Reading Revelation Responsibly
Revelation, the last book of the Bible, is one of the most used and mis-used books in all of Scripture. On the one hand, some followers of Jesus tend to neglect it almost entirely, fearing its strange symbolism and the use to which others have put it. On the other hand, some fixate on the book, treating it as a puzzle to be decoded or as a step by step narration of the end times.
Revelation, however, is none of these things. The book of Revelation, also known as the Apocalypse, is not a puzzle book but is more like a picture book. It is not so much concerned about the timing of the end of the world, but rather with how to live faithfully in the world in the here and now. Using colorful symbolism and imagery drawn from the Old Testament prophets, Revelation ultimately centers around the same message as every other book in the Bible—Jesus Christ and his kingdom. When we learn to read Revelation in this way, focusing on its central message of Jesus, new imaginative vistas of discipleship and worship open onto our horizon.
Reading the book of Revelation is not so much about explaining every symbol, recognizing every Old Testament allusion, and mastering all the details. Rather it's about hearing and heeding the book's call to faithfulness in the face of suffering, clinging to Jesus amidst false idols of this age, and holding on to the hope of Jesus' second coming despite all appearances to the contrary. If we read the book with these goals in mind, we will encounter a rich spiritual feast. Below are some tools to aid you in discovering the riches of Revelation for yourself.
Just what is Revelation, anyways?
To understand Revelation, we first need to have a basic grasp on what type of literature it is. Should it be interpreted strictly literally? Is it all about the future and the timing of the end of the world? Or does it have some other purpose entirely? We get a clue to help us answer these questions in the very first verse of the book.
Revelation 1:1 declares that it is a "revelation" or, in the original language, an "apocalypse of Jesus Christ." In the first-century the word apocalyptic didn't mean 'catastrophic' or 'something about the end of the world,' but rather signified an 'unveiling' or 'disclosure.' Apocalyptic writing was a distinct genre of literature that drew heavily from sections of the Old Testament prophets (Ezekiel, Daniel 7-12, Isaiah 24-27, Zechariah, etc.) and that carried a unique and specific function.
The function of apocalyptic literature, also sometimes called "resistance literature," was to sustain the people of God in times of crisis. Literature of this genre offers a critique of the ways things are, exhorts its readers to faithfulness and defiance, and gives hope by forecasting God’s ultimate victory over evil and the opposition that is being faced. And when we turn to the book of Revelation, we find that this is precisely what it does.
Most scholars believe that Revelation was composed sometime in the mid-90s A.D., by a certain John who was likely exiled to the island of Patmos by the Roman Empire (see Rev 1:9). He wrote to seven distinct churches (Rev 2-3) in what is now modern day Turkey, both about their current situation and about things that were “soon to take place” (Rev 1:1). Like a good author of apocalyptic literature, John calls the churches to resist the seduction of Rome and the ideologies of their day that are foreign to the gospel, and to remain faithful to Christ and endure even amidst much opposition.
Keeping in mind this purpose is of immense help when reading Revelation because it helps us know why John was writing. He wasn't writing to offer a step by step narration of the end times or to answer every question we might have about the timing of Jesus' return. Rather, he was calling first-century Christians to faithfulness in the midst of persecution. Knowing this helps us in turn to heed John's call to faithfulness and endurance in our own lives.
But what about all the strange imagery in Revelation? What is the book really about?
In J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, the hobbit Bilbo memorably tells his nephew Frodo, “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door. You step into the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.” Entering the book of Revelation can likewise be dangerous and we can quickly be swept off our feet by minor details if we’re not careful. To avoid this pitfall we must stick to the road—the central message and point of the book.
This central message of Revelation becomes clear in the centering vision of chapters 4 and 5. It can be summarized as follows: God is in control over history, will bring it to completion in Christ, and in the meanwhile calls his people to remain faithful amidst opposition, knowing that Jesus has already conquered and secured for them a new heavens and a new earth.
Out of this central message flow several other themes, which should be kept in mind when reading. Together these themes can help us keep our bearings in Revelation and not get swept up in asking questions the book isn't trying to answer (What is the exact date of Jesus' second coming?) or getting preoccupied with minor details (Why does the leopard have bear feet? See Rev 13:2)
An alternative vision of worship
The vision at the heart of chapters 4-5, as well as chapter 7 and other sections, highlights the worshiping community of all the saints praising Jesus, the lamb who was slain. This great multi-ethnic multitude gives its allegiance to Jesus, not Caesar, and finds its identity as it praises God and the Lamb.
The reality and temptation of evil and idolatrous counterfeits
Throughout Revelation we see that Christ’s enemies are attempted counterfeits of him, seeking to lead his people astray. For example, many commentators see the Dragon (Satan), the Beast, and the False Prophet as forming a counterfeit trinity (Rev 16:13). The Beast tries to counterfeit the work of Christ, which is shown in the similarities between their descriptions—both Christ the Beast have many crowns (Rev 13:1; 19:12), are given various names (13:1; 19:11-13, 16), and have great power (12:5, 10; 13:2). These similarities raise the possibility of deception and therefore the call for God's people to resist deceit and be faithful to the Lamb (13:7-10).
The call to faithfulness and endurance
Revelation is written to churches facing persecution and repeatedly calls for “the endurance of the saints” (14:12). It is “the one who conquers” (2:7) and is faithful to Jesus who will receive a reward.
Jesus as the faithful witness
Jesus is repeatedly held up as the ultimate faithful and true witness to God, who has conquered for his people and resisted Satan's deceit (1:5; 3:14; 19:11).
The future hope of judgment and salvation
Despite the fact that the present may often look bleak, the slain Lamb has already secured the future of his people (13:8) and will return to bring justice to the earth (19:11-21).
How should Revelation be read?
Now that we have a basic grasp on the big picture of the book of Revelation, how do we actually understand it? After all, there are still many bizarre images, a host of strange numbers, and no obvious structure to follow. Because of this, here a several helpful principles to keep in mind that should help make sense of this strange but imaginative book.
Read the parts in light of the whole
As a complex book, we will not understand the details of Revelation unless we first have a grasp of its big picture. Before you get swept up into debates over particular verses or sidelined by a confusing paragraph or two, it is good to read the entire book from start to finish several times. This will help you to see its beauty, its narrative arc, and the big story it is telling.
Note the use of recapitulation
Revelation, while it advances a plot, does not follow a simple linear sequence of progression. Rather, through the use of various sets of sevens, it gives a picture of the sorts of trials and tribulations that will face Jesus’ church in the entire period between his first and second comings. The various sets of sevens (seven seals, seven bowls, seven trumpets) should therefore not be seen as an exact sequence of events, but rather are in all likelihood different angles onto the same picture. Just as a symphony advances many variations on a main theme, so also Revelation gives a complex polyphony of images all leading up to a climactic crescendo and goal.
Search for analogy rather than correspondence
The distinct images of apocalyptic literature are not meant to correspond in a one-for-one fashion to contemporary realities. Revelation reveals the nature of systems and ideologies that oppose Jesus and his kingdom, not the specifics of a certain government or time and place (note, for instance, that despite being written under Roman persecution, Revelation never once mentions the name of Rome).
Recognize that most of the bizarre language and imagery is drawn from and best interpreted in light of the Old Testament
Revelation is not a book that can be understood in a vacuum, but rather one that stands in the prophetic tradition of Israel. Sometimes its allusions to the Old Testament are obvious, such as the reappearance of the tree of life (Gen 2-3) in Revelation 2:7 and 22:2. Other times, however, the allusions are harder for us to catch. One commentator gives several such examples:
“The beast that emerges from the sea in Revelation 13 is a composite of the four beasts of Daniel 7, namely, the world kingdoms that oppress the saints until the Son of Man receives royal dominion from the Ancient of Days. The two witnesses of Revelation 11 are the two olives trees of Zechariah 4, “the two anointed ones who are standing by the Lord of the whole earth” (Zech 4:14). The woes of judgment that fall on the harlot Babylon (Rev 18) echo those that fell on Israel’s ancient oppressors, Tyre (Ezek 27) and Babylon (Jer 51; Isa 48).” (Dennis Johnson, "The Triumph of the Lamb," 12-13)
Knowing that the imagery of Revelation most likely comes from the Old Testament helps explain its often strange nature and reminds us that Revelation is not so much making up new material as showing how Jesus culminates and fulfills the message of all of Scripture.
Focus on the book’s call to faithfulness and counter-cultural worship
The effect Revelation is meant to have on us is not primarily confusion, puzzlement, or debate. Rather, it is meant to call us to faithfulness in the midst of trial. We will always understand and apply Revelation better when we ask, “How is this book calling me to be faithful to Jesus in the face of whatever opposition I might be enduring?”
Know that the numbers are not random, and probably are not even as strange as they may seem
In reading Revelation, it is easy to get tripped up by strange numbers that appear throughout. This is because, while we seldom or never use numbers to convey symbolic meaning, this is a common strategy in the book of Revelation. Here are a few basic rules for understanding and making sense of the numbers:
- 7 stands for completeness or fullness (The seven spirits of God in Rev 1 represent the fullness of the Holy Spirit; The seven trumpets in 8:6-11:18 symbolize complete judgment).
- 10 and its multiples usually signify something vast (the 10 heads of the dragon in Rev 12:3, the 1,000 years of Rev 20:2-7).
- 12 and its multiples usually signify the people of God, following after the 12 tribes of Israel (the 144,000 of Rev 7 represent the total people of God).
- 3 1/2 is also used in various forms (42 months=1260 days; in symbolic time a month is reckoned as 30 days) as half of the full 7 to represent a limited period of time (Rev 11:3; 12:6; 13:5)
Is there a structure to the book?
Revelation is a complex book and its structure will probably never be fully captured in a single outline. For example, there are various sets of the sevens that structure the middle portion (seven seals—4:1-8:1, seven trumpets—8:2-11:19, seven bowls—15:1-16:21), as well as an obvious introduction and conclusion (1:1-3; 22:18-21). When reading though, it can be helpful to keep in mind at least the big picture of the book, which can be summarized as follows.
1. Openings Vision of the Risen Lord & Messages to the Seven Churches (Rev 1-3)
2. The Central Vision of God and the Lamb (Rev 4-5)
3. Various Visions of Judgment and Salvation (Rev 6-20)
4. Culminating Vision of the New Creation (Rev 21-22)
Why should Revelation be read?
At the end of the day, reading Revelation can seem confusing, complicated, and maybe not worth the effort. Yet hopefully the resources above show that it can be responsibly understood and applied by any follower of Jesus. The book of Revelation is actually a rich feast, holding out blessing for those who commit themselves to its words and to studying and applying its message (1:3). We read Revelation ultimately for the same reason we read every other book of the Bible—to know Jesus more. And Revelation is uniquely helpful in this quest, as it opens our imaginations onto the current reign of Jesus in history and calls us to persevere and trust him in the midst of all of life's trials.
As we read and study Revelation together, we hope to have our imaginations re-formed by Scripture, and together to heed the book's call of faithfulness to Jesus amidst this present passing age.
If you’d like to go deeper in your study of Revelation, here are a few resources we’d recommend.
Vern Poythress, The Returning King.
An extremely user-friendly commentary by a gifted scholar who is always evenhanded in his judgments.
Michael Gorman, Reading Revelation Responsibly.
If you're looking for something with an eye toward present concerns, this is your book. Gorman is particularly helpful in showing why many popular level readings of Revelation (think the Left Behind series) are misguided in their approach.
Eugene Peterson, Reversed Thunder.
A devotional and imaginative look at Revelation that will help you to appreciate the book's rich symbolism and imagery.
Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation.
A more technical and academic look at Revelation in its historical setting by a highly-regarded New Testament scholar. If you want to challenge yourself, this book is for you.
Appendix: Schools of Interpretation
Historically, Revelation has received numerous interpretations, ranging from the sound to the bizarre. Most responsible interpretations, however, fall into one of three camps, depending on when they see most of the events in Revelation as recurring.
The preterist interpretation sees the central events of Revelation as occurring in the past, usually in the first century or soon thereafter.
The futurist interpretation, in contrast, believes the majority of the events are still reserved for an undetermined time in the future, often in a brief period immediately preceding the second coming of Christ.
The idealist interpretation does not see Revelation as presenting events in a chronological sequence, but rather as portraying the entire period between Christ’s first and second comings in highly symbolic imagery. Thus, for instance, the various sequences of sevens (bowls, seals, trumpets) are usually seen not as separate sequences, but as depicting the same reality from several different angles.
Each school of thought has its own strengths and weaknesses and ultimately Revelation can be read well and applied soundly in any of the above frameworks. Surely, as the preterist approach reminds us, Revelation was written to a distinctly first-century audience with first-century concerns. Yet the futurist approach is also helpful in reminding us that much of the book surely does speak of the future, as all interpreters agree at least parts of it do (such as Rev 21-22). Finally, the idealist approach helps us keep in mind the present relevance of the book and its timeless call to faithfulness and endurance.