Avoiding Monsters in the Apocalypse: Three Requirements for Reading Revelation

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“Though St. John the Evangelist saw may strange monsters in his vision,
he saw no creature so wild as one of his own commentators.”
— G. K. Chesterton —

Few books are more mysterious, more difficult, or more confusing than the book of Revelation. Simultaneously, because of its sensational imagery and more than a few best-selling, end-times thrillers, few books are more commonly requested. Countless are the times I have been asked when I will preach Revelation. And here is my standard answer: I will preach Revelation, after I preach Exodus, Isaiah, Daniel, Zechariah. So far, I’m halfway there.

As a teacher who will give an account for his teaching (James 3:1), I do not want to be on record for teaching this glorious and mysterious book until I am better acquainted with the Old Testament and the rest of the Bible. With more than 400 allusions to the Old Testament, Revelation is thickest book in the Bible, and it requires extra care when taught. Therefore, wise readers will seek to understand the book not with current events but with the biblical canon.

To that end, I share a few comments from commentators who avoid the monstrosity’s to which Chesterton alludes. And they do so by reading Revelation soberly and with a constant gaze upon the Old Testament. May we learn from them as we continue to read Revelation and the vision of Christ found therein.

Revelation Requires the Old Testament 

In the ESV Expository commentary, Thomas Schreiner acknowledges the symbolism extant in Revelation, and he says, “The art of interpreting Revelation can’t be solved with a prefabricated rule about literal interpretation. Instead, we should interpret Revelation in accord with the genre used; if the language used is symbolic, we must interpret it in light of such symbolic conventions” (531).

Indeed, Revelation’s symbolism is a natural part of its apocalyptic genre, a style of writing unique to the time and place of Israel during Second Temple Judaism. While it was common to Jesus and his disciples, apocalyptic literature is not common to us. Therefore, we must learn how this genre works and how it doesn’t. To that point, Schreiner states,

Certain features characterize apocalyptic literature, the most important being its symbolic language. Some interpreters approach the book with what I call “newspaper eschatology,” interpreting Revelation through contemporary events. Such an approach, however, is arbitrary and inconsistent. It is arbitrary inasmuch as the interpretation changes as history marches on, as anyone knows who has followed this approach over the years. It is inconsistent inasmuch as the claim to take the book “literally” is contradicted by their own symbolic interpretations. No one actually follows a literalistic hermeneutic in reading the book. For instance, no one believes Jesus really has a double-edged sword in his mouth (Rev. 1:16). The symbolism of the book should produce humility in us as interpreters, for we must confess we don’t always know how to interpret the symbols. In any case, the most important background for interpreting the book is not the newspaper but the OT, for Revelation is infused with OT allusions. Virtually every line of the book echoes the OT witness. Hence, the fundamental reason some interpreters go astray is that they don’t anchor their reading of Revelation in the OT. (530–31)

If we are going to understand Revelation, we must continue to grow in our understanding of the Old Testament.

Revelation Requires a Lifetime of Reading

In 1845, Andover-Newton professor, Moses Stuart, published his two-volume, thousand-page commentary on Revelation. Interestingly, this project took more than three decades, as he declares in his preface. Citing the request of students in 1809 to teach on Revelation, he explains how he faltered before finally fulfilling their commission.

I commenced study of it, with a design to comply with their request. I soon found myself, however, in pursuing the way of regular interpretation as applied to other books of Scripture, completely hedged in. . . .  I frankly told my Pupils, therefore, that I knew nothing respecting the book which could profit them, and that I could not attempt to lecture upon it. After still further examination, I came to a resolution, not to attempt the exegesis of the Apocalypse, until a period of ten years had elapsed, which should be devoted, so far as my other duties would permit, to the study of the Hebrew prophets. I kept my resolution. After this period had passed, I began, with much caution, to say a few things, in the Lecture-room, respecting the book in question. . . . In the process of time I began to go through the whole book. This I have done several times; and the present work is the result of these often repeated and long continued labors. (Cited by Dennis Johnson, The Triumph of the Lamb1)

“Repeated and long continued labors.” This is a good word to any young pastor attempting to preach Revelation, and it is a good word for everyone to labor in the Old Testament before attempting to state definitively what Revelation means.

Without denying the perspicuity of Scripture, it is important to understand the nature of the Bible and Revelation in particular. God did not give us a book whereby a first reading will offer up the treasures found therein. Rather, the riches of Scripture are only unlocked through repeated meditations on God’s word, indeed a lifetime of study. This is true for all Scripture, but especially Revelation. And so, with the model of Moses Stuart before us, we would do well to spend a decade in the Prophets before we declare the meaning of Revelation.

Revelation Requires a Reading Strategy

Lest one think that we should postpone reading Revelation for the next ten years, let me encourage you to read this book often, but to do so wisely and with the help of others. And in his helpful introduction to the book, Dennis Johnson provides seven principles for reading Revelation.

  1. Revelation is given to reveal. It makes its central message so clear that even those who hear it can take it to heart and receive the blessing it promises.
  2. Revelation is a book to be seen, a book of symbols in motion. Because the appearance of individuals and institutions in everyday experience often masks their true identity, Revelation is given in visions full of symbols that paradoxically picture the true identity of the church, its enemies, and its Champion.
  3. Revelation makes sense only in light of the Old Testament. Not only the visions of such prophets as Ezekiel, Daniel, and Zechariah but also historical events such as creation, the fall, and the exodus provide the symbolic vocabulary for John’s visions.
  4. Numbers count in Revelation. Since numbers are used symbolically in Revelation, we must discern the meaning they convey rather than trying to pull them as numbers directly into our experience, measured by calendars and odometers.
  5. Revelation is for a church under attack. Its purpose is to awaken us to the dimensions of the battle and the strategies of the enemy, SO that we will respond to the attacks with faithful perseverance and purity, overcoming by the blood of the Lamb.
  6. Revelation concerns “what must soon take place.” We must seek an understanding that touches the experience of our brothers and sisters in seven first-century congregations scattered in the cities of western Asia Minor. Revelation is not about events and hostile forces remote from their struggle.
  7. The victory belongs to God and to his Christ. Revelation is pervaded with worship songs and scenes because its pervasive theme despite its gruesome portrait of evil’s powers is the triumph of God through the Lamb. We read this book to hear and to fall down in adoring worship the King’s call to courage and to fall down in adoring worship before him. (Dennis Johnson, The Triumph of the Lamb, 22–23)

All in all, there is promised a blessing for those who read and hear the book of Revelation. So let us find ourselves meditating on this book often. But let us do so as disciples taught by those who have gone before us. Let us begin with Prophets and then proceed to those whose knowledge of the prophets has helped them and us understand this challenging and Christ-centered book.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

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