Certain times pull particular books of the Bible into prominence. Augustine, looking for ways in which the City of God took shape in the rubble of a wrecked and decadent Roman Empire, used Genesis for his text.

In the exuberant eroticism of the twelfth century, Bernard fastened on the Song of Songs as a means of praying and living into mature love. Luther, searching for a simple clarity of gospel in the garage-sale clutter of baroque religion, hit on Romans and made it the book of the Reformation.

As the twentieth century is well on its way into its final decade, the last book of the Bible, Revelation, has my vote as the definitive biblical book for our times. Revelation has had moments in the sun before, but the present age needs it as none other has. Whether it will dominate, and in a healthy way, remains to be seen, but that it is capable of providing a comprehensive text for the church’s life as we live through this stretch of history is a deeply held conviction in me.

The conviction has been forged in the crucible of my life as a pastor. As a pastor I am responsible for preaching and teaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. In that preaching and teaching I have a text—the Christian scriptures of Old and New Testaments—and I have been vowed to faithfulness to that text. I am not permitted to make up whatever I think might promote the general good will. The church has given me an assignment: to accurately and patiently and stubbornly work from this text and no other.

The Gossip Of Jane

When I first started out in this work, it seemed to be a simple enough task: learn Hebrew and Greek, study what scholars and theologians could teach me about why, how, and where these Scriptures were written, discover how pastors before me had done this, and then go at it, preaching with urgency and clarity the Christ who is “the same yesterday and today and forever.”

But it turned out to be not quite that simple. The difficulty was not in deciphering the Hebrew poetry of Isaiah, or the Greek syntax of Paul (although these old masters sent me to my library and knees often enough). The difficulty came from patiently trying to penetrate the gossip of Jane, working around the television-drugged imagination of Bill. I found, in other words, that the people to whom I was preaching and teaching this gospel had things on their minds other than what I was so eager to tell them. They seemed to be generally intelligent people, and they were certainly polite, but they simply weren’t getting it.

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This was puzzling. I was speaking to a congregation of people who were better educated than most of the Christians who have ever lived. But they weren’t understanding a word I was saying. I don’t mean that they didn’t understand the dictionary meaning of my words, but they were not understanding that it was, precisely, “gospel”—the proclamation of a new order, an inaugurated kingdom, in which every ordinary word and act was redolent with glory. They listened and commented and before I knew it had reduced it all to kaffee-klatsch gossip.

I was rubbing shoulders with men and women who had a higher standard of living than most of the Christians who have ever lived—nice homes and furnishings, excellent hospitals and shopping malls—but every inconvenience, every news report of war or volcano, every sickness and death became an occasion to call the competence of God into question. I don’t mean that they disbelieved in God when trouble came their way, but that at the very moment it appeared, God became secondary to their trouble. They wanted to know what they had done wrong that God had allowed or visited this trouble on the Earth. They wanted to know what God was doing wrong to permit this interruption of their well-being.

My first reaction was to blame them. Blame them for being gossips and complainers who were disqualifying themselves from realizing this exuberant glory, from entering into this dazzling sovereignty.

But then the conviction began to form that they needed help far more than blame. They were gossips and complainers because they grew up and lived in a gossipy and complaining culture. They took it in with their mother’s milk, so before they could chew the strong meat of Isaiah and Paul, I had to wean them from the culture.

That is when I found an ally in John’s Revelation, for Revelation is a re-presentation of the good news of Jesus Christ to congregations afflicted with these precise cultural conditions. They were experiencing a trivialization of the gospel by gossip, and a deflection of the gospel by trouble. But John silenced the gossips and put the trouble in its place. He did it in the simplest and most economical of ways. He called the people to worship.

When The Glorious Becomes Trivial

The trivialization in John’s world was taking place through the gossip of those whose aberrant teachings would soon be known as Gnosticism. The essential nature of gossip is that it talks about people instead of to them. Gossip leaves out all that is unique and glorious in a person and reduces him or her to an anecdote or a cliché or a stereotype. The gossip is never in awe. The gossip is never in love.

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The Gnostics gossiped about God. They claimed to know a lot about God (Gnostic means “one who knows”), but it was all about God. Gnostics did not pray. They did not worship. Gnostics talked a lot to each other and wrote endlessly about what they thought. God was reduced to an anecdote, or fantasized into a speculation.

The last decade of the first century, when John was trying to preach and teach the gospel to his congregations, was overrun by these precursors to the Gnostics of the next century. We see in other places of the New Testament direct and indirect evidence of their presence, and the danger they boded for the gospel. As a pastor, John knew he had to help his people disentangle themselves from such gossip or the gospel would be trivialized beyond recognition. The references in Revelation to Balaam, Jezebel, and the Nicolaitans are references to leaders or sects with Gnostic tendencies. In the guise of leading people into deeper understandings of God, they were, in fact, accommodating him to the terms of the culture, and thereby reducing him to their ideas and fads.

The parallel with our culture is striking: So many aspects of the church’s life are being reduced to items of gossip and consumer pricing. Christians have succeeded in marketing crosses to the varying tastes of consumers. We have replaced saints with celebrities. And it is increasingly difficult to take any of it seriously.

Tribulation Rears Its Head

As bad as such trivialization was for the years when John was a pastor, tribulation—occasioned by Roman persecution—also caused deflection from the gospel. It was not lawful to be a Christian. There were imprisonments and martyrdoms. There was economic discrimination, social ostracism. The crucifixion of Jesus was repeated in his followers.

It is one thing to believe in and follow Jesus when everything is going well, and blessings tumble out of the skies. But when troubles pile up and everything that society values contradicts and even condemns your way of life, it is difficult not to give in to the daily parade of evidence that trouble is the dominant reality. Roman cruelty was far more in evidence than gospel grace. Emperor worship, a feast to the senses that also guaranteed a certain worldly security, was far more impressive than the Christian belief in an invisible God and crucified Savior that put its followers in danger of their lives.

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But while, at least in the West, it is no longer a criminal offense to be a Christian, the conditions of tribulation have, if anything, increased. Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz in a recent speech used the word cruel to describe our century. Cruel indeed. We have had two world wars that irreversibly changed the politics of the planet, and we live under the threat of a third, which, if nuclear, could finish things off. The advent and then collapse of communism have thrown nation after nation into chaos in which anarchy wrestles freedom for supremacy. Third World countries are barging into the arena, grabbing for their piece of the pie. Disasters (political, moral, ecological) pile up faster than we can write up the reports on them. Commitment to a just, peace-bringing, salvation-making God is at risk. Every news report deflects another Christian or two from their aim at the Cross. Proclamations that “the kingdom of God is at hand” are drowned out by a daily roar of information on world conditions that challenge the claims of God’s sovereignty.

If we care at all about the integrity of the gospel, what do we do? Wring our hands? Hand wringing is not a strategy. John wasted no time on lament. What he did was worship, and call his people to worship. Just worship. He offered no plan for renewal of the church. He did not call for a convocation of his seven churches to discuss what could be done. He worshiped God and called his people to worship God.

Why Worship?

The parallel conditions in John’s decade and ours, the trivialization and tribulation, and his astonishingly focused and simple response, calling the people to worship, commends Revelation as a text for recovering the integrity of the gospel in a bad time.

Essentially, that is what Revelation is—an act of worship that calls others into the act of worship. On the first page we see John at worship, “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day” (1:10). On the last page, we see John, momentarily distracted by the angel, commanded back to the center: “Worship God,” he is told (22:9). Between that first and last page we have scene after scene of robust worship—the sights and sounds pulling together everything in heaven and earth, in creation and Cross, in history and salvation—all involving us in worship.

But we are so easily distracted: distracted as easily by trivialization as by tribulation. John’s vision, if only we submit ourselves to it, is powerful enough to catch our attention and pull us back again to the main action, to the “God center.” It is imaginative enough to enlist our bodies, minds, and emotions in participation, to worship.

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It is telling that our Bible concludes with Revelation, which is to say, with a call to worship. By the time we have come to this final entry in the library of 66 books, our minds are bursting with knowledge and our hearts burning with desire. With all that knowledge and all that desire there is a great danger that we will just run off and put it to good use—tell everybody what we know, enlist everyone in our cause: communicate, motivate.

And that is just what we, the churches and church leaders of America, have done: run off to communicate and motivate. Between them, communication and motivation dominate the current Christian agenda. The communication conveys much accurate information and the motivation enlists many in good causes. So why aren’t things any better? Why isn’t the Truth well known? Why isn’t Righteousness flourishing? Why is the American church such an embarrassment? Why are its pastors so demoralized?

Maybe it is because we didn’t stay around for the reading of this last book, didn’t let ourselves be called to worship. We failed to become immersed in the act of worship so thoroughly that it would be unthinkable to run off and do anything on our own, no matter how biblical, no matter how urgent.

The truth of the gospel is that God in Christ rules and saves. The reality of the human condition is that we are determined to rule and save and that we make a thorough mess of it every time we do. We want to rule ourselves and save ourselves. We want to rule others and save others.

Even at our best we can’t do it—no matter how much we know, no matter how well intentioned we are. Even when we have mastered Genesis through Jude we can’t do it. We can’t because only God in Christ can rule and save. We have, it is quite true, a part in the ruling and saving, but it is strictly an obeying and believing part. And the only way in which we can stay alert to the reality of God in Christ ruling and saving is in the act of worship. The only way we can be trusted to say anything about God that is close to true, to do anything for God that is halfway right, is by the repeated and faithful practice of singing and praying, listening and believing with the elders and animals around the throne, where the scroll is unsealed and the gospel read out clear and strong.

If we absent ourselves from worship or treat it as marginal to our agenda of communication and motivation, we become dominated by the visible. But most of the reality with which we deal is invisible. Most of what makes up human existence is inaccessible to our five senses: emotions, thoughts, dreams, love, hope, character, purpose, belief. Even what makes up most of basic physical existence is out of the range of our unassisted senses: molecules and atoms, neutrons and protons, the air we breathe, the ancestors we derive from, the angels who protect us. We live immersed in these immense invisibles. And more than anything else, we are dealing with God “whom no one has seen at any time.”

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Worship is the primary and most accessible means we are given for orienting ourselves in the invisibilities, in God. And Revelation is, along with the Psalms, the most comprehensive rendering of worship that we have. It is, precisely, a vision—a seeing of the invisible. A Christian community that is not rooted in and shaped by the invisible—the throne and the Lamb—very soon falls under the control of communicators and motivators.

I do not mean to exclude other readings of Revelation by my insistence that it reveals and calls us into faithful acts of corporate worship. There is much else in John’s vast, theological poem. There is prophecy and comfort, beauty and assurance, warning and blessing, puzzle and mystery. But I do insist that every word in the book takes place in an act of worship, and is designed to pull us into the act of worship. Nothing is worse than religion that goes off on its own, wanders from the living God, detours the crucified Savior—which is to say, neglects worship. But that is what is epidemic among us today—religion as communication, religion as motivation.

Too many worship services in churches today are mere fronts for the pastor’s ego or the congregation’s needs, or both. That is what John saw going on in his churches. He responded by energetically and magnificently setting them in the place of worship, before the living God, under the command of the risen Christ, renewed by the Holy Spirit. Everything they were concerned with, along with everyone they knew or could imagine, were shown by the preached vision to be comprehended in the action of worship. They still are.

John’s Revelation can help us here. For once we are immersed in this exuberance of sound and color, we will certainly lose our taste for gossip, and once we comprehend the comprehensiveness of grace and the empty pretensions of evil, we are not likely to cave in to the bullying of the “principalities and powers.” Once we have taken our place in a pew with John leading us into an act of worship, we will never again say “just worship” or willingly absent ourselves from the action.

Eugene H. Peterson is pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church, Bel Air, Maryland, and author of A Long Obedience in the Same Direction (InterVarsity) and Answering God (Harper & Row), both of which are about the Psalms.

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