Revelation's Message for the Present

Who is Revelation written for? Does it talk about the end times? How should we interpret it?

The Book of Revelation is without doubt one of the Bible's most difficult books. It is filled with apocalyptic material that confuses modern, Western readers. We don't speak in such symbolic language today.

To be fair, however, apocalyptic writings were confusing to ancient readers as well. Jewish apocalypticism was wildly popular starting in the mid-second century BC through the late first century AD. While the metaphorical depictions of apocalyptic preaching were not intended to be taken literally, that's exactly what people did. Rereading the ancient prophets like Isaiah, many Jews took the apocalyptic images literally and believed God wanted them to rebel against Rome. The disaster that followed with General Titus's pillaging of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple nearly caused the extermination of the Jewish people. Clearly, they had misinterpreted the apocalyptic messages of their day.

But what about our day? Does the Book of Revelation have a message for us? How can we avoid the trap of taking it too literally?

I'll make 3 quick points about how to read Revelation today.

1. Bear in mind that the Book of Revelation was written to seven, first-century churches in Asia Minor.

I know that the great Danish preacher Søren Kierkegaard gave great advice for reading the Bible. He wrote, "When reading the Bible, you should say to yourself, 'I am the man.' Don't assume this is speaking to someone else." When it comes to Revelation, however, you should forget this advice!

Instead, keep in mind the foreignness of the message and of those who originally received it. Say to yourself, "I know nothing about this world or about the symbolic language used in John's writing." Yes, the words have been translated into English. But the concepts and metaphors mean little to us.

Just because your Bible has notes and comments from Max Lucado or John Piper or Beth Moore or anyone else doesn't mean that those well-intentioned editors know what they're talking about. You must keep reminding yourself that the Book of Revelation is a strange world written to people who you know less about than Sumatrans. You might as well be reading about Amazonian creation myths. You are nothing more than a visitor to a shared language and imagination that John and his audience apparently knew well but which we know little about.

2. Be skeptical of anyone who applies Revelation to recent history or world events.

As mentioned above, apocalyptic language invites misuse and distortion. Unscrupulous teachers have often claimed this style of speech in order to confuse their followers and incite blind belief. Recent world leaders such as Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong-Un spoke publicly in exaggerated, symbolic ways that are reminiscent of these ancient writings.

John, the author of this vision, could hardly be compared to bloodthirsty dictators, yet his message has been co-opted by bad people for evil purposes. The Book of Revelation is ripe for interpretive abuse by those who wish to gain popularity and create fear. If anyone tries to assertively connect John's imagery to Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Barack Obama, Pope Francis or any other major figure in recent history, immediately stop listening to them.

While there are parallels between this ancient text and our world today, be leery of anyone who knows "exactly" what the numbers represent or who the anti-Christ is and so forth. John no doubt had actual references that made sense in his day, but we ought to be cautious about reapplying those to our world.

3. Remember that hope & comfort comprise the overarching message of Revelation.

John's vision may be complex and easily manipulated. His audience is ancient and foreign to us. We ought to exercise great care in attempting to interpret the symbolism. And we should look askance at all who act as if they have "solved the puzzle" of this book.

In spite of its challenges, the Book of Revelation has a key message that is as positive and beneficial today as it was in first-century Asia Minor. Have hope! Be comforted! The Lord is near! You can say it in several different ways, but the message is the same. Believers under pressure should take heart and patiently endure.

Five times in chapter 1-3, John mentions "patient endurance." This was relevant given the struggles he and these seven churches apparently shared in common. Then he closes the vision in chapter 22 with these words from Jesus, "Surely I am coming soon."

Certainly there are many opaque scenes and mysterious depictions throughout John's vision. His overall message, however, does not differ from the words of the ancient prophet Isaiah who wrote, "But those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint" (Isa 40:31). John's main point is reminiscent of Paul who said, "The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God" (Phil 4:6).

John's Revelation, therefore, communicates nothing less than the mainstream message of our faith. Much of this ancient book means little to us today, but that shouldn't stop us from feeling its encouraging message. If you feel fear or anxiety from reading Revelation, then stop and realize that you're missing the point. If this book scares you, then perhaps you're listening to voices other than that of John, Isaiah, Paul or any other orthodox teacher of our faith. 

Do you need a word of comfort? Could you use some hope? If so, then I encourage to read Revelation with that goal in mind. Because to truly read Revelation for the present is to gain hope and comfort in the knowledge that God has things under control.

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