How to Study the Book of Revelation

If You Can’t Find a Way Not to

I have chosen a new subject for a Bible study group I lead. The book of Revelation. This was not my first choice. In fact, I opposed it quite strenuously.

“You think Revelation will reveal secrets,” I told the group, “but it will only confuse you more. You will bicker over trivial interpretations. You will unfurl your charts and expound your systems. All you really need to know is: GOD WINS.”

They still liked the idea. And I still balked at it—until I visited my dad, who was leading a weekly Bible study for 90-year-olds on, believe it or not, Revelation. I even sat in on one session. That group was lively, engaged, but not quarrelsome. If they could handle it, I figured, my group of mid-lifers might survive. And maybe I could borrow Dad’s notes.

So I plunged into the story of seals and scrolls, of trumpets and lampstands, of beasts and dragons.

Crucial context

Context is important in any biblical study, and especially with Revelation. The opening chapters provide an amazing anchor for the ship that sails through the remainder of the book. This is a message to seven churches. Some of the language there is cryptic, as in the rest of Revelation, but there are also clear moments of connection. Each church is critiqued and challenged on specific matters, and these points give us a practical lens on this fantastical book. Like those churches, we need to stay true in difficult times, to hang onto love, to open the door and hang out with Jesus. These seem to be the ways we will overcome the many difficulties described in the following chapters.

History helps us understand this book too, and I situate it in the 90s AD, during the persecution led by Roman emperor Domitian, who chose to be addressed as “Lord and God.” If that’s correct, then the book is addressed to a third generation of Christians, people (like us) removed in time and space from the origins of their faith. Perhaps their parents knew Paul or their grandparents were at Pentecost, but how would they find the personal connection necessary to stay true to this hand-me-down religion? No wonder some of them were luke-warm!

Another layer of context is literary. Apocalyptic works were well-known in the centuries before Jesus, and Revelation borrows from earlier documents—not only in style but in actual phraseology. Any study of Revelation needs to include a reading of Ezekiel and Daniel.

In modern times, hip hop music has often used “sampling”—the insertion of a line or two from a previous song, or perhaps a sound bite from a famous speech. In a way, that’s what Revelation does. We could see the description of worship in chapters 4 and 5 as a sampling of Isaiah 6 and Ezekiel 1 and 2, as well as the intertestamental Book of Enoch and other works.

This doesn’t make Revelation any less original. It uses a vast collection of amazing images—many grabbed from previous documents—to tell a story of hope and struggle that culminates in the victory of Jesus. It’s finding new meaning in an older vocabulary.

Where I’m coming from

When I was a teenager, a book called The Late Great Planet Earth was on the bestseller lists. Author Hal Lindsey presented a meticulous accounting of the events of the end times, drawing from Revelation, Matthew 24, Ezekiel, Daniel, and other epistles and prophets. It all fit together with modern events, leading to a confident assertion that Jesus would return in 1981.

Oops.

I understand that later editions rescheduled the rapture for 1988.

Oops again. (This may be one reason I’m hesitant to teach Revelation.)

Now I don’t want to mock any theory of Bible interpretation. In fact, I have a number of friends who share the basic ideas found in Lindsey’s book but would only oppose his date-setting.

But I still worry about graven images.

The second commandment warned the Israelites not to carve God’s image in stone. God is a Spirit, a creative power, a fire. He resists packaging. The Philistines thought they could box God up in the Ark of the Covenant. Bad idea. Jeremiah’s contemporaries were sure Jerusalem would never be defeated as long as the Lord’s temple was there. Wrong again. The Pharisees reduced the Word of God to their own legal code and earned Jesus’s harshest rebukes. God can’t be contained by our temples—or even by our theologies.

This is what I’m trying to avoid in my study of Revelation. People are longing for a system that makes sense of it all. And it’s my job to make things as clear as I can. I bring the historical, literary and social context into the study, but I fear that any system I impose would get in the way of their authentic encounter with God. The system could become a graven image, an idol.

There may be a fine line between clarifying and codifying. As Bible teachers, we want to open up the Scriptures to inquiring minds and hungry hearts. Let’s just make sure we don’t cage the Word of God within our own interpretive structures.

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Randy Petersen
Randy Petersen

Randy Petersen is Director of Scripture Engagement Content for American Bible Society. Writer of more than sixty books and hundreds of church curriculum lessons, he has also served churches as a Bible teacher, small-groups coordinator, drama director, preaching consultant and softball pitcher.

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