THE BIBLE’S MOST COMPLICATED BOOK

Rev1

We must not interpret Revelation in a way that addresses only our own time, or the time at the end of the world, or a time in history that has already passed. The Word of God is living and active – it speaks to us now, and to all Christians at all times. We have to interpret Revelation in a way that honors that.

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Revelation: INTRODUCTION

This is the first of a sermon series on the Revelation of John – that is, the last book of the New Testament. This particular message is going to be a bit “lite” on scripture, because it is absolutely necessary to spend some time learning about the background of this book before we study it ourselves. If I were to simply jump into teaching the text of revelation without going over important background information, it would be like serving someone soup with no spoon, or steak with no knife. Revelation is an important book, but it is terribly confusing and difficult at points, and so a thorough introduction is unquestionably required. In fact, I am going to take two weeks to do this. (By the way, although some people call the book “Revelations,” properly speaking, there should be no “s.”)

Revelation is a difficult book to read, because it is not easy, at first glance, to understand what is going on, or what John (the author) is talking about. John records things like a beast with seven heads, and ten horns, and crowns on each horn ( but not on each head!), and a blasphemous name on each crown. It is very difficult to actually picture that. Even if we do successfully paint a picture of that in our minds, what in the world does it mean?

And yet, many powerful concepts and images from Revelation have become embedded in our culture. The Grim Reaper comes from this book, as do the four horsemen of the apocalypse. The numbers 666, 144,000, 4, 7, and 10 are all given significance by this book. The image and expression of “the pearly gates” is from Revelation, as is “judgement day,” and “the book of life.” One of the world’s most well-known hymns – Holy, Holy, Holy – comes from Revelation, chapters four and five.

My local church has asked me to teach through this book. I think this is going to require a certain amount of effort for you, dear readers. Please have patience as I set the stage, because for Revelation, more than almost any other book, the background information is critical.

DIFFERENT WAYS OF INTERPRETING REVELATION

Revelation is, I believe, the most complicated and puzzling book in the entire Bible. Because of that, it is vitally important for us to understand some background about it. One of the issues, is that you have probably heard people say various things about Revelation. Some of them probably contradict each other. Generally speaking, serious scholars have tried to interpret it in four major different ways.

The most common way to look at Revelation is as a prediction of the future; particularly, a prediction of the events leading up to the end of the world and the return of Jesus. This way of interpreting it is called the “futurist” approach. It makes a certain amount of sense, because the book does present itself as a prophecy of the future, right away, in verse 1.

1The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, 2who bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw. 3Blessed 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. (Rev 1:1-3, ESV2011)

However, a lot of people carry the futurist approach to the extreme. Over the years, extreme futurists (sometimes also called “dispensationalists”) have developed detailed charts and timelines. They attempt to connect every detail of Revelation to some actual event or person that will occur in the end times. While I do believe that Revelation does indeed speak of real future occurrences, I also believe that it speaks of much more than that. Extreme futurists/dispensationalist seem far too confident in their own interpretations, and often treat their interpretations as if they were the actual scripture. I think Revelation is more complicated than they seem to understand. Unfortunately, if you’ve heard much about Revelation, it was almost certainly from extreme futurists.  These are the ones who talk about the seven ages of the church, and the specific place the antichrist will come from, and how the development of a single monetary currency throughout the world is a sign of the end of time. They confidently claim there will be an actual military battle in the modern nation of Israel, and a host of other things that are not directly said by the book of Revelation.

At the other end of the spectrum, you have “preterists,” who believe that Revelation is simply a historical representation of the situation, hopes and aspirations of early Christians. They would say that the only value in the text is to show us what people were thinking at the time it was written. They insist that it is not a prophecy at all. I do agree that Revelation shows us some of the hopes and fears of early Christians, and I think it is important to understand those things if we want to understand the book. However, I believe that Revelation also shows us far more than that. I believe it is, as it claims to be, a Revelation from God.

Other theologians view Revelation as a kind of symbolic prophecy of the entire history of God’s people, from the beginning, until the return of Jesus. We call this the “Historical,” view of Revelation. In this view, we would assume that some of Revelation has already happened, and some is yet to come. If this view is substantially correct, we should easily be able to identify in Revelation those things which have already come to pass. Since it is not at all easy to do that, I can’t embrace this view. Even so, I do believe that some of this book may already have been fulfilled.

Another way to look at Revelation is as a picture of the spiritual realities behind the history of our world. It is a symbolic way of showing what is going on spiritually. This is called the Idealist view. This view has some merit to it: certainly the story of the dragon and woman in chapters 12 & 13 are representations of the spiritual war between God and the devil. And yet, I also believe there are parts of the book that are definitely talking about events in the physical world. One of the primary emphases of the book as a whole is that God really is active in history, that He really will fulfill His promise to judge evil and save those who trust Him. This requires physical events, as well as spiritual.

I believe that all of these ways of interpreting Revelation can be helpful, if used in moderation . However, I think they all fall short, on their own. I think I can help us sort out the merits (and problems) of all these views. It all comes back to our understanding of the Bible as a whole. I believe (along with all orthodox Christians for the past 2,000 years) that the Bible is God’s Word, and that it is useful and relevant for every generation of Christians, past, present and future. Remember Hebrews 4:12:

12For the word of God is living and effective and sharper than any double-edged sword, penetrating as far as the separation of soul and spirit, joints and marrow. It is able to judge the ideas and thoughts of the heart. 13No creature is hidden from Him, but all things are naked and exposed to the eyes of Him to whom we must give an account. (Heb 4:12-13, HCSB)

So we must not interpret Revelation in a way that addresses only our own time, or the time at the end of the world, or a time in history that has already passed. The Word of God is living and active – it speaks to us now, and to all Christians at all times. This is the biggest problem I have with most of the major views of Revelation: it confines the book to one era of history or another, whether past or future.

So, Revelation speaks of the time of the apostle John. It also speaks of the future. It speaks of spiritual realities and physical realities. The problem is, Revelation jumbles them all together; sometimes, I believe, even within the same verses. Any given vision, or element, might refer to some, or all of these realities at the same time. I think it helps tremendously for us to be aware of that. The following diagram might be useful:

Venn-Revelation 2

So, as we go through the book, and something doesn’t make sense, ask yourself: could this be a spiritual thing, rather than physical? Or a past event, rather than the future? Could it be a combined vision of both past and present, or both spiritual and physical? These sorts of questions can be very, very helpful in unraveling this difficult book.

WE HAVE TO UNDERSTAND THE APOCALYPTIC GENRE

That brings me to subject of genre. We need to be very clear about the genres (styles of writing) used in this book. In fact, this is one of the fundamental “rules” for interpreting scripture. Different types of writing need to be interpreted in different ways. For example, when Isaiah quotes the Lord as saying: “Heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool” (Isaiah 66:1), it comes in the form of poetic prophecy. We don’t believe that this planet is literally an ottoman on which God rests physical feet. Instead, we take these words as a figure of speech to illustrate a deeper principle, namely that God owns the universe. We understand it this way because the language is clearly poetic. On the other hand, when it says: “Once more war broke out, and David went out and fought the Philistines (1 Samuel 19:8)” we understand that this passage means exactly what it says. It is not a figure of speech. It comes in the context of historical narrative, and is clearly meant to be understood as history, a record of what actually happened.

Like many of the other books of the Bible, Revelation contains several different kinds of writing. It records some specific teachings, it includes prophecies and visions, there are songs of praise in it, and blessings and curses. Much of the book contains what is called apocalyptic literature.

Apocalyptic literature is very obscure, filled with strange images and significant numbers. It is almost like a weird dream. It is also kind of like a code language, where almost nothing is supposed to be taken at face value.

APOCALYPTIC WRITING MUST BE INTERPRETED IN A WAY THAT AGREES WITH CLEAR TEACHING

As we study Revelation, with its strange apocalyptic language, let’s remember that we  always understand and interpret the obscure parts of the bible in light of what is already clearly understood. There is plenty in the Bible that is straightforward; stuff that you have to work hard to misunderstand. Jesus is Lord, and there is no other way to God but him. Life is about relationship with Jesus. The ten commandments are not rocket science. So whenever we come to something that is difficult to understand, stick to the basics, and work to understand it based on what we do know for sure.  Certainly, we cannot base any major article of faith on the book of Revelation alone – we need to see Revelation in the context of the entire Bible.

WE SHOULD NOT GENERALLY TAKE APOCALYPTIC WRITING AT FACE VALUE.

Let’s also remember that much of Apocalyptic literature – and therefore much of Revelation – is not supposed to be taken literally.  Much of what we read will be very symbolic, and not literal. For instance, the number 144,000. The number twelve is a symbol of God’s people. There were twelve tribes of Israel – God’s people before Jesus. There were 12 Apostles chosen by Jesus, representing God’s people since the time of Jesus. The number 1000 signifies completeness. So 144,000 is the symbolic number of all of God’s people, past, present and future (12 multiplied by 12, multiplied by 1000). There are many, many other similar symbolic things in this book. We know that they aren’t meant literally, because they are part of the apocalyptic literature sections of  Revelation.

The main point of this kind of writing is to encourage believers who are going through hard times. The point is not really the details. Instead, what we are to get from it is the big picture that God is in control of history, and has not forgotten his people.

For now, then, let’s return to the first few verses:

1The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, 2who bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw. 3Blessed 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. (Rev 1:1-3, ESV2011)

John is very emphatic about this Revelation. It was given by an angel, and John bears witness to the Word of God and testimony of Jesus. This is a solemn promise that what we find in this book is indeed God’s word, and that we are blessed to hear it, and keep it. This book takes a little bit more effort to understand than most. But if you put the time in to read all of Revelation, and study the sermons in this series, I’m confident that you, too, will be blessed by this prophecy.

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2 thoughts on “THE BIBLE’S MOST COMPLICATED BOOK

  1. Nell Bunch

    Revelation is a book I have studied but refused to teach due to the myriad of views on its meaning. You have begun in a way which is different, therefore has promise of some clarity.

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