Rescuing Revelation

A User's Guide to Revelation - Week 2

(Thanks to Bronwyn Pound for the above picture).

Over coffee one day, I told my friend Delia that my house church was studying the book of Revelation. She’s gone to church her whole life, but confessed that all she knew and loved from this odd book at the back of the Bible were the comforting images of heavenly streets of gold and the promise of “no more tears”.

My friend isn’t alone. Before our community’s study, I felt exactly that way. Scenes of glory brought solace but…a sinister seven-headed monster, the great harlot who rides its back, rivers of blood, fire falling from the sky — these were the bits I just ignored in bewilderment. Some turn away in terror.

Worse still, others use it as a crystal ball to predict the future, or to speculate about the identity of the Antichrist. Revelation has a reputation as the most misinterpreted book of the Bible. It’s no wonder many people want little to do with it. Yet the book has much to offer provided we interpret it correctly.

And to do that, we need help. How quickly we reach for instructions to operate technology or assemble Ikea purchases, but when it comes to navigating baffling books, we assume we can jump in with little or no guidance. What better way to begin our study of this profound book than with a User’s Guide. Here are some guiding principles our community found helpful as we began our study.

Get beyond the sensationalism

Craig Koester points out that this is our first step. Those who focus on the scary bits and predict the end of the world are not actually reading Revelation, but creating a theological system by combining parts of the Bible together to paint a picture which the author never intended. Revelation’s call to the first readers was to persevere in the face of challenges, not to escape in some kind of rapture or provide prophetic timelines.

Wear the correct reading glasses

To understand Revelation you most definitely need to know what you are reading and how to read it, and the reading glasses we need are likely trifocal.

  • Literary lens — Many people read Revelation’s bizarre images thinking they need to be understood literally and used to predict the future, but this type of reading narrows the meaning and distorts the intended message. If it’s a book of predictions, the impression is that destruction is inevitable, like a hurricane you need to prepare for. Seeing the images in a literary and symbolic way broadens the meaning and is much more hopeful and encouraging. One helpful approach is to interpret Revelation’s imagery in much the same way as you would reading The Lord of the Rings or viewing Star Wars. Like Revelation, both are metaphorical battles between good and evil. From a literary perspective, we need to assume God is on the side of life not death. Death and violence are not the final words.

  • The lens of historical context — When we start to read Revelation, we begin with the 1st century, not the 21st, interpreting the symbols within their context, not ours. What did the images of Revelation mean for the first readers? Revelation was written to and for them first. What issues were they confronting which Revelation addressed? What was John trying to do to help them stay faithful in their context?

  • The lens of our own situation — After we’ve read it with 1st century lenses, we can more faithfully figure out what it means for us. Are we in the same world at all? In what way? The beauty of the Bible is that when we overhear a Word of wisdom in someone else’s context, we can receive a Word as well. The early Christians heard that despite dire circumstances, God is provident. Though it often doesn’t look like it, God’s sacrificial love rather than domination wins in the end. God is in the business of re-creating the world and establishing justice among nations and individuals. The hope of God’s ultimate reign sustains our long-suffering. All people will come into the Kingdom of God. These are simple and profound messages for us as well, even if sometimes they’re told in a complicated way.

Using the trifocal lenses of literary, historical context and our own situation corrects the focus. Not wearing them would be to miss the genius of the book. What is behind Revelation are not questions of when, or why, but rather of Who. Who is at the centre? Who is at the helm of history?

Who is this God in whose hands the future finally belongs? God as expressed through the sacrificial lamb is the Who of Revelation. A God whose love is neither retributive nor coercive but, as author Brad Jersak puts it, self-giving, co-suffering and all-embracing.

Putting these glasses on leads us to worship and to experiencing Revelation as a book of inspiration and hope. If you’re not blessed by reading Revelation, you haven’t read it right.

Don’t just read it alone

It’s also important to read Revelation in community, in the company of other faith pilgrims, whether in person or online in this study. When we read it in a covenanted Christ community with prayerful humility and through the lens of a “Love Letter” from a faithful father, we will hear the message of Revelation with ears of trusting children.

Keep turning the pages

Revelation has been described as cyclical,
with visions that repeat and overlap, rotating from bright and festive to ominous and threatening. A piecemeal reading suggests it’s all doom and gloom but as you keep turning the pages, you’ll discover it’s a book about hope. Every time there’s a threatening scene, a new one filled with possibility is on the next page.

The violence in Revelation keeps getting softened and turned in another direction. Jesus responds to violence not with violence but by loving and even dying for his enemies, and giving us courage through his life. The really ironic thing is that John uses a violent genre, Apocalyptic literature, in order to do that.

Questions for Engagement — Week 2

  1. What are your associations with Revelation to this point? Have you ever studied it?
  2. Are any of these guiding principles to studying Revelation (getting beyond the sensationalism, using the trifocal lens of seeing the scripture literarily, in 1st and 21st century contexts, reading it in community, and to keep turning the pages) new to you? What came to mind as you read them?
  3. What are some guiding symbols or metaphors that have been helpful in your life?
  4. Why is it important to be focusing on our work today and not try to divine the future?
  5. Have you had an image of God that has helped see you through a tough time?
  6. How do you conceive of God speaking to you in your life? Do you trust your prayer experiences, dreams, the visionary experiences of others, official church statements, or other types of inspiration to guide your own life choices? Why or why not?

In case you'd like to read more…

  • This was shared last week, but is worth re-posting if you haven’t checked it out already. “How Do I Read the book of Revelation?” is a very helpful short interview with Craig Koester introducing the book of Revelation, plus a 20 minute audio interview.
  • Brad Jersak, A More Christ-Like God
  • In last week’s discussion, reader James L. Giddings shared a 3 hour video series by Koester about Revelation. It’s worth checking out. Thanks James!

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