embody the rhetorical valence of the passage at hand.

Second, remember that all apocalyptic discourse portrays a conflict between a heavenly point of view and the way things seem to be. This principle would seem to stand in tension with the paragraph above, which encouraged attention to the particulars of each passage, but it does not. Whatever their persuasive aims, apocalyptic texts judge present appearances by eternal standards. When imperial and commercial exploitation rule the day, Revelation counters with a vision of God’s rule in which there is enough for everyone. Apocalyptic texts challenge us to articulate the values that mark God’s way in the world.

Third, help your congregation appreciate the literary and poetic dimensions of apocalyptic texts. Many people in the pews have no idea what to do with apocalyptic images. What could meeting Jesus in the air possibly mean? Who really wants golden streets in their eternal city? Apocalyptic texts provide preachers with an opportunity to exercise their vocations as teaching theologians. Obviously, we want to avoid those extended “what I learned in seminary” lectures−those things just kill good preaching. Yet we may point out how many apocalyptic images interpret earlier pictures from the Hebrew scriptures. We may find ways to interpret those stunning apocalyptic images in relevant ways. When Revelation promises a fearsome Lion and then replaces it with a Lamb who has conquered death (Revelation 5:4-7), we confront a profound contrast between God’s power and the would-be powers of this age.

I know quite a few excellent preachers who dread preaching from apocalyptic texts, and I can understand their hesitancy. Yet apocalyptic texts provide a unique opportunity. They push us to look beyond−or rather through−presidential debates, economic forecasts, and international disturbances, and discern the aims of God. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Do we agree?