Revelation for Beginners: Ways Most Scholars Approach Revelation

I think it true to say that most bible scholars approach the last book of the bible (Revelation) with the understanding that the book was primarily addressed to the situation the seven churches found themselves in. Thus much, or even most, of the imagery concerns the time they were living in, not some far-flung time in the future (or our present). This is also a view common throughout Christian history (that Revelation was primarily about the seven churches’ situation).

What this means is that we should not come to the book of Revelation with a newspaper in our hands, trying to figure out if we are getting close to things described in Revelation. Christians who have done this down through the centuries have thought they were living in the scenes described. The Black Plague? The fall of Rome? The Huns or Mongols ravaging the countryside unstoppable? The conquest of Jerusalem by the Muslims? The break up of the Doobie Brothers? We could go on and on, but suffice it to say people read their experiences into Revelation very easily.

Secondly, scholars do not take the imagery literally in Revelation. All of the cosmic, colorful, monstrous symbolisms in Revelation were a very common and well-known style of writing for the 200 years before John wrote Revelation. Scholars do not think Jesus will invent a new martial art where he holds his sword in his mouth. They see this as a symbolic way to say Jesus’ words cut to the center of reality – the word of God being “sharper than the sharpest two-edged sword, cutting between soul and spirit, between joint and marrow. It exposes our innermost thoughts and desires” (Hebrews 4: 12). Scholars do not believe John expected his readers to see four giant horsemen riding through the air above Ephesus, bringing war and chaos into the world. War, civil strife, economic disaster and death were riding hard in John’s day and had been for centuries. Scholars do not believe the beasts from sea or land are creatures out of Godzilla movies we should watch out for.

And most scholars do not believe Revelation is some sort of predicted roadmap laying out a sequence of events we should watch for. The seals, for instance, aren’t necessarily to be interpreted as being in a chronological sequence. The vision of the first four seals does not necessarily have any sequential relationship to the fifth seal. But most all of the scenes in Revelation describe very well the situation going on for the Christians John was writing to, and for many Christians finding themselves oppressed and persecuted by various regimes in the centuries since.

So basically, if you want to explore the approach to Revelation shared by most of the world’s professional Bible scholars, completely ignore everything you hear from TV and radio preachers regarding Revelation and “the end of the world”, ignore Hal Lindsey’s books and the Left Behind Series.


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