I recently worked through a teaching series at Hope based on the book of Revelation. Because of the nature of the book and some of its complexities I prepared additional notes which we will compile together over time as an e-book. In the meantime i thought I would post them a section at a time on my blog.
Revelation is not for the faint hearted which is why many Christians have stayed well clear of this complex, yet extraordinary book. The great Reformer, Martin Luther said: ‘“to my mind, it [the book of the Revelation] bears upon it no marks of an apostolic or prophetic character… Everyone may form his own judgment of this book; as for myself, I feel an aversion to it, and to me this is sufficient reason for rejecting it.” Harsh comments from the founder of Protestantism! That it’s difficult to interpret is without doubt, so much so that it was the only book in the New Testament for which Calvin didn’t write a commentary. It was both its strangeness and lack of clarity over authorship – it’s widely acknowledged that the John referred to is not the Apostle John – that almost left Revelation outside the New Testament canon. Yet this book, edged as it was into the Holy Book by the ‘skin of its teeth’ has kept tongues wagging and debates rolling for Centuries. So, what are we to make of it and what place does the Apocalypse (which is what Revelation means) hold for the life of believers today? The answer lies in how we view the book, for what we see will determine how we interpret it and there are at least four ways this has been attempted over the years. But more of that later.
For now, we need to trace a path into Revelation that will help navigate a course and hopefully make the book more accessible. Like myself, many Christians approach Revelation as a predictive text for end times - in fact this has been the normal approach of late Nineteenth Century Christian Fundamentalism, however this will not be the way that I handle the text here. Over the years I have held many different views of the End Times (or Eschatology as it’s known) - in terms of when and how the ‘end of the age’ will come to pass.
My early Christianity led me to books by authors like Hal Lindsey - The Late Great Planet Earth and Approaching Armageddon. There was a lot of literalism tied into the interpretation along with diagrams of nuclear arsenals held between the United States and the then USSR. Such teachings led one to believe in either a pre, mid or post tribulation rapture - as if the rapture was a fundamental part of Christian Orthodoxy - rather than a more recent approach made popular by books like the Left Behind Series. Such teaching followed me all the way to Bible College and back out again. This time framed in the teaching of a more moderate and considered theology from David Pawson and his book, When Jesus Returns. What I appreciated about Pawson was his commitment to Scripture and interpreting it well, whilst at the same time acknowledging the different schools of thought in areas where the Church has held more than one view.
Entering the pastorate can easily take you away from theology and, if you are not well disciplined, the ongoing process of learning. In recent years it has led me to hold eschatology at a distance, but you can only do this for so long. Eschatology matters, because it is tied deeply to what we believe about the world we inhabit and the end of the age, and thus how we view and manage current social, economic, political and environmental issues. One might argue the value of this save for one matter of critical importance - the young. The Western Church - and particularly American Evangelicalism, which is usually then played out in UK Christian Culture too, is haemorrhaging millennials and young people. They are leaving the faith of their parents and this should matter to us. What we teach our young people about the future and theology, and in particular eschatology, matters. It is one of the issues that can help people disconnect from their faith altogether when the Church is seen to be dismissive of the world in which we live.
I grew up with the overriding narrative that Christ will return and the earth will be burned by fire therefore any work around conservation, climate change - the environment etc, was of little value. What mattered was seeing people saved - of getting them to heaven when they die. The gospel was very much framed around this idea. This was birthed out of a Platonical and dualist thinking about life and the separation of soul and spirit. Today we have a much broader understanding of the interrelated aspects of life. Science has served us well in this regard - we understand how the whole of life is connected and you can’t simply act in one area of life and not see the effect elsewhere.
People care about the world they live in. Pollution in our oceans; rising sea levels; disregard for the rain forests and the like cause us to wonder what is happening in the world and move the young to ask - what we are doing to this one, beautiful planet? Poor eschatology has done a bad job of answering this which is why we must do better.
When reading apocalyptic literature, which is what we read in Revelation, and other Bible passages like Daniel 7 and the Olivet discourse in the gospels, Matthew 24, Luke 21, Mark 13 (amongst others), we need to understand what is happening. The language of destroy, I believe, would be better replaced with that of renew, restore and reconcile. God is in the business of reconciling all things to himself in Christ (Colossians 1:20). So what does this look like?
I will be approaching our study of Revelation from this perspective since I believe this is the most pastorally relevant. As Michael J. Morgan writes ‘How one reads, teaches, and preaches Revelation can have a powerful impact on one’s own—and other people’s—emotional, spiritual, and even physical and economic well-being. Therefore, interpreting the book of Revelation is a serious and sacred responsibility, not to be entered into lightly. Furthermore, although Scripture is a living word from God that can bring a fresh message to people in changing contexts, with respect to Revelation it must be clearly stated that some readings are not only inferior to others, they are in fact unchristian and unhealthy.’
That Revelation should be read as a subversive text has its clue not only from its genre but also its historical context. It teaches how to live in the face of dominant empires that are calling for the devotion that is reserved for God himself. It also highlights our tendency to idolatry and how we must avoid this form of duplicity. Our lives are to be given to the Lamb sacrificed is what Revelation teaches or as Morgan puts it: ‘Revelation is not about the antichrist, but about the living Christ. It is not about a rapture out of this world but about faithful discipleship in this world.’
I am approaching my studies as a pastor rather than a scholar and therefore draw heavily on the work of scholars in interpreting Revelation. My role is to shepherd and so I will spend most time looking at how we should read the book devotionally and pastorally as humble servants of Jesus - or, as we will see, the Lamb.
Time will be given to investigating the text in its original setting since this is the first point of interpretation. As Dr Van Shore says, ‘First century Jews and Christians were familiar with apocalyptic literature and motifs, it is appropriate to locate Revelation within the flow of Jewish apocalyptic literature of the period, concerning the conventions available to Revelation’s author and audience.’ It’s helpful to realise that what we read as strange, for the Jews of the New Testament, the language and imagery was common place and formed a genre of which we find lots of examples outside of Scripture and was very popular in the 1st Century.
We should only ask what Revelation means to us when we have answered - what did the book mean to them? As Schussler Fiorenza points out, ‘it is universally acknowledged that Revelation has to be understood in its historical-cultural and religious context’.
John writes Revelation to seven historical churches situated around Asia Minor - it is only in appreciating what it meant to them that the book can have any value to us. Our first job is historical clarity before we consider contemporary application. There is for sure a contemporary application to Revelation - one more relevant today than ever, but that is not so much to predict the end of the age as it is to live as faithful followers of the one who is the Alpha and Omega.
A Cosmic Story set in the Context of a Global Empire
Revelation tells a story – it’s a story about God’s call to faithfulness in the face of a dominant Empire. The Empire is Rome – Babylon, the beast or the Whore, as depicted in the book. The challenge is how these small groups of Jesus followers will live in the light of such domination. As Morgan writes, ‘No one can read Revelation without sensing that it tells a story, even if that story does not have a merely linear progression. There are major and minor characters, there is conflict and resolution, there is even a plot. Some have even likened Revelation to an ancient drama, complete with Greek choruses that burst into (liturgical) song, providing commentary on, as well as respite from, the dramatic action.’
The story unfolds through five main plots as described by Morgan.
1. Creation and re-creation. This is the story of the faithful, missional, creator God bringing humanity and all creation to its proper end: reconciliation, harmony, and eternal joy in the presence of God.
2. Redemption. This is the closely related story of the faithful, missional, redeemer Lamb living, dying, reigning, and coming again to carry out the creator God’s mission and create a faithful, missional people.
3. Judgment. This is the story of the faithful, missional God and the Lamb bringing an end to evil as a necessary means for the purpose of re-creation and final redemption.
4. Witness: the suffering pilgrim church. This is the story of a faithful, missional people on earth who have been redeemed by the Lamb and empowered by the Spirit to worship and bear witness to God and the Lamb in spite of danger and persecution.
5. Victory: the church triumphant. This is the story of the faithful, missional people who worship God and the Lamb now and forever in their presence, the appropriate reward for their faithfulness even to death.
The question is how do we enter this story today? What do beasts, dragons, and plagues have to do with 2019 and the world we live in? Again, we are not studying Revelation as a text that offers a chronological unfolding of world events but rather a drama through which the call to devotion in the face of opposition lies at its core. Most of my reading has drawn on the work of contemporary scholars who will readily acknowledge that the entire book of Revelation ‘is a critique and parody of the Roman Empire and of the cult of the emperor that was rampant in the Roman province of Asia in the second half of the first century’.
Taking this approach, it’s helpful to clarify the different ways in which Revelation as a book and other apocalyptic literature in the Bible has been viewed. In the main there are four: Futurist, Preterist, Historicist, Idealist.
Revelation - Four Basic Approaches
David Pawson in his book, When Jesus Returns, explains the four approaches as:
Preterist – The predictions [of Revelation] were fulfilled during the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, when the church was under the pressures of imperial persecutions.
Historicist – The predictions cover the entire church age between the first and second comings of Christ. It is a coded history of ‘anno domini’ in symbolic form, covering the major phases and crises of the entire period. So the fulfilment is past, present and future to us. We are right in there and from what has already come to pass we can know what is next on the programme.
Futurist – This approach believes that the central block of predictions applies to the last few years leading up to the second coming. It is therefore still future to us today, hence the label.
Idealist – This approach removes all specific time references and discourages correlation with particular events.
Revelation pictures the ‘eternal’ struggle between good and evil and the ‘truths’ can be applied to and century.
In examining the futurist view further, we see it teaches the events of Revelation, in the main have still to be fulfilled in the future. The most common form of this approach today is dispensationalism, popularized especially by the Plymouth Brethren teacher J. N. D. Darby (1808–82), then by the Scofield Bible.
Van Shore writes, ‘Fundamentalists are adamant that Revelation, supplemented by a few other portions of the Bible, contains a systematic doctrine of the end times. Hence, secondary works that most capture the public’s attention are those that read Revelation as literal predictions of events and persons in our own time. Lindsey (1971) is an example of the reformulation of the apocalyptic theme into cultural commonplaces of continuing relevance. Krodel critiques Lindsey’s premillennialist use of the Bible “as God’s gigantic jigsaw puzzle to help us figure out the final events” (1989: 28). He says, The notion of divine rapture from the inevitable holocaust buttresses self righteous, narcissistic smugness; the rejection of negotiations and compromise with our international opponents divides nations along lines of absolute good and absolute evil. The premillennialist ideologies concerning the State of Israel have made their devotees deaf to the cries of Palestinians and to the need of a shared humanity (1989: 28).
The dominant reading in popular Christian culture of Revelation has been a literal reading in which all the apocalyptic symbols are made static and the text is ripped out of its first century C.E. context. Pippin says that, Fundamentalists actually rewrite Revelation to fit their own conservative political agendas, which are based on cold war rhetoric of the Soviet Union as ‘other’ or on any political threat perceived as ‘other’ (1994: 109).’
Although dispensationalism held ground strongly in the Evangelical community of the 70’s and 80’s especially in America, recent scholarship is bringing about change – a change noted mostly by turning to a preterist approach to Revelation. Richard Middleton in his book, A New Heaven and a New Earth writes, ‘Preterist interpretation, which is standard in Old Testament scholarship, interprets prophetic literature as addressing the prophet’s own situation with a message about God’s historical intervention for judgment and salvation. A preterist approach to New Testament eschatology results in taking the prophecies of Jesus in the Olivet discourse (Matt. 24; Mark 13) or John’s predictions in the book of Revelation as primarily addressing events and issues of their own day. This is the position of many (if not most) New Testament scholars, though in addition most would claim that Jesus and John also looked ahead to a final cosmic fulfilment at the second coming.’
The shift has several things at heart which are real keys in our understanding. Modern scholarship which over time finds its way into the popular main stream is driving real change from what was seen as ‘rescue and remove’ eschatology to a holistic eschatology that understands the work of God as redemptive in creation as a whole. Or, as N. T. Wright puts it: “God’s rescue of the created order itself, rather than the rescue of saved souls from the created order.” But change is at work amongst progressive dispensationalists too. Middleton notes ‘R. Todd Mangum, who has impeccable dispensationalist credentials (a doctorate from Dallas Theological Seminary and a recipient of the John F. Walvoord Award for outstanding work in eschatology) admits that “little good has come of dispensationalists’ emphasis on a pre-tribulational rapture up to now; there is promise for even less good to come of such emphasis in the future.”103 He suggests that dispensationalists adopt a posture of “rapture agnosticism,” both because of the doctrine’s negative ethical effects and because it is not clearly taught in Scripture.’
A Theological Poem
There is however a further way we can approach Revelation and that, in the words of Eugene Peterson as a ‘theological poem’ that ‘does not call for decipherment’ but ‘evokes wonder’ which to my mind draws us to worship. Worship is at the heart the Revelation – all God’s people worship him. And this approach directs what is the emphasis of our journey into the Apocalypse for the deeper the mystery the greater the worship. At its best Revelation stirs our heart to devotion in the face of any trial and tribulation we may face.
Getting to Grips with the Structure
Although our studies in Revelation are not exegetical – we are not taking an in depth chapter by chapter or verse by verse approach there is value in having an overview of how the book is laid out. The book s a whole can be broken into three main sections: Opening Vision and the Letters to the Churches – Revelation 1-3; Centering Vision of God and the Lamb – Revelation 4-5; Visions of the Judgement of God – Revelation 6-20; Final vision of the New Creation – Revelation 21-22
N.T. Wright gives an helpful overview when he writes:
‘We have already had the seven letters to the churches. Now we are to be introduced to the seven seals, which are opened between 6.1 and 8.1. The seventh introduces a further sequence, the seven trumpets, which are blown one by one from 8.6 to 11.15. Then, at the centre of the book, we find visions which unveil the ultimate source of evil and its chief agents: the Dragon, the Beast from the Sea and the Beast from the Land – and also a vision of those who have somehow defeated these monsters (chapters 12—15).
This then leads into the final sequence of seven: the seven bowls of God’s wrath, the final plagues which, like the plagues of Egypt (15.1), will be the means of judging the great tyrannical power and rescuing God’s people from its claws. These bowls of wrath are poured out in chapter 16, but their effect is described more fully in chapters 17 and 18, leading to the celebration of victory over the two Beasts in chapter 19. That only leaves the old Dragon himself, and the last twists of his fate are described in chapter 20. This then clears the stage for the final unveiling of God’s eventual plan: the New Jerusalem in which heaven and earth are joined fully and for ever.’
I trust you will find what is to follow interesting and helpful, that it might be accessible by way entering the book and challenging for each as it draws out of us a deeper devotion to the Jesus. And might these wide words from Wright help us gauge our studies well:
‘Perhaps at this point above all the rest of the New Testament, in my experience – it doesn’t do to be too dogmatic. We must hold on to the central things which John has made crystal clear: the victory of the lamb, and the call to share his victory through faith and patience. God will then do what God will then do. Whether we describe the final events as Revelation 20 has done, or as Paul does in Romans 8.18–26 or 1 Corinthians 15.20–28, it is clear that the one who wins the victory is the creator God, who does so to defeat and abolish death itself and so to open the way to the glories of the renewed creation. That is what matters.
Our study is over 5 sessions which are:
Session One The Devotional Quest
Session Two The Centring Vision
Session Three The Faithful Witness
Session Four The Just Cause
Session Five The Ultimate Reality
 Reading Revelation Responsibly; Michael J. Morgan. Location 111
 Reading Revelation Responsibly; Michael J. Morgan. Location 132
 Dr Van Shore – Doctoral Thesis. Having Ears to Hear: John and the Audience of Revelation. p.89
 Dr Van Shore – Doctoral Thesis. Having Ears to Hear: John and the Audience of Revelation. p.37
 Reading Revelation Responsibly; Michael J. Morgan. Location 887
 Reading Revelation Responsibly; Michael J. Morgan. Location 898
 Reading Revelation Responsibly; Michael J. Morgan. Location 941
 Dr Van Shore – Doctoral Thesis. Having Ears to Hear: John and the Audience of Revelation.
 J. Richard Middleton, A New Heaven and a New Earth. P.308
 N.T. Wright, How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels
 J. Richard Middleton, A New Heaven and a New Earth. P.308
 N.T. Wright – Revelation for Everyone, p.43
13] N.T. Wright – Revelation for Everyone, p.181