You wake up one night in a cold sweat. You have had the most horrible nightmare! You dreamt that the new preaching rota at church had you down to preach a series on the Book of Revelation! You get up, drink some water, and go back to sleep. Then the next morning you check the rota—and find out that it is true!
Preaching on Revelation strikes fear into the heart of most preachers—and for those it doesn’t, it probably should! It is a strange book, in the proper sense of that word; it was written in a culture a long way from our own, and using language that we struggle to make sense of. And the misinterpretations and misuses of this text are legion, especially in times of perceived crisis like the one we are living through.
Revelation within the Bible
So where should we start? The first thing to note is something that should reassure us. If you pick up a Bible (go on, pick one up—and make sure it is a printed version, not an electronic scroll on phone or computer) and look carefully, then you will notice something remarkable: Revelation is within, not outside, the covers of your Bible. That is the most important fact about this book. Despite a later struggle in the fourth century, and despite the rejection of the text by some Eastern churches, the evidence is that Revelation was one of the earliest texts to be accepted into what became the canon of the New Testament as we have it.
That has two important consequences for us. First, it means that John and its first readers thought that it essentially told us the same apostolic story and gave the same apostolic teaching as the rest of the New Testament.
What do you think the Bible is about? (You might want to pause here, think for a minute, and jot down your answer.) Well, here is one possible answer.
God created the world in love, but humanity turned away from him as the source of life. Despite this, God constantly reached out to humanity, first through Abraham, and then through the people of Israel. Even though they failed him, he continued to love them and draw them back to the pattern of holy living that he had offered as his gift of grace. Their failures took them into exile, but God brought them home, imperfect people though they were. Yet he promised more—that one day he would come to them as their true king, restore them to holy living by the gift of his Spirit, and fulfil their ultimate purpose in drawing all nations to him. Jesus fulfilled that promise in his birth, ministry, death and resurrection, and calls us to be the new, international Israel, sharing God’s love with all. One day, Jesus will return to complete the work he began, and reveal the kingdom of God in all its fulness.
If that is the story of the Bible, and Revelation is within the Bible, then Revelation must surely tell the same story, or at least make a contribution to that in line with other parts of the New Testament. If we think it tells a completely different story (such as giving a chronological countdown to a might military battle led by a contemporary political figure) then we can be pretty confident that something has gone wrong in our interpretation.
But having Revelation within the covers of our Bible gives us another confidence: that we should interpret it just the same way we should interpret any other part of the Bible, and in particular, any other part of the New Testament.
You might want to pause once more, and ask yourself: what are the things we need to think about?
- What is the social context in which this text is written? What is the world like, and what issues might the readers be facing?
- What kind of writing is this? What assumptions is the author making, and what conventions is the author deploying?
- Where does this text come within the whole Bible, and canon of Scripture? Does it draw on earlier parts of the canon? Does it connect with other texts in its theology and ideas? Are its ideas taken up in later writing? (This last question does not really apply to Revelation!)
- What does the text actually say? What do the words mean, and what is the author communicating?
Each of these questions can be fleshed out in more detail, and I explore each of them further in my Grove booklet How to Interpret the Bible: four essential questions.
And if we ask these kinds of questions when reading other parts of the New Testament, why don’t we ask them of the Book of Revelation?
I think many readers of Revelation approach it as though John is using ordinary language to describe an extraordinary time—often a weird kind of end-times doomsday world which we have never seen but is just around the corner. In fact, John is using extraordinary language to describe ‘ordinary’ time, that is, the world that his readers knew, lived in, and recognised.
We can see this by noting the disciples’ response to Jesus’ teaching. When Jesus tells a parable about a farmer going out to sow his fields with seed, the disciples’ response is incomprehension: ‘What on earth are you talking about Jesus?’ (Mark 4.10, Ian Paul version). But when he sits on the Mount of Olives, looking at the temple, and uses the apocalyptic language of ‘the sun will be darkened, the moon will not give its light and stars will fall from heaven’ (Matt 24.29, Mark 13.24) then the disciples appear to be quite happy about that—and neither Matthew nor Mark feel that it needs any further exploration! They seem to think that their readers will be quite happy with this kind of language!
So we need to ask the questions above with especial care, and these are the issues we need to be aware of.
Context: John’s immediate readers lived in the west of what we now call Turkey, but this was at the eastern part of the Roman Empire. It was a place and time of deep uncertainty. There was a sense of threat from the Parthians from the east, and many looked to the power of Rome, which came to them across the sea from the west, for protection and security. Emperor ‘worship’ had always been more extravagant and full-bloodied in the east than in other parts of the empire, and this was an age which knew no separation between ‘religion’ and the rest of life—whom or what you worshipped shaped your whole outlook on life. The civil war in the year 69 had looked to some as though the empire was going to finally collapse, but it remarkably survived, in some ways even stronger than before.
This was also a time of physical insecurity, as earthquakes were common in the region, and many of the cities John was writing to had been destroyed. It was a time of frequent plagues, and malaria was endemic to the region. As the Jesus movement became more gentile and peeled away from Judaism, it lost the security of being covered by Judaism’s status of a religio licta, and allowed deviation from Roman pantheism.
Kind of writing: We might think of Revelation as apocalyptic in genre—after all, apokalypsis is the first word of the Greek text. But very soon we come across the claim that it is a ‘prophecy’ (Rev 1.3, a word repeated seven times in the text), and we quickly recognise its style as that of a letter, as in Rev 1.4 John addresses those to whom he is writing just as Paul does in his letters.
Since this is a letter, then we need to think carefully about its recipients. In Scripture, most prophecy is less about predicting the future and more about giving God’s perspective on how the world is—God sees things differently from us, and invites us to share his perspective. And ‘revelation’ is a central feature of the Christian faith; we know who God is because he has revealed himself to us in the person of Jesus Christ, not because we have worked it out for ourselves. So we should regard this, in some sense, as the most Christian of texts.
Canon: Clearly, Revelation comes at the end of the canon of Scripture—but less clearly, it actually makes more use of the Old Testament than any other book of the New Testament. Within its 405 verses I have counted 676 allusions to the OT! If we do not spot this, or don’t see how John is making use of these OT texts, then we will struggle to make sense of what John is saying.
There is a good example of how these issues converge in the vision of worship in chapter 4. John’s description might remind us of Isaiah 6 or Ezekiel 1, with their visions of God enthroned in and beyond the temple. You can read this passage without any other knowledge, and have a sense of the awesome majesty of God and be caught up in a sense of worship.
But the vision becomes more vivid when we recognise the Old Testament vocabulary John deploys—the rainbow from the story of Noah, the jewels we find in descriptions of the desert tabernacle, the thunder and lightning of Sinai, and creatures from Ezekiel 1, and so on. Here is the God of the story of Israel—creator, redeemer, companion on their journey to the promised land. But then we notice others things—elders, not priests, around the throne, dressed in white, not the colours of the priests, casting gold crowns and singing choruses, not psalms. For John’s readers, these are the unmistakable images of imperial devotion. John is saying, in narrative form ‘There is only One on the throne; there is only One who is your security; there is only One who deserves your devotion. Will you stay faithful?’
Revelation in Numbers
Alongside these issues, there are some quite technical features of this text which offer a challenge to reading and preaching—but also offer some fascinating insights.
Even the casual reader will be aware that Revelation includes lots of numbers, including the seven cities, seven seals on the scroll, seven trumpets and seven bowls. These have a powerful effect of offering a sense of order to the description of a chaotic world.
But John also uses numbers in three other ways. He repeats words (like ‘prophecy’) a certain number of times—so, for example, the name ‘Jesus’ comes 14 times = 2 x 7, signifying Jesus as the faithful witness (since 7 is the number of completion, and 2 the number of witness, Deut 17.6). He uses the numbers three-and-a-half years = 42 months = 1,260 days to signifying the time we are living in now—a time of journeying to the promise land, in which we will both suffer, be protecting, and testify to the truth of God—making use of ideas from Exodus and Daniel.
And, infamously, he makes use of the fact that, without a separate number system, every letter had a number, so every word had a value being the sum of its letters. You can go to Pompeii and read a graffito on one of the walls: ‘I love her whose number is 545’. This was a common way to communicate to others in the know. Despite much wild speculation, we can be confident that the number 666 in Rev 13.18 represents both the word ‘beast’ and the name ‘Nero Caesar’. John was not hiding but revealing to his readers that the greatest challenged they faced was whether they would stay faithful to the God and Father of Jesus Christ, or whether they could compromise with the imperial ideology of their day. We are faced with a similar question today!
All these ways of using numbers seem mysterious at first—but once we understand them, they make the text more compelling, not less.
Preaching in practice
Given these challenges, how do we go about helping people hear and understand what John is saying to his readers, and through that what God might be saying to us today? There are three possible strategies.
- You could separate out the background and ‘technical’ issues completely, by offering separate teaching, in person or on paper, in order to give your congregation or listeners the help they need to close the gap between them and the text before your preach. That then enables the preaching to focus on the theological message without any other distraction.
- A second approach would be to separate out the background issues, but within the same service. A few years ago, I offered a seven-week series on Revelation, and spoke twice in each service—first, explaining some of the issues in quite a didactic manner, and then preaching on the passage in question in a more devotional way.
- Third, it is possible preach in an integrated way, explaining the ‘technical’ issues as we go along. This needs careful planning; we need to explain what we are doing so that we don’t pull a theological rabbit magically out of the exegetical hat; but our focus needs to be on the implications for us today, rather than getting caught up with the technicalities.
You can see a recent example of this third approach, preaching on Rev 7, on my article ‘What kind of church does the world need us to be?’ which has both text and video. I offer further examples in my chapter on Revelation in We Proclaim the Word of Life: Preaching the New Testament Today (ed Ian Paul and David Wenham, IVP, 2013)
For a summary of the background issues and their importance, see my Grove booklet How to Read the Book of Revelation. You will also find fuller comment in an accessible format in my Tyndale Commentary on Revelation also published by IVP.
Preaching on Revelation is probably one of the most demanding tasks facing the preacher—but also one of the most rewarding. I hope that the ideas here have given you confidence that it can be done, and done well. There is nothing quite like the experience of seeing the veil pulled back, this book dusted off, and pages that have been closed for many years opened once more. And as it happens, you will discover that this is truly a transforming text—of your world, of your congregation, and even of you yourself as you preach.
(This is a longer version of an article published this month in Transforming Ministry, the magazine for Readers in the Church of England. This edition includes a range of excellent essays on aspect of apocalyptic, written by some great scholars and communicators, and is well worth reading.)