Can ordinary readers understand the Book of Revelation?

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

Slightly longer feature articles explore:

  • 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!

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10 thoughts on “Can ordinary readers understand the Book of Revelation?”

  1. I think I will order this.

    Ian, I am intrigued by your comment that you think Rev 12 is a ‘political cartoon’. Does the material develop this idea? Were there any contemporary ‘cartoon’ examples at the time Revelation was written for genre comparison ? A kind of first century ‘Punch’ magazine or ‘Private Eye’ perhaps?

    It must have been something that was understood and clearly recognised by the people of that time in their cultural setting and resonated with them.

  2. Just as a note, I used the “Book of Revelations for Dummies” as the basis of a series of sermons that another Pastor and I preached while I was in France. I found it quite helpful, and looked at themes instead of individual verses unless something warranted it.

  3. The imperial acclamations as a Sitz im Leben for the language of the hymns is a great thought, new to me but that probably shows how out of touch I am.

  4. I believe that the book of Revelation can be understood from the Bible itself without any need for guesswork

    Here is an example.

    Rev 12:1 And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars:
    Rev 12:2 And she being with child cried, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered.
    Rev 12:5 And she brought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron: and her child was caught up unto God, and to his throne.
    Rev 12:6 And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she hath a place prepared of God, that they should feed her there a thousand two hundred and threescore days.

    The woman is Jerusalem who gives birth to both saints and sinners.

    Gal 4:25 For this Agar is mount Sinai in Arabia, and answereth to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children.
    Gal 4:26 But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all.

    The man child is not one person, it refers to the saints.

    (Isa 66:8) Who hath heard such a thing? who hath seen such things? Shall the earth be made to bring forth in one day? or shall a nation be born at once? for as soon as Zion travailed, she brought forth her children.

    Jerusalem gives birth to saints, twice!

    First, with no labour pains, which I think refers to the first century Christians because in Galations, Paul quotes from Isa 54:1 and applies it to his generation.

    Sing, O barren, thou that didst not bear; break forth into singing, and cry aloud, thou that didst not travail with child: for more are the children of the desolate than the children of the married wife, saith the LORD.

    This is similar to Isa 66:7.

    Before she travailed, she brought forth; before her pain came, she was delivered of a man child.

    Also the order of events requires that the 144,000 be sealed before any tribulation occurs, that is before the labour pains.

    Second, with labour pains. This is a latter day event according to Rev 12.

    (Rev 12:2) And she being with child cried, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered.

    (Mic 4:10) Be in pain, and labour to bring forth, O daughter of Zion, like a woman in travail: for now shalt thou go forth out of the city, and thou shalt dwell in the field, and thou shalt go even to Babylon; there shalt thou be delivered; there the LORD shall redeem thee from the hand of thine enemies.

    Other supporting verses.

    (Jer 4:31) For I have heard a voice as of a woman in travail, and the anguish as of her that bringeth forth her first child, the voice of the daughter of Zion, that bewaileth herself, that spreadeth her hands, saying, Woe is me now! for my soul is wearied because of murderers.

    (Mic 5:3) Therefore will he give them up, until the time that she which travaileth hath brought forth: then the remnant of his brethren shall return unto the children of Israel.

  5. Here is another example identifying the two witnesses of Rev 11.

    And I will give power unto my two witnesses, and they shall prophesy a thousand two hundred and threescore days, clothed in sackcloth. These are the two olive trees, and the two candlesticks standing before the God of the earth. (Rev 11:3-4).

    The candlesticks are symbols for churches.

    …the seven candlesticks which thou sawest are the seven churches. (Rev 1:20)

    An olive tree is a symbol for the nation of Israel which in God’s eyes is still divided into the two nations of Judah and Israel. God will re-unite them in His own due time. You may have noticed that the 144,000 will be sealed from both divisions of Israel.

    And if some of the branches be broken off, and thou, being a wild olive tree, wert graffed in among them, and with them partakest of the root and fatness of the olive tree; (Rom 11:17).

    Say unto them, Thus saith the Lord GOD; Behold, I will take the stick of Joseph, which is in the hand of Ephraim, and the tribes of Israel his fellows, and will put them with him, even with the stick of Judah, and make them one stick, and they shall be one in mine hand. (Eze 37:19).

    So the two witnesses are two churches with members from a new generation of saints selected from the tribes of Israel, that is, the 144,000. They will be the first to be resurrected at the return of Christ being the firstfruits. This will happen on Nissan 16, which was originally the third day after Passover and the second day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. It is the time of the barley harvest. The earth will be reaped on the day of Pentecost which is the time of the wheat harvest.

    And I looked, and, lo, a Lamb stood on the mount Sion, and with him an hundred forty and four thousand, having his Father’s name written in their foreheads. (Rev 14:1).
    These are they which were not defiled with women; for they are virgins. These are they which follow the Lamb whithersoever he goeth. These were redeemed from among men, being the firstfruits unto God and to the Lamb. (Rev 14:4).

    The “women” in this last text are those described in Rev 17. The great whore is Jerusalem and the woman riding the beast is Babylon.

  6. We started using this book as the basis for our men’s group study this Saturday just gone. The biggest challenge proved to be stopping ourselves from rushing ahead of ourselves and getting firmly in place a good methodology for studying the text. It was interesting hearing the range of views from people’s previous experience and hesitancy about studying Revelation, so for me a big positive outcome will be if people come away with the idea of studying Revelation having been demystified. So far so good

    • Wow, that is great to hear! Let me know how it goes.

      Yes, the key first thing is about methodology. I always aim to get people to pause, before plunging into contentious issues, and get them to reflect: how am I actually reading this text, and why?


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