Welcome to the first reading in the Book of Revelation. My hope is that you will have an interesting journey in this the last book in the larger metanarrative of Scripture. I also hope you enjoy this reading and respond to the interactive questions that are at the end of it.
A word about expectations. It was once suggested to me that if I had no expectations, I would never be disappointed. Having no expectations is a difficult task. I’m sure that some of you will bring to this present reading (and those that follow), expectations that I would have no way of knowing. Let’s get it out of the way up front, I will disappointment some of you by not addressing your expectations. But, my hope is that you will use the comment section in each reading to have an interaction with me and others about your concerns. I don’t promise to interact with every comment or try to answer every question that is posed. I’m not equipped to do that. I’m not sure that I know anyone that is. I might be able to give you some pointers to where to look or others joining in the conversation may have some valuable insights to share. All in all, we all have expectations, and with a book like Revelation, they are bound to be varied. Because you most likely have them, feel free to interact with others about them. As an old mentor of mine used to say, “Play nice!”
The Story of God
Scripture is the Story of God moving from Creation to New Creation. Tom Wright has suggested that Scripture could be seen like a five-act Shakespearean play that had four acts written out but, the final act was not finished, only a scene and some scribbles about how the play was to end. Within this rubric of thinking, then, Scripture could be broadly seen as:
- Act 1: Creation. Creating the Stage On Which the Story Will Be Acted Out (Genesis 1.1-2.4a)
- Act 2: Separation. From Dependence to Independence (Gen. 2.4b-11.26)
- Act 3: Israel. The Called People of God To Be the Light of the World (The rest of the Old Testament. I recently broke the Old Testament into ten (10) scenes in chronological order for the purpose of teaching.)
- Act 4: Jesus. The True Human Being (The Gospels)
- Act 5: Scenes 1-6. The Rest of the Story in the New Testament
- Act 5: Scene 7. The Final Scene. When Will New Creation Begin?
Over the last century much ink has been spilt in writings, many words have been spoken and recorded, many feet of film have been dedicated to, and many digital 0s and 1s have been created on the topic of the end of time. Despite the consistent writing about when the end is going to happen, there are only some hints in the Olivet Discourse (Matthew, Mark), information from Paul in 1 and 2 Thessalonians, from Peter in 2 Peter, and from John in Revelation about the consummation of the kingdom.
In the last century and continuing into this century, the words “second coming” and to some extent “eschatology” call to mind the term “rapture” because of much of the popularized teaching in this area. Rapture is very embedded into the evangelical and fundamentalist Christian mindset. In USAmerica, the recent Left Behind series of books and its brand of theology has further influenced the readers of Scripture to a somewhat mistaken understanding of the end of the Story.
In order to get a firm grasp on the storyline of a book, there are four things that are helpful.
There are four important aspects of history that are important for your pre-understanding of any passage of Scripture. These aspects will help you control the urge to read some twenty-first-century idea back into the first-century language.
Understanding who the author of the book or passage you are reading is will help you place the book into some historical context. As an example, when we study an Old Testament prophet like Hosea, it is helpful to know to whom Hosea ministered so that you can become aware of the situation which caused Hosea to speak and write as he did.
The author of Revelation tells us his name in 1.1. Tradition suggests that the John of Revelation 1.1 is John, whom Jesus loved, who also wrote the fourth Gospel and the three letters that bear the name John in the New Testament. This view goes back to Justin Martyr (ca. A.D. 140), along with Irenaeus, and others.
One of my professors, who had done his doctoral work at University of Southern California (USC), told a class one day that while studying and writing his dissertation, he had researched and written a bit over 500 pages on the authorship of Revelation, when his dissertation supervisor suggested that he take a position. He did. He told his professor that the author of Revelation was John, often called the Beloved, who Jesus called a “Son of Thunder.”
The point of this little story is that there has been a lot of discussion about this book’s authorship over the years, at least enough to fill a 500-page work-up for a dissertation. Yet, with all the discussion, it seems a reasonable conclusion that the disciple John was indeed the author, although that is contested in ongoing debates.
Why is all this important? To know the author is to have some understanding of the time frame. We’ll talk about date next. Knowing the author helps us know from other writings, if there are any, and in John’s case there are the Gospel and 1, 2, 3 John, how the author may think about certain things. Knowing the author may also help us understand the nuances he may have in his writing. All this helps us define with more precision what the author is trying to say, what his intent in writing was. After all, to understand the author’s intent as best as we can may keep us from drawing undue conclusions about what he was saying. In the final analysis, we don’t want to presume by a surface reading, which is a plague in today’s Bible reading society, that the author was saying something that he was not saying and thus make the Spirit, the author behind the human author, say something that he did not intend to say.
Knowing when the book was written adds to your toolkit specific information which can help you unlock the meaning of the Scriptural text.
Most scholarship believes the book was written in the mid ‘90s of the first century. It is likely that John was in his ’90s when he wrote this book to the seven churches that he cared for. Think about that for a moment. One is never too old to be used by God. What have we done to the “elders” in our midst in our society? Of course, different societies treat the aging differently. How are the “aged” treated in your part of the world?
In USAmerica, retirement came to fore with the Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR). One day while sharing breakfast with a friend of mine, who was in his early ‘80s then, and has now passed on, I asked him when he was going to retire. He told me he was raised pre-FDR and retirement was not a part of his thought patterns. It’s true. At his age, he was working as an active missionary to his own tribe of Native Americans in Wisconsin. He was still traveling and speaking. He was working on a college degree, and he was learning how to operate a business on the Net.
Nope! We are never too old. Our culture may have told us that and treated us that way, but there seems to be a different economy for the “elders” within the story of God.
Several years ago, I met with several elderly people. Of course, they don’t want to be thought of in that way. The folks lived in a low-income apartment building that was right behind the church facility where I participate with a community of faith, before the church moved. One of the folks in the church decided to reach out into that community and offer them food and conversation. It all began with the food being cooked and served to them. We graduated to sharing a meal that they cooked and then we talked about the Story of God and had a conversation about what we were learning. It was a delight! And I think they sense their usefulness.
Revelation was written at a time when the church was undergoing a great deal of persecution. The persecution that is often believed to be at the center of the book is the period during the reign of Domitian who died approximately A.D. 96. Most scholars affirm that Revelation was written about A.D. 95 or 96 from Ephesus.
The third pre-understanding, the receiver of the text, plays a major role in our understanding a specific passage. The circumstances determine the book. Understanding the makeup of the receiver will help you as a reader begin to solve the mystery of the text. As an example, if you choose to believe that James was written to a Jewish congregation, you will come to different conclusions than if you believe it was written to a mixed congregation of Christians. This bit of information helps us sort out the meaning of the text.
John makes it clear that he wrote this book to the seven churches, beginning with Ephesus and ending with Laodicea. There are short segments written to each one, and the overall book was written to all of them together.
In the New Testament, the authors are seeking to provide solutions for specific problems in specific churches. The books are ad hoc. They were written for the moment. As an illustration, not knowing that Paul was writing in direct response to specific problems, First Corinthians will make little to no sense.
Discovering the occasion and purpose of a biblical book is the most important piece of information that you can gather from outside helps. Here are some questions that will help you discover a book’s purpose:
- What were the customs of the people?
- What were the problems they faced?
- What were the needs of the people to which the book was written?
- What was going on in the church which caused the writing of this book? (New Testament)
- What was occurring in Israel which occasioned the prophet to say what he was saying?
The process of the discovery of this information gives a new set of presuppositions through which the content of the book or passage you are reading must pass.
By all accounts, the purpose of the book of Revelation was to bring comfort to the churches that in John’s time and ministry were suffering because of their lifestyle of following Jesus and to bring distress to the comfortable who may have identified too closely with the host community.
When being persecuted for the faith, receiving comfort is very important. Revelation’s main concern is to bring the comfort of God to his children in the midst of their difficulty. Thus, it is a book for all times.
There are some major themes within the pages of Revelation. Here are a few that we shall take a glimpse at as we journey through this book: Christ and his church; God’s presence in his church even in difficulty; God’s redemptive purpose in history; the creation of the new heavens and new earth.
So what shall we say about this book to help us along our journey toward decoding it?
What Kind of Book is Revelation
When you turn to the last book of the New Testament, you will find one of the least read and most difficult books of the New Testament. Yes, there are some well-known and favorite passages like, 3.20. It may be said that one of the reasons for the difficulty of understanding this book is because we don’t give much time to this genre. We know from reading it that there is a vast amount of symbolism that sounds funny to our present culture. So what kind of book is this anyway?
The book of Revelation fits in the genre of ancient literature called apocalyptic. It is the only book of its kind in the New Testament although there are other passages that are apocalyptic (Mark 13.1-37, Matt. 24.1-51). The word revelation is apocalypse and apocalypse can be defined as to uncover. There was a great mass of Apocalyptic Literature during the Intertestamental time. This period is now usually referred to as Second Temple Judaism.
We make decisions about genre on a daily basis. As we make them, our experience of the text we read changes, or in the case of the TV, how we see things. Viscerally, in our gut, one might say, we know the genre of a newspaper article as we are reading it. We know when what we are reading or hearing is a joke, or at least most folks do. When we read or see a commercial, we know it is a commercial and not some other genre of work. When one is in school and the teacher/professor hands out a test, we know what we are looking at and how it should be read. When we go shopping, we may carry a shopping list. What if we treated that like a great American novel? We know a sitcom from a mystery story. We know, have heard, and probably have read hundreds of bedtimes stories and know exactly what we are reading.
To know the kind of text is to help us understand what the text is saying. One might say that the reason there is so much insanity around the reading and understanding of Revelation is because there has not been sufficient interaction with the genre of literature it is.
One of the basic characteristics of Apocalyptic Literature is its stress on the sovereignty of God and that God will ultimately intervene and put his creation to rights. In these stories, there are clashes of powerful forces that are told in symbolisms, like beast and other zoological figures. This is typical of the apocalyptic genre of literature and the first readers would have completely understood it. However, left in the hands of modern enthusiasts, Revelation is often interpreted with grotesque fantasies, and viewed as a predictive piece of literature that unveils international political concerns in our present day.
As we journey, we shall rather see that Revelation is as much a challenge to the comfortable within their society as it is comfort for those whose commitment has brought them into tension with the host society of this present evil age. This book is a challenge and protest as well as comfort and encouragement.
Good Folks See Things Differently
The easiest approach to the book of Revelation is to follow your own particular tradition as to the correct view and ignore all other views. Intelligent students, however, will look at all methods of interpretation so that they may criticize and purify their own view. Interpreting Revelation can bring more heat than light on the subject. Its interpretation is widely disputed among Christ-followers here in the first decade of the new millennium. The “Left Behind” books and movies would have folks believe that their representation of end times is the only correct way to view this subject and if you don’t take their position, then seekers may not become Jesus followers. The “Left Behind” series view produces more “guilt” than “grace.”
What we are considering in the weeks ahead is largely debated. With this subject comes much confusion among believers. Many volumes of books have been written concerning eschatology (the theology of the future). Within the last 100 plus years, several different sides of the issue have surfaced with writers defending all sides. Good folks can see things differently. It is not my goal in these studies to present the last and final authoritative word upon the subject. I only want to present the book as I have come to understand it. I have given consideration to many of the sides of the debate. The thoughts expressed herein are not original with me. They are a combination of the thoughts of men and women whom I consider to be gifted teachers, concerned with delivering the word in a faithful manner as they have been entrusted it by God’s Spirit and as they have come to understand it. My prayer is also borrowed: “We are speaking this that your joy and my joy might be continuously full.”
As we begin, we will paint a broad-brush picture of the book of Revelation, stopping off to deal with some of the more famous passages, but not covering in detail each word of its text.
My hope is that the basic concepts that we encounter in Revelation will become relevant to the story you are living in (1.3). It is also my hope that if in some way I perplex you during these studies, that you are perplexed on a higher level than you were previously. To have more questions than answers is a good thing!
In the written text, you will see a quick outline of Revelation and an expanded outline. Read them over at your convenience.
What should you do now?
In case you are wondering, there are some guidelines for making comments for this study and those to follow.
The questions are separate posts and are listed at the bottom of this study. Take time to review them and make comments as you see fit. Remember, “Play nice!”
A Quick Outline of Revelation
V ision One 1.9-3.22
V ision Two 4.1-16.21
I nterlude One 7.1-17
I nterlude Two 10.1-11.13
I nterlude Three 12.1-14.20
V ision Three 17.1-21.8
V ision Four 21.9-22.5
A Quick Look at Revelation
Vision One 1.9-3.22
John presented a message to each of the seven churches in Asia Minor. There are words of praise, criticism, and promise.
Vision Two 4.1-16.21
Regardless of who one believes is in charge of the world, this vision presented a message that God is ultimately in control of the world (Chapter 4). There is a scroll opened by the Lamb (Chapter 5). The scroll is opened with the breaking of the seals (Chapter 6).
Interlude One 7.1-17
This first break in the action is a literary style that John will use again. He gave a small respite of comfort to the reader before continuing the story. This interlude assures the readers/hearers that no believer will be eternally lost during the tribulation. John presented a before and after view of the church. The 144,000 is the view of the church before the tribulation and the great multitude is the view of the church after the tribulation. As the Seventh Seal is opened, the picture of the end expands.
The Seventh Seal is the Seven Trumpets (Chapters 8-9)
Interlude Two 10.1-11.13
John now breaks the story again with a second interlude. In it, he told the story of the angel and the little scroll and the two witnesses. Both stories are to bring comfort to the reader/hearer.
The Seventh Trumpet is blown.
Interlude Three 12.1-14.20
The third interlude told the story of the woman and the dragon, the beast from the sea, the Lamb, the 144,000, the three angels, and the harvest of the earth. All of these stories are told for the comfort of the hearer/reader. The Seven Bowls of Wrath are now poured out.
An extension of the Seventh Trumpet (Chapters 15-16)
Vision Three 17.1-21.8
Chapter 17 tells the story of the mystery of Babylon. Chapters 18-19 record the fall of Babylon. The marriage supper of the Lamb, the coming of Christ, the battle of Christ and the Antichrist, the binding of Satan, the Resurrection, and the millennial kingdom stories are recorded.
The final destruction of Satan and death and the story of the new creation is told (Chapter 19.1-21.8)
Vision Four 21.9-22.5
In the fourth and final vision, there is an expansion of the last part of the third vision. This vision shares in more explicit detail the story about the New Jerusalem and a final word about the coming of Jesus.
Questions for Discussion
Use the comment section below to make comments about the following questions.
- Hearing a Text: What are your thoughts about genre and the need to be familiar with it in order to hear a text?
- The Elderly: How are the “elderly” treated in your “neck of the woods?”