What comes to mind when you think about the book of Revelation?
Maybe you start picturing news headlines about microchips or blood moons and speculations about who might be the Antichrist. Scary imagery fills your head — otherworldly demons, fearsome plagues, a lake of fire.
Or maybe your brain jumps to things like the rapture and the seven-year tribulation. Perhaps you immediately picture a bunch of elaborate charts and graphs and timelines you were shown in Sunday school.
Perhaps you’ve never read the whole book, so you don’t know what to think.
Whatever your initial impression, most people agree: Revelation is a very puzzling and intimidating book. But even so, it’s also Scripture. It’s part of God’s sacred message to us. And it’s the only book of Scripture that explicitly pronounces a blessing on those who read it and heed it (Revelation 1:3).
So if you’re a Christ-follower, you owe it to yourself to study what this book has to say. But how do we make sense of such a strange and ancient text like Revelation?
Finding the Right Approach
Before you start studying the book itself, it’s important to make sure you’re approaching it the right way. Just like how a pilot shouldn’t take a plane off the ground until they’ve done a pre-flight check, we need to make sure we check our preexisting assumptions before we approach Revelation.
Some folks approach it as little more than fiction — just an interesting piece of literature, maybe an inspiration for some heavy-metal lyrics, but not much else. And while the powerful imagery of Revelation can definitely appeal to our comic-book-saturated culture (there have even been quite a few graphic-novel adaptations of Revelation, like this one), for Christians it is much more than mere literature — again, it’s God’s Word to us.
Others only see Revelation as a frightening message of judgment and destruction. It’s full of horrifying beasts and demons and plagues. It talks a lot about martyrdom. And even the name of the book — in Greek, “Apokalypsis,” apocalypse — has become the word we use for all kinds of scary “end of the world” scenarios. It’s easy to see why many people don’t do a lot of their devotional reading in Revelation!
And whenever Revelation is preached in church, it’s usually because a pastor saw something in the news that looked like a sign of the end times (blood moons, Bitcoin, microchips, now Covid, any news about Israel — fill in the blank!). There are all sorts of so-called “prophecy experts” out there who will tell you that the book of Revelation is all just a secret code — a mystery to be solved to discover tomorrow’s headlines before they happen.
And a lot of people — Americans, especially, I’ve found — turn the book into a catalyst for fear and panic, spurring their congregations to become doomsday-preppers. Or they take it in the complete opposite direction: they assume that because they’ll be raptured away to heaven before anything really bad starts going down, they can take it easy rather than prepare for persecution.
I grew up in that perspective. As a kid, I read the Left Behind books. I watched the Omega Code movies. I had a study Bible filled with charts and timelines about the rapture and the seven-year “Great Tribulation.” In the “Bible Belt” of the American South where I was raised, this system of interpretation held — and still holds — a powerful sway.
Everything about my reading of Revelation became overshadowed by an inordinate focus on the rapture, on speculation about events in the news, and on fear.
Perhaps that’s been the case for you, too, or for someone you know. And when our approach to Revelation bulldozes right over its original, first-century Roman context in a hurry to get to our current political concerns, we risk missing the point of the book.
Problems with an Unbalanced Futurist Approach
Before we go further, in case you aren’t already familiar, I need to point out that there are four main views on how Revelation should be interpreted:
1) The Preterist view, which says Revelation mostly or totally addresses events that are now past to us, like the downfall of the Roman Empire. It was a symbolic depiction of judgments that have already taken place, and believers are now reigning spiritually with Christ. We’re just waiting for him to come back and finish renewing the creation.
2) The Historicist view, which takes the book as an allegory for events throughout history. For example, among the first Protestant Reformers it was common to interpret the Beast of Rev 13 as the Roman Catholic Pope. There are very few scholars today who still use this approach.
3) The Idealist view, which sees Revelation as giving timeless spiritual truths that are always valid. Rather than seek to identify specific historical events behind each symbol (whether past or future), we should just look for spiritual lessons illustrated in the book’s visions.
4) The Futurist view, which takes Revelation as mostly envisioning events that are still future for us. There are many different variations within the futurist camp, but they all agree that Revelation’s symbols describe a time of great calamity still to come.
The idea of a secret rapture of the church followed by seven years of horrible plagues is one of several Futurist perspectives on the book of Revelation. It’s associated with a system of doctrine called “Dispensationalism,” and it certainly enjoys a great deal of popularity. But when it comes to the way in which Revelation gets taught from the pulpit or in best-selling books by people who hold this view, I often see some major problems.
And in the interest of full disclosure, I’m going to lay my cards on the table up-front: it’s no longer the view I personally hold to.
My position did not change easily or quickly. Again, I grew up in that perspective. For a long time I thought it was simply the biblical view. And on top of that, I have a degree from a seminary that is essentially the foremost bastion of that system of interpretation in the whole world. I’ve heard the best of the best arguments for it, from capable scholars and pastors whom I deeply respect.
But my own prayerful study of the text and context of Revelation has led me to adjust my interpretive approach a great deal. This is not to say that I don’t believe many parts of Revelation address events that are still future for us. I do. In fact, my own view blends elements of the Preterist, Idealist, and Futurist approaches.
And I’m also not saying that you can’t believe in a pre-tribulation rapture and still read Revelation faithfully. You can. But if we aren’t careful, an unbalanced futurist approach to Revelation all too often leads to three really big problems:
Problem #1: It can easily distract us from what Revelation is really trying to say to us as Christians.
Too many readers of Revelation get obsessed with figuring out the timing of the end of the world, rather than focusing on what Revelation really wants us to see. The “Left Behind” approach can all too easily become an exercise in importing our system of belief or our understanding of current events into our reading of Revelation, rather than seeking to draw out what Revelation itself teaches.
Problem #2: It often minimizes the fact that this book was speaking directly to the people John first wrote it to back in the first century, and addresses the issues they were dealing with then.
Revelation is not some secret code about twenty-first century events (or twenty-second, or thirtieth if the Lord delays that long). It was written in an ancient Roman context to ancient Roman people. We need to think about how they would have understood it before we start thinking about how it applies to us today.
Problem #3: It removes the book’s most powerful point about enduring hardship for the sake of Christ.
I would argue that the “Left Behind” approach of popular Dispensationalism can very easily take Revelation’s central command — for us to follow Christ and endure suffering for his sake — and replace it with an easy escapism and the misguided notion that this book doesn’t really apply to us that much.
I’ve seen too many people become obsessed with prepping for a rapture they thought was just around the corner, or panicking over any news about astronomical phenomena that astronomers tell us actually happen all the time and are nothing to worry about, and all the while these folks neglect our calling to make disciples and shine the light of Christ in a way that reflects well on him.
The simple fact is, Jesus never promised us that we Christians wouldn’t have to endure hardship. Very much the opposite, in fact:
John 16:33 (ESV) — “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”
Mark 8:34-35 (CSB) — “If anyone wants to follow after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of me and the gospel will save it.”
2 Timothy 3:12 — “In fact, all who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”
And when we get into the book of Revelation, we find this one idea stressed over and over: all of God’s people are to have endurance in the midst of tribulation and suffering (see Revelation 1:9; 2:2, 19; 13:10; 14:12). That’s what this book is really all about. Enduring hardship — not avoiding or escaping it.
Whether you’re a futurist or not, we all have to be careful to focus first on what John was seeking to communicate to his original readers and allow that — and not our modern interpretive systems — to guide our understanding of the book, even (or especially!) where it may challenge our currently-held views.
After all, when we consider that the rapture is never explicitly mentioned in the book of Revelation, and may only be hinted at in one or two passages at most, that should really tip us off to the fact that it shouldn’t be our main focus or priority when reading/interpreting the book.
I certainly don’t aim to bash anyone who holds to a Dispensational view (so long as they are careful to note the potential errors above and teach their view with nuance). But I do write with the conviction that much “Left Behind”-style preaching and teaching on the popular level commonly causes many Christians to major on the minors and read Revelation in a way that misses the point.
So what is that point? What does the book of Revelation really want us to focus on?
First and foremost, it wants us to focus on Jesus!!
This really should go without saying, since the first words of the book explicitly tell us that it is “The revelation of Jesus Christ” (1:1). Before it’s about anything else, Revelation is about Jesus. As Michael Gorman says in his book Reading Revelation Responsibly, “If anyone asks, ‘Why read [Revelation]?’, the unhesitating answer must be, ‘To know Christ better.’” (p. xv)
And yes, it was written “to show his servants what must soon take place.” It does have things to reveal about the future. But before we ever get to any of that, the book wants us to focus on Jesus. On who he is, on what he’s done for us, and on why he’s worthy of worship.
After all, the first vision in the book is an awe-inspiring unveiling of the majesty of the risen Jesus, spiritually present among his churches. The next vision after that is a glimpse of the glory and holiness of God on his throne (Rev 4). And after that is a vision of Jesus as the slain and risen Lamb who gave his life for the humans he so loves (Rev 5).
This is not a book of gloom and doom. It is a book of worship.
It’s about God and his holiness and justice. About Christ and the salvation he brings. About hope for the future, when God makes all things new and death is no more.
And yes, it does also unveil things about the presence of spiritual evil in our world. It depicts God’s judgment on those who continue to reject his freely-offered love in favor of lies, idols, and immorality. Revelation does have some hard things to say to those who are on the wrong side of history from the only perspective that counts — God’s.
But if you asked me to summarize the book of Revelation in one word, it would not be judgment. Despite most people’s assumptions, this book is only secondarily about judgment.
No, I would say the one word that most captures Revelation’s main point would be… faithfulness.
It is about God’s faithfulness. He will keep his word. He will bring history to a just end and will make sure all of his promises to his people come to pass.
It is about Jesus’ faithfulness. He is faithful to carry out the Father’s will to the end. Revelation reminds us of his faithfulness to his people, whom he redeemed with his blood, and of his kindness in revealing the end in advance so we can have hope to endure.
And lastly, it is about our call to faithfulness. Our foremost duty is to remain faithful to Jesus in spite of opposition and deception, and to bear witness to his reign in the midst of a dying world.
Written to Christians living in an ungodly culture that was exerting all kinds of pressure on them to abandon their allegiance to Jesus, Revelation holds before its readers the overwhelming majesty and victory of our crucified, risen, and coming King, Jesus.
It unmasks the devilish powers behind the world’s way of living, and announces that their day of reckoning will come.
It sounds a wake-up call to all who are playing with sin’s destructive fire — Repent and give allegiance to Jesus before it is too late! He is a merciful King, but a just one, as well.
And it encourages the weary faithful not to give in to the allure of false comfort and worldly security, but to continue waiting for the day when Jesus will finally vindicate them and reward them with never-ending, resurrected life in the age to come; when he renews this broken world and ushers in a new creation, wiping every tear from their eyes and ushering them into the joy of their Master.
This is the central message of Revelation: Be faithful to the end for the sake of Jesus, because Jesus is worth it!
If your reading of Revelation isn’t all about that, then you’re missing the point.
In subsequent posts I’ll share my thoughts on some key passages in Revelation, especially ones that have commonly been misinterpreted. I’ll also share some recommended resources that have helped shape my understanding of the book.