Reading the book of Revelation Properly and for Today

*repost with an addendum

I just listened through the book of Revelation yesterday, performed by Max McLean (the NIV); and it was a great exercise. It is different to listen than it is to read, indeed, it is more true to how the original audience would have received it as an circuit epistle (letter) written to the ‘7 churches’. As I was listening to this (back dropped by my current bible reading which just happens to be in the book of Daniel) I began to reflect on the way I had grown up understanding the book of Revelation, and how that has changed, somewhat relative to now.

I grew up understanding the book of Revelation through a Dispensational lens (I am an American Evangelical after all!). The Dispensational lens annexes the whole book of Revelation to a futurist reading (alone). In other words, Dispensationalist readers read Revelation as if all of the visions and apocalypses recorded in this book have to do with future events (even future to our present situation in the 21st century)—which many believe have started to unfold currently. As I said, this approach annexes the whole book of Revelation to the future; and its approach to interpreting the apocalyptic language of Revelation is to do so through a modern day pesher, or the contrivance of relating the language therein with contemporary modes of reality (like nuclear warheads, modern helicopters, etc.). This is in keeping, according to Charles Ryrie, with the sine qua non of what makes someone a Dispensationalist interpreter; that is if you interpret scripture woodenly Literal, the interpreter cannot help but pop out as an Dispensationalist, a Pre-Tribulationist, Premillennial one. But I think this approach is on sandy land.

I read Richard Bauckham’s two books: The Theology of the Book of Revelation and The Climax of Prophecy over a year ago now. He offers an alternative reading—a reading that is actually more historical and mainstream relative to the historic Christian faith than the Dispensational reading [which in itself is not an argument for the validity of the hermeneutic that Bauckham appeals to]. Bauckham emphasizes the genre of Epistle (or letter) as the frame through which we should primarily read Revelation (which is also made up of two other dominant genres: Prophetic and Apocalyptic literature). What this positioning does is to locate the primary audience of this book’s reference to be in the 7 churches mentioned in the first three chapters. If this is the primary audience then this letter or book is oriented in a way that gives shape to the kind of language and appeal that the Revelator would be using; the language would be used in a way that makes sense to this audience in particular, and it would be being ‘revealed’ in a way that is intended to provide the kind of perspective that these early Christian martyrs would need when faced with the ‘Beast’ of the Roman Empire. What this reading does, by way of framing it properly, is that it allows us to read it in a relevant and literal way; a way that understands the usage of the apocalyptic language to find referent in the historical (now) present of its first recipients. As Bauckham develops, all of the language like Beast, 666, the usage of the numbers, etc. all have historical Graceo-Roman explanation and referent to them. And what this usage of language does is to provide the real picture of what is going on for God’s people when up against the Beast (in that period the Roman Empire). What is really going on is that there is a great battle inhering between God and the forces of darkness, but God has overcome the world; and more to the point of these early readers, they should take heart because Jesus has overcome the world, and these martyrs in particular will be vindicated at the second coming of Christ and the establishment (in consummate form) of his Heavenly Zion, the New Jerusalem. This would represent the principled reading of Revelation, its applicational reading works in ‘Perfect tense’; that is, the same truth that was painted through the apocalyptic language of Revelation then, is the same truth and reality that is present now. There is a colossal and global struggle/battle taking place between the kingdom of darkness, and the kingdom of the Son of His love; but take heart, Jesus has overcome this world (Jn 16.33).

The book of Revelation, if read rightly has substantive discipleship properties associated with it. If it is read improperly, it has almost nothing to do with us; other than it gives us a sense of control and gnostic insight into what is purportedly and proleptically to come. Indeed we take heart in what is to come, but only because of what is to come has already come, and is presently breaking in on this world which appears in upheaval. We can have a sense of peace and control, but not because we have a mastery knowledge over the nitty gritty of future events (relative to an idiosyncratic reading of Revelation); but because we know that this world has already lost, and the battle that is supposedly coming is already being waged (in a realized way) right now. We aren’t waiting for all of this Great Tribulation to happen (the futurist reading), it is happening all around us (especially if you live as a Christian in many many parts of the world other than the US and the West); and so we need to take heed to the book of Revelation, and understand that the martyrs and those who have gone before us are indeed sitting in the heavenlies with Christ, ruling and reigning with him (during this realized thousand year period we currently inhabit—the space between the first and second coming of Christ); and that what Dispensationalists are waiting for is currently unfolding before our very eyes (and has been since Christ’s ascension and Pentecost). Maranatha!

Addendum 6/10/14

I have moved a little bit from Bauckham since I first posted this. I still believe that John was writing to the early Christians who he was a part of, but I also believe that there is a futuristic component (i.e. the prophetic genre of this circuit letter) to this ‘Revelation’ from John. I actually think that there is yet a ‘Great Tribulation’ that is distinct from, but related to the Tribulation the world has been in ever since we entered these ‘last days’ (at the first coming of Christ). And I actually believe that the ‘Great Tribulation’ is rapidly approaching, if you are paying attention at all to what is going on in the world, you would know what I mean. This is not to say that there aren’t regions in the world that haven’t been experiencing ‘Great Tribulation’ for centuries, but it is to say that I yet see a particular day (i.e. the ‘Day of the LORD’) yet future, and tied into what Jesus in Matthew 24 called the ‘Great Tribulation’.

And when I originally wrote this post I was leaning heavily amillennial. I am not amillenial at this point, but post-trib premillenial, or historic premil.

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