Preaching apocalyptic literature is tricky. Revelation 1 is no different. You have such strong, experiential imagery, but the meaning is tied up in symbolism and analogy. You need an apocalyptic ‘decoder ring’ to figure out what is going on.
Which, of course, you can find. Just go to your favorite commentary on Revelation and you will discover at least one way of decoding all the symbolic analogy in this text. My personal favorite is from the sainted Louis Brighton. He always seemed like John on Patmos when he was holding forth in seminary classes. Whenever he started waxing eloquent on the Lord Christ, I swear the heavens opened and he was seeing an apocalyptic vision of his own.
Check Brighton’s commentary on Revelation and you will find a theologically-sound decoder ring, grounded in the Old Testament and faithful to Scripture.
- Golden sash around His chest = Jesus is the royal High Priest extraordinaire
- White hair = The glory of the Ancient of Days is now given to the Son of Man
- Eyes of flame = Jesus is authorized to destroy evil and purify God’s people
- Feet like burnished bronze = Strength which conquers all enemies
- Voice like many waters = Jesus has the very glory of the Almighty God
- Sword coming out of His mouth = Jesus judges according to God’s Word
- Holding seven stars = Jesus blesses and comforts the Church
- Whole appearance shining like the sun = Jesus is the glory of God that gives life
- The Alpha and Omega = Jesus is coequal and coeternal with the Father
- The First and Last = Jesus is our Savior, King, and Redeemer
- The Living One = Jesus is the One True God (as opposed to all idols)
That is a lot to decode! It is also a lot to cover in the space of a normal sermon. In a Bible class (or series of Bible classes) you would have the time to matrix Revelation 1 with other Scriptures, teach on the genre of apocalyptic literature, and help your audience connect the dots so they feel like they can at least catch a glimpse of how the decoder ring works. But if you try to unpack even half of the analogical symbolism in this text, time constraints will reduce you to: “X means Y; take my word for it.”
An alternative would be to address the experience described in Revelation 1 as a whole, apart from the analogical meaning of the detailed parts, and focus on the perlocutionary force expressed in verse 17: “Stop being afraid!”
If you wanted to unpack the detail, you would likely use either a Thematic sermon structure that flows from the logic of decoding the analogical symbolism, or a Textual sermon structure which moves through the symbolism in the same order the text does.
If, instead, you focus on the effect of the text as a whole (on John and on your hearers), you are firmly grounded in the arena of Dynamic sermon structures. This does not mean you will ignore apocalyptic logic or the text in its context. It just means the experience of the hearers during the sermon gives rise to the shape and the order of your proclamation.
This does not mean you will ignore apocalyptic logic or the text in its context. It just means the experience of the hearers during the sermon gives rise to the shape and the order of your proclamation.
If you decide to go with the Dynamic structure, you still have choices which will allow you to do various kinds of things in your sermon. To demonstrate how an apocalyptic text might give rise to a dynamic sermon structure, allow me to give you two brief sermon outlines from two different dynamic structures: Wilson’s Four Pages (or the Law/Gospel Structure) and the Relational Structure (from Andy Stanley’s Communicating for a Change).
Do Not Be Afraid! (Wilson’s Four Pages)
- Page 1. Trouble in the Text: Set the stage for Revelation in the context of who John is and what is going on in his life. John is in exile. His friends have been brutally executed for claiming faith in Jesus. His future and the future of the Church seems precarious, fragile, and uncertain. Death is a present reality.
- Page 2. Trouble in the World: Use similar language and imagery for the kinds of uncertainty your hearers know all too well. Death is all around us. The future of our faith and of our congregation feels fragile, precarious, and uncertain. Economic turmoil, the threat of nuclear attack, ongoing violence, and discord in our neighborhoods, cities, and world provide lots of things to cause us fear.
- Page 3. Grace in the Text: Go to Revelation 1 and lean into the power of what John sees and hears. You can make some of the connections clear without getting lost in the details. This is the risen Christ, full of the power and glory of the Eternal God, speaking directly to John. Of all the things John has to fear, the power of the presence of the victorious Lord Jesus is the one which knocks him to the ground, as though dead. But that indescribable glory does not come to judge, condemn, or annihilate the apostle. The powerful, living God shows up in John’s life to speak a word of comfort and promise: I am in control! You can stop being afraid!
- Page 4. Grace in the World: Bring that message to the life of your hearers. The overwhelming glory of the Risen Christ is still hidden for us, and it is a good thing, too. If the veil were lifted and we could actually see what was taking place as God’s Word is read and taught, as sins are forgiven, and as the Lord’s Supper is celebrated, we would all be like John, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel: down on our faces before the awesome presence of the Almighty God.) But what John saw in a vision, you have by faith: the very presence of the Victorious and Risen Christ, One with the Father, in majesty coequal and coeternal. That Jesus, who shines in glory like the sun, comes to you again today, not to judge or condemn, but to speak a word of promise: I am in control! You can stop being afraid!
That Jesus, who shines in glory like the sun, comes to you again today, not to judge or condemn, but to speak a word of promise: I am in control! You can stop being afraid!
Do Not Be Afraid! (Relational Structure)
- 1. ME: Talk about your personal experience of all the news of economic uncertainly, war around the world, and violence in our own communities. Share what fear of the future looks like for you, personally, when it comes to yourself, your family, or the future of your church.
- 2. WE: Share multiple perspectives from the community gathered for this day. Some will be facing medical uncertainty, including possible death or the death of a loved one. Some will be struggling with their own faith or afraid their loved ones are walking away from the Church. Some will be glued to the news and piling anxiety on top of anxiety with every new report from the war in Ukraine or the political division in America. We all have a lot of uncertainty and many reasons to fear.
- 3. GOD: Look at Revelation 1 and the overwhelming experience of John’s vision of flaming eyes and blazing feet, a sharp sword and shining hair, a voice like roaring waters and a face as blinding as the sun. This terrible revelation is a vision of power. The power of the Living God in the person of the Risen Christ says to you again today, “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One. I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.”
- 4. YOU: Go back to the individual perspectives on fear in the community and speak that word of promise over each of those circumstances. To those of you who are facing a threatening medical diagnosis, the Risen Christ says, “I defeated death! I have “been there and done that,” and I have authority even over the grave, authority no one can take away. I was dead, and I am alive forever more. You belong to me, and my victory over death I share with you. Do not be afraid.” To those of you who are carrying a burden of worrying about the strength of your faith or the faith of someone you love, a voice like rushing waters says to you again today: “I am the First and the Last! I am the God who lives and the God who saves! Your failures and sins and doubt cannot keep me from you. I walk in the midst of My Church, and I hold My people in the palm of My hand. Your future and your eternity belong to Me. Do not be afraid” (and so forth, with all of the perspectives you touched on in 2. WE.).
- 5. WE: The sermon concludes by addressing the community again as a whole. The genuine experience of frightening things can knock us back. But we have the power of the Living Christ at work in us and through us. Close by describing how this confidence translates into the life of your congregation in the real situation you find yourself this week, this month, or this year.
Looking at two different outlines from two dynamic sermon structures helps illustrate how the structure you choose affects both what you say and how you say it. If you were preaching an Analogy sermon structure based on the details of the symbolism in Revelation 1, or a Verse-by-Verse structure and walking through the text one detail at a time, your sermon would feel quite different.
Preaching apocalyptic literature is tricky. If you have multiple sermon structures in your homiletical bag, you have multiple options for how to navigate the meaning of the text for the sake of your hearers.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in Revelation 1:4-18.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Revelation 1:4-18.