The book of Revelation confronts readers with all sorts of challenges. You can read the whole thing thoroughly in an hour, but unpacking it takes years of study. You can make charts and timelines of end-time events, but they never quite capture the sheer grandeur and bizarreness of the book. Its genre is difficult to pin down. It is filled with wild and unseemly creatures that defy description, and to complicate matters, the field of commentators on the book is equally unsettling, as G. K. Chesterton notes, “Though St. John saw many strange monsters in his vision, he saw no creature so wild as one of his own commentators.”
I had read Revelation eagerly as a child with my Left Behind novels near at hand, and pored carefully over charts depicting when certain events would happen. If I found myself unexpectedly alone at home, I usually (briefly) concluded that the rapture had happened and I had missed the eschatological bus. But as I grew older, and matured in my faith, Revelation had less allure. I dove into the young-restless-reformed world of TGC and Desiring God, but neither of them spent much time talking about Revelation except maybe to debunk some of the wilder speculations of John Hagee, or look at the letters to the churches in chapters 2-3. For me this has meant that for years, I avoided Revelation.
This semester I’ve returned to it for a Greek class, and though I am far from even approaching competence in the book--it is profoundly complex and brimming with allusions to the rest of the bible, especially the Old Testament--I’ve learned enough to begin to grapple with the overall structure and theology of Revelation, and I want to point out several themes that I think can be helpful for people (like me) who are hesitant to approach the book for fear of becoming the next Kirk Cameron.
First, the apocalypse is addressed to churches under immense cultural pressure, and it expects that wherever Christians are in the current age, they will experience suffering if they remain faithful. The Christian life is not easy--only two of the seven churches addressed in the letters come out of the experience relatively unscathed, and the others find that they have much to repent of, and much suffering to go through to be cleansed of their sins. As Revelation addresses the whole church catholic, we would do well to be both sobered and encouraged by the letters to the churches. All those who hold fast to Christ will suffer. And all those who hold fast to the end will conquer “by the blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimony,” and they will be given white robes--clothed in the righteousness of Christ--to stand in the presence of God himself.
Second, the theology and Christology of revelation are stunning. In chapters 4-5, John is brought in the Spirit up into the very throne room of God, where worship of the true God is unceasing and perfect, offered by his creatures day and night, and where God himself, the Father Almighty, sits upon the throne in unapproachable light. The vision is so magnificent, not only does John have difficulty describing it, but his grammar is shattered by the vision, as though the very rules of language and speech can’t contain this in-breaking of divine glory. Though the churches may be persecuted, and the “wrong seems oft so strong,” there can be no doubt in the presence of God that he is sovereign and holy.
The comprehensive sovereignty, holiness, and might of the One seated on the throne would be less heartening for Christians, though, were it not paired with the vision of chapter five: John beholds in heaven “A Lamb standing, as though it had been slain,” and because this Lamb has been slain and yet lives, he is worthy to execute the judgments of the Almighty on the earth. Further, the Lamb receives the same divine dignities, titles, and eternal worship from the creatures around the throne; the same worship that belongs alone to God himself. That is, in the very throne room of God, the Lamb who was slain, Jesus Christ, receives the worship due to God the Father.
There are two implications of this for Christians, one practical, one apologetic. First, this provides immense confidence for Christians to present their prayers to the One seated on the throne, the Father Almighty. Standing immediately in his presence is the one who “loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father” and who testifies, “I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.” The Lamb has conquered, and so Christians who are encouraged to hold fast and conquer by repenting from sin and keeping the testimony of their Head can have great confidence that in Him, they will indeed conquer to the end.
Second, from an apologetic perspective, Revelation makes the claims of a late-developing Christology risible. Cultured despisers of the Christian faith claim that the full divinity of Christ was not confessed until the Arian controversy of the fourth century, but from Revelation alone, this is plainly false. Of course, John did not express the divinity of Christ in the full trinitarian grammar worked out in the councils. But the idea is there. John was a first-century Jew who knew his Bible well. He could not fail to know exactly what he was doing, and whose glory he was ascribing to whom, in writing of the throne room of God.
Revelation is a stunning book, and I haven’t yet begun to plumb its depths. But these two insights--the necessary suffering of the church, and her ultimate confidence in a sovereign Father and Resurrected Son--have helped to provide some central themes to begin to understand the work.