In order to understand Revelation, there are several things we need to know.
There is nothing new in Revelation. Almost all the images and story lines of this book can be found either in the Hebrew Scriptures or in stories found in neighboring cultures, including those of Greece and Rome. Dr. Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum, Th.M., Ph.D. found that there were approximately 476 such references to passages or motifs. (http://www.johnsnotes.com/documents/OldTestamentReferencesintheBookofRevelation.pdf) What this means is that those who first read/heard Revelation would have been very much at home in, what seem to us, to be strange images and concepts.
Revelation was intended to be read aloud and heard as a saga of God’s saving activity in the world. We know this because the book itself tells that blessed are those who read and hear its contents. This is important because it is a reminder that those who first encountered this story did not dissect it in order to understand every nuance of meaning. It was a story speaking to God’s recreative intent and plans for creation.
Revelation is apocalyptic literature. Apocalyptic literature is part of a genre of literature which was part and parcel of the First Century Jewish landscape. We can see examples of this genre in the Book of Daniel and the Gospel of Mark chapter 13. We can also see it in non-canonical books such as Enoch and 2nd Esdras, among others. What this means is that there is nothing unusual per-se about Revelation that would make it stand out from other books of its kind written during the period of the early church.
Apocalyptic literature contains:
Frequent use of Old Testament imagery, language and stories
Frequent use of numbers and colors to express ideas
The belief that there are things about God and the future that must be revealed
The belief that there is a struggle between the forces of good and evil which occurs in the heavens as well as on the earth
The belief that in the end, God will judge the world and put all things to right
Traditionally interpreters of the Book of Revelation have followed one of two theories in dealing with this type of literature in general and Revelation in particular.
The first theory is that Revelation is a letter rooted and grounded in the early church’s struggle to find hope while its members are being persecuted by the Roman Empire. This theory believes that the imagery and language are so “strange” because they are written in “code” so that only Christians can understand and draw strength from them. Writing in “code” was important because Christians were claiming to be part of a new Kingdom, which was replacing Rome. Being part of such a new kingdom would have been perceived as a threat to the Empire and would therefore put Christian lives at risk; thus the need for writing about God’s coming victory in code.
The second theory is that Revelation is a timetable for the second coming of Jesus and for the end of the world as we know it. The language is again coded, but it is coded for those of us, in this moment, who alone can understand the coded language because the story of Revelation is unfolding in the here and now. One of the interesting sidelights of this theory is that it is often combined with belief in “the rapture” in which at the second coming of Jesus all believers will be lifted from heaven to earth, after which there will be a time of great tribulation. This combination is interesting because it is not in any way connected in scripture.
This study will diverge from both theories. While I believe Revelation was meaningful for those living under Roman domination and speaks to the end of the world as we know it, I don’t believe that either of these theories gets at the overarching message of the book. Instead I believe that Revelation is a trilogy intended to give hope to believers of all time and in all places. What I mean by this is that I believe that revelation is intended to be read as story; a story that gives readers hope in the face of tough times.
As we read through Revelation my hope is that we will read it as story, and that rather than getting bogged down in the details, we will discover a beautifully told narrative intended to offer us insights into both evil and its power in the world and into God’s infinite love for the world that cannot be defeated.