Like many people, my early interpretation of the book of Revelation was heavily influenced by books like the Left Behind series. The formula handed to me through those books was basically this:
- Revelation = End Times Prophecy
- End Times Prophecy = A Puzzle to Be Solved
- Puzzle Pieces = The Establishing of the Jewish Nation (Israel), Attacks of Locusts meaning Apache Helicopters, the AntiChrist possibly being the next president of the United States, etc.
With this formula, I tried to fit the puzzle pieces together and figure out God’s plan for the “end times.” At one point in high school I was even telling several of my friends that the world was probably going to end within the year! I see things quite differently now, thanks to the help of many. In this post, I am going to attempt to give some reasons for the ways we might be misreading the book of Revelation. I can’t fit it all on one post, so this may take a couple more posts, maybe even a series.
This blog will not fix the problem, nor does it intend to. May it be more of a reflection and encouragement from a fellow follower of Jesus to take a second look closer at the book of Revelation. I would never say that those who read Revelation in different ways are not Christian, that would be outrageous. People come to different conclusions about things and mine could very well be wrong (how’s that for persuasion!). Even so, I do hope that these reflections are helpful, causing you to love Christ and His Gospel even more.
1) We live in a society that has wedded together both Christianity and Empire.
The meaning and purpose of Revelation has taken some serious damage over the past century or two. It has been misused and wrongly applied in our present context, leading many people to despair over the current situation of the world. Despair happens. It’s human. But what I find ironic is the despair that has been created seems to contradict the purpose for which the Apostle John wrote these things down in the first place.
Like Christianity under Constantine, we’ve become closely attached to the powers that be. Think about this: the Bible was written primarily from the standpoint of a people who had been persecuted and marginalized by a global economic power who ruled by way of force. If you did not bow to the demands of Pharaoh, you were whipped and killed. Likewise, in the 1st century if you did not name Caesar as Lord or posed any threat to his reign, you were crucified.
The Bible was written by oppressed people. It was written by those who had the boot of the Empire on the back of their necks. Moreover, the book of Revelation was written by a man (John) who had been exiled to the island of Patmos. He was writing it to Christians who were being exiled and slaughtered for proclaiming the news that “Jesus is Lord,” instead of “Caesar is Lord” (which was written on all Roman currency, displaying a mark on the forehead of Caesar – you could not buy, sell, or trade without it). Where it was once said, “There is no name under heaven or on earth but Caesar that man may be saved,” it was said by “people of the Way” that “there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name [than Jesus] under heaven given among men by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12.)” Once again, we see Scripture breathed out by God among the persecuted.
Can you see how 21st century eyes that live among one of the world’s largest global economic superpowers might misread a book that was written primarily from the hands of the weak and the powerless? I believe this question, handed to me through the writing of Biblical theologians (from early church writers to the modern day), changes everything.
2) Revelation is apocalyptic literature.
For some, the word “apocalyptic” automatically translates into “end times.” Contrarily, the Biblical vision of the word “apocalyptic” is actually meant to give us a clearer vision as to what true reality actually is. Another way of saying it is this:
The “apocalyptic” is what happens when the reigning ideas of the day get put to the test by the Kingdom of God coming to bear upon the world.
Apocalyptic literature has always been full of symbolic imagery. Take a look at the book of Daniel or Ezekiel. They are full of wild imagery! That doesn’t mean they’re silly or untrue. Quite the contrary! Like the bread and the wine being symbols of Christ’s body and blood, symbolic imagery can be used to convey actual realities. Revelation’s symbolic imagery is meant to reflect actual realities in the world as we know it.
For example, in Revelation 13 we are told of a Beast that is ruling and causing people to bow down and pay homage to himself. John says, “This calls for wisdom; let the one who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man, and his number is 666 (13:18).” Many have come to believe that this beast is the antichrist who is coming at the end of the world to rule and reign. But it’s not that easy. The calculation of the Roman Emperor Nero’s (54-68 A.D.) name literally calculates to “666.” John, writing under the exile of Emperor Domitian (who followed in the footsteps of Nero) would not have come right out and said, “The beast is the Roman Emperor.” If he would have done that, he would have been crucified. Therefore, he uses apocalyptic-symbolic imagery to call out the spirit of anti-Christ (that which is antithetical to Christ’s reign).
A World Re-imagined
With just one example (and there are MANY more), we can see that the book of Revelation can be easily misread in our current context. From the subversive calling out of the violent, money-driven power of Empire and the proclamation of the God who is a slain-but-risen Lamb (1st Century) to an end times formula for figuring out who the antichrist is and when then last day might be (21st Century), our understanding of Revelation has been dramatically altered.
If we are to understand Revelation properly, maybe we need to try our best to remove the 21st century lenses we’ve grown accustomed to. I believe this will help us re-imagine John’s world, the world of the early Jesus followers. It can be difficult, but when we do so we might begin to see how the book of Revelation is much more than a end-times map. Rather, we can try to let it be what it really is, a breath-taking and other-worldy re-imagining of our world under the reign of Christ rather than the rule of Empire. This re-imagining is not some sort of fairy tale either. It is reality, the way things really are. Sin and death have been defeated by the Lamb (5:9-14). Caesar is not Lord, nor is any leader or superpower in our day. Jesus is, and that is hope for all the world.
The book of Revelation is centered on this reality: “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our God and of His Messiah.” ~ Revelation 11:15
And my friends, this has EVERYTHING to do with our world today.
For more insight into this topic, here are some books (though there are many more) that have influenced me.
- Revelation for Everyone AND Simply Good News by N.T. Wright
- A Good Blog Post explaining different views: http://www.ligonier.org/blog/preterist-approach-revelation-unfolding-biblical-eschatology/
- Water to Wine by Brian Zahnd (along with many of his blog posts concerning the topic at: https://brianzahnd.com