Diced & Defined or Read & Received – Revelation

I admit it.  those charts about Revelation leave me cold.  Those, “what exactly is this?’ and “how do these fit together on a time line?” questions are unanswerable.  If this was that John meant to tell us, he did not do a good job.  Just pick up 3 commetators at random and read from any part of Revelation and see that they will not agree.

Is there something wrong with the Dice & Define approach.  That is, where we dice up the book into its various parts and then set out to define (Is that Nero, Domitian or the Devil?) each part.

The Blessing is for Reading and Receiving this book (1:3).  There is only one possible place where there is some kind of puzzle – after speaking of “666” it says, “let the reader understand.” (Rev. 13:18).  Again, lots of luck with finding 3 commentators that agree on the meaning of that.  I am quite sure that having a license plate with 666 or finding it in your address will not be the issue.

Better to read Revelation as a whole and receive the charge it contains: persevere, be on watch for the deception of evil, embrace the future victory, more is going on that what we see, Christ is Lord, make sure you are in “the Lambs book of life.”  Evil has a repetitive quality, the bad guy might be a little of Nero and a lot of Anti Christ, but they share the same outline and methods.

Read it out loud. Repeat as necessary.


Rules for Reading Revelation – Four from Stott, One from Me

Here are  4 rules for interpretation that I found in John Stott’s book, The Incredible Christ.  I have added one more of my own.

1.   “The symbols are to be understood not visualized.”  By this Stott explains.  If you imagine robes that are washed in the blood of the lamb literally, it is a strange thing.  We do not usually use blood to wash clothes.  It is clearly to be understood that we are washed from our sins from the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross.  When Jesus has a sword in his mouth, that is hard to visualize, but when we understand that to mean that his word has power, then it is clear.

2.  “Revelation addresses the past, the present and the future.”  There are a variety of ways people interpret the book. Some try to fit all that happens into the 1st Century world of the early church.  Others say that everything from chapter 4 to the end is all about the last 7 years of human history before the Kingdom of God.  But we need to read the book as a reflection of the past (for example the victory of Christ in the Cross.)  We need to see it in the present, not only in the letters to the churches, but in other parts of the book.  And we do know that the book marches toward the final end of history, through troubles, wars and plagues until there is the judgment of God leading to a new Heaven and a New earth as well as an eternal Hell.

Prophecy has in view of a future victory of God.

             Prophecy shows how this victory colors our present.


3.  “Revelation celebrates the Victory of God.”  This vision was sent to encourage us in times of trouble.

4.  “Revelation focuses on Jesus Christ.”  The main idea is not When these things will happen, but Who has won the victory.

5.  This is my rule:  “Be patient with other’s opinions and be cautious about your own.”  I have seen Christians go to war over interpretation of Revelation.  We can talk and discuss, but we need to be patient with each other.  This book is for our encouragement, not for our division as a body.

Read Freshly or Read Dogmatically?

The book of Revelation is the perfect example of why I titled this blog “Fresh Read”.  It is a book of strange images, it has a long history of highly disputed interpretations.  So we have a choice.

We can come to the book having decided what we think about “the end times” and try to fit the bits and pieces of Revelation into our dogmatic framework.  To be fair, it is a fair principle of scripture, to compare scripture to scripture.  So we place the saying of Jesus about “hating” our mothers and fathers next to the 5th Commandment to Honor our Fathers and Mothers.  This keeps us from falling overboard into some cult like interpretation.

However, when we attempt to fit the scriptures into our dogmatic framework, we are trying to fit the text into our pre-determined filing system.  This places our dogma, or filing system, above the scriptures.

At the start of books on Revelation, one can get lost in a sea of history and controversy.  The whole thing makes me feel like one of the survivors in the painting by Géricault.

Another approach is to focus more on a reading of the text, comparing English translations, or to the Greek if you can, and noticing the internal structure and flow of the work.  Keep observing, and them observe some more before you start to try to formulate a structure or a framework.  Become familiar with the text before you consult other observers (these are the commentaries and expositors).  Only then will you be anywhere near able to learn from and dispute with these literary friends.

For example, in reading Revelation 4, the scene of the adoration of the Almighty in Heaven, i found that the verse :

Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!   (4:8)

introduces three concepts of God that are each repeated three times – Holiness (this one is obvious), Might (“almighty” and in following verses “seated on the throne”, and Eternity (was, is, is to come; lives forever and ever (2 times)).  There are other “3s”: God is  worthy of “glory, honor and power”  because he “created…they existed…were created..”  (all from Revelation 4:8-11

I don’t know what that means, but it had me singing  they hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy” in my back yard patio where I was reading under the bright and warm sun.

Reading through dogma can lead to confusion, reading, just reading, leads, occasionally, to worship.

Goldilocks and the Apocalypse

Some read the Letters to the Seven Churches in Revelation 2 and 3 as an outline of the stages of the church through history. That is interesting but there is nothing I find in the text that would suggest that.  It seem to me that you could make any one of the letters fit any stage.  There were false teachers and indifferent believers from the get go, if we judge by the letters of Paul to the churches.

I prefer to consider the letters in light of Goldilocks and the Three Bears.  You remember, she sits in each chair, tries each bowl of porridge and lies on each bed to see if any fit.

It is best for us to “sit” in each letter.  Read first Ephesus, see if the description and the challenge speak to you or your situation.  then try Smyrna, Pergamum and down to the 7th Church.  I’ve had my Ephesus moments, when my first love seemed to be lost somewhere.  I’ve felt weak and poor like Smyrna.  I’ve thought about retiring from the field of battle, and letting some fresh troops come in a “be faithful to the end.”  These letters then speak to me and to my church, not to “those people over there.”

I suppose it is noteworthy that Goldilocks was sleeping away when the bears returned.  We do not want to be sleepers and interlopers when the Lord returns.


It’s Personal – Revelation 1

Jesus says “I am the first and the last’ in Revelation 1:17.  This could be drawn out in a number of ways.  However, the scriptures start in Genesis with the creation, to which John’s gospel comments, “he was with God in the beginning.  through him all things were made.”  So there is the Beginning. Revelation ends with a description and a promise of the New Heaven and a  New Earth.  (Genesis speaks of the creation of heaven and earth.)  There is the end.

From a materialistic standpoint, the universe is a great moving consequence of an explosion – it is something that works out according to the laws of physics.  Personality can be explained as a perception built up from complex electro-chemical processes.  In this view, everything is impersonal.

From the Bible’s stand point, we see that before and after these material forces is Someone – before the big explosion that brought about the world, there was love among the Father, Son and Spirit.  In the End, there will be no need for sun and stars because the light of these persons will be all that is needed.

Whatever these statements mean when they are translated from poetry to history, they do mean that the universe is deeply personal.  The world of God is personal.  The church is personally attended to by the “one like a son of man” (chapter 1).  This creator speaks, thunders, writes letters, gives promises, shares visions and promises a banquet.  These are all personal.

At the center of all things, according to the scriptures, God, in three persons, who lives, creates, intervenes, saves and attends in love.

That’s pretty neat.

Revelation – Genre & Visualization




The book of Revelation has these literary genres:

  • Prophecy – by self designation (22:19), messages to God’s people of rebuke and encouragement given in Spirit inspired oracles.
  • Apocalyptic – a literary form which uses symbolism to depict the in-breaking of God’s Kingdom into history.
  • Epistle – it was a circular letter to the churches, and includes 7 specific letters to 7 churches in chapter 2-3.
  • Visions – it is a series of Visions given to John.
  • Poetry – The Literary Study Bible points out the amount of imagery and allusion, common stuff for poets.

It is best to keep all of these ideas in view, rather than to stress one only.

Regarding Symbolism – I like John Stott’s comment: “Further, the symbols of Revelation are to be understood, not visualized.  If we were to visualize them, the result would often be grotesque.  For example, god’s redeemed people are said to be wearing  robes which  have been ‘made…white in the blood of the Lamb” (7:14).  Now I confess that I have never tired to launder dirty linen in lamb’s blood, tut he concept is rather revolting, and the consequence would not be to make them white.  The interpretation is beautiful, however, namely that the only righteousness which qualifies us to stand in God’s presence is due to the atoning death of Jesus Christ, in whom we have put our trust.”

John Stott, The Incomparable Christ, IVP, 2001, p. 171

Oddly, as visual as this book is, trying to visualize it is difficult, and literalist drawings based on it are often unhelpful.  Maybe if an Impressionist or Expressionist painter gave it a go, it would make more sense.