Recently, a friend and mentor said he and his co-teacher had taught every book in the New Testament in their Sunday School class . . . except Revelation. It is just too hard a book to teach responsibly. True! I am afraid this sentiment is true for many Christians too. They avoid Revelation out of fear, confusion, or intimidation. Some so neglect the book they don’t even realize the book is called Revelation (singular), not Revelations (plural).
But many of us also know people who hang out in Revelation to the exclusion of much of the rest of the New Testament. Every news headline is a fulfillment of some obscure detail in Revelation. This two-thousand year old book was certainly talking about the European Union or Barack Obama or Pope Benedict. Making sure people know and agree with these interpretations of prophecy is equally as important as how one treats his neighbor or whether care is given to the destitute.
Whether one avoids the book or camps out in its pages, Revelation is an absolutely incredible piece of literature and fitting end to the Bible. Personally, once I took a seminary class on the book my confusion over the book was far less. Now, Revelation is easily in my top five favorite books of the Bible. More and more I see how the teachings of this book have become integral to my own theology. There is no way these short posts will help us all overcome our under- or overemphasis on Revelation, but may the last month of this blog help us all gain a new appreciation for this majestic book.
Revelation was written by a man named John. But which John? The apostle and writer of the Gospel and Epistles? Probably not. There is too many stylistic and theological differences to suggest these were all written by the same author. Many scholars are content to simple say this is a different John, maybe “John the Revelator,” writing from exile on the island of Patmos just off the coast of Asia Minor near Ephesus.
When was Revelation written is also somewhat contested and a question that many scholars believe can be answered very precisely because of cryptic references in the book. What most agree on is that the book was written during a period when Christians were being persecuted and therefore had to speak in code. This would fit the time period of Nero in the 60s AD when Peter and Paul are traditionally thought to have been killed, but an even better case can be made that this fits the 80s when the Roman Emperor Domitian brought about an even bloodier oppression of Christianity. I tend toward a later date.
What kind of book is this? Prophecy? Yes, there is certainly prophecy in the book. A letter? We know from the first three chapters that this book was addressed to the seven churches in Asia Minor (where the persecution of Christians in the 80s AD was worst). Revelation is sermonic and poetic in places, and maybe the best term for the book is apocalyptic, in that it is giving a message veiled in exaggerated, fantastical imagery because of perceived opposition to free speech. Bottomline: Revelation is good literature.
When is Revelation talking about? This is somewhat simplified, but there are three main options:
- Then — John was addressing people in the first-century undergoing first-century problems, mainly political and cultural persecution. The main evil in the book is Rome. The grotesque beasts are emperors and political/economic institutions. Maybe the last three chapters are talking about the end of time, but the rest of the book has to stay anchored in an ancient Roman context.
- Future — John was foreseeing cataclysmic events that would take place at the end of time as Jesus returns and the New Creation comes. Of course, the beginning of the end could be right now, which is what many people have thought all throughout time since the first-century. So look for the “signs of the times” all around you.
- Always — John was speaking in symbols and by nature symbolism is much more timeless and malleable to situation. We press the images too far when we come up with singular, specific, time-bound fulfillments. John is speaking of evil in its many faces and forms, all throughout time. Thus, John is talking about Rome but also our world today and the Middle Ages and the age to come.
Personally, I prefer the last option, with a heavy emphasis on “then.”
This month we may not break the code on whether Sandy and Katrina, economic cliffs, and re-elections are harbingers on the end-times. But if we keep our eyes wide open to the big picture I believe we will be encouraged by John’s main point: Do not be discouraged by the darkness you see all around you, God wins in the end! Better days are coming! Praise the Lamb who has made the victory sure!