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Reading and Understanding Revelation

People have many questions about the Bible and theology. When the participants in our small groups were asked what they would like to learn more about in future sessions, not surprisingly, a common topic was on Revelations.  As a pastor, I have received many questions over the years on how to read and understand the Book of Revelation. I think this is so common because Revelation can be both confusing and controversial. It is confusing because the writing style is so different than what we are familiar with and the rest of the New Testament. It is controversial because Christians have different viewpoints on what the book teaches regarding the present and the future. Some church traditions view Revelation teaching about a “rapture” (removal) of Christians before the last days (as shown in the Left Behind books and the movies). Others see us as living in the midst of this kingdom right now and that there will be a rebellion at the end -- and there are still other views. Some people refer to Revelation quite often  and make it a central tenet of their faith (and claim if you differ with them on Revelation, you are denying the truth), while others are more cautious and are even uncomfortable discussing it.

The confusion, controversy, and sometimes neglect of this book is unfortunate, as the book is God’s Word and meant to build up the church. The book is even said to give us a blessing (Revelation 1:3: “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near”).  I don’t think I will solve all the confusion or controversy surrounding this book, but I want to offer some tips to help us read and understand the book and be blessed by it. In the spirit of the book of Revelation, I will offer 7 tips - as that number is very prominent in the book.

  1. Remember the Audience

We must always remember that the Bible is for us but not to us -- the Bible speaks to our lives, but the books of the Bible were written to people in a different time and place. This is true of the Book of Revelation, as it was written for churches in the area known as Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) likely between the years 81 and 96 A.D. Churches in this area were experiencing persecution and facing challenges of false teaching, with emperor worship and conformity to the culture being key temptations they faced. As we read in chapters 2 and 3 of Revelation, some churches had done better than others, but all needed encouragement.  

  1. Remember the Genre

We approach various types of literature in different ways -- we do not read the comics of the newspaper the same way we read the front page of the news, and we do not read a satirical website in the same way as a reputable news source. The Book of Revelation is known as an “apocalypse” which is literature written for people being persecuted that describes the unveiling of heavenly mysteries through an angel or a dream. The angelic messenger or dream uses much symbolism (numbers, animals, etc.) to describe the battle between good and evil and the fact that God is in control and will bring all things right to His people in the end. Therefore, the book of Revelation is more like reading a poetic description of something from a history book, more similar to looking at a piece of art than reading a letter. The use of symbols might 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.), and 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. While we want to understand the nature of the symbols, we have to remember that poetic is not just about knowledge, but also about feelings. I even wonder if the genre should remind us that there will be some mystery, that some questions may remain unanswered.

  1. Remember the Possibility of Parallelism

When some people read the book of Revelation, they assume it is the unfolding of the future and, therefore, first this event occurs, then this one, then the next one, etc. But a common feature of Hebrew poetry and prophecy is parallelism:  something is said in one way, and then the same thing is said in a slightly different way. Therefore, one may view Revelation as having a cyclic structure, telling the story one way and then telling it another way (in fact, many say it is a book of 7 cycles). This principle of parallelism 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. Parallelism might explain why many of the judgments seem similar (compare the second and third trumpets in 8:8-11 with the second and third bowls in 16:3-7) or how there are people to be defeated in Revelation 20:7-10 after all the enemies have been defeated in Revelation 19 -- perhaps it is the same event from different perspectives.

  1. Remember the Nature of Symbolism

Because it is an ancient apocalypse, the symbols used in the book would make sense to the original audience, but might be confusing to us. For example, the audience knew the Old Testament better than we do. This is not meant to lower our self esteem but rather to help us know that much of the imagery of the book (both quotations and allusions) is from the Old Testament and permeates the book. 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. There were also common symbols in light of their place in the Roman empire; the description of future events uses symbols the original audience could understand.

  1. Remember that the End is Already Here But Also Not Yet

The New Testament shows us the promises of God that were to be fulfilled at the end of time are happening now (see Acts 2:17-41), but yet the end is not fully here; therefore, we can say that we are living in the end times, but not the last time. We need to think through how the truths of the book connect to us today, not just looking at the book as a map for the church. As an example, rather than trying to identify a particular person as the antichrist, we need to remember that 1 John 2:18-23 tells us that we are now in the last days (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. It is not just for the future, but also for the present.

  1. Remember How Satan Works

The Book of Revelation reminds us that Satan is real and shows us how he works. It shows him seeking to destroy Christ (Revelation 12:4), but also reminds us about his strategy.  Revelation 12 and 13 describe what many scholars call the “unholy trinity”: Satan, the antichrist/beast, and the false prophet. Note how this is a mimicking of the triune God; Satan always tries to replicate what God does as a way to deceive people. In fact, we see that the antichrist (also known as the beast) has a mortal wound that seems to be healed (Revelation 13:3),mimicking the death and resurrection of Christ. His deception, however, is always lackluster. In fact, many would point out the fact that the mark of the beast, number “666” (Revelation 13:18), is a picture of this imperfect imitation, as it has 3 numbers but they fall short of the number 7, the number of perfection. Satan imitates but the quality is not as good.

  1. 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, that is,  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. We must keep that in mind not only when we read the book, but also in our everyday lives; Revelation should inform how we read the headlines each day. It is not meant to be a book to simply answer questions about the future or to give us some sort of special knowledge, but one to give hope and comfort to its first readers and to us today.

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