How to read the book of Revelation right

I’ve always been a little fascinated by the Bible’s book of Revelation. Beasts! Dragons! Locusts with long hair, iron breastplates and stingers in their tail! What’s not to like?

As a kid I used to flip to Revelation when the service got boring. (We didn’t have Netflix on phones back then.)

For all its entertainment value, for many of us the book brings confusion. Revelation is like your weird uncle at Christmas lunch. You know he’s invited, but you can’t quite work out how he fits in, and you hope he doesn’t say anything too weird.

At the other extreme, some of us seem altogether too fascinated by the book. Perhaps the most popular strategy is to read the book using contemporary events as the key to interpretation. Political upheavals in the Middle East, global pandemics, stock-market crashes – the idea seems to be that once you’ve read today’s news, you can join the dots between biblical text and modern events.

Neither confusion nor morbid fascination is particularly helpful. There is a better way.

Let me share five foundations for getting Revelation right.

1. Revelation is a call to discipleship

The whole of the Bible is given to God’s people not just for information, but for transformation. God speaks not only to fill our heads but to change our hearts, as we grow in discipleship to Jesus. Revelation is no different.

In the opening verses of the book, the apostle John says: “Blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it …” (1:3; ESV). The word “keep” here is crucial – it is the same word Jesus (and others) use to refer to the keeping of God’s commandments (see Matthew 28:20; John 15:10; 1 John 2:3).

This book helps you worship and imitate the Lord Jesus. Any other outcome isn’t worth your time.

So here’s a good test of your interpretation of Revelation: Can you “keep” it?

The key outcome from reading Revelation is not whether you can win at a game of “Guess Who: The Antichrist Version.” What matters is that you deepen your worship of God, embolden your witness to Jesus, and energise your passion to imitate the way of Jesus.

This book helps you worship and imitate the Lord Jesus. Any other outcome isn’t worth your time.

2. Revelation was clearly understood by its first century audience

When we read the book of Romans, we assume the original audience could understand Paul’s meaning. As Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart put it: “We believe that God’s Word for us today is first of all precisely what his Word was to them.” But when we read Revelation, we often forget this principle. The assumption seems to be that much of Revelation’s message was opaque to the original readers, and it is only the privileged inhabitants of the 21st century who really see the meaning.

There is nothing in the book that suggests the first readers could not understand it. Indeed in Revelation 22:10, John is told not to “seal up the words of the prophecy,” because this message was to be understood by Christians in every generation.

The primary message of Revelation has been clear for 2000 years.

In chapters 2 and 3 of Revelation, we learn that this text was first addressed to real people in the churches of Asia Minor (modern day Turkey), and they could fully understand it.

Therefore, whatever fulfillments of prophecy we may think we see in our contemporary world, our interpretation of Revelation should never rely on reading today’s news.

The primary message of Revelation has been clear for 2000 years.

3. Revelation unveils the future, but its focus is the present

Revelation talks plenty about the future. The ultimate horizon of the book is final judgement and final salvation –  either the lake of fire, or the new creation. But why does God show his people the future?

So that we will live well in the present.

Here we need to remember that “prophecy” does not always mean prediction. The role of the prophet is to convey a word from God to bring a faithful response from God’s people. Sometimes that includes revealing the future, but even when prophecy is predictive, the focus is on obedience in the present.

In Revelation, God is helping his people assess their present lives in the light of their eternal future. How will we live differently once we have seen what truly lasts? That leads us to our next point.

4. Revelation wants to talk about your allegiance

To put your faith in God means giving your allegiance to him. He alone is worthy of our worship and imitation. But the first readers of Revelation lived in a world of rival claimants. They inhabited a context where Roman power, and even the Roman emperor, was worshipped. For Christians to draw a line in the sand by refusing to worship Rome meant the threat of temporary suffering.

Hence, the central question Revelation poses to us: Who is worthy of your worship?

Or we could put this another way: Which kingdom will ultimately last, and which kingdom will finally crumble?

Life can only be lived well when it is centred on the one who sits upon the throne.

Revelation unveils to us that only God is truly worthy, and only God’s kingdom will last forever. To give your allegiance to any other “god” is to worship a cheap substitute with transitory blessings.

For the first readers of Revelation, their temptation was to compromise their faith by honouring Rome. For the modern church our temptation could be any number of things. We might worship material prosperity. We might worship our family. We might worship our nation. All of them are gods that fail.

Allegiance to any power other than God simply must go. Life can only be lived well when it is centred on the one who sits upon the throne.

5. Revelation wants you to follow the Lamb

As with all of the New Testament, Revelation’s vision of discipleship is Christlike and cruciform. Perhaps the most stirring lines in the whole book is when disciples are described as those who “follow the Lamb wherever he goes” (Revelation 14:4).

Given that Jesus is presented as a sacrificial lamb, to follow our Lord “wherever he goes” is a challenging thought. It’s notable that throughout Revelation, faithful disciples are always defined by their willingness to sacrifice their life. It doesn’t mean we all get martyred. But this is how the church “conquers,” by following Jesus in practicing suffering and sacrificial love towards the world.

We would rather suffer for the kingdom than compromise with the injustice of worldly kingdoms.

We would rather witness to Jesus in our death than have the world miss out on the good news of a better Saviour.

Dr Mark Stephens is senior research fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity.

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