I’m having a rather strange afternoon and an even stranger Christmas. While Christmas lights twinkle in the corner of my eye, my head is stuck in commentaries on Revelation.
It’s not normally what I do in the month when Christmas jingles hum away in the background. It’s just that we’re planning to preach Revelation in the first half of 2019.
Given the magnitude of the material, I’m doing a ‘tad’ more than usual in forward prep.
So for those who might be interested (and hopefully that’s every Bible reader!) let’s see if we can ‘unwrap’ Revelation just a little. This book is one of God’s greatest gifts to the church!
Reading Revelation Well
1. Our conviction should be that Revelation is just that – a revelation (or disclosure) from God. Thus while some things are hard to interpret, Revelation does not present itself as an impenetrable book. God is not trying to bamboozle us.
2. Allied to the first point, the major themes of Revelation are mainstream. Its big ideas aren’t novel. Or quirky. One could could even argue that Revelation is a summary and climax of Biblical story and doctrine. Creation; divine sovereignty; Christ’s death, resurrection and return; the overcoming of evil; the victory of the church; the final judgement and new creation – these are not exactly new themes! It’s true they are presented in an unusual and climactic form. But behind the strange imagery is glorious old Bible and gospel.
3. The overall purpose of Revelation (to present suffering believers with a vision of God’s purposes that will sustain them to remain faithful to the Lamb) must constantly be borne in mind. Without this purpose anchoring us Revelation quickly becomes academic and speculative. Worse still, a little knowledge of Revelation can translate (and inflate!) into a big head. So we read Revelation for kudos, to impress our friends with our ‘eschatology’ (see how I wowed you with that big word?).
Yet Revelation isn’t designed to grow our ego. It is meant to enliven our faith, strengthen our perseverance and enrich our worship.
4. Revelation combines three ‘genres’ from a literature standpoint, and each of these genres is significant.
Remembering that Revelation is a letter will keep us from de-historicizing it.
Remembering that Revelation is an apocalypse will keep us from over-literalising it (it is highly symbolic, though the symbols do have reference reality).
Remembering that Revelation is prophecy will keep us from de-supernaturalising it (it is God’s word spoken into the present and future).
5. Whatever interpretation approach we lean to (there are at least four main ones), there is probably some truth in each of them.
Clearly, parts of Revelation need to be seen in light of their first century background (Preterist). There are undoubtedly many predictions about the future (Futurist). Revelation does have applications to every age of church history (Historicist – though I do not think Revelation is prophesying the entire church age). And yes,, there are certainly big ideas that are meant to instruct the church (Idealist).
This is not to suggest that we should minimise differences between interpretations. It is only to say that they shouldn’t be presented as entirely separate options. For myself, I am probably a blend of Preterist, Idealist and Futurist perspectives. Yet I think that any of these approaches, taken to an extreme, can restrict and skew the correct interpretation of certain passages. We must let the text lead us to whatever it leads.
6. The structure of the book is difficult to discern, but we can certainly note the letter’s opening and closing, the introductory vision and letters (ch 1-3), the opening vision of God’s throne (ch 4-5), the visions that focus largely on God’s purposes being worked out in destruction (6-20) and in a new heaven and new earth (21-22).
There is a growing consensus that chapters 4-5 are something of an introduction to the following visions. They establish the hidden spiritual reality of God’s sovereignty in creation, redemption and judgement. In the rest of Revelation, we see God through Christ bringing to pass his sovereign purposes. It is also often argued that the number 7 is significant in the book’s structure. It may be that the book has seven or even eight sections (among others, Revelation scholar Greg Beale argues this).
7. The order of the book is not entirely chronological. As is true in other apocalyptic writings, Revelation seems at times to ‘spiral’. There is a cyclical nature to it. The ‘end’ seems to come more than once in the book! Rev 11:15-20 seems a particularly clear example of the final end of history. Yet the visions and the book continue!
8. The Old Testament is an interpretive key to Revelation. There are more than 400 Old Testament ‘allusions’ (not quotes) in the book. It is important that we don’t simply guess at what the images in Revelation may mean. We should ask: where have we seen this image before in the Bible? (eg. The vision of Christ in Revelation 1 uses images largely drawn from the book of Daniel).
9. We should interpret the text symbolically (not literally) unless shown otherwise. This is a highly significant choice in terms of interpretation. Some readers take the opposite approach: they assume a literal interpretation unless they are forced to interpret symbolically.
Everyone accepts that there is at least some symbolism in Revelation. For example, everyone recognises that the slain lamb is symbolic of Christ, and not an actual lamb. Yet more literal interpreters refuse to recognise that most of the book is symbol-laden.
In my opinion, this literal approach fails to recognise the genre. We wouldn’t read poetry in a rigidly literal way. Nor should we do so with apocalypic/prophetic material.
Note: Recognising symbolism is not the same as saying that there is no literal meaning beneath the symbol. Christ isn’t a physical lamb, yet the image has real meaning (he was slain as our perfect substitute sacrifice).
10. There will inevitably be some points of disagreement when it comes to understanding Revelation. Some see much of Revelation as being fulfilled in a coming tribulation at the time of Christ’s return. Some discern a future millennium period when Christ will return on earth. Others see none of these things.
We need to lay out alternative views respectfully. We need to argue our own position, and recognise the points of agreement where we can.
This is where the Idealist approach can prove helpful. People of different end times convictions can still rejoice in the overarching thought of Christ’s reign (Revelation 20), or speak of the need to persevere through trials and tribulations, or agree that (however it will happen) Christ is coming again.
I heard of a seminary professor who totally disagreed with the Left Behind books. Despite his reservations, he wasn’t that bothered that his kids were reading them. He would share his different views if they asked, but was happy that they were growing in their longing for Christ’s return.
11. At the end of the day, this is difficult stuff. We’re not going to get all of it right. We need to be humble about the conclusions we reach.
But we also need to see that much (even most?) of Revelation isn’t controversial.
The Lamb wins.
Surely we can all agree on that and be encouraged!