Apocalyptic literature, and the book of Revelation in particular, is easy to avoid for those of us who preach regularly. Navigating apocalyptic literature is, in the words of David Helm, “a bit like being over water. Everything is moving.” We like the terra firma of Pauline letters with its logical sequences and familiar structure. Even historical literature is easier to preach than this strange, other-wordly genre. But as I’ve launched into Revelation with fear and wonder, I’ve discovered sparks of inspiration for my own outreach, as well as for my preaching.
In Revelation 10, a mighty angel speaks a revelation of God — most likely from the little scroll open in his hand. John would expect, at that point to write down what the angel has just said. But the flow of the plot is interrupted by a voice from heaven telling John NOT to write down what he just heard. So far, he had been told to do the opposite: “Write on a scroll what you see” (1:11). Here, however, he is commanded to seal up the words and instead to “eat the scroll.” When he does, just as with Ezekiel (3:1ff), it tastes sweet to him, but settles in his stomach as something sour.
This John, who walked for three years with Jesus himself, this faithful apostle, this one who with Peter said to the opposition rulers “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard…,” this John has been no pushover in the work of the kingdom. He is a strong apostle and a faithful witness of Jesus Christ. Surely he has earned the right to simply continue writing down what he sees and hears. What more could a man of his stature in the first generation of Christian leaders need?
Apparently, he needs courage. God stops John and tells him not to write down what he has heard, but rather to eat it. The message that he must deliver (whether you interpret that to be to believers or to unrepentant rebels of God), is a hard one. Like Ezekiel, he must internalize the Word of God so that it gives him courage. In God’s mind, John needs his backbone reinforced to deliver a hard message. It’s the final message of God’s end-game upon the world. For this he will need new courage — and that can only come from the internalized Word of God.
Only after John eats the scroll, the voice from heaven says “You must prophecy again….” Now John is ready to continue as a witness and a prophet.
There is a message for all of us who wish to be an effective witness for Christ. If John needs to eat the scroll, how much more do we need to devour the Word of God. No we are not great prophets. And without a doubt, our message often needs to come with years of patience, in the context of loving service, and in the gentleness of humble relationships. But for all of the ordinary, everyday-ness of our relationships and conversations, we are still ambassadors of Christ, speaking his words of truth and mercy to others. And so we need God’s word in us deeply. We need to speak and live the gospel of grace from the inside out.
Jesus taught that, “The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart…. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45). For us to eat the scroll is to continue in a lifetime of reading, meditating on and applying the Word of God. It is the food of our heart. Our true hope for bearing fruit and for speaking the gospel effectively to others is that we are first filling our heart with the rich feast of God’s Word. Eat and share.