In advance of a set of readings from the Book of Revelation in the RCL, and for anyone else setting out to preach on this strange and mysterious book, Ian Paul offers some much-needed help.
Nothing strikes fear into the heart of a preacher than discovering that they are down to preach on the Book of Revelation. Ignorance, prejudice, confusion, and contradiction—and that is just in the mind of the preacher!
But seriously—these really are reasons that cause us to tremble at the task set before us.
- Ignorance. I don’t use this term in a pejorative sense, but as a serious observation. Even in congregations with what we might call a high level of biblical literacy, it is striking how many people have avoided reading the Book of Revelation, or if they have read it, have not read carefully. It always helps us in preaching if the text we are looking at is at least familiar to our audience, and with Revelation it is very likely not.
- Prejudice. Even quite well-informed Christians don’t want to study the Book of Revelation because they fear what they will find. After all, isn’t this book the hunting ground for crazy end-times speculators? Aren’t we going to unearth all sorts of strange theories and ideas? If so, it is best left well alone.
- Confusion. For most ordinary readers, dipping into this book has left them confused. We might manage to make sense of a description of Jesus with bronze feet, a gold sash, white hair and a sword coming out of his mouth (though, to be honest, that is just a little bit disturbing), but when it comes to swarms of locusts ascending from a bottomless pit and monstrous beasts emerging from a raging sea, well, I’d rather turn to Paul!
- Contradiction. There are so many completely contradictory interpretations of this book, who can find a way through the maze? And so often these interpretations appear to be a long way from the ‘simple’ message of Jesus and the kingdom of God, or even Paul’s understanding of us as the body of Christ, they seem very hard to reconcile with the rest of Scripture.
These are important issues to recognise; naming something makes it less forbidding. These are real challenges—but there is help at hand! It comes from three directions.
Three helping hands
First, we could do with reminding ourselves where the Book of Revelation is located. It is actually between the covers of our Bibles—it is part of Scripture, not some strange document at a distance from the rest of the New Testament. That means that, if we are reading it aright, it will surely contribute to telling the story that the rest of Scripture tells—of a God who made the world in love, and though the world he made has turned from him, he continues to reach out to it, to rescue it and call it to its holy purpose in God. It is a story of God’s call to Abraham, to Israel, and to the world, which finds its climax in the person of Jesus and its completeness at his return. If our reading of Revelation doesn’t locate it within this overall narrative, but instead thinks it is about armoured attack helicopters and Russian amphibious assaults on the beaches of the modern state of Israel (as one interpretation has it!) then we need to think again!
Secondly, since Revelation is part of the Scriptures, then it will be ‘useful for teaching, correcting, rebuking, and training in righteousness’ as are the other Scriptures (2 Tim 3.16). But we cannot read well without asking some central questions:
- What is the context of this writing? Who is it written to, and what would it have meant to them?
- What kind of writing is it? Is it poetic, historical, narrative—or what? How does that affect the way we should make sense of it?
- Where does this text come in the canon of Scripture—the collection of all the writings of the Bible? Is it quoting or using imagery from other parts of Scripture, or is it referred to by later books?
- What does the text actually say?
These are questions we ought to be asking of all of the books of the Bible—but it is surprising how often these questions are forgotten when it comes to reading and preaching from the Book of Revelation! And when we do, my experience is that this text becomes relevant, illuminating and helpful, not least in thinking theologically. My conviction is that, in many ways, Revelation is the most obviously ‘Christian’ book of the New Testament, not least because it is the most clearly Trinitarian.
Thirdly, there is specific help at hand! There are some good commentaries and discussions about interpreting the Bible in general and interpreting the Book of Revelation in particular, and I have made my own contribution to this library.
- Three 28-page Grove booklets: How to Interpret the Bible, How to Read the Book of Revelation, and Kingdom, Hope, and the End of the World. The first explores the four main disciplines of interpretation mentioned above; the second goes through the main technical challenges in reading Revelation; and the third looks at the wider NT picture of ‘eschatology’, the end times and the kingdom of God.
- Revelation: Faithfulness in Testing Times. A six-session Bible study guide published with LICC, and offering a blend of real-life practicality, biblical scholarship, and a whole-life discipleship focus.
- Revelation: an introduction and commentary. My contribution to the Tyndale Commentary series. The introduction gives a readable overview to all the issues in interpreting the book, and it is written with an eye to preachers as well as ordinary readers.
- I also have a collection of articles on the book of Revelation on my blog
If you are preaching on Revelation, you will certainly need to read a commentary—but that is the case for all preaching!
Addressing the issues
Because of the situation of our audiences (and ourselves) there is some ‘technical’ work that must be done, issues that must be addressed, and lacuna that must be filled.
In terms of context, John’s immediate readers lived in the west of what we now call Turkey, but this was at the eastern part of the Roman Empire. It was a place and time of deep uncertainty. There was a sense of threat from the Parthians from the east, and many looked to the power of Rome, which came to them across the sea from the west, for protection and security. Emperor ‘worship’ had always been more extravagant and full-bloodied in the east than in other parts of the empire, and this was an age which knew no separation between ‘religion’ and the rest of life—whom or what you worshipped shaped your whole outlook on life. All this means that, when they read of the four horsemen in Rev 6, they would have recognised the world they lived in, not some future apocalyptic nightmare.
In terms of its kind of writing, it is widely recognised that Revelation is an apocalyptic, prophetic letter. Each of these major categories will affect our reading and interpretation. It is worth noting that, strange though it is to us, John’s readers would be much more at home with apocalyptic than we are. When Jesus tells a parable about a farmer going out to sow his fields with seed, the disciples’ response is incomprehension: ‘What on earth are you talking about Jesus?’ (Mark 4.10, Ian Paul version). But when he sits on the Mount of Olives, looking at the temple, and uses the apocalyptic language of ‘the sun will be darkened, the moon will not give its light and stars will fall from heaven’ (Matt 24.29, Mark 13.24) then the disciples appear to be quite happy about that—and neither Matthew nor Mark feel that it needs any further exploration!
Clearly, Revelation comes at the end of the canon of Scripture—but less clearly, it actually makes more use of the Old Testament than any other book of the New Testament. Within its 405 verses I have counted 676 allusions to the OT! If we do not spot this, or don’t see how John is making use of these OT texts, then we will struggle to make sense of what John is saying.
Even the casual reader will be aware that Revelation includes lots of numbers, including the seven cities, seven seals on the scroll, seven trumpets and seven bowls. But John also uses numbers in three other ways. He repeats words (like ‘prophecy’) a certain number of times—so, for example, the name ‘Jesus’ comes 14 times = 2 x 7, signifying Jesus as the faithful witness (since 7 is the number of completion, and 2 the number of witness, Deut 17.6). He uses the numbers three-and-a-half years = 42 months = 1,260 days to signifying the time we are living in now—a time of journeying to the promise land, in which we will both suffer, be protecting, and testify to the truth of God—making use of ideas from Exodus and Daniel.
And, infamously, he makes use of the fact that, without a separate number system, every letter had a number, so every word had a value being the sum of its letters. Despite much wild speculation, we can be confident that the number 666 in Rev 13.18 represents both the word ‘beast’ and the name ‘Nero Caesar’. John was not hiding but revealing to his readers that the greatest challenged they faced was whether they would stay faithful to the God and Father of Jesus Christ, or whether they could compromise with the imperial ideology of their day. We are faced with a similar question today!
Given these challenges, how do we go about helping people hear and understand what John is saying to his readers, and through that what God might be saying to us today? There are three possible strategies.
- You could separate out the background and ‘technical’ issues completely, by offering separate teaching, in person or on paper, in order to give your congregation or listeners the help they need to close the gap between them and the text before your preach. That then enables the preaching to focus on the theological message without any other distraction.
- A second approach would be to separate out the background issues, but within the same service. A few years ago, I offered a seven-week series on Revelation, and spoke twice in each service—first, explaining some of the issues in quite a didactic manner, and then preaching on the passage in question in a more devotional way.
- Third, it is possible preach in an integrated way, explaining the ‘technical’ issues as we go along. This needs careful planning; we need to explain what we are doing so that we don’t pull a theological rabbit magically out of the exegetical hat; but our focus needs to be on the implications for us today, rather than getting caught up with the technicalities.
You can see a recent example of this third approach, preaching on Rev 7, on my article ‘What kind of church does the world need us to be?’ which has both text and video. I offer further examples in my chapter on Revelation in We Proclaim the Word of Life: Preaching the New Testament Today (ed Ian Paul and David Wenham, IVP, 2013)
Violence and the Book of Revelation
One of the perennial questions about Revelation is the violence of its imagery. The question has been much debated, but there are some key things we need to bear in mind, and what we make of this cannot be separated from other questions of interpretation.
A key issue here is whether the text is descriptive or predictive—is the ‘violent’ imagery describing a violent world that John’s readers know well, or is it predicting a violent future that will be inflicted on the world by a vengeful God? We cannot answer this without going on an imaginative journey into the world of the first century and reading the text from that context; curiously, it is those who live in a less violent age who have struggled most with Revelation’s imagery. Is Revelation depicting a violent God, or offering a theological explanation of the violence that we find in the world around us?
A second issue is how Revelation is inviting its readers to respond. The repeated focus on the call for ‘patient endurance’ (Rev 1.9) and waiting for God to deal justly with his enemies has led to a consistently ‘quietist’ ethic arising from the book. Despite the imagery, very few readers in any age have considered violent action a plausible response to its message.
And central to the images in Revelation is a lamb, appearing to have been slaughtered, but now standing on the throne. This is a saviour to whom violence has been done, rather than one who deploys violence, and it is through this suffering that victory has been won. The sword that he bears is a sword from his mouth—and truth of his words, not the actions of his hands.
After reading this text for 45 years, and studying it seriously for 30, I remain convinced that it is the most exciting, engaging, and theologically profound text that we have in the New Testament. Despite the challenges of preaching on it, the reward far outweighs the effort, and the work is well rewarded.
Blessed is the one who read aloud [and preaches on!] the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and keep what is written in it (Rev 1.3)
Ian Paul has written extensively on the Book of Revelation. He has taught at St John’s College, Nottingham, and has a blog Psephizo where more information on his work can be found.