Understanding Revelation: A Brief Background

When I was in 8th grade, my CCD (Catholic catechism) teacher had us read Revelation. I don’t remember much, but I remember being terrified. He taught us that Revelation depicted things that would happen to Christians in the end times, and he did not teach us any skills to interpret Scripture in any way other than a literal way (which I should say is not the norm for the Catholic Church). As a 13-year-old, I became incredibly fearful of Revelation and I refused to read it again until much later, when I was in college. Thankfully, by then, I was given a better framework for understanding Revelation and how to responsibly read it as a Christian.

Image result for christ in majesty national shrine revelation
Christ in Majesty, Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC

Revelation can be a frightening and overwhelming book of the Bible, and it is almost certainly one of the most misunderstood and misinterpreted books of the Bible. It seems like every other day, we hear news of some person or group predicting the end of the world based on their interpretation of Revelation. It seems like every other day, someone is making conjecture that event x, y, or z is a sign that the end is imminent.

Revelation is a particular genre of writing called apocalyptic literature, which comes from the Greek word “apokalypsis,” meaning “revelation.” Apocalyptic literature is a unique style of writing that is not very common in the Bible. It is not meant to be read in the same way as the Gospels, or the Epistles, the Prophets, the Wisdom literature, or any other genre found in the Bible.

Apocalyptic literature is meant to do several things:

  1. to reveal truth to a human recipient
  2. to act as a response to some crisis, real or imagined – social, political, theological, existential
  3. to give comfort and hope to people who were overwhelmed, confused, frightened, or persecuted
  4. to assert an alternative understanding of the world and to emphasize God’s ultimate victory
  5. to protest against the prevailing worldview of the dominant culture

In order to accomplish its purposes, apocalyptic literature is characterized by a few traits:

  1. a cosmic struggle between good and evil where the good will ultimately triumph
  2. heavy reliance upon symbols – creatures, numbers, etc.
  3. highly dramatized scenes filled with other-worldly visions

Revelation was written in the late 1st century, in a context where Christians were in the minority; a time well before Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire. It was written in a time, where, in fact, Rome saw Christians as a subversive threat to the empire because they refused to participate in ritual worship of the emperor as a divine being (the imperial cult), something required of all citizens. Christians were faced with the dilemma of either conforming to or resisting the obligations of empire. For those who chose to resist and disobey, the cost was extreme hardship, and often execution. John’s visions in Revelation were meant to convey hope to these early Christians and to urge them to continue living faithfully, even under the threat of persecution and death.

Though the strange symbolism of Revelation can make it hard to understand, several themes emerge throughout the book:

  1. The sovereignty of God – God as the ultimate power in the universe; the one who creates and the one who brings it to completion
  2. Radical monotheism – no power on earth or heaven is worthy of allegiance but God alone
  3. Exalted Christology – Christ shares the heavenly throne with God and is the object of heavenly and earthly worship
  4. Salvation – Emphasis on God’s care for the world and its inhabitants, yearning to provide health, wholeness, peace, security; in other words, salvation for all creation
  5. Judgment and warning – those who would be the people of God must be obedient to God
  6. Non-violent lifestyle – Jesus conquers not by violence, but by his own death; not by a sword but a cross. The only conquering that is consistent with the values of God is conquering that occurs through self-sacrifice and love
  7. Hope – God, not death, will have the last word, and God is always present with God’s people; the way things are is not the way things will always be

As we go through the text, we’ll be able to see these themes articulated. It is my hope that we will all come to a deeper understanding of God’s saving work and the demands of Christian discipleship; not only for the original hearers of Revelation, but also for us today.

Sources that I am using to direct this current study of Revelation include (though may not be limited to) are:

So – now that I’ve shared a brief background to Revelation, in the next post, we’ll dive into the text and look at Revelation 1-3!

A note: I will not be addressing the popular theology known as dispensationalism in anything other than an occasional and superficial way. Dispensationalism includes the ideas of rapture of believers and tribulation for those left behind as literal experiences that the world has yet to face (as depicted in fiction like the Left Behind series). Dispensationalism was made popular by an Anglican priest-turned-sectarian of the 19th century named John Nelson Darby, and further developed by Cyrus Scofield, the author of the Scofield Reference Bible. While dispensationalism has made its way into some evangelical theology, in many ways, it often misconstrues Scripture, leans towards a literal and futurist interpretation only, and tends to view the whole of the Bible through the lens of the end times. There is not room for me to adequately unpack the issues with dispensationalism in this blog series without detracting from the things I believe are important to highlight in Revelation. If you are interested in reading a good synopsis of the rise of this theology and why it is problematic, read End Times: Rapture, Antichrist, Millenium by James M. Efird. It is a short and concise book (96 pages) that does an excellent job of explaining the rise of dispensationalism and its theological and biblical issues. Over the coming weeks, I hope to share another way to understand Revelation – one that is both theologically and biblically sound, grounded in the tradition of the Church and in faithful scholarship.

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