The folks in the Sunday School class I teach have asked to study the book of Revelation starting in the fall. I doubt I'll be posting as regularly as I did with Romans but I at least wanted to jot down a few of my basic assumption in how I approach this very unusual piece of Scripture.
So here are a few things I find helpful to keep in mind as you read the last book of the Bible.
1. Revelation is a prophetic book but that doesn't mean its primary purpose is to make predictions about the future. Think about the prophetic books in the Old Testament. They have predictive elements to them. But those elements are more like the "If...then..." predictions I make with my children when they are misbehaving. As in "If you can't listen and follow directions, then there will be consequences." While there is a kind of prediction and future-telling in that statement, we certainly wouldn't see that as being the emphasis of such a statement. Instead, the clear purpose of a statement like that one is to reveal to or remind my children of a certain aspect of my character as their father and the nature of our household.
Most of the prophecies in the Old Testament follow this same pattern. "If you don't stop worshiping other gods and practicing injustice, Babylon will come to destroy you." Again, there is a predictive element involved but the real emphasis of these statements is to reveal something about God, the nature of God's relationship with Israel, and how God is working in the world.
John very much stands in this prophetic tradition. In fact, he eats, sleeps, and breathes it. It seems John can hardly write a line of Revelation without echoing the Old Testament in one way or another. So we should expect then that his prophecy will be very much like the prophecy we find in the Old Testament; that's its purpose would be the same.
John tells us as much with the opening phrase of his work: "the revelation of Jesus Christ." That is, the purpose of this book is to reveal Jesus. The primary purpose of prophecy is to reveal God so it makes sense that the only piece of explicitly Christian prophecy we have in our Scriptures would have as its goal to reveal Jesus; who he is, the nature of our relationship with him, and how he is at work in our world. You can read Revelation as a blueprint for the future, a cataloging of church history since Christ, or a prediction of the end-times if you like. Many Christians have read the book in those ways over the centuries. But to do so is to ignore the nature of Biblical prophecy and what John himself tells us about his writing. Like the rest of Scripture, the purpose of Revelation is to reveal Jesus to us.
2. Revelation is a letter addressed to seven churches in Asia Minor at the end of the first century. It is not a letter written to 21st century American Christians. Yes, it was written for us. At least, that is the faith claim we make when we regard it as Scripture. But it was not written to us. And that should make a difference in how we read it. It was written to people who lived under Roman rule and proclaimed that a Jew crucified by the Romans was the one true ruler of the world. It was written to real people who lived in the real cities of Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. As such, it had to make sense to them in some way. It had to speak to their situation. It had to reveal Christ to them, in their world, in their going to the market, in their decision making, in their family life and the life of their city. If we want this book to make sense to us, we must first learn all that we can about their world and how it made sense to them. If we want it to reveal Jesus to us, then we must first make every effort to understand how it revealed Jesus to them.
3. Revelation is an apocalypse. In fact, the Greek word translated as "revelation" is apokalupsis (Ἀποκάλυψις). In our culture today, when we here the word "apocalypse" or "apocalyptic", we probably begin to envision the latest science fiction blockbuster movie. For us, apocalypse usually means robots or a killer virus or nuclear war wiping out most of humanity. Individuals trying to survive in a "post-apocalyptic" scenario has become a whole movie genre unto itself. The very name of the book of Revelation has become synonymous with the kind of terrible, end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it scenarios it portrays.
As I mentioned above, the actual meaning of the word "apokalupsis" has little to do with these scenarios. It means an uncovering, a revealing, a disclosure, making fully known. John's purpose in writing Revelation is to pull back the curtain and show us that there is a lot more going on behind the scenes than we might normally observe in our everyday reality.
However, the way in which John goes about pulling back that curtain is what is known as apocalyptic literature. That is, John has chosen a particular way of communicating this disclosure of truth to us and it is not one that he simply created. He is borrowing one of the literary techniques of his time. John's writing seems strange and unique to us because there is nothing like it in the New Testament and for the most part only Daniel and parts of Ezekiel resemble it in the Old Testament. But there were many other apocalypses written in the centuries immediately before and after Christ and as a rule they are highly symbolic writings full of other worldly images like those we find in Revelation.
This is significant because understanding how someone intends to communicate to us deeply impacts how we understand what they are communicating to us. Think of how you might read poetry as compared to a legal document or fiction as compared to a science text book or satire as compared to a newspaper article. Each of these categories of writing can communicate truth but they are each suited to deliver a certain kind of truth. There are different rules for the ways we read and write each of these forms of literature. Most of the time we pick up on those rules intuitively without thinking about them. But when we encounter a form of literature with which we are unfamiliar, say for example the apocalyptic literature like we find in the book of Revelation, it is easy to make a category mistake. As a result, it is important to recognize that extreme, other worldly, life or death images packed with symbolic meaning are the usual tools of the apocalyptic writer in the same way that irony and a dead-pan delivery are the tools of a satirical writer.
Revelation is prophecy. Revelation is a letter. Revelation is apocalyptic literature. Three important things to keep in mind as you read Revelation.
Oh, and one more thing. You'll notice there is no s at the end of that word. And that is not theologically insignificant. John does not see his Revelation of Jesus Christ as one among many possible revelations. It is the definitive revelation - no s - of who Jesus is and how he is at work in our world.
May the Spirit reveal Christ to us as we read the prophecy, the letter, the apocalypse that is Revelation.