The key conviction amongst Christians with the Protestant denominations is that ordinary readers can understand the Bible and hear God speaking to them through it, without the need for priestly control of its interpretation. The Book of Revelation is one of the biggest tests of this conviction! As a result, one of my concerns, alongside academic study of this book, is to work at how ‘ordinary’ readers can be helped to make sense of it. Part of the fruit of that is my Grove booklet on How to Read the Book of Revelation. Another, coming out next week, is the six-session Bible study book Revelation: Faithfulness in testing times published by IVP as part of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity (LICC)’s ‘Gateway Seven’ series. This looks at seven different kinds of literature in the Bible, and how we can read each of them well.
I think there are three main challenges in our approach to Revelation. The first is addressing the perennial problem of reading on our own. Although Scripture was given to us with the expectation that God would speak to us through it, it was given primarily to the whole people of God—where Western assumptions treat it as though it was given to me and that I should be able to understand it on my own. Rev 1.3 neatly undermines this assumption, by promising blessing to the ‘one’ who reads and those who listen and keep the words of this prophecy. The social situation here is clearly a communal context, with a lector at the front, and the whole community listening and making sense together. We get all kinds of problems when people read Revelation on their own, and come up with often bizarre schemes for its interpretation which are untested.
The second main challenge is our historical, social and cultural distance from this text. There are actually many points of contact in our culture with the way that John communicates, but not always the ones that we realise. For example, I would argue that Rev 12 is very close to what we would call a political cartoon—but it takes some understanding to realise that. And it is clear from the gospels that, where we find the parables of Jesus relatively straightforward to engage with and understand, the disciples found them mostly baffling—whereas, by contrast, they were quite happy when Jesus went all apocalyptic on them, and talked of the sun darkening and the moon not giving its light or being turned to blood, and deployed such language themselves!
That leads to the third challenge for anyone teaching on this book: how can I enable people to read it, without standing in between them and the text and simply interpreting it to them? How do I avoid the ‘priesthood of the commentator’, where people end up reading what I say rather than actually engaging, in an informed way, with the text themselves?
That is where the format of this new study book comes in. Alongside thε actual study material, there is a whole host of other small sections of text. Some functions as outlines and introductions, whilst others seek to offer helpful information that enables reading well. The shortest of these briefly cover:
- The language about the Spirit of God in the book
- The different genres within Revelation
- The meaning of ‘coming on the clouds’
- The titles of Jesus in Rev 1
- The meaning of ‘hot and cold’ in Rev 3.14
- Revelation’s use of Old Testament imagery
- The worship of God in Rev 4
- The marking with a seal in Rev 7
- The description of the people of God
- The term ‘tribulation’
- The mythological background to Rev 12
- Revelation’s use of numbers
- Revelation’s eschatology
- Who was John?
- What was ‘the great city’?
- The function of angels in the book
- How should we go about interpretation the Book of Revelation?
- How do we make sense of the language of judgement?
- What is the meaning of the millennium in chapter 20?
All these are, of course, explored in more depth in my commentary in the IVP Tyndale series.
As part of the launch of the book, I took part in an author interview, which you can see below. In it, I discuss the whole range of questions on how we read the Book of Revelation and its relevance for followers of Jesus today.
The study book is available to pre-order now on the LICC website, and there are good discounts for bulk orders. Enjoy!