Reading Revelation: Keys for Comprehension

5103123377_a077e48196_bI have a confession to make: when I was kid, I never really paid attention in church. Oh, I went to church; my parents made sure of that (and good for them, too). But between Sunday School, Junior Church, and Sunday evenings in “big church,” I did a lot of daydreaming, a little napping, and quite a few Rorschachs with the multicolored pattern of bricks in the wall. But all of that changed when Dan Deatrick arrived.

He had come to lead several of the ministries in our church, and for some reason – I’m sure the Lord led him – he began to take our 1st-6th grade Jr. Church through the biblical book of Revelation. I sat there, rapt. Never had I been so interested in a sermon. That was in the Bible? I began reading Revelation in my spare time…OK, I actually read it during the Sunday evening services, but still! I must have been 7 or 8, and I was reading the Bible for myself! I was fascinated.

I still am, and so are many, many Christians today. Revelation holds such mysteries and fantastic characters that some find it hard to put down. For the same reasons, some find it hard to pick up. But I’ve met no one – Christian, that is – who has found it hard to ignore. Even non-believers are aware of it, even if they have no idea what it means.

They’re not alone, however. Many Christians are less than clear on its meaning, even if they’re captivated by it. Some have taken it as a roadmap of the future, or a Rosetta Stone of the present. Millions (billions?) of dollars have been made on this kind of thinking, and it has become a staple for certain publishing brands. One kind of church uses it to support the niche ministry of prophecy conferences, while another kind sees it as a sort of heavenly indictment of Rome. Opinions and interpretations vary wildly.

Yet it is in the Bible, as part of God’s revelation to his people. He means for us to read it and to understand it. In fact, in the third verse (1:3), He pronounces a blessing on those who do! Like I said: hard to understand, but hard to ignore. What are God’s people to do?

I suppose this is the part of the article where I tell you that I have the answer and am going to cut through the fog of millennia with a clear, simple interpretation that centuries of scholars must have been fools to miss. The Church has languished in ignorance until now, and with one blog post, I am now going to bestow my most humble, yet accurate interpretation of the 66th book of the Canon.

Haha! No.

But, as the Lord permits, our church is going to be walking through this book on Sunday evenings in 2014. In fact, this past Sunday evening we concluded our “Stories of the Bible” series that began a couple of years ago in Genesis 1. We ended with Revelation 1, and as we found its human author, John, on the Mediterranean isle of Patmos, we also found some keys to interpreting the vision he recorded in Revelation.

These keys come from the text of Scripture itself, and I offer them here with a word or two of application for those who are as fascinated by the Apocalypse as I am.

It’s All About Jesus (1:1)

Quick question: what is the name of the last book of the Bible? Take a look; the Bible actually tells us. It is “The Revelation of Jesus Christ.” This has two meanings: first, it contains something that has been revealed by Jesus Christ. But second, it is also reveals things about Jesus Christ. As John affirms in 1:2 and will write later in 19:10, this prophecy is all about bearing witness to Jesus.

If all we can do with Revelation is speculate about current events, we’ve missed the point. If dragons, demonic locusts, and global destruction are what fascinate us most, we’ve missed the point. The preacher who awes us with his knowledge of symbolic numbers, Jewish customs, and European politics – if he fails to set forth Christ – has missed the point.

The reader of Revelation should come away with a deeper knowledge, greater love, and more intensely passionate worship of Jesus Christ.

It’s About the Future…of the Past (1:1)

The first verse tells us that Jesus is revealing to his people things that must come to pass soon. There are a few ways of understanding this, such as the thousand-year-day principle (cf. 2 Pet. 3:8), but the plain fact is that John’s readers would have expected to see these things in their lifetimes. (Rev. 22:7, 10, 12, 20)

Jesus revealed this book to Christians living in the 1st century with the expectation that they would (or, could) see them fulfilled. That they didn’t – at least, it appears that they didn’t – leads many of us to conclude that much of Revelation awaits a future fulfillment. However, before we come to any conclusions about meaning or timing, we would be wise to ask how the 1st century readers would have understood this vision before attempting to apply it to readers of the 21st.

It Was Written to Be Read Aloud (1:3)

Jesus promises to bless those who read, and those who hear the words of Revelation. This reflects common church practice of the 1st century, where one person would read the Scriptures while the rest of the church listened. Now, I believe that Mr. Gutenberg did the world a favor, but we should remember that Revelation was originally delivered orally.

Why is this important? Because John was simply attempting to convey what he saw. He communicated sight through sound. He wasn’t writing a book in the way that we would think of it, to be parsed, studied, dissected. That’s not to say that we are unwise to dig as deeply as possible, but we should remember that some of the more intricate details may not have been so apparent to a listener. Elaborate eschatological frameworks should yield to overall impact and pastoral intent.

It Was Written to Be Obeyed (1:3)

James taught us not to be hearers of the word only, but also doers. (James 1:22) John agrees, for his blessing is pronounced not on hearers only, but those who hear and keep what has been written. This is a phrase that refers less to guarding something and more to observing something. It is in the spirit of the Old Testament (e.g. Deut. 4:2), which repeatedly speaks of “keeping” God’s commandments.

Strange, that a book of prophecy be obeyed.

Well, it’s only strange if we think of Revelation as a book of information designed to satisfy our curiosity. It’s not strange at all if we read it in the spirit of all the Old Testament prophets whose visions of the future were meant to have a direct application to their own people. Even when they couldn’t understand all the details, they were meant to hear words of comfort and conviction. Revelation is filled with pastoral applications. God obviously has more than our heads in mind with this book; he means to change our hearts.

It Is Rich In Old Testament Language (1:7)

Someone has counted something like over 270 OT references in Revelation’s 404 verses. That’s more often than every other verse. Bottom line: any understanding of Revelation must rely upon an understanding of the Old Testament. And not just the prophets, but the stories, the songs, and the laws.

And that means understanding the OT in its own context first. Revelation certainly adds to the OT and expands upon it, and some things in the OT can’t fully be understood without Revelation. But some things in Revelation just won’t make sense without OT assistance.

It Is Highly Symbolic (1:12-20)

Symbols are just one of the areas that require OT assistance. Revelation is full of them, and modern publishers have no shortage of books offering to explain every single one of them. But as some are fond of saying, “The Bible is its own best interpreter.”

That’s not to dismiss commentators or Bible scholars. Their help can be invaluable. But we ought to look to Scripture first, especially where the Bible explicitly explains what the symbols mean. Like Jesus does at the end of the first chapter. (1:20)

But where the Bible is silent and 1st century culture yields no clues, humility is probably the best way forward. Pride demands exhaustive knowledge and usually ends up too clever by half.

This is not a tightly organized treatise like Romans, and we shouldn’t read it in the same way. Not everything has to be explained (not everything can be explained!), and, as already mentioned, in a book like Revelation the why? is often more important than the what?

So, with these six points we move forward! I thought about coming up with seven, so as to avoid the number six and all its beastly connotations, but seven would imply perfection, which I definitely do not claim! My understanding is truly incomplete, though not unaided. Maybe the seventh help is the Spirit of God whose grace gives us both the understanding and faith to read a book like Revelation and end exactly where we’re supposed to be. On our knees, crying, “Even so, Come, Lord Jesus!”

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2 Responses to Reading Revelation: Keys for Comprehension

  1. Don says:

    I have been a student of Revelation for several years now. I am curious as to why you think those events did not happen just as the Scriptures say. The last chapter repeats “near” and “soon” several times as well. More importantly, were these words not inspired? It seems one would have to redefine the word “soon” as well as the word “must” in order to come up with “far” or “distant” and “may perhaps” as substitutes. Is your redefinition of “soon”, “near” and “close” due to favoring a Dispensationalist viewpoint? If so, would you consider informing your readers of that bias prior to reading your thoughts on Revelation.

    Do you also redefine “near” when the scriptures say that “Mary stood near the cross” or when they speak of Jesus drawing “near to the temple”? There are many other instances of “soon”, “near”, “close” and “at hand” which have to be ignored, redefined, or reduced to being uninspired in other ways. Take for example, James 5:8, “You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near”.

    To address the intended audience, are you also saying that the intended readers stated by John were not the same people who saw the events unfold? If not, then why would John tell us that the audience was the Churches in Asia in that time period if it was unture? After all, Galatians was written to the people in the area of Galatia, Ephesians was written to Ephesus, Colossians was written to the people of Colossae and so forth. On what basis can Revelation be shifted to be applicable to not only a different people, but a people living thousands of years later?

    • Don, you’ve asked some good questions and made me think. So, let me briefly give you a couple of answers. If you’d like to continue the conversation more in depth, then you can answer some of mine.

      First, one reason why I think certain events did not happen “just as the Scriptures say,” is that I do not know of any time in human history when Jesus descended from the heavens on a white horse, followed by the heavenly host, opposed by the beast and all the armies of the earth, in order to throw the beast and false prophet into the lake of fire and slay the rest of their allies. That’s just one example.

      Second, I think I can apply the words of Revelation to modern Christians on the basis of chapter 1 and verse 3 which pronounce a blessing on the readers, hearers, and keepers of its words.

      I apologize if these answers are unsatisfactory. If we were to continue the conversation in more depth, I might have time to develop them and others further.

      Now, my questions for you:
      1. Why do you think all these events happened “just as the Scripture says?” Is it because you favor the preterist viewpoint? (For the record, while I was indeed raised and schooled under the Dispensational – or futurist – view, I believe that the preterist, historicist, and idealist all make valuable contributions to the interpretation.)
      2. Do you accept the idea of imminency as a possible nuance to the definitions of “near,” et al, in eschatological contexts? (Imminency in the sense of “at any time,” as opposed to “in the next five minutes,” for example)
      3. Do you believe that the book of Galatians is applicable to us today? If yes, then wouldn’t your basis for believing that also include Revelation?

      Thank you, Don, for your thought-provoking questions. I look forward to your response!

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