Our Faith Formation series on Revelation is underway each Wednesday night and I’ve made two promises so far:
- First, if you come, we will clear up some fog for you and help you understand this perplexing book a bit better.
- Second, if you come, we will not clear up all the fog. We will not solve all the mysteries. Probably not even half of them. If the church has wrestled with this book for 2,000 years and still shares so many diverse interpretations and opinions, then how will we will sort through them all by meeting each Wednesday for an hour after dinner?
So, we will learn and grow. But we won’t know it all. I think 99% of Christians are content with that. (Although, let’s face it… on some level, who doesn’t want to know it all!)
In our study, I’ve given some guardrails for reading Revelation. These are broad, generally accepted guidelines of interpretation. Certainly, some people travel outside of these guardrails (just as some people crash through guardrails on real roads!), but staying inside these guardrails will get us a lot further down the road in understanding this book.
The latest guardrail we’ve acknowledged I’ve borrowed from Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, in their great little book, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth: Revelation doesn’t mean now what it never meant then. Fee and Stuart rightly apply this to all books of the Bible. It’s worth emphasizing with Revelation because so many people run right through this guardrail and wind up way down in some narrow, scary ditch where only they see what they think they see in the book.
How Not to Read Revelation
Case in point: the profoundly silly but enormously influential idea that the messages to the seven churches in Asia (Revelation chs. 2 & 3) are not really messages to those churches at all but code for epochs of church history that will unfold in the next 20 centuries. I have a popular study Bible on my shelf that makes this case rather matter-of-factly. We live, supposedly, in the Laodicea era–the last era, of course.
Actually, I think there tremendous insights to be gleaned from comparing Laodicea with our modern, western world. But there are many other insights to be gleaned from the other six churches and their unique circumstances. We actually narrow the possibilities of hearing God’s Word speak to us when we impose these narrow interpretations that emerge from human calculation and fascination and not the text (and basic principles of interpretation).
I believe this is a big part of why many people are scared of Revelation… other people seem to have it all decoded and charted and figured out, while they don’t! (Don’t believe it. No one has the future mapped out like a coded history book written in advance. Period.)
But here’s the biggest error in the historicist, seven churches = epochs of church history interpretation: it presumes that Jesus is not doing what he says he’s doing, namely, delivering a message to these seven churches in Asia. Our interpretations go out of bounds into arrogance when we assume that these letters meant next to nothing to the first audience, nor to people in succeeding centuries, and only now do we finally understand the secret message that Jesus was really giving to us instead of Smyrna, Laodicea, Ephesus and so forth.
Here’s a better rule: Revelation doesn’t mean now what it never meant then. We are reading the Bible at our best when we work to understand what the Word of God meant to the primary audience, then ask God what this Word means for us today. This is often hard work; but it shouldn’t be confounding, convoluted, or scary. Let’s not make Revelation into what Jesus never intended it to be.