On Reading the Book of Revelation

by Matthew L. Halsted

Ever since Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth came out in the 1970s, there has been an ever-growing interest in the End Times. Since then, Christians have grown intrigued with various end-of-the-world issues—not least matters concerning the Antichrist, the Mark of the Beast, the rapture, etc. What are we to make of these issues, and how are we to go about uncovering the truth behind them? This is where a study on eschatology comes into play. Like most readers of the Bible can testify, there are many things in the Scripture that are not exactly easy to understand, and to be sure, passages having to do with eschatology are no exception. The term “eschatology” (a daunting word to the average Christian) comes from two Greek words: eschatos (“last things”) and logos (“word”). Quite literally, eschatology means “words about the last things,” or more to the point, “study of the end times.” Wanting to better understand eschatology, most Christians run straight to the book of Revelation. Personally, I’m not so convinced that this is the best place to start, but it is obvious that for any serious study on the subject, Revelation will be the place you will end up. That being the case, how does one go about reading the book itself? In what follows, I will offer two brief suggestions on how to proceed with a study of Revelation.

First, read Revelation as a letter, not a book. Most Christians often tend to confuse the word “letter” for “book” when talking about parts of the Bible. We say things like, “the book of Romans” or “the book of 1 Corinthians.” This is okay to do if we remember that, at the end of the day, “Romans” and “1 Corinthians” were not “books” in the modern sense. Strictly speaking, they were letters written by Paul to the communities at Rome and Corinth respectively.

This distinction is important because when we say “book of the Bible,” we may be tempted to think the “book” itself was written as a sort of theological treatise by some scholar tucked away in an ivory tower. This is far from the case. For example, the “book” of Romans was not Paul’s treatise on theology. Rather, it was a letter to a Christian community in Rome. Obviously, though, it does contain some hefty theology! Nonetheless, at the end of the day, it was a letter. There were things going on at Rome that troubled Paul—most notably, issues surrounding the relationship between Jewish and Gentile believers. This was a huge controversy in the 1st century, and so Paul felt the need to address the matter (e.g., Rom 14). To be sure, the truths contained in Paul’s letter to the Roman church are truths even for us today, but let’s make no mistake about it: Paul was addressing specific situations and problems in Rome that may, or may not, have been happening elsewhere. That’s why he wrote that letter to the Romans.

The book of Revelation is not all that different. It, too, was a “letter,” which had specific instructions written to its recipients. John, the author of Revelation, stated that he was writing “to the seven churches that are in Asia” (Rev 1:4). As is fitting to most letters, we even see evidence of John adding personal remarks in v. 9: “I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.” John states that he is a “brother” and even a “partner” with his recipients in Asia. No doubt, he sees himself in locked-arms with his fellow believers who, like him, are “in the tribulation and the kingdom,” going through it all with “endurance.”  We have to approach the letter of Revelation with the mindset that we are reading a very old, very important, message that was specific to the seven churches of Asia. Only when we come to see Revelation as a letter are we able to ask ourselves the most important questions. For example, “Why did John write to the churches in Asia and not to other churches?” Or more specifically, “What was going on during this time in history that might have occasioned such a letter to these churches?” By asking these questions, we will find ourselves in a better position to discover John’s own intentions in writing to whom he did. By doing so, we may even get closer to the meaning of Revelation itself.

Second, don’t read Revelation as if it was written in the 21st century. This might sound simple enough, but the only point here is that if Revelation was not written in the 21stcentury, then we should resist the temptation to read it as if it was. Obviously, modern readers of Revelation already know, and would quickly admit, that the letter was written a long time ago. But my point here is that we must be conscious to always remember this fact, bringing it constantly to the forefront as we read the prophetic text itself. It’s not enough just to “know” Revelation was written in the first century; we must also make a deliberate effort to read Revelation as its original recipients read it. This is important because, if we fail to read Revelation as a first-century letter, then we risk imposing upon John our own 21st-century cultural assumptions and worldview. If we want to get John’s intended meaning from Revelation, then it only makes sense to get ourselves into the mindset of first-century Christians. We need to get into the habit of asking ourselves the question, “How would John’s original readers have understood this letter?” 

As an example, suppose you get to Revelation 18 and you read about “the fall of Babylon.” The obvious first question you ought to ask is, “How would John’s original readers have understood this? What would the term ‘Babylon’ even have meant to them?” After doing a little research, you discover Babylon did not exist as an empire when John wrote his letter to the seven churches. But why would John refer to Babylon if it didn’t exist at that time? After doing further research, you discover that the word Babylon was actually a code word for the Roman Empire (1 Peter 5:13). This might prove significant for your interpretation of Revelation 18 and the letter overall. It could be the case that John had great concern about the turmoil that accompanied the first-century geo-political situation, all the while encouraging his fellow Christians that God will bring victory for his people in the end.

Most of us (21-century readers) have the tendency to read Revelation in light of our own present geopolitical assumptions. It seems that the better place to begin is to read Revelation in light of 1st-century geopolitical assumptions, not 21st-century ones. No doubt, it would be a good exercise in humility if we placed the center of the prophecy less around us and more around its original readers to whom it was written in the first place. Of course, this would require a lot of effort and background study, but as Christians we are responsible to read the Scripture in both an honest and accurate manner. Indeed, that is our goal.

 

Copyright © Matthew L. Halsted