Rather than giving a “best of” list, reflections on 2017, or goals for next year, I thought it would be appropriate for my last blog of the year to include thoughts on approaching the last book of the Bible: the Book of Revelation. Over the past couple of months I have had several people ask for my thoughts on Revelation and help in reading through this difficult to understand book of the Bible. As we have just celebrated the first coming of Jesus at Christmas, it seems useful and fitting to talk about Revelation, which deals with his second coming. Space obviously prevents me from talking about every single detail that occurs in the Book of Revelation, but I hope that these seven ideas will be helpful to you when you next read the book. (If you are looking for a book to help you understand Revelation, I would recommend William Hendrickson’s More Than Conquerors.)
- Remember the Audience
The Book of Revelation was not written for a church that is comfortable and safe, but rather for one that was facing persecution and opposition. This truth becomes very apparent in the first few chapters and continues throughout the book, as Jesus sends letters to churches experiencing persecution and encountering false teachings. Thus, Revelation gives hope and confidence to people, assuring them that even if they are called to suffer or die for their faith, God is in control and has a plan. In addition, we need to remember that Revelation, just like every other book of the Bible, had an original audience to whom the symbols made sense and would help; we must read it with the original audience and setting in mind. It is not meant to be a book to simply answer questions about the future or to give us some sort of special knowledge.
- Remember the Genre
I am the first to admit that I don’t “get” most art, but Revelation is more like a work of art than like a photograph — there are all sorts of symbols that are meant to convey certain feelings. In the quest for knowledge and understanding, don’t overlook the poetic elements; there is something special about using symbols and images as opposed to just making statements. The use of symbols might also indicate to us that numbers (i.e. 144,000) might be less about precision (saying this is the exact number, not one more or one less) and more about symbolism (this is a complete number of all people, etc.); the falling of the stars and rolling back of the sky (6:14) might be a vivid way of saying everything is changing rather than a specific event. I even wonder if the genre should remind us that there will be some mystery and wonder, that we might not have every question answered.
- Remember the Big Picture
There are many symbols and details in the book – seals, trumpets, horns, creatures, numbers, and the like. At times, we can get so caught up in the details that we can forget the big picture, which is that even in the midst of the world spinning out of control and the church being attacked, Jesus is in control and will take care of His church. Just as when you read a parable, you need to focus on the story and big picture and not every detail, so that might be the case here – that we need to remember the big idea and big picture and not focus on the possible meaning for every detail, especially ones that are not explained.
- Remember the Old Testament
Imagery from the Old Testament permeates the book, often in the form of allusions rather than direct quotations. When it talks about the Son of Man, it refers to an image in Daniel 7. The four creatures mentioned in Revelation 4 should remind us of the creatures in Ezekiel 1. The new heavens and new earth alludes to Isaiah 65 and 66, and the new Jerusalem to Ezekiel 48, with the Garden of Eden evoked in Revelation 22. There are other allusions: for example, the woman and the dragon in Revelation 12 recalls Genesis 3:15, Gog and Magog in Revelation and Ezekiel 38 and 39. The list goes on and on. If something is confusing, go to the Old Testament to help figure it out.
- Remember the Possibility of Cycles and Not Just Linear Development
When some read the book of Revelation, they assume that the book is the unfolding of the future and therefore, this event occurs, then this one, then this one, etc. But the nature of literature like Revelation is that it can be cyclic; it can be telling the story one way and then telling it another way. This may cause confusion as we try to fit all the things into a sequence as opposed to thinking of it as the same basic story (between Christ’s first and second comings) told from multiple perspectives with multiple emphases. This principle might help us get our minds around issues such as in Revelation 6:14, where it is stated that the stars fall out of the sky and heaven is rolled back (which sounds like the end!) but then the book goes on, or that many of the judgments seems similar (compare the second and third trumpets in 8:8-11 with the second and third bowls in 16:3-7). There is even a bit of mystery in Revelation 19 and 20, as Revelation 19 speaks of all opposition being defeated but then in Revelation 20:7-10 there is another rebellion. The answer might be that they are consecutive events but rather the same thing told again.
- Remember the Already–Not Yet
What I mean by this statement is the idea that Jesus has come and reigns now, but yet there is a final day in which his kingdom will come in its fullness. We are living between those times. We believe this because the New Testament shows us that the promises of the end times of the Old Testament are happening now (see Acts 2:17-41). Therefore, rather than focusing on identifying who the antichrist is based on news headlines, we need to remember what 1 John 2:18-23 tells us that we are in the last days now (while waiting for the last day) and the spirit of the antichrist is out there. When we read Revelation, we need to also prepare for persecution and false teaching in our lives now, not just later.
- Remember 2 Timothy 3:16-17
This famous passage says: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” I bring this up as a reminder that this book is meant above all to equip us for good works, not just for knowledge. Reading Revelation should lead to us being better servants of God in this world.
As we enter into a new year and have new goals and aspirations, may we continue to look forward to Christ’s return and have the reality of His life, death, and resurrection to give us hope for the present.
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