Summary: A blessing to all who read and heed it and a curse to any who dare to change it, Revelation is a unique and amazing book.
The First and Last of Revelation
Text: 1:1-3, 22:18-21
Revelation from start to finish is a very unusual book of the Bible, especially of the New Testament. It begins with a blessing upon all who read it and heed it and ends with a call and warning upon all who might tamper with its contents. So, what is this book about?
Very early in the churches history this book of Revelation became a source of struggle. Two early schools of thought formed the lines of distinction in how to interpret the book: Antioch and Alexandria held opposing views. Antioch saw this book as mainly symbolic and spiritualized much of the content taking a less literal view of its message. Alexandria saw this book as mainly a literal prophetic document and were among the first to expect Jesus to return to earth and reign 1000 years. Each school of thought had its arguments well lined out and carefully supported. All this struggle made many put this book into a class of less importance so that some even denied that it was inspired.
But this book always tends to resurface during times of great difficulty for the church. Somehow through its inspired imagery God speaks to the hearts of suffering Christians and gives them hope. When the church finds periods of peace, this same book tends to become less studied and less influential in the churches. Perhaps in this is found its purpose. God has given us a book whose message is like medicine for our faith in times of deepest affliction and darkness.
But, someone will object, what does the book mean? How are we supposed to interpret it? Of the many ways this book has been interpreted, there seems to be these major perspectives.
1. It was all fulfilled in the first century and its message is about the past. This is called the preterist view.
2. It is all about the very end of time and none of it has been fulfilled yet. This is the futuristic view.
3. It began to be fulfilled in the first century and will continue to find fulfillment until the judgment.
4. It was written during a time of intense persecution to encourage the early Christians but it has no real historical connections because it was not intended to have a literal fulfillment. It is merely a spiritual, symbolic expression of the struggle between good and evil.
5. Some other combination of the above.
I personally believe that the best way to interpret Revelation is to simply read it and pray for understanding and use the rest of scripture and perhaps what little historical information we can gather about the times and places mentioned within the book to help us.
It should give us pause to note that many great biblical scholars have studied this book and have decided that they do not know for sure how to interpret it. The ones that do the very best job giving us the most consistent interpretation understand the vast majority of the book of Revelation to have been written and fulfilled in the first century. The fall of Jerusalem in AD 70 and the Roman wars and Jewish opposition to the Church do find connections that fit the book. If this book is not about those things then as Clarke and others have basically told us, “No two biblical scholars can come up with the same understanding about it.” In fact, what tends to happen when people read the prophecy of Revelation and their newspapers, everyone finds parallels that fit! So what happens is that everyone who reads it tends to apply it to his own time.
While there are several orderly things in the book (the groups of seven churches, seals, trumpets, and bowls, etc.) there are so many things that are curiously confusing that Revelation can be compared to life. The only thing that gives meaning to our lives is the thing that gives meaning to the book of Revelation, Jesus Christ, through whom God is ultimately victorious over all enemies that arise against Christ, and we happily discover that those who remain faithful to him share that victory forever. There are things that God allows to happen in this world and in our lives that we may not understand. How do we deal with these things? Revelation has a message that gives us hope.
Many bible students and teachers have noted that the ultimate message of Revelation is this: Christians win! Therefore the ultimate lesson of the book is this: be faithful!
Perhaps this is the best way we can read Revelation today. I am convinced that this is part of God’s word and that the promise for a blessing on those who read and heed what is written within it calls us to do just that. As we embark on this study of the grand finale of the Bible, let us simply rely on God through study and prayer for wisdom and see what blessings he brings to us for taking him at his word.