Corrective Strategies and Themes for Understanding the Book of Revelation (Tired of the chaos? Me too!)

Revelation
After my most popular status update ever affirmed it a few months back, I’ve decided to do some intentional thinking about the book of Revelation. These posts will be scattered for a time, but will eventually make up a series of posts.

This biblical bookend is perhaps the most abused text in all of Christendom. Many of us who distinguish between Christendom (the church as the center and dominant force in society) and post-Christendom (a return to community, discipleship, and mission from the margins of society) often note the poor way that this book is interpreted.

Revelation is a book that continues to be used as “trump card” against Christian nonviolence as it posits a future tribulation and war in which Christ comes back to lead people into a battle, one that apparently contradicts everything he taught during his earthly ministry. And of course there’s the baggage of the “Left Behind” series that imagines a rapture followed by the rise of an “anti-Christ” and a literal 7-year tribulation which fuels a mentality that the book is mostly about what will happen and how to escape that fate. I want to suggest that most of what you have been taught about Revelation, especially if you watched the cheesy Christian movies or grew up in conservative/fundamentalist expressions of evangelicalism, is wrong.

I plan to say much more about the many ways we need to re-interpret Revelation over the next several months. For now, let it suffice to say that Revelation, although it has important and lasting significance for our day, speaks first and foremost to circumstances facing the churches in the Roman Empire (late first century). How will they resist Babylon – the Empire then (Rome) and of any age – while partnering with God to usher in the emerging renewal of creation (Revelation 21-22)?

Broad Approach to Revelation*

This book is theopoetic (“worship”), in that it is similar to a counter-liturgy, one that reminds Christians both then and now that the civil religion of Empire must never capture our imaginations. Our version of reality must be informed by our allegiance to the Slaughter Lamb and to worshipping the God and Father of our Lord Jesus. Reading Revelation poetically should shape our imagination as faithful disciples in circumstances where the pressures of Empire attempt to lure us. As we worship God the temptations of this evil age fade as we bring glory to God.

Revelation is also a theopolitical text (it is “uncivil”). The Roman Empire brought various forms of harassment to God’s people, including John of Patmos, who had been exiled for his representation of the way of Jesus. Revelation upsets the status quo, calls out civil religion in all of its forms, brings peace where there is violence, and summons us to live as an alternative polis in the midst of rampant idolatry, greed, and injustice.

Finally, Revelation carries with it a pastoral-prophetic tone (“witness”). This circular letter attempts to speak truth to various churches in Asia Minor (and to our churches today!) to remind Christ-followers of the radical cost of discipleship. The powers of evil, both invisible and embodied, must not win by pulling the church away from faithfulness to Christ. Revelation 1.3, at the beginning of the letter, set this agenda clearly:

Favored is the one who reads the words of this prophecy out loud, and favored are those who listen to it being read, and keep what is written in it, for the time is near (Rev. 1.3 CEB).

Had this book been primarily about some wild future (of course, with the exception of the renewal of creation in chapters 21-22), the call to “keep what is written in it” would not be so blunt here and throughout the book as a whole. To “keep” Revelation is to walk faithfully with God on the narrow road of discipleship in the face of temptation and to thereby refuse compromise as the church becomes a visible alternative to the powers of the Empire.

7 Theological Themes**

In Reading Revelation Responsibly, Michael Gorman offers seven theological themes that come to us through the letter to the seven churches. I will summarize them here:

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  1. The Throne: The Reign of God and the Lamb. The rule of God is ultimately expressed in the Slaughtered Lamb. If you want to know who God is, look at Jesus, the crucified and risen one. God and Christ rule from the same throne and will share in the final victory.
  2. The Reality of Evil and Empire. Empire is one of the key manifestations of Evil. Empire was then and empire is now. Empire is what happens when civil religion is used to justify violence and various forms of injustice. This sort of evil always alienates people from God and people from each other – “promising life but delivering death – both physical and spiritual” (75).
  3. The Temptation to Idolatry and Immorality. Christians easily can be lured by the civil religion of Empire as rituals and practices legitimize dehumanizing actions for the sake of security or peace. The byproduct of the idol of civil religion are often the exploitation of the most vulnerable. This was true in the late first century (and may be true today as well).
  4. The Call to Covenant Faithfulness and Resistance. God’s people are called to resistance through subversive patterns of community as they seek to faithfully unite themselves to God in Christ. Covenantal faithfulness of this sort “requires prophetic spiritual discernment and may result in various kinds of suffering” (76).
  5. Worship and an Alternative Vision. The practice of discernment under the influence of the Holy Spirit is the only way to properly challenge Empire. This challenge always acknowledges that God is King and is worthy of worship. As the church centers themselves around the Slaughtered Lamb and God, they practice “uncivil” worship in anticipation of a [re]new[ed] creation.
  6. Faithful Witness: The Pattern of Christ. A faithful witness always looks like Jesus. Gorman’s words get to the point: “Christian resistance to empire and idolatry… is not passive but active, consisting of the formation of communities and individuals who pledge allegiance to God alone, who live in nonviolent love toward friends and enemies alike, who leave vengeance to God, and who, by God’s Spirit, create mini-cultures of life as alternatives to empire’s culture of death” (76).
  7. The Immanent Judgment and Salvation/New Creation of God. A day is coming when all evil will be judged and purged from creation and this world will become the eternal home for God, humanity, and all creatures. This will bring about the justice of God where “every tear will be wiped from their eyes.” New Creation is the ultimate Christian hope to which those who are suffering can find assurance in.

The above seven themes help to focus our interpretation of the book of Revelation and serve as correctives over-against the pseudo-futuristic views that we have been inundated with over the years. To help rid us of the bad theology of global destruction and fear, the following strategies should be kept in mind.

5 Corrective Strategies for Understanding Revelation***

  1. Recognize that the central image in Revelation is the Lamb that was slaughtered. Christ is victorious by absorbing violence, not by inflicting it. His word (a sword) is more powerful than any weapons of the Empires of this age. God’s Christ defeats spiritual and physical evil through being executed by the empire and through such “Lamb Power” shares the victory with all Christ-followers.
  2. Remember that Revelation was first of all written by a first-century Christian for first-century Christians using first-century literary devices and images. Revelation first and foremost addresses a first century audience with the real pressures of conformity and idolatry specific to their situation. The letter to the churches was likely written in the time of Domitian in the nineties CE and addresses ‘that’ situation more than ‘our’ situation. With that said, Revelation speaks to us because every age has to deal with the pressures of “Babylons” that rise and fall. Therefore, taking the unfamiliar language of Revelation as though it should be understood by our standards of wooden-literalness imposes our perspective on the text. Forgetting this fact is what leads to theological systems like the dispensationalism of “Left Behind.”
  3. Abandon so-called literal, linear approaches to the book of Revelation as if it were history written in advance, and use an interpretive strategy of analogy rather than correlation. Revelation is loaded with images and cartooning that were loaded with significance during the first century that may not have direct correlations to our day. Yet, we should note that this is a book that continues to warn us of the various forms of “Babylon” in our midst today and into the future. Gorman adds: “We should… be examining our ideologies and -isms for manifestations of idolatry and immorality as expressed in imperialism, militarism, nationalism, racism, classism (the worship of the corporate self and the degradation of the corporate other), consumerism, and hedonism (the worship of things and pleasure)… [W]e must especially examine our own Western, Northern, American, and even Christian systems and values, not some putative one-world government, for evidences of that which is antichrist” (78-79). Revelation doesn’t “predict” the future, but rather calls Christians to faithfulness in any age in which evil manifests itself.
  4. Focus on the book’s call to public worship and discipleship. This is to remember the invitation into patterns of community life that are non-conformist even if it leads to persecution or death. The hope of “a new heaven and a new earth” (Rev. 21) invites Christians to worship and follow Christ as advanced signs of a world flooded with the love and justice of God. Gorman states that “Revelation calls believers to nonretaliation and nonviolence, and not literal war of any sort, present or future. By its very nature as resistance, faithful nonconformity is not absolute withdrawal but rather critical engagement on very different terms from the status quo. This is all birthed and nurtured in worship” (79).
  5. Place the images of death and destruction in Revelation within the larger framework of hope. These dark images are “symbolic of the judgment and cleansing of God that is necessary for the realization of the hope offered in Christ for a new heaven and new earth in which God and the Lamb alone reign forever among a redeemed, reconciled humanity…” (79). Judgement, then, is good news for the world!

Reading Revelation Today

Hopefully, this broad overview of strategies, themes, and approaches to Revelation proves helpful in your journey. This post was mostly informed by my favorite “intro” book to Revelation (by intro I really mean academically informed and readable), Reading Revelation Responsibly by Michael Gorman. Over the next several months (and years?) I will continue to wrestle with this strange-yet-beautiful book of the Bible and will occasionally jot down what I’m learning in the process.

Long live the Slaughtered Lamb!!!!

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*These categories and many of the insights of this post come from Michael Gorman’s Reading Revelation Responsibly: Uncivil Worship and Witness – Following the Lamb into the New Creation (67-68).
**Gorman, 75-76.
***Gorman, 78-79.


Kurt Willems (M.Div., Fresno Pacific) is an Anabaptist writer preparing for a church planting project with the Brethren in Christ. He writes at the Pangea Blog and is also on Twitter and Facebook.

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About the Author

Kurt Willems

Kurt WillemsKurt Willems (M.Div., Fresno Pacific) is the founding pastor of Pangea Communities - a movement of peace, justice, & hope. The church plant, in partnership with the Brethren in Christ and Urban Expression, is based in Seattle, Wa. Kurt writes at The Pangea Blog and is also on TwitterFacebook, and Google+.View all posts by Kurt Willems →

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Barbara-Mack-Blackburn/100001180250101 Barbara Mack Blackburn

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. Such a healing idea for me, coming from a background where people were always trying to interpret this book and scaring me to death as a kid. I still have a good friend who is obssessed with the book and the Rapture and constantly interpreting and “prophesying” about how current events fit into the book, with a kind of “scary” glee. I know she thinks I’m wayward and silly, but really, I just cannot buy into that interpretation. Thank you for being a voice of reason.

  • http://twitter.com/occupy_xnty Occupy Christianity

    You make an interesting call here. You say (correctly, IMHO) that we need to “Abandon so-called literal, linear approaches to the book of Revelation as if it were history written in advance, and use an interpretive strategy of analogy rather than correlation.” Unfortunately, that type of literalism is part and parcel of the dominant Evangelical outlook on scripture in general.

    I fully recognize the cognitive dissonance in this literalistic approach, as the entire “Evangelical end-times story” is a hodgepodge of bits taken from a number of books in the bible, reassembled in order to create a narrative where one does not exist. But those who espouse this view are convinced that they are reading the bible literally, and are not going to change their interpretive framework very easily.

    • Tom

      You read different part of scripture differently according to their genre. I have no problem reading the beast from the abyss in Revelation 11 as being symbolic and interpret it accordingly.

      But when I read that Jesus went to Capernaum in Luke 4, I read it ‘literally’ because as far as I can tell Luke wants me to understand that Jesus really did go to Capernaum and teach.

  • otrotierra

    A refreshing departure from the “Fan Fiction” known as dispensational theology. Many thanks for Kurt Willems for another thoughtful article.

  • http://www.facebook.com/dave.gray.967 Dave Gray

    I agree with you in part. It is only by understanding the First century Christians and their world view that we can truly appreciate the Symbols and Themes of Revelation. I do how ever feel that the book is prophetic. That Christ will come again at some time in the future. It shows us how we need to live to be ready for that coming.

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