Why read the Book of Revelation?

The Book of Revelation is the most remarkable text you will ever read. Setting aside any claims that we might want to make about it as a result of its being part of the canonical Scriptures of the Christian faith, it is the most extraordinary piece of literature ever written by a human being, and it ought to feature in any university course on world literature. Its engagement with the canonical Old Testament scriptures, its use of contemporary first century culture and mythology, its elaborate structure and multiple echoes, interweaving, repetition and development of themes, its extraordinarily sophisticated use of numerology in three different ways, and the sheer power of its rhetoric and impact of its imagery—all these make it a remarkable and endlessly fascinating text. There really is nothing in all of human literature to compare with it.

The nature of the text is reflected in the impact that it has had on human history, belief and culture. At a popular level, it is hard to escape the pervasive influence of imagery, all of which is unique in the New Testament. There is hardly a day that goes by without some mention of Armageddon (16.16) as a metaphor for a cataclysmic event involving conflict, and the first word of the text, ‘apocalypse’ has not only become the descriptor for a whole genre of literature from the period, but serves as common expression for any kind of impending disaster. Images of people seated on clouds and playing harps (14.2, 14) have entered the popular consciousness, becoming a visual metaphor for anything thought to be ‘heavenly’ even in television advertisements. Disasters that include warfare, famine or disease are identified with the ‘four horsemen of the apocalypse’ (6.1–8)[1]; we all know that to enter heaven we must pass St Peter who is standing at the ‘pearly gates’ (21.21); and everyone is wary of the ‘number of the beast’ (13.18). We might then add ‘Jezebel’ (2.20), being ‘lukewarm’ (3.15), the ‘grapes of wrath’ (14.19), a ‘scarlet woman’ (17.3) and ‘streets paved with gold’ (21.21)—the list goes on![2]

But Revelation has shaped the world at a more serious level too. Through the school of interpretation know as Dispensational Premillennialism, which originated with J N Darby in around 1830 and was popularized by the Scofield Bible in 1909, the book of Revelation has had a direct impact on key aspects of US foreign policy (George W Bush subscribed to this outlook).[3] Many people influenced by this approach ask the question: ‘If God is going to destroy and remake the world, do we really need to care for it, or is this a distraction from more important things?’ (We will see, as we read the text itself, that this is a mistaken interpretation of what Revelation actually says.) Revelation was an important text in shaping the religious imagination, especially in Europe around the year 1000 since this was thought to be connected to the millennium in chapter 20[4], and around the year 1260 thanks to the influence of the teaching of Joachim of Fiore, who equated the 1,260 days of 12.6 with the 1,260 years that had passed since Jesus was born so we could now expect the ideal ‘kingdom of the Spirit’ to break into history. The conflict between the beast and the true people of God shaped Martin Luther’s outlook, and he was happy to identify the false believe of the Roman Catholic church with the great prostitute of chapter 17.[5] More positively, Revelation has been a text that has provided profound comfort and encouragement to many generations of Christians under pressure or persecution for their faith[6], and a new generation of readers is discovering its personal, social and political significance.[7]

Revelation has also been uniquely influential in Christian art and worship. The use of the Hebrew term ‘Hallelujah’ in Christian worship derives from its use in the hymns in Revelation (the term occurs nowhere else in the New Testament). We are accustomed to think of God and Jesus as the ‘Alpha and the Omega’, of Jesus ‘coming quickly’ and (perhaps lightly less often) of Jesus ‘having the keys to death and Hades’. These ideas come from Revelation, and (somewhat ironically) are ones that John has appropriated from pagan magical cults and refashioned as claims about God and Jesus as a way of denying the reality of those cults. The same is true of the importance of the colour white in Christian worship down the ages, deriving from the repeated descriptions of God’s people worshipping in white (3.4, 6.11, 7.9, 19.8). It has been estimated that nearly 50% of all Christian art over two millennia has been influenced by Revelation, not least because, apart from Jesus’ parables, it offers the richest supply of visual descriptions. Perhaps the most extravagant example of this is the series of tapestries that can be seen at Chateau d’Angers in the Loire Valley in France; it originally comprised 90 scenes in six sections that were each 78 feet wide and 20 feet long. But scenes from Revelation can be found in almost every church or cathedral in the West that contains stained glass.[8]

Revelation has been equally important in its contribution to Christian theology. It has the most developed Trinitarian theology of any New Testament book, identifying Jesus and God by depicting them sharing the same throne, ruling as equal sovereigns, sharing the same titles, and even at key points in the text together sharing singular verbs and pronouns (11.15, 14.1, 21.22, 22.3–4). The Spirit is also closely identified with Jesus, particularly in the image of the ‘seven Spirits of God which are the eyes of the lamb’ in 5.6. Revelation was one of the earliest texts given wide attestation as part of the early Christian canon of Scripture, largely because it was believed to be written by the Apostle John, but its authorship was later disputed, so that it did not have the influence on patristic debates about the status of Jesus and the nature of God that it might have—John’s gospel instead being the most influential.[9]

Despite the importance of this text, it remains widely neglected. In many churches it is rarely preached on; many ordinary Christians do not know what to do with it; some deliberately avoid it, perhaps because of strange or unnerving encounters they experienced in the past. But Christians in the West need to rediscover this text more than ever, for at least two reasons. First, Revelation is the book that above all others tests our ability to read scripture well. People who might agree on the meaning and significance of other texts in the New Testament or other parts of the Bible suddenly find themselves at odds when it comes to making sense of this one. It demands that we pay attention and listen well, that we allow the text to be ‘other’ than us without us imposing our own assumptions on it, and it calls us to be rooted in its canonical context as part of scripture. There is no more urgent need for Western Christians than to recover both confidence and competence in our reading of Scripture (all our current disagreements are symptoms of this) and reading Revelation provokes us to address this.

Secondly, Revelation is the most developed example of a writer in scripture wrestling with the ideological implications of the gospel, and engaging with an opposing ideological system in the light of what God has done for us in Jesus, as shaped by the inspiration of the Spirit. The near-universal declines in church attendance in the West is a sign that, like the Christians in Sardis, we have been caught napping: the ideological climate has shifted dramatically in the last generation or two, and we have been so complacent and content with a ‘Christendom’ model of society that we haven’t known how to respond. Revelation shows us very clearly how to be alert to the context we are in, how to both engage with and stand up to the pressure of ideology, and give us the resources to live courageously in an inhospitable climate.

(This is the first part of the draft of my introduction to my Tyndale Commentary on Revelation, which will be published in April next year.)

[1] Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 film about the Vietnam War, Apocalypse Now, had four helicopters crossing a sunset sky as its promotional poster.

[2] For a thorough review of the influence of apocalyptic ideas on contemporary culture, see the third part of Kelly J. Murphy and Justin Jeffcoat Schedtler, eds., Apocalypses in Context: Apocalyptic Currents Through History (Fortress Press,U.S., 2016).

[3] A very different reading of the contemporary political importance of Revelation can be found in Wes Howard-Brook and Anthony Gwyther, Unveiling Empire: Reading Revelation Then and Now (Maryknoll, N.Y: Orbis Books, 1999).

[4] See the fascinating study by James Palmer, The Apocalypse in the Early Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014) which demonstrates the close interweaving between apocalyptic ideas and political action in the period.

[5] One of the illustrations in Luther’s translation of the Bible depicts the prostitute riding the beast wearing what is very clearly a Papal tiara.

[6] An engaging example from a modern context is Allan Boesak, Comfort and Protest: Reflections on the Apocalypse of John of Patmos (Edinburgh: St Andrew Press, 1987), written after an angelic visitation to Boesak when he was in imprisoned by the Apartheid regime in South Africa.

[7] Harry O. Maier, Apocalypse Recalled: The Book of Revelation after Christendom (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2002) offers a reading rooted in the text but engaging with the contemporary relevance to a post-Christendom culture.

[8] For a comprehensive overview of Revelation in artistic expression, see Natasha O’Hear and Anthony O’Hear, Picturing the Apocalypse: The Book of Revelation in the Arts over Two Millennia (New York, NY: OUP Oxford, 2015).

[9] See the online discussion by Michael Kruger, ‘The Book of Revelation: How Difficult Was Its Journey into the Canon?’, Canon Fodder, 12 February 2014, and Kruger’s essay ‘The Reception of the Book of Revelation in the Early Church’ pp 159–174 in Thomas J. Kraus and Michael Sommer, eds., Book of Seven Seals: The Peculiarity of Revelation, Its Manuscripts, Attestation, and Transmission (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2016).

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19 thoughts on “Why read the Book of Revelation?”

  1. Two random thoughts. The first is comparison between the apocalytic pictures of Revelation and political cartoon iconography. The poster based on Gone with the Wind with Ronals Reagan and Margaret Thatcher (https://c1.staticflickr.com/9/8005/7115239689_50e9cc75df.jpg) draws on multiple layers of meaning that is instantly recognisable to those that know the layers, and bear lots of closer scrutiny. But to those not previously aware of the layers, its a bit of jumble to unpick. Similarly the picture of Jesus based on Che Quavara which was originally based on Che looking like Jesus. (http://www.veteranstoday.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/jesus-meek.jpg). To describe it is complex, to see it is eye opening.

    The seond is that we must remember that if 666 is the number of the beast then 25.8069758011 is the root of all evil.

  2. “There is no urgent need for Western Christians than to recover both confidence and competence in our reading of Scripture”
    …missed the word “more” there Ian? “…no more urgent need…”

    And we had an absolute blast preaching through Revelation a couple of years ago, which proved inspiring and encouraging to many.

  3. Very much looking forward to the finished product. Hope it is all equally multi-disciplinary, I am sure it is. Typos in case needed: sheer for shear (near start) and Darby for Derby.

  4. Great post from your future commentary. Revelation is a sadly neglected or avoided book.

    “Dispensational Premillennialism…..Many people influenced by this approach ask the question: ‘If God is going to destroy and remake the world, do we really need to care for it, or is this a distraction from more important things?’ (We will see, as we read the text itself, that this is a mistaken interpretation of what Revelation actually says.)”

    I hope you’ll bring in the fact that today’s progressive dispensationalists are trying to correct these past problems and have a different approach. I am a recent DTS (Dallas Theological Seminary) grad and I was taught a hopeful dispensationalism that doesn’t focus on “escaping this bad world” but caring for it, etc. Here is a recent article from the DTS “popular” (not academic) magazine: Shaped By the Future: Reclaiming the Hope of Eschatology.

    A system should not be critiqued solely for what it was 100 years ago, but developments in the tradition for the better should be acknowledged.

  5. Thanks Ian, and like others looking forward to the complete work.
    Can I flag a tension which I think is more tense than you suggest: namely the problematic of interpreting the richness and multi-valent nature of Revelation.
    You comment on how the text is picked up by the likes of George Bush, and has driven the political agenda in the USA (Michael Northcott – An Angel drives the Storm is good on this), and also folk like Allan Boesak in South Africa, and the Kairos Document which found in Revelation 13 a scriptural challenge to the way Romans 13 was being used by the “conservative” churches. At risk of straying into your previous post on slavery, Revelation is not easy to interpret and Christians have come to very differing conclusions, all, we must accept, honestly held.
    You comment
    ‘Revelation shows us very clearly how to be alert to the context we are in, how to both engage with and stand up to the pressure of ideology, ..’
    I am not sure it does show us “how to be alert”: I think this sentence better reads,
    ‘Revelation shows us very clearly to be alert to the context we are in, to both engage with and stand up to the pressure of ideology’
    The removal of the word “how” gives a very different challenge. We have to work out HOW to respond.
    David Ford was speaking at our recent diocesan conference and challenged us to work on the theology of the word AS. As the Father has sent me so I send you, just one of many AS sentences in the New Testament. We have to work out how the Father has sent Jesus and then work out how we are being sent similarly. Crucially we have to work out how, it is not immediately clear.
    I think Revelation is similar. It does not tell us how, but it tells us we must. It describes in most vivid and multiple images the challenges. Those with the greater learning can help us make better sense, and challenge simplistic or naive interpretations, but we also note those with greater learning also disagree with each other.
    The otherness of scriptures and Scripture, as well as the meaning / truth of scriptures and Scripture is a dynamic tension; The messages to the churches remind us that there are disputes within churches about teaching, behaviour and identity.
    I like your claim that Revelation is a truly unique and inspirational piece of literature – beginners can paddle in it, but beware rip-tides!

  6. Thanks Ian for another enlightening post. Really appreciate your blog. Minor query: I expected footnote 3 would excplicitly substantiate the claim about US, and especially George W Bush’s, foreign policy. This would both confirm your assertion and offer the sort of detail that further underlines the contemporary relevance of your project. Can I assume the text cited in the footnote offers such analysis? If not I think this point would possibly benefit from elaboration in the footnote before publication.

  7. 2:23: “…and I will send them terrible suffering unless they repent of what she has done. As
    for her children, I shall strike them dead.” Poor children. Sounds appalling to a modern audience. Much exegesis needed?


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