Seven Tips for Reading Revelation Realistically

by / Comments Off on Seven Tips for Reading Revelation Realistically / 374 View / October 2, 2009

During the season of Advent you may be looking for something to teach your kids that will appropriately prepare their hearts for the coming of the Christ child even while they are hustling and bustling along with everyone else in the usual crush of holiday activities. So you think to yourself, “What can I teach my kids that will hold their attention and keep them coming to youth group even during this busy and bustling time of year? A series on how to face the peer pressure that is sure to come during all those Christmas and New Year’s parties?Okay, maybe not. How about a series on relationships?After all, mistletoe is in full bloom this time of year.  Yuck.”

Upon further reflection, you decide to trash the typical “youth-y” topics and go for the gusto. The season of Advent, according to church tradition, has been a time to both remember as well as anticipate Christ’s coming. For Christ has come once as a baby in a manger and Christ will come again as a conquering King at time’s end. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer so eloquently says about this latter day advent: “Advent is a time of waiting. Our whole life, however, is Advent — that is, a time of waiting for the ultimate, for the time when there will be a new heaven and a new earth.”1A new heaven and a new earth. This is part of what we celebrate — and wait for — during Advent. Thus, you decide that you’re going to teach on Christ’s final advent during this season of Advent. After all, it has the precedent of church tradition behind it.

Where will you turn in Scripture to ground your series on the second coming of Christ? The book of Revelation, of course! Kids like Revelation, right? So you crack open your brand new Lutheran Study Bible, pen and paper in hand, ready to begin taking notes and designing your series when you encounter…dragons and beasts and horsemen, oh my! John’s imagery is overwhelming. His metaphors are befuddling. And his numerology is harder to crack than your high school trigonometry course. How are you going to teach cohesively, clearly, and compellingly on such a confusing book?

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Make no mistake about it:Cohesive, clear, and compelling teaching on Revelation is sorely needed in our church body.I once did an evening session on Revelation for our high school youth. I began by asking, “How many of you have read the book of Revelation?”Seven kids raised their hands. I continued, “How many of you have read one of the Left Behind novels?”Twenty kids raised their hands.I suspect I might find the same results if I polled adults. Many people, at least in some part, if not in large part, derive their eschatology from Christian fiction rather than from the sure and certain voice of Scripture. And this is a crisis we must work to remedy.

It is with this concern in mind that I’d like to offer “Zach’s Seven Tips for Reading Revelation Realistically.”I arrived at these tips after writing a series of daily blogs on the book of Revelation. These tips are not meant to offer a full-fledged interpretation of Revelation as a commentary might do; rather, they are meant to offer a hermeneutic — that is, a method of interpretation — to assist you as you read Revelation for yourself.They are, in some sense, meant to “teach a man how to fish” so that he can properly read John’s mysterious opus.So, with that in mind, remember these tips if you ever decide to engage in eschatological inquiry with St. John.

If it didn’t mean that in John’s day, it doesn’t mean that in our day.

Many interpretations of Revelation get real weird real quick. The Christian theologian and humorist G.K. Chesterton once quipped, “Though St. John the Evangelist saw many strange monsters in his vision, he saw no creature so wild as one of his own commentators.”2 The reason so many people find so many wild things in Revelation is because rather than asking, “What was John actually thinking about when he wrote Revelation?” they instead try to arbitrarily connect John’s visions to all sorts of current events. Whenever we read Scripture, however, we should first try to understand the author’s own intended meaning rather than making up our own meanings. Old Testament professor Tremper Longman III explains cogently: “If literature is an act of communication, then meaning resides in the intention of the author. The author encoded a message for the readers. Interpretation then has as its goal the recovery of the author’s purpose in writing.”3 When we read Revelation, we should first try to decipher John’s purposes in his imagery rather than our own.Sadly, many people fail to do this. For instance, some people actually think that the infamous Mark of the Beast, 666 (13:18), is a code contained on computer chips which will one day be implanted by our government in our foreheads in a conspiracy to make us all lobotomized Satanists. The problem is that there were no computer chips in John’s day. Thus, John is probably not talking about computer chips here. And to say that he was is to claim that we understand John’s revelation better than John himself.This constitutes the height of arrogance and ought to be avoided.

Know your Bible.

John employs countless biblical allusions in Revelation that we can miss and misinterpret if we dont know the rest of our Bible. For example, in Revelation 16, John writes, “Then I saw three evil spirits that looked like frogs; they came out of the mouth of the dragon” (16:13). Huh? Frogs coming out of a dragon? Well, a “dragon” is John’s image for Satan (12:9) and “frogs” are classified as unclean animals in Leviticus 11:10. John seems to be saying, then, that Satan will speak unclean, deceiving, and blasphemous things about the Gospel. Now it makes sense! But you have to know the rest of your Bible in order to catch John’s point.

Know your history.

John wrote Revelation while exiled on the island of Patmos (1:9), a Roman penal settlement in the Aegean Sea. During John’s exile, a man named Domitian was emperor or Rome. According to the ancient Roman historian Suetonius, Domitian demanded that the subjects of the empire worship him and even call him “lord and god.”4 The German theologian and numismatist Ethelbert Stauffer writes of this emperor: “Domitian loved to hear…the cry of ‘Hail to the Lord!’…. Other forms of acclamation…were the following: Hail, Victory, Lord of the earth, Invincible, Power, Glory, Honour, Peace, Security, Holy, Blessed, Great, Unequalled, Thou Alone, Worthy art Thou, Worthy is he to inherit the Kingdom, Come, come, done not delay, Come again.”5 In Revelation 4:11, Jesus receives this acclamation: “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.” Many scholars believe that John is parodying the praises sung to Domitian in that day, saying that these praises to the emperor really belong to Jesus. But we only know that by knowing history.

If you feel like you’ve seen this before, it’s because you have.

Revelation tends to be more thematic rather than chronological in its organization. Indeed, when reading Revelation, you find that the world ends no fewer than four times (6:12-17, 11:15-19, 14:14-20, 16:17-21)! Following these four apocalypses, John then offers a detailed account of history’s conclusion in chapters 17-19. It is vital to recognize that all of these “endings” describe the same time period from different perspectives. It is not unusual, then, the get a case of déj vu when reading Revelation. This is important to keep in mind because if you misunderstand Revelation’s thematic arrangement and try to read it as a strictly chronological document, you can wind up with charts, diagrams, and maps detailing multiple returns and judgments of Christ that are so complicated, even Stephen Hawking can’t understand them. There is only one second coming of Christ.There are no third and fourth and fifth returns.

Don’t balance your checkbook using John’s math.

Johns numerology is meant to be interpreted symbolically, not literally. For example, in Revelation 7, John talks about a group of 144,000, sealed for salvation (7:4). 144,000 is 12x12x1000. The number 12 is associated with the church in Revelation (e.g., 21:14) and the number 1,000 is a Scriptural number for completeness (e.g., Psalm 50:10, 2 Peter 3:8). John’s point, then, is simply this: All who trust in Jesus are sealed for salvation! And just in case we miss his point, John continues by saying, “After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb” (7:9). John’s 144,000 turns out to be innumerable.
John’s imagery is polyvalent.

Yes, I just used the word “polyvalent.” It’s a word I learned in seminary describing something that has more than one interpretation or meaning. And much of John’s imagery certainly has more than one interpretation or meaning. One example comes with the frogs spewing from the dragons mouth in Revelation 16:13, referenced previously under key number two. In the interpretation proffered above, I mentioned that frogs are unclean animals according to Levitical law. Therefore, John is positing that Satan will speak unclean, deceiving, and blasphemous things about the Gospel. But that’s not all that John is positing. This plague of frogs, along with the other plagues in Revelation 16, parrot the plagues against Egypt in the story of the exodus (cf. Exodus 7:14-11:10). Thus, while the enemies of God are crushed by plagues of frogs (16:13), blood (16:3-4), sun and darkness (16:8-10), and hail (16:21), the people of God remain “blessed” (16:15). Thus, this chapter is also a chapter of comfort for God’s people as they are protected through terrible plagues. One symbol — more than one interpretation. John’s images, then, are not meant to be precise predictions, but general descriptions of both the sad state of wickedness in this world as well as the glorious promise of salvation we have in Christ. One image can have more than one referent. So even if you’ve cracked one code, there may be another lurking behind that same image.

Do not be afraid.

Too many people look at the second coming of Christ with fear instead of faith. They are scared of bloodshed, doom, gloom, and demise. But as John’s vision opens, he hears Jesus speak these words: “Do not be afraid” (1:17). In spite of a world full of trouble, Revelation is mean to offer us hope and comfort because it reminds us that Jesus wins over evil, as an elder in one of John’s visions says: “See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed” (5:5)! If Jesus wins, we have nothing to be afraid of.

So there you have it:Seven simple tips to help navigate the labyrinth of mystery that is our final biblical book. Are you ready to take it on?If so, remember Revelation’s promise: “Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near” (1:3).Reading Revelation results in blessing. It will bless you. It will bless your kids.And that, at least for me, is reason enough to read it and, yes, even enjoy it. I hope you will read and enjoy it too. 

1Geffrey B. Kelly, F. Burton Nelson, eds., A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “The Coming of Jesus in Our Midst” (San Francisco:  Harper Collins, 1990), 186.
2G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York:  John Lane Company, 1909), 29.
3Tremper Longman III, Literary Approaches to Biblical Interpretation, in Foundations of Contemporary Interpretation, Moises Silva, ed. (Grand Rapids, MI:  Zondervan, 1996), 135.
4Suetonius, The Lives of the Caesars, H.M. Byrd, trans. (Wordsworth Editions, 1997), 358.
5Ethelbert Stauffer, Christ and the Caesars (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1952), 155.