On Reading Revelation

Last Sunday I began an extended study of the Apocalypse of Jesus the Messiah with a studious, gracious, and interested group of Bible students at the Woodmont Hills Church of Christ in Nashville, Tennessee. It will be a long journey but, I’m convinced, a fruitful one. I will post along the way as I have other texts we have studied (e.g., Mark, Amos, Zechariah; these and others are available through the “Serial Index” menu).

In this initial post I will address three major questions that shape how one reads the last book of the Christian canon.

First, when reading Revelation, we are reading an “Apocalypse.” It is the first word in the Greek text and it identifies the genre of the document. We should read not this as a historical narrative (like Luke-Acts). It is neither history, poetry, or even letter, though it may contain aspects of it.  It is an Apocalypse which is an identifiable and popular genre of Jewish literature from 200 BCE to 200 CE. There are many examples of this genre outside of Scripture and even in some parts of Scripture (e.g., Daniel).

When we recognize that Revelation is apocalyptic literature then we are able to read it within its own literary conventions. Every genre of literature has such. Historical fiction, for example, creates certain expectations–it is not academic history but the story is set in an authentic historical situation. In the same way, readers of apocalyptic literature have certain expectations.

At the literary level, it uses symbols and drama to convey its message. These symbols are drawn from cultural (Jewish and Greco-Roman) and canonical images. If we do not understand the literary function of these images then we will make connections that are as distant from the intent of the text as reading a newspaper is from fiction. The symbols, contrary to some interpreters, are not intended to hide the message but actually convey the message. But one must understand the symbols to get the intended meaning.

At the level of its message, it assumes an apocalyptic worldview that shapes the drama of the text. The apocalyptic worldview assumes the transcendent sovereignty of God over the events of history, a dualist conflict between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan in which the people of God experience oppression, and the ultimate triumph of the kingdom of God in the world. This triumph, however, is eschatological in character, that is, it is a vision of the triumph of the reign of God when the will of God is done on earth as it is heaven.

Recognizing the literary and mythic (meaning “worldview”) character of apocalyptic literature, the symbols and images portray the ultimate victory of the kingdom of God over the kingdom of Satan.

Second, when reading Revelation, we read from a particular vantage point.  We read it 1900 years after its publication, but the original recipients in Asia Minor (the seven churches of Asia) read it from within the own social location. I’m convinced that we cannot legitimately read the Apocalypse without first reading it with the original hearers and then through that reading see its significance for us in the present. We must read it, as my friend W. B. West used to say, with “first century glasses.”

But even when we do so contemporary readers have used various interpretative strategies to understand the contemporary message of the document. There are, in the most simple (even simplistic) terms, four major reading strategies or hermeneutical vantage points, and each of them has their own different flavors.

  1. Preterist Readings.  Radical preterists believe that everything in the Apocalypse has happened or was supposed to happen within the generation of the original hearers. Even the “new heavens and new earth” was either the new covenant of the Christian dispensation or a new political order rather than an eternal state yet to arrive. Moderate preterists believe that the major substance of the book pertains to the events, culture, and life circumstances of the original hearers though the ending of the book pertains to the eternal state described as a hope that all believers embrace.
  2. Continuous-Histoprical Readings. Once more common than it is now, this reading sees the whole history of the church dramatically played out in the Apocalypse from its beginning in the ascension of Jesus to the final act of history. These interpreters seek to correlate 1900 years of history with particular scenes in Revelation and often believe that their generation is the last or near the last (whether they lived in the Medieval, Reformation, or Modern eras).
  3. Futurist. This reading, taking its cue from 4:1-3, understands the major drama of the book as describing the “last days” of the present era with the result that much–if not all–of the book is still future to present readers, or perhaps that certain events within the drama are currently taking place and the end is near. Interpreters, then, seek to correlate present events with the drama of the book from 4:1-19:1 as they look for the second coming of Jesus which they believe is described in Revelation 19 (followed by the millennium in Revelation 20). Interpreters have done this no matter what era in which they lived with the varied results that the beast of Revelation has been the Ottoman Empire, the Pope, Henry VIII, Napoleon, the Kaiser, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Sadam Hussein, etc.
  4. Idealist. This reading locates the described drama within the context of its original recipients but recognizes a larger story playing in the background. While this Apocalypse reflects the cultural, religious and social dynamics of the struggles of early Christians within a Greco-Roman setting, this is but one slice of a larger dramatic pie. The described conflict has happened before (between Israel and Canaanite culture, for example) and will happen again (evil will always find cultural, political and social expression as it assaults the Kingdom of God). Generally, idealists do not see any specific predictions or futurist dramas in the text. Rather, the drama present in the text is symbolic of repeated assaults on the kingdom of God throughout human history in different social, political and cultural contexts.

Choosing between these various reading strategies is complicated but ultimately unavoidable. While the correct approach may not lie in only one but in some combination, one will tend to emerge as dominant. Readers will have to choose which perspective best suits the text and there will be occasion to consider the options as we walk through it.  Presently, I lean toward the Idealist strategy with a strong tint of moderate preterism.

Third, what is the major problem that gave rise to the Apocalypse itself? Why did the seven churches of Asia need a “revelation”?

The most popular and historic answer to that question is that the seven churches needed encouragement, comfort, and hope in the face of persecution. Clearly this is part of the story as the presence of martyrs in the text indicates, and this should not be underestimated. The church lived in a hostile culture if not always hostile empire (in terms of imperial persecutions). The church was commonly subject to economic boycotts as well as mob and official regional violence. The strains and stresses upon the believing community were tremendous. The Apocalypse certainly offers a hope that encourages them to persevere in faith.

But some contemporary interpreters have questioned whether this was the main problem. For example, in the seven letters to the churches martyrdom is not a prominent topic. Instead, the most consistent point is the failure of most of the churches to maintain a viable, faithful witness in the midst of a cultural pressure to compromise their faith. All the churches, save two, are rebuked.

It appears the more significant problem is how Christians were compromising their faith. They were struggling to live faithfully in a hostile culture. One can imagine–and in some parts of the world today it is a reality–how economic boycotts and threats of mob violence might move believers to accommodate their faith to their surroundings in order to remove or mitigate the hostility.

So perhaps the message of Revelation is not so much about comfort and hope in the face of persecution (though that message is there) but the call to radical discipleship that refuses to make peace with the surrounding culture for the sake of respectability and economic benefit. And the siren call of the latter is much more seductive than the stark reality of the former. Perhaps that is the more demanding message for Western Christians while the former is one faced daily by other Christians in various parts of the world.

Stone-Campbell Note:  in recent years we have been blessed with literature on Revelation from several authors, including Archer & Ridgell, Oster, Stevenson, and Fair (all of which I have read with profit).

4 Responses to “On Reading Revelation”

  1.   Greg Taylor Says:

    JM, Preaching on John’s Apocalypse this summer! We’ve done two weeks already and everyone is really enjoying it. Using Greg Stevenson’s new book, The Slaughtered Lamb. We’re approaching in a way that most folk around here have never heard of when it comes to Revelation, because the only two readings that have been offered as options are “Well, I don’t know what all those symbols mean, but I know how the book ends, and we win!” I’m using a line from Greg S’s presentations and book where he says if that was John’s only message he could have written a postcard and not 22 chapters. That may have some truth in it but it’s more about “how” we win by the counter-Roman-cultural (or any culture!) way of the slaughtered lamb. The second common reading is to find a current political event under every beast, and so offering a third reading by looking at 7 churches and showing there are really 7 ways to read through the eyes of these churches, and not all are martyrs like Antipas (2:13-14), and some like Laodicea are accommodating to Roman culture, so background and audience is not monolithic and like our churches today. Revelation shows us how to live in a suffering and evil world that is hostile to Christ when some of our number are suffering or giving in to evil. It uses apocalyptic language and speaks of the future, but ultimately it speaks of how we live our lives now with a view of the future that Christ has made possible. I’ll be checking in on your posts and enjoying your reading along with what we are doing here too! Thanks for putting this out and I heard next year you are the guru for Pepperdine on L.S. and Baptism. I’m thinking we need a whole book on the catechesis and discipling ideas from early Christianity on. I think Leonard has thoughts about your books and I’m curious what you are thinking about any revisions for next year and republishing. I’m happy that we revised by subtraction on DitRtP. Talk soon!

  2.   K. Rex Butts Says:

    Thanks for this introduction. The message of the Apocalypse is needed now as many Christian leaders seem to agree that American Christians really struggle with how we assimilate as faithful disciples within the American culture, becoming synchronistic.

    Grace and Peace,


  3.   Ray Pippin Says:

    Having read many different explanations of this fascinating climax to our book from God. Much of it has only added to the confusion. Each one seems to think they have the last word. Like all other Scripture we each must use the best reasoning ability God has given us and rely on the same Spirit that revealed it in the first place to guide us in understanding what He is saying to us.
    My approach has been the same for Revelation as all other Scripture. It must be understood in relation to the whole story of God revealing Himself and His plan of redemption for the fallen race. The way many treat this book it would seem God had been giving a revelation from Genesis through Jude a.bout one thing and then He shifts gears and opens up a totally different subject that is in no way really connected to the rest of His book.
    The approach that has helped me more than any other and to see how it fits in with everything God has been doing since the Garden of Eden.. It is a panoramic view of the scheme of redemption in Apocalyptic language which the people who it was written to were more familiar than we are today. These Christians were under or soon to be, severe persecution and their faith would be severely tested..They needed the assurance that what they were a part of was that plan and the Lamb and His followers would ultimately win. God will bring them along with all the faithful together with Him. Satan, the Old Serpent will be cast into a bottomless pit where he will never be able to hurt again.
    I still have some questions but my questions are fewer than trying to follow so many of the theories out there.
    Keep posting. I try to keep an open mind. I love to have my ideas challenged. Still trying to learn. God bless.. . .

  4.   Greg Taylor Says:

    Reblogged this on gregtaylor.org and commented:
    My friend and co-author of Down in the River to Pray has posted on a reading group at our former church in Nashville, Woodmont Hills Church, who are doing the same thing we’re doing at Garnett Church in Tulsa: we’re reading Revelation! The goal of a preaching series I’m doing is to prepare us to read Revelation and to have a different “reading” of Revelation, one that goes through the goal posts between the poles of flat and simplistic platitudes, as Greg Stevenson says, that make simplistic statements about Revelation like, “we win” as an excuse not to read the 22 chapters John wrote and the pole of finding a current event under every beast. It is a reading that tries to understand how the 7 churches read it and then through that context come to understand what it means today, but it’s very difficult to understand it today when we fail to understand what it meant to John and the 7 churches. I’ll post more on Revelation but wanted to go ahead and Reblog this from John Mark Hicks.


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