How to Read Revelation in Church

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To say the book of Revelation intimidates many readers of Christian Scripture is probably an understatement. The difficulty of understanding its ancient Jewish apocalyptic symbolism and imagery is only compounded by the complexity of its structure. Beyond the challenges of the text itself, there are almost as many different interpretations of John’s Apocalypse as there are interpreters. We want to understand this important book of scripture, but it’s difficult to sort through which guides and commentaries are more helpful and which are less. How are we to overcome all these roadblocks to reading Revelation? Where do we begin if we are interested in leading a Bible study or preaching a series of sermons on this dense book? Well, there is good news. It is possible to hear what Revelation says to the church in both the ancient and the modern world. Here are a few tips to help you start reading Revelation in your local church.

Unlearn What You Have Learned

My number one piece of advice when it comes to reading Revelation is simply this: unlearn what you have learned (Yep, I stole that from Yoda). And it isn’t necessary for you to have even read much about Revelation and still have a lot of unhelpful ideas. Strange takes on the Apocalypse are simply in the air in much of our culture, especially for those of us who live in the “Bible Belt.” All you have to do is glimpse the titles of some particular and popular works of Christian fiction or see a movie trailer for the next end-of-the-world flick and you inadvertently encounter a potentially skewed perspective on the closing book of the canon. I remember as a child seeing a coffee mug with puffs of air rising out of empty shoes. Yes, this rapture-depicting mug had an effect on my childhood eschatology, and it wasn’t until years later that I learned there was no rapture in the Bible, let alone in Revelation. The point is that it takes little or no effort to get hit with misleading interpretations of Revelation. Fruitful study of the book requires that we discern these unhelpful influences and attempt to read Revelation on its own terms. Even after several years of studying Revelation and other Jewish apocalyptic, I still find it challenging to resist those old interpretive tendencies. We must continually be learning how to ask the right questions. What did this book mean to its original hearers? How would they have understood the text? And, yes, that means there are no helicopters in chapter 9. Let this be the refrain as you read Revelation with the church, “Unlearn what you have learned.”

Listen for the Double Message

You’ve probably heard that the job of a preacher is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” It is important to understand that this is double message lies at the heart of Revelation. First, the Apocalypse was written to Christians, many of whom were persecuted, in the Roman Empire in the first century. It aims to “comfort the afflicted” and persecuted believers of the first century with the message of hope that, even if they perish, the God who raised Jesus from the dead will likewise vindicate them. Second, Revelation aims to “afflict the comfortable” by revealing God’s righteous judgment against the beastly Empire and by issuing a warning to believers who think they can hedge their bets by going to bed with the power players (if that metaphor surprises you, it’s straight out of Revelation 18). If you get these two dimensions of the basic message straight, your eyes will be increasingly opened to the way Revelation was first intended to function.

Find Reliable Guides

There are more and more helpful books being written about Revelation to balance (and hopefully overcome) all the less than helpful volumes that exist. Here are a few of my favorites that will serve you well as guides for reading Revelation with the church. First, Robert Mulholland’s recent Revelation in the Cornerstone Biblical Commentary series (Tyndale) provides a verse-by-verse treatment of the text that is accessible to the interested lay person. He keeps the original context constantly in view and regularly offers theological reflection on the present day application and significance of the text. Second, Michael J. Gorman’s recent book, Reading Revelation: Uncivil Worship and Witness: Following the Lamb into the New Creation (Wipf & Stock), is particularly concerned with how the Apocalypse shapes the worship and mission of the church. He also gives a great deal of attention to how Revelation critiques present day empires. A third is Richard Bauckham’s little volume, The Theology of Revelation (Cambridge University Press), in which he takes his readers on a tour of the key theological themes of Revelation. These books will complement one another well and together will give anyone a solid and reliable framework for reading the closing book of Christian scripture.

Revelation certainly presents challenges, but reading and understanding it isn’t impossible. Our local churches will benefit greatly from this rich book of Scripture. A few trustworthy guides to help you sort through the many (and sometimes dubious) interpretations will go a long way in helping your local church to engage the message of hope in the book of Revelation.

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Dr. Matt O’Reilly is pastor of St. Mark United Methodist Church in Mobile, Alabama, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and an adjunct member of the faculties at Asbury Theological Seminary and Wesley Biblical Seminary. Connect at mattoreilly.net or follow @mporeilly.

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