This coming Wednesday we will begin a nine-week study of Revelation at Main Street. I’m excited to study this important book with my Main Street family because I’m convinced Revelation has much to say to Christians today, although my understanding may be different than most popular approaches. I’m also a bit apprehensive to teach from a book that has puzzled theologians and scholars throughout church history. That John Calvin and Martin Luther each took a pass on writing a commentary on Revelation reminds us to approach the book (as with all Scripture) with much wisdom and humility.
Christians are fascinated by Revelation, drawn to it by its striking imagery and prophetic vision of the future. Unfortunately, this fascination often grows into preoccupation, leading to fruitless speculation regarding the meaning of the seals, trumpets, bowls, the 1260 days (12:6), the dragon with multiple heads and horns, the 144,000, etc., etc. A wide array of speculation is bandied about concerning these symbols, mostly under the assumption that Revelation speaks exclusively of end-time events, and that the book’s symbolism serves to unlock specific clues related to those events. This has given rise to “newspaper” theology, in which Christians scan the headlines of world events and superimpose them over the symbols of Revelation, wondering if the end is nigh. To me, such an approach misses the primary purpose and meaning of Revelation.
While Revelation certainly speaks of events yet future (Christ’s return/the new heaven and new earth/the final judgment), there is good reason to believe that much of its symbolism and imagery was never intended as keys to unlocking precise details of future events and persons.
For starters, an end-times-only lens of interpretation fails to account for the book’s original audience—the seven churches of Asia (Rev. 2-3)—and what it meant to them. When this fundamental principle of biblical interpretation is considered, we soon realize that much of the book’s symbolism was intended for John’s original audience to understand and apply to their specific situation. If they could understand the meaning and significance of the symbols—which seems likely—then it stands to reason very little of it was intended solely as interpretive keys for a future generation of Christians. Moreover, the book states that the events of the book were to take place soon (1:3; 22:10), and promises a blessing to all who read it and keep its message (1:3; 22:7).
The point is, any viable interpretation of Revelation must begin by understanding that Revelation was intended to be understood by its original audience and every generation of Christians thereafter, not just those fortunate enough to live at the time of Christ’s return. Endless speculation and “newspaper” theology was never the intent of Revelation. This is confirmed when we remember that Jesus warned his disciples about becoming preoccupied with the timing of his return. Instead, they were to remain focused on the mission at hand (Matt. 24:36-51; Acts 1:7-8).
Revelation carries a similar message. The book was written to Christians; some of whom were suffering persecution; some of whom were compromising their faith and values with the world. To the persecuted Christians, Revelation is an encouraging reminder to stand firm in their faith, trusting that Christ will vindicate them and that all evil will be punished by his coming wrath. To the Christians seeking worldly compromise, Revelation sends a sobering message of the need to repent, or else they too will endure divine wrath.
Therefore, Revelation is first and foremost an enduring call to Christians of all generations to remain faithful to Christ to the end. Those who endure can lay claim to immense blessings promised to all who obey the teachings of the book and overcome. All who overcome will have their names recorded in the book of life (Rev. 20:11-15), and reap the reward of everlasting life in the presence of their great and mighty Savior, Jesus Christ, in the new heaven and the new earth (Rev. 21).