On June 7th we will wrap up a 33-week study through the book of Revelation. As we close it out, I’d like to offer some reflections and suggestions about the study of Revelation.
Revelation is indeed a difficult book because of its subject matter and the pictures it paints. Dragons, bowls of wrath, beasts, and harlots? What does it all mean? There are many different perspectives. Some read our modern technology and governmental systems into the pages, some do not. Some believe the entire book is futuristic, some believe it is completely in the past, some believe it is in the present, but no matter what one believes about the timing and pictures portrayed, there are many undeniables that we must keep in mind if we are to read Revelation responsibly.
It’s A Letter
Many will pick up the book of Revelation and look for modern-day symbols or read it as though everything written is just to tell us how the world ends. This is a mistake because, like much of the New Testament (NT), Revelation is first and foremost a letter.
“Among other things, what this means for the interpretation of Revelation is that all of this book was meant to make sense to John’s first-century audience…whatever the text meant to those first Christians is also what it means for believers today. The meaning of the text has not changed over time because the meaning is in the text, in its choice and arrangement of words, sentences, paragraphs.”
Revelation follows all of the formula of a NT letter. NT letters are meant for specific church(es) in a specific time to address specific problems or concerns. Revelation is no different. Note 1:4: “John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come…” Compare this to other NT epistles:
1st Peter: “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who are elect exiles…”
1st Corinthians: “Paul, called by the will of God…To the church of God that is in Corinth…Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ…”
Ephesians: “Paul an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, to the saints who are in Ephesus…grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ…”
You get the idea.
Note also, the last verse of Revelation: “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all. Amen.” Epistles in the NT often end in a similar way:
Hebrews: “Grace be with all of you”
Titus: “Grace be with you all”
2 Timothy: “Grace be with you”
Philippians: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.”
So Revelation is first and foremost a letter to the churches in Asia Minor circa AD 95. Which brings us to our next point.
Context, Context, Context
In real estate, the old saying is “location, location, location.” In biblical studies it is “context, context, context.”
Since Revelation is a letter, this means it was written to a specific people, at a specific time, with specific problems and struggles. A key to responsible biblical interpretation of any book is context. What context was our author in? What context was his audience in? What problems is he addressing? What struggles are they facing?
It would be irresponsible to attempt to interpret a book of the bible without taking into consideration the context. Revelation is a letter to churches in Asia Minor from beginning to end. So John’s address to the churches does not end after chapter 3. If Revelation was purely futuristic and John pictures bar codes and helicopters, how would that help his original audience? In other words, the entire book must have made sense to John’s first audience.
John’s audience faced persecution from Emperor Domitian and faced pressures from their jobs and their neighbors to compromise their faith. They were called to say, “Caesar is lord” rather than “Jesus is Lord.” They were called to worship at idol feasts in order to keep their jobs. Some of them were even killed for not compromising with the world (Rev. 2:13).
So the whole letter was relevant to them, spoke into their context, and was meant to encourage them. How you view the timing of the events of Revelation does not change this. John wrote to specific people and we must keep that in mind if we desire to interpret Revelation responsibly.
Revelation is Relevant Right Now
Notice these verses at the beginning and end of Revelation:
Revelation 1:3: “Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of the prophecy, and heed the things which are written in it; for the time is near.”
Revelation 22:7: “And behold, I am coming quickly. Blessed is he who heeds the words of the prophecy of this book.”
Notice that Revelation begins and ends with the command to “heed” the words of the book. This means that what is written is not just some things we should look for happening in our time, and that we can just to sit back as observers of the events. Rather, John seems to think that we can do and heed what is written. This means that a proper response to Revelation is obedience.
The OT is Key to Interpretation
Revelation contains more references to the Old Testament (OT) than all of the other NT books combined. Altogether, scholars estimate as many as 278 out of 404 verses in Revelation contain references to the OT and that over 500 allusions to OT texts are made in total.
One might expect Revelation to allude to some of the familiar apocalyptic passages from the OT such as Daniel and Ezekiel. However, more than those books stand in the background. John alludes to nearly every book in the OT from Genesis to Joshua to Job to Psalms to the Minor Prophets. This means that if we are to read and interpret Revelation responsibly, we must know our OT and know it well.
While much more can (and has been) said about Revelation, these are our biggest takeaways from our study through the book. Revelation is a rich book full of symbolism and encouragements, that are helpful for the church today. Above all it speaks to God’s sovereignty and providential care through history past, present, and future. It shows us the surpassing glory of God and of Christ and the Holy Spirit’s presence and protection on us. It also reminds us over and over to not compromise in the faith of a world that calls for our affections and hearts.
I hope this study was helpful for you and that these reflections you will keep in mind if you plan on studying Revelation on your own or to help you navigate studies through Revelation. Be sure if you encounter a book, study, or lesson on Revelation you look for these things, as they will aid you in your work through this incredibly rich book of God’s Word.
Revelation: A Shorter Commentary by GK Beale
Revelation by Ben Witherington III
Triumph of the Lamb by Dennis Johnson
Revelation and the End of All Things by Craig R. Koester
Reading Revelation Responsibly by Michael J Gorman
Revelation by GR Beasley-Murray
Revelation: The NIV Application Commentary by Craig Keener
 Ben Witherington III, Invitation to the New Testament, New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.