Updated: Oct 2, 2020
Revelation is one of the most fascinating, most abused and most debated books of the New Testament. Do the verses in Revelation show progressive revelation that can override what has come before it? Does the language of torment give us a picture of judgement that should be read back into the rest of the bible? Is it prophecy for the future or has it already been fulfilled...or both? Some see Revelation as such a difficult book that they avoid it (including reformers like Calvin and Luther), others see it is a straight forward read that very little connection to other books, context or other parts of Revelation is required at all to understand it (see The Left Behind series).
I want to dig into Revelation and so I'm going to set some time aside to do a chapter by chapter look at Revelation using resources from different perspectives to get a better idea of what God was (and is) saying through the visions John saw and the ancient apocalyptic style of writing that John used.
The idea of this study is more for personal reference but I am also looking to apply it both to the main focus of this project as well as the everyday application as a Christian. I am hoping to engage with academic level commentary (commentaries by G.K. Beale, Richard Baukham, Sigve K. Tonstad, Craig Keener currently sit on my desk as I write this) I also am looking to engage with differing views of hell when appropriate such as Gregory MacDonald's (a.k.a Robin Parry) 'The Evangelical Universalist' and more popular level books such as Joshua Ryan Butler's 'The Skeletons in God's Closet'. I will use author's and scholars surnames simply for succinctness, I do hold all of these men, no matter our disagreements, in high esteem.
There are different ways to interpret Revelation labelled Preterists, Historicists, Futurists and Idealists and I am wary of defining myself by these before we begin. Perhaps this study will make my leanings more clear. As for the interpretations of the millennium, we'll see when we get to Revelation 20! I'm aiming to let the bible speak for itself, connecting it to its context and digging into its symbolism and we'll see where we end up!
As we begin, it is important to remind ourselves of the time and place John was writing in. John could either be the beloved disciple (a view held since the 2nd Century) or John the Presbyter (a view argued from the 3rd Century). Either way, the author was someone named John who was steeped in Jewish literature, knew the churches and was known by the churches in Asia Minor.
The type of literature needs to be carefully examined as Revelation is a letter to real churches in a real point in history, it is also prophetic in line with the Old Testament prophets as well as a highly symbolic apocalyptic literature in line with Daniel and Ezekiel. Many focus on the symbolic and see Revelation as a code to be deciphered which Bauckham warns against. Baukham explains that the reader will find that if taken literally, many symbols will be quite contradictory (giving the destruction of Babylon and her being "no more" in chapter 18 with "the smoke of her burning ascending forever" as an example) but if taken in context of both Old Testament and contemporary myths, they provide "complementary perspectives" (Baukham, 1993).
The context surrounding John at the time of writing Revelation is quite likely to be that of oppression and pockets of outright persecution, though whether the latter was occurring in Asia Minor is unclear. If a later dating (95 A.D.) is accurate, then the pressure of emperor worship with increasing penalties for those who did not participate and the history of Nero's persecution of Christians in Rome give a sense of impending persecution rather than a definitive experience of Christians at the time. G.K. Beale gives a fairly extensive, though not exhaustive, case for the later date based on early church testimonies as well as contemporary historians such as Pliny, Tacitus and Dio Cassius, so I'm content to side with him at this point in the study. Though, as Beale argues, it is possible to interpret Revelation from an earlier perspective it is helpful to find agreement to this dating from as early as possible. The reason for noting this is that it will come up in later parts of Revelation, especially as we look to interpret '666' in relation to Roman emperors.
Due to the various cultural pressures at the time with some evidence of persecution (though not overtly systemic as just noted), the book is very culturally relevant today. There are many calling for Christians to recant or compromise with specific ideologies and beliefs that are contradictory to the traditional teachings of the faith. Though Christians in the West face nominal pressures, it is obvious that many Christians across the world face being ostracised or harmed and the threat of death for following Jesus. John is writing to counter false teachings and compromise and to encourage the Christians to persevere, even in the face of death, as we will see in the next part of this study.
Before moving into the book, it is important to mention its symbolism and how it should be interpreted through Revelation. In Revelation, as well as Daniel, God 'made known' (Revelation 1:1 an allusion to Daniel 2:28-30) what John then wrote. This isn't an out of body or near death experience but a vision, potentially while John was asleep or at the very least, praying (Revelation 1:10). The symbols are seen by John and often interpreted by him throughout Revelation. G.K Beale argues that where the meaning is not clearly interpreted, we should not assume a literal interpretation of what is being seen in the context but actually to turn this idea "on its head: we are told in the book's introduction that the majority of the material in it is revelatory symbolism... Hence, the predominant manner by which to approach the material will be according to a nonliteral interpretative method. Of course, some parts are not symbolic, but the essence of the book is figurative. Where there is lack of clarity about whether something is symbolic, the scales of judgement should be tilted in the direction of a nonliteral analysis." (Beale, p.52) Tonstad agrees, quoting Jacques Ellul (1977), "the apocalypse specifically is not a text capable of being understood directly". Tonstad continues,
"the first impression is not the best and should not be the last."
This final comment is very important as we go through the book of Revelation. We must lean towards a figurative, rather than literal, approach when symbols lack a clear interpretation. Beale continues to give a method of interpreting symbolism which we will engage with in later sections but as a summary, the symbols often have many layers of meaning and we may only scratch the surface of these meanings in this study.
We will go straight into chapter 1 in the next post and discuss the structure of the book and the varying views as we go. Click here to go to chapter 1 now >>>
The Theology of the Book of Revelation, Richard Baukham, Cambridge University Press 1993
NIV Study Bible, 1998
The New International Greek Testament Commentary, The Book of Revelation, G. K. Beale, 1999 (my edition, 2013), Eerdmans.
Revelation, Sigve K. Tonstad, 2019, Baker Academic