Apparently John Calvin was. Revelation was one of the few biblical books he did not write a commentary on. A young Martin Luther, of 95 Theses fame and the Reformation, believed that Revelation was not a prophecy from God and that “Christ is neither taught nor known in it.”
Their reticence and reservations may seem laudatory in view of the many bizarre commentaries and uses of the book of Revelation since. Yet the book remains in the canon of Holy Scripture and we must find a way to interpret it that allows us to separate the wheat from the chaff in the uses of the book that contain to pour forth each year. Presumably the book had a message the early church felt important enough to include in its canon as a vital and genuine witness to the gospel. And it’s that we need to try to discover.
The majority view is that the book was written by a Christian seer named John (maybe the Apostle, maybe another John) in the last decade of the 1st century when Domitian was emperor. Maybe, maybe not. There is no consensus on the book’s structure. Every interpreter seems to have his or her own view of it. Nor, obviously, of its interpretation.
But there are some things we can say that seem to me to point the way to a sober, realistic, and evangelical view of the book.
- Whatever its message, it is a message that speaks to the circumstances of those to whom it is addressed. That is, to the seven churches in Asia Minor whom the risen Christ addresses in chs.2-3. Any claim that all or parts of Revelation refer to events and entities of the interpreter’s own time rather than to events and entities of the late 1st century Asia Minor must be ruled out of bounds. What meaning or significance could a prophetic description of the last seven or three-and-a-half years of human history, now at least 21 centuries after the time of Revelation’s composition, have for it first readers?
- Interpretation of the many symbols, numbers, and events Revelation describes stand under this first principle too. Thus, they must come from the stock of symbols and images and their meanings available to the 1st century world and are not referring to countries, events, or weaponry of our time.
- Descriptions of cosmic upheaval are stock images for political trauma. Defeat of empires, rise of foes, loss at war, economic collapse, in short, things that changed or upset the current order of things negatively were described by the people of that time as if the cosmos was falling apart or dissolving.
- Numbers, too, were symbolic not literal. 7, 10, 12, and their multiples are important symbolically in Revelation. Two quick examples:
- The 144,000 who are the saved in Revelation 14:1-5. This absurdly small number in light of the innumerable number of people who have inhabited earth makes a literal interpretation implausible in the extreme. But when we consider that 144,000 = 12x12x10x10x10, the number of the 12 tribes of Israel, the 12 Apostles (representing the church), the number of completeness (10) tripled (triune), it becomes clear that the 144,000 stands for the full and complete number of all God’s people.
- The 1000 year millennium in Revelation 20. Is this intended to point to a literal thousand year reign of Christ on earth preceding the final battle with the dragon and his minions? Some have thought so from the early church until now. But it is far more likely that it is our number of completeness tripled, 10x10x10, suggesting that it refers to completeness or complete time of Christ’s reign.
- The key symbol in the book is the Lion of Judah who alone can open the scroll that unfolds human history. But when John turns to see this creature he sees not a powerful regal beast but a blood-smeared sacrificial Lamb (Revelation 5:5-7). This becomes the lens for interpreting everything else in the book. In particular, the gory battle scene in Revelation 19:15ff. between the rider on the White Horse in a blood-stained robe and the Beast and king of the earth and their armies is best read I think through this lens. John uses this stock scene of violent battle ironically to highlight the Lamb’s complete and total defeat of his enemies nonviolently by the word and the Spirit. This seems to be confirmed in the vision of Revelation 21-22 where these (apparently) same kings of the earth and their people are present and bringing their riches and people to celebrate in the New Jerusalem.
- The central truth in Revelation is “Jesus Wins!” The shape of the book (whatever it actually is) and it symbols and imagery is dominated by this single gospel truth. The seven churches in Asia Minor, the cycles of seals, trumpets, and bowls, the recapitulation of Jesus’ birth and victory over the dragon in the central ch.12, and the visions of the End in chs.21-22 all derive their meaning from this one truth. This is what gives all this traction to it first reader and to us today – this affirmation that Jesus has won the victory, presently rules in spite of all evidence to the contrary, and will rule through the ages. Instead of trying to figure out the exact shape of the events portending the End, we do better to grasp this central message and live out our lives in its light resisting the dragon, his beasts, and the empires that attempt to seduce us into habits and lifestyles of disobedience and faithlessness!
Two books I would recommend for further study of Revelation are Richard Bauckham’s The Theology of the Book of Revelation and Michael J. Gorman’s Reading Revelation Responsibly.