How can we read the Book of Revelation well today?


Last week I visited Vintage City Church in Fort Collins, Colorado, to talk about the Book of Revelation over the weekend and preach in their Sunday services. Vintage City Church is a really interesting place, where the team are committed to engaging with the work of the Spirit amongst them, thinking well about the Christian faith, being deeply rooted in Scripture, and committed to practical care and engagement with the community around them.

As part of my contribution, I recorded this Q and A session on Revelation with Dustin Scott, Senior Associate Pastor for Youth at the church, addressing some key questions about reading the book. Here is a summary of his questions and my answers, though there is more detail in the conversation.

1. If I were reading the Book of Revelation for the first time, where (and how) would you recommend I begin?

First, I would be very glad that you are reading it at all, since many people avoid it—either because they think it is too disturbing, or because it is too difficult to read.

But it is important to read it as a whole book, rather than select either the high points or focus on the dark images. Revelation functions a bit like paintings that make use of chiaroscuro, in which there is a strong contrast between the light and the dark parts of the painting. Its effect is not just found in the dark and light parts, but in the contrast between the two. Revelation teaches us through the contrast between the chaos of the world around us and the sovereignty of God on the throne.

Secondly, it is important to read it with the whole people of God. Revelation is unusual in telling us quite clearly the context of its reception: in Rev 1.3, we read that there is ‘one’ who ‘reads [aloud]’ this book, and many who ‘hear and keep it’. It is being read in the assembly, so that we all hear and interpret it together. We need to read with believers from the whole range of cultures and contexts, including ‘reading with the dead’, those who have gone before us, and those with different insights, including scholars.

2. What are some common errors/blunders readers make when approaching the Book of Revelation? 

Well, I have made some of them! When I first encountered the book, reading through the messages to the seven assemblies, I was told that the seven ‘churches’ are the seven ages of the church—and of course we knew we were in the end times—as all Christians have always believed! I didn’t pay attention to the fact that this was written as an apocalyptic prophetic letter by a real person to real people who lived in a real time and place.

There are some (a minority) who think that Revelation was written only to them, and has little to say to us today. But a larger group think that it was written about some distant (to John and his first readers) ‘end time‘ which was not really relevant to them. In fact, it is relevant to us because it was relevant to them—though we live in a different cultural context, we share with John and his readers the reality of living in the ‘in between’ times, that runs from Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension until his return. So we share with John being in fellowship in ‘tribulation, kingdom, and patient endurance that are in Jesus’ (Rev 1.9). As with all other Scriptures, we seek to hear what God is saying to us through what John was saying to his first audience.

3. What do you see as the primary themes within Revelation?

The key questions we are faced with as followers of Jesus are: what in the world is happening? What is God doing? And how should respond as the people of God? These are only pertinent questions when we are attending to what is going on around us, and when we believe that God is seated on his throne.

It is possible to believe that no-one is in control and the world really is chaotic. The alternative answer is that a powerful leader—an ’emperor’—or a powerful system of beliefs, an ideology—an ’empire’—is the answer to our questions. But of course John in Revelation offers a third, alternative answer—that God and the lamb are on the throne, and the water of life (the Spirit) flows from the throne to quench our thirst.

4. The book begins with a revelation of the glorified Jesus and then proceeds to address seven historical churches; however, the entire book is referred to as Jesus’ letter or royal pronouncement to the Church. How should this inform the visions/eschatological material of the later book?

A key skill in reading this book (as with all of Scripture) is be able to look carefully at the detail but also see the big picture, and relate the two together. When I worked in business, this was called the ‘helicopter’ quality—because in a helicopter you are able to drop down and look at the detail, but also then lift off and see the big picture, and how that detail fits into the big picture.

We also need to recognise that, as John paints these dramatic pictures, he is drawing on two quite different palettes—the canonical scriptures, and his own contemporary culture. In different parts of Revelation, these two have different prominence, but we need to be aware of both in order to make sense of the text as a whole.

5. You’re not just an expert on the Book of Revelation but you’re very studied on Jewish apocalyptic literature from the second temple record. How has that contextualized your reading of Revelation?

First, we need to be aware that there was a lot of ‘apocalyptic’ literature around before, during, and after the time that Revelation was written—though Revelation is the only one that calls itself an ‘apocalypse’. It is rather ironic that, when Jesus teaches about ‘a man went out to sow seed’ in Mark 4, we think this is a lovely accessible story that we can teach our children—yet the disciples pulled their hair out and could not make sense of it! But when we get to Mark 13 and the language of ‘the sun will be darkened, the moon turn to blood, and the stars will fall from heaven’, we tear our hair out and can’t understand this—whilst the disciples don’t seem to have any difficulty understanding it!

Much Jewish apocalyptic features an interpreting angel—but Revelation deliberately avoids this, and includes numerous features which downplay the importance of angels despite their frequency in the text. Rather than having a Jewish nationalistic vision, Revelation offers not just a renewal of the covenant with the people of God but also a renewal of the whole creation, so that (in chapter 7) the Israel of God is from every tribe, language, people and nation. Revelation also avoids the gleeful speculation about judgement, and emphasises God’s justice in judgement.

6. Do you have any advice for us, as a Teaching Team and as a church, as we embark into chapters four and onward?

First, be patient! There are some troubling and difficult things in the text.

Secondly, be amazed. This is an extraordinary and wonderful text, which has been deeply influential on Christian belief and continues to shape the world.

Thirdly, be responsive. As God speaks to through this, be sure to be people who ‘hear and keep the words of this prophecy’.

7. Tell us about your blog and what it offers. (I do!)

It was a great conversation with Dustin—and I hope you enjoy it!

For further resources on the Book of Revelation, you might be interested in:

a. my Grove booklet on How to Read the Book of Revelation

b. my LICC study guide giving small group sessions on reading the Book of Revelation

c. my Sunday sermon on the threefold vision of the people of God in Revelation 7 at Vintage City Church.


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56 thoughts on “How can we read the Book of Revelation well today?”

  1. So you see it as apocalyptic literature than as prophetic where the author is obeying the heavenly vision to write what he sees and hears?

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  2. Thank you for these helpful comments, Ian. By the way, thank you for recommending and lending me the book Mosaic by Roger Olson – I’m finding it very interesting and helpful, and now hopefully will remember the difference between premillenialist, postmillenialist and amilleniast! (I’m not reading it in order…)

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  3. Thanks Ian,
    Your work is grounded and inspirational.
    Last Saturday I went out street witnessing, met an artist, told him I was using Revelation as subject matter. He was intrigued and wanted to read it for himself. I was late arriving so prayed, “God give me just one to talk to”…and He did. So glad I went out.

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  4. While the written summary of your conversation can stand alone, to do full justice, to draw out a bigger and more detailed landscape, with personality, it is suggested that attending to recording is required.
    It must have been a refreshing change from the CoE politics and quarrelling blog comments, including mine.

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    • I like David Pawson’s book “When Jesus Returns”. He compares and contrasts all of the differing (and incompatible) schools of interpretation while making his own way through the Book of Revelation.

      When discussing eschatology with other Christians I find it helpful to ask them for their own summary in few words of what they believe will happen. Then you will understand their questions and responses much better and be better able to frame your own.

      The writer of this book calls himself just ‘John,’ suggesting that he would be well known to his readers; tradition has it that this is John the disciple who wrote the fourth gospel. Its style is different from his gospel because it is the jotted-down record of an unfolding vision, since God’s words at the end forbade editing (Rev 22:18-19). John has only the language of 2000 years ago to describe such events as meteorite strikes and nuclear war. That is the real explanation of its ‘apocalyptic’ style, not any carefully crafted literary style. I respectfully disagree with Ian about that. The Book of Revelation tells of the final triumph of Christ over evil, but warns that evil must first grow to a horrendous climax.

      Differences between schools stem from different ‘hermeneutics’ – ways to read the book, based on differing assumptions. God’s words can challenge any human assumption, however. It is wise to ponder, or be armed with, the following questions:

      • If the book of Revelation depicts only spiritual battle between good and evil in the heavenly places (the idealist view), then why does the action in its midpart alternate between heaven and earth? What does each detail mean?
      • If the book looks ahead prophetically but is entirely spiritual, how could you know when these prophecies have been fulfilled?
      • If the book is prophetic mainly about the early church era in which John lived (the preterist view), then to what in the history books does each detail of those prophecies correspond?
      • If God came bodily to this earth as Jesus once within human history, why not again? Do those who doubt his bodily Second Coming really differ from someone who, before Christ, scoffed at Isaiah’s prophecy (9:6) of the Incarnation?
      • Do the letters in the Book of Revelation to seven congregations in Asia Minor really fit successive eras of church history (the ‘historicist’ view), once the tale of Christianity outside the historic boundaries of the Roman Empire is taken into account, or the existence of dissident churches within its boundaries (such as the Lollards and the Waldenses)?
      • Where on this earth will Jesus Christ return to, and why there and then?

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        • Why then does it have a very different style from the gospel which John certainly did craft carefully?

          I suggest that the careful crafting you identify was performed by the Holy Spirit through John while John was simply jotting down what he saw before him on his inner TV screen.

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          • What evidence do you have that John simply ‘jotted down’ what he saw. If John is the author of Revelation, then he crafted it.

          • If a text looks carefully crafted, on what basis do we attribute that supernaturally to the Spirit with the author being a mere secretary, rather than to the author? You seem to be taking a Muslim approach to inspiration here.

          • PC1: John says that it is the record of a vision. What evidence do you have that it was not written down in real time?

          • Why then does it have a very different style from the gospel which John certainly did craft carefully?

      • Or it’s style is different because it’s a different book, written at different time, for a different purpose, and perhaps with different people holding the pen.

        If we take it as read that the Gospel of John was written in about 60AD, that presumably means it’s running off of an oral tradition that had been going for over 20 years. Whilst that gospel is from John the Apostle, does it have to mean he’s the one putting pen to paper (so to speak)? If you were deciding you needed to record a previously oral gospel, the centre of your faith, wouldn’t you use an educated scribe? Wouldn’t that make the Greek pretty good? And if you’re recording something that’s been refined and rehearsed over 20 years wouldn’t the organisation of it be pretty tight?

        Then we turn to Revelation, written on Patmos, and we think in about 95AD. This could be 30 years later than the Gosepl of John. St John has another 30 years of Church leadership under his belt by this point. Wouldn’t his style be expected to change a bit? Unlike the gospel this isn’t a heavily repeated oral tradition. This is organised by John, and whilst it could be done deliberately and carefully, why would you expect it to match with the gospel? If he’s exiled on Patmos, maybe he’s writing it himself, and without a top drawer scribe his Greek is a little more ropey than that found in Gospel.

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        • You dont have much time for Bauckham’s view that John the Elder, and not John the son of Zebedee was the author of John? Although Im not wholly convinced, it would explain why it is substantially different from the synoptics, as it was not based on the Twelve.

          I also think many scholars would place the Gospel much later than AD60, though in reality noone actually knows when any of them were written, except most likely in the 1st century.

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          • Well, who is John the Elder? We know nothing about him, he’s not one of the Twelve, or the Seventy, and yet he’s the author of a Gospel, three letters, and Revelation, and the Church just forgot?

            As for the synoptics, only St Matthew was one of the Twelve. Even so, if we accept that St Mark’s is the first Gospel, taken from St Peter, and St Luke and St Matthew deliberately work from it, then the question isn’t why John’s Gospel is different; rather, it’s why does the Church accept another Gospel in the canon that’s distinct from that delivered by St Peter. If it’s a Gospel from St John the Apostle, that would seem to be a valid reason. But if it’s from some random John who just happens to also be hanging around Ephesus, then how does that get near the canon?

          • Peter, we can narrow down the dates of writing much more than that. ‘No-one actually knows when any of them were written, except most likely in the 1st century’ is a highly inaccurate summary.

            In what way are the synoptics (other than Mark) ‘based on the Twelve’ anyway? I suppose you could say Mark was based on Peter and Matt and Luke both based on Mark.

          • AJ Bell, almost no-one thinks John the Elder wrote all 5 of those books, though as it happens I do.

            We know almost nothing about most people and most Christians of the time. Even the ones mentioned in Scripture we know very little about.

        • thanks Adam. A useful summary of the issues. Tom Wright once said ‘Because Paul didn’t write any of his letters, I believe Paul ‘wrote’ all of them’. You and he are highlighting the importance of the amanuensis.

          But as you hint at, the whole debate about the relation between the two depends on the idea of ‘author invariants’. How far should we expect an author to be consistent in his or her style from one time and place to another? Many arguments on authorship assume that we *should* expect an author to be consistent; you are highlighting that this is not a sure assumption to make.

          But unfortunately your correct assessment does not mean we can reclaim shared authorship; it means that stylistic differences might not actually contribute anything to such a debate.

          I would add further: what difference to our reading of the text does a belief about authorship make. As far as I can see, in relation to both the gospel and Revelation, the answer is ‘none’.

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      • ‘John has only the language of 2000 years ago to describe such events as meteorite strikes and nuclear war.’

        I think the logic of this approach to reading runs like this:
        . I don’t understand the style of John’s writing.
        . Even 2000 years on, I should be able to understand it as if it were written today.
        . Therefore John can’t have understood what he was writing about.
        . Therefore it is about modern things I understand that John didn’t.

        I am not persuaded by this logic.

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  5. Naively, I would have thought that reading Revelation ‘well’ means being able to draw from it assurance that for those of us who trust in Him, Christ really has dealt with our sin and we really are saved.

    Without this assurance – that my name is among those written into the ‘Book of Life’, Revelation really is a grim book. It shows forth somewhat graphically the forces of evil, to which we were enslaved – and hence the full horror of what we have actually been saved from (and what Christ endured in the depths of Hell when he saved us from it) – while showing forth the ‘Vision of Glory’, what we have been saved for.

    As I indicated to David Shepherd in a previous discussion, I don’t go along with the idea that if people don’t say the wrong things then this is somehow indicative that things are OK – it isn’t. We need to hear a profession of faith where someone who claims to be ‘in Him’ (i.e. a Christian) accepts their sinnerhood and all that this implies and has come to repentance through his crucifixion and resurrection. (So if you see people overawed by the ‘power of Jesus’ expressed by the Spirit moving – in a way that is separated from what this power is actually for – i.e. in my case dealing with my personal sin, the same for every believer – then it’s time to worry).

    So reading Revelation well means reading it in this context – which is the only context in which it makes sense.

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    • Of course we need assurance. But reading is a skill, and it can be done well or badly.

      Paul exhorts the Corinthians to ‘in your understanding be mature’. (1 Cor 14.20)

      I think it best if we read Scripture well…don’t you…?

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      • Ian – yes, we all want to read Scripture well, but there seem to be widely differing views of what it means to read Scripture well. Some would have us believe that the style of writing was so specific to a particular time and place that we really need to apply the theories of the philosopher Paul Grice to be able to unpack it all and put the meaning that the author was trying to convey within a framework that gets the meaning across to a contemporary mind.

        My problem here is that much of what passes for Christianity does not seem to emphasise that the believer is sinful, the believer by rights stands condemned and that the crucifixion and resurrection were to deal with the radical evil within the believer.

        If Revelation is read well (i.e. drawing out the message rather than reading in, taking the view that John had a full understanding of the vision and was fully aware of all the allusion to Old Testament scriptures) then Christ dealing with the radical evil within the believer, preparing the believer for the inevitable struggle, both internal and external which results from having been transported to newness of life, assurance of the ultimate victory is the only context in which Revelation makes sense.

        The trouble is that I often don’t see this explicitly and I see it ‘read well’ by people who simply get ‘good vibes’ from the Spirit and see themselves on the right side, enthusiastic about participating in the victory and being in the number that march through the pearly gates – without any acknowledgement of their own sinful nature and what the crucifixion and resurrection were all about.

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        • Jock, I have a problem of addiction. I’m addicted to this blog. This morning , at church, I’m going to find someone to pray with . If successful, I won’t be back for some time. Please pray. Thanks.

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  6. Penelope Wallace
    April 24, 2024 at 1:44 pm

    Personally, I would not recommend Olson, which ever interpretation one chooses it is more than likely to be incorrect. On the day I doubt that one might opine “ Jesus is here!
    What! But he’s early!

    Revelation Chapter: 3:1-3

    Mat 24:36 But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only.
    Mat 24:42 Watch therefore: for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come.
    Mat 24:44 Therefore be ye also ready: for in such an hour as ye think not the Son of man cometh.
    Mat 24:50 The lord of that servant shall come in a day when he looketh not for him, and in an hour that he is not aware of,
    Mat 25:13 Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh

    PAUL ,2 Cor 11:3

    1 Th 5:2 For yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night

    2 Pet 3:10 But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up.

    Rev 16:15 Behold, I come as a thief. Blessed is he that watcheth, and keepeth his garments, lest he walk naked, and they see his shame.

    Best to read the Bible and be well prepared and be confident, that you have understood and read it well.

    Reply
    • If you are going to give up on the Book of Revelation because of too much Christian disagreement about it then Satan has got you right where he wants you in regard to eschatology.

      There is nothing wrong with Christian disagreement. The point is to do it within the body of Christ and not break unity. I have been in a congregation in which I disagreed with the main Elder about the age of the earth (I say old), the timing of the Rapture (I say after the Tribulation), and ‘once saved always saved’ (I say false). But none of those was a problem between us.

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  7. My comment was to Penelope and her understanding between the various
    * Millennialism* interpretations of the “ timing of the end of the age”; Of which I read dozens.
    In the 60’s and 70’s the Millenium was The Hot Topic and many notable teachers engaged in the* timing issue *from the different interpretations, even might I say,
    the good doctor M.Lloyd Jones.
    All very confusing to a young Christian. Hence my desire to save Penelopy a lot of grief.

    True I have never read Olson, I have no issue with him, if you had read my post well.
    I am blessed with the anointing, and that anointing teaches me all things, He has never failed to lead me and deliver me from foolishness even when I read stuff in the despised
    Authorizes Version; He still leads me into all truth.
    That he always has led me through Scripture is delightful, hence I am cautious when reading experts and probably been saved a fortune as well.
    We have a different view for sure which seems to me to irk you.
    You may stick with the experts if you wish but do not Quench the Holy Spirit.
    “ But reading is a skill, and it can be done well or badly.”? Hmmm….

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    • That’s a rather patronising attitude, as if you know the ‘truth’ and others dont when they disagree presumably because they arent ‘blessed with the anointing’, whatever that means.

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    • Alan, can I point out that telling people to ‘just read their Bibles’ and then simply throwing Bible texts at people as though that solves everything, and that you are clearly right, is outside what I ask people to do when making comments. See the policy above.

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  8. Thankyou Ian for your corrections.
    To give me more enlightenment and thus prevent any futher transgressions would you take a moment to explainwhere I am breaking the rules of your blog?
    Comments policy: Do engage with the subject. Please don’t turn this into a private discussion board. Do challenge others in the debate; please don’t attack them personally. thanks Ian.
    Perhaps I am not a part of your target audience?

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  9. Ian
    Just one more polite request for my benefit, could you do a
    forensic study of 1 John 2 v 27 and context? Shalom.

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  10. Composers and artists often share similar creative development. After a lifetime of dedicated hard work, effort and focus the pièce de résistance, the sum total, gets distilled into their best work which flows off the brush or pen effortlessly. I have no problem believing that John, after a lifetime of dedication to pastoral care, sermons and writing could, in one day, write the whole of Revelation on wax tablets. It is the Revelation from Jesus through the Holy Spirit, possible only because John had spent all his life in the Spirit.
    The human side of The Revelation is John’s whole life experience , how he sees reality, how he sees The Lord.
    The Angel, the Holy Spirit comes to John with the Revelation. We don’t read he gave it to John and returned, no The Angel remained and took John through the whole thing.
    Where’s Walley (John) in each scene? Hard to spot. He’s under the hand that has the seven stars and the keys. He’s standing before the throne next to the seven torches. He’s at the feet of the giant Angel , the Angel of the Lord, The Holy Spirit! In every pattern of seven John is there in the throng. The Holy Spirit (of Jesus) is so closely associated with John in this venture that it is impossible to call John the amanuensis and it is impossible to see a separate “spirit guide” leading John through the Revelation. The Angels are the closest manifestation you get to see when John takes a slightly more objective view or, more likely, when he is ‘in Christ’ he is more able to see the Spirit of the Father, or, when wrapped in the Father’s love he is able to see the Spirit of Jesus more clearly. He is mostly in The Spirit so his perception is mostly of the Father and the Son.

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    • Steve,
      Have you been listening to this?
      It seems as though you may have with your allusion to finding Waldo and to pigmentation used of the artist!? As an artist, you may appreciate the prolonged point made and drawn out.
      If not, give it a listen. You may be encouraged, excited even in what Revelation is.
      And what are “last times”, “near”, and “soon”. But you’d need to listen to it to the end!
      Even the opening section startles as it sets out what it would mean for us to truly hear/see, to fall at his feet, as did John.
      https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/sermon/revelation-or-obfuscation/

      Reply
  11. On the subject of the blog meanwhile,
    I did view the video discussions and was happy also to find Ian’s subsequent teaching on the said Sunday morning service in the same place; well worth a viewing; it was a blessed couple of hours for me earlier in this week, the folks there obviously seemed edified.

    Reply

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