Some people will never tire of spreading a transparency of the text of Revelation over today’s newspaper to look for coincidental correlations, or of gazing into it as though it were some window into an as-yet-future (or in-progress) “seven last years,” attempting to “predict” how those events will play out in our world. This post is not for them.
It is for those who are tired of playing games with Revelation; who are ready to approach it in a new way – as Scripture – and to seek out its word to us in line with best practices in listening to the rest of Scripture. Because Scripture ought to be considered first and foremost as a word to those for whom it was written, from the Lord to give them much-needed guidance. I have found this approach lends itself far better to biblical preaching and to the difficult task of discerning the challenges facing Christians in their settings worldwide.
Mistake #1: Reading Revelation as if it is all about us.
Just as Paul wrote all of his letters to address the challenges facing particular congregations, so John wrote Revelation to address the challenges facing seven real churches in late first-century Roman Asia Minor: “John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace.” (Rev. 1:4) Comparing this verse to the openings of almost all New Testament letters shows us something important: Revelation is also a letter, and asks to be read as such.
Revelation will speak a word to us as well, of course, but it speaks the clearest and most reliably when we read as we would 1 Corinthians or 1 Peter: when we think about it first as a pastoral word to the actual churches the author cared about, a word that was to be understood by them, to shape their perceptions of their everyday realities, and to motivate faithful responses to their circumstances.
Mistake #2: Reading Revelation as if it is all about our future.
John speaks of his work as “the words of this prophecy” (Rev. 1:3; also 22:7, 10, 18, 19). The first instinct of many interpreters is to think of “prophecy” as “murky prediction about some future event.” Revelation has been read as “prophesying” events in John’s own immediate future (the preterist reading); events spanning the whole time between John’s own and the future, second coming of Jesus (the historicist reading); or events chiefly still yet-to-come for the modern interpreters (the futurist reading). These three approaches share the assumption that, by “prophecy,” John primarily indicates that he is communicating predictions about specific events that will unfold at some point in his first audience’s future, and that his predictions are the interpretative key to the book.
However, if we were to canvass the prophetic utterances of the Hebrew Bible and the phenomenon of prophecy within the New Testament and early Christian worship, we might instead arrive at the conclusion that, while prophecy could include a predictive element, it was primarily a declaration of God’s action in the present. In these cases, prophecy served as an announcement of God’s evaluation of the present actions of God’s people, diagnosing problems and calling for realignment with God’s values.
Prophecy was essentially a “word of the Lord” breaking into the situation of the Lord’s people who need guidance, encouragement, or a call to repentance and recommitment; it was also a regular experience in the worship life at least of the Pauline churches (Rom. 12:6; 1 Cor. 12:10, 28-29; 14:3-4, 23-25, 29-31; Eph. 4:11). Prophecy was the revelation of God’s perspective on a situation that invited a radical re-orientation to one’s circumstances, practices, or pursuits.
In Revelation, the seven so-called “letters”—I prefer the seven “oracles,” as each follows more the pattern of “Thus says the Lord”—to the seven churches are a prime example of early Christian prophecy. The risen and glorified Lord speaks a word to the churches through the prophet John, affirming their strengths, diagnosing their weaknesses, calling them to faithful action, threatening judgment upon the recalcitrant and promising favor for the penitent and faithful. In short, they do precisely what so much of the prophetic corpus of the Old Testament sought to do for the communities of Israel and Judah.
Where a prophet speaks of the future, he or she usually limits the prediction to the immediately forthcoming future, not the distant future: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh will be destroyed”; “There will not be dew nor rain for the next three years”; and the like. John remains within this range, seen in his emphasis on the “imminence” of the confrontations and events he narrates, his conviction that he speaks about “what must soon come to pass” (Rev. 22:6; cf. 1:3, 19; 4:1; 22:7, 10, 12, 20).
Mistake #3: Reading Revelation as a mysterious code, one that we’re in a better position to unlock than anyone else.
On the contrary, we are in a far less privileged position than the Christians in Ephesus or Pergamum when it comes to reading Revelation. Indeed, the realities with which Revelation interacts—the features of a landscape very familiar to its first audiences—are for us elements of a quite distant and foreign landscape. As for being written in “code,” I am convinced that, if a copy of Revelation fell into the hands of a Roman official of even modest intelligence, the subversive intent of its imagery would not be difficult to grasp in the least (especially with dead giveaways like 17:18).
From the very first word of his book (Apokalypsis) John identifies his work as an “unveiling,” not a “cryptic encoding.” Revelation was not sent to those seven churches as a mysterious text needing to be interpreted: it was sent to interpret the world of those readers. The first readers and hearers did not need a special “key” to unlock Revelation; Revelation was the key by which they could unlock the real meaning of what was going on around them, and so respond to it faithfully. Revelation “lifted the veil” from prominent features and persons in the audience’s landscape so that those Christians could see things in their world as they “really were” in light of the bigger picture of God’s purposes for the world, and the larger picture of the great revolt against God, which God would ultimately crush.
Like similar “apocalypses” written in the centuries around the turn of the era, Revelation pulls back the curtain on the larger landscape in terms of heavenly and infernal spaces and personnel and in terms of “how we got here” and “where things are heading,” so as to put the seven churches’ present realities within the interpretive context of a larger, invisible world and a sacred history of God’s activity and carefully defined plan. The gift of the genre is to illumine the moment for the ancient audience: it puts their mundane reality, along with its challenges and options, in its “true” light and proper perspective, so that the faithful responses become evident and advantageous.
How then should we read Revelation?
Reading Revelation as pastoral letter, early Christian prophecy, and apocalypse orients us toward Revelation in a very different way from those who read it as a road map for our future or as a countdown to the end. It orients us to a way of reading, moreover, that coheres better with how we read the rest of Scripture; to a way that helps us hear more of Revelation’s challenge to us in our situation apart from the distracting conversation about determining if or when some “countdown” has begun.
This approach to Revelation summons us to immerse ourselves in the situations of the congregations addressed by John so that we can discover the following:
- What practices around and within the churches he found to be objectionable
- Whether the churches’ responses to the challenges of living under Christ’s lordship were commendable or objectionable
- How communities of disciples could live more fully in line with God’s purposes, seeking justice and wholeness for all people
This gives us a basis from which to discern what questions and challenges John would pose to us as communities of disciples living in the midst of the contemporary social, political, economic, and global orders. Understanding how John brought the resources of Scripture, prayer, and worship to bear on the situations of his congregations gives us direction for our own process of discernment and our task of proclamation.
Ultimately, this enables us to move closer to seeing our world from God’s point of view and, therefore, to knowing how to respond to its challenges and entanglements in a way that reflects more closely our primary allegiance to the “kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ.”
David deSilva is a Trustees’ Distinguished Professor of New Testament and Greek at Ashland Theological Seminary. Learn more about this approach to Revelation in his book Unholy Allegiances: Heeding Revelation’s Warning, and in his new Mobile Ed course Introducing the Epistles and Revelation: Their Setting and Message.