Revisiting Revelation: What would I change if I taught it again?

In 2012 I taught a series of lectures at my church on the book of Revelation. We had taken a poll to find out what people wanted teaching on, and this enigmatic book came out top of the pile, by quite a long way!

I’d never really understood the book before, truth be told. I’d grown up on a diet of Left Behind, and had managed to purge that from my system (primarily by actually reading the Bible itself!) So I had a few opinions on some of the major themes of the book, but was in no place to teach it in depth. This series, combined with an essay I was writing for my MA about political theology and apocalyptic literature, gave me an opportunity to give some time to getting my head round it.

I read as widely as I was able to in the year leading up to the series, and made some quick decisions. Across six sessions, we didn’t have time to cover every verse of the book, so I took a selection of the main themes – the ones I felt most confident about. By and large I was happy with the outcome and remain happy with the series. But I’ve always felt that if I were to teach it again, there are things I would want to change.

The other week, someone told me they were working through the recordings of the sessions and enjoying them, and they asked me how I’d come to some of my views on particular bits. As I answered their questions and expressed some of what I’ve written above, they then asked me “So, if you were to do the series again, what would you want to change most of all?”

I’ve been pondering that question since. There are a few gaps I’d like to fill in – passages I didn’t get to cover due to the restrictions of time. We skipped the letters to the churches. I didn’t get to explore much of the role of Babylon in the book, which I’d like to amend since it’s such a big theme with some challenging application. Whilst I devoted a whole session to New Creation, I didn’t spend a long time looking at the flipside; the theme of judgment. And the list could go on…

But none of these is the thing I would want to change most of all.

As I’ve reflected on recent events such as the beheading of 21 Egyptian Christians by the radical group ISIS, and as I’ve struggled to know how to pray and lead our church in praying about them, I’ve come to realise that I really should have thought more deeply on the theme of martyrdom.

A few reasons for this conclusion:

  • In 2012 I was less informed than I am now about the violence people face on account of their faith. I’m sure it was happening, and I was less aware than I should have been. I think I have had a narrow Western view of the state of Christianity in the world, which skewed my emphasis when interpreting the message of the book.
  • In my talks, I treated persecution like something that only happened in ancient times. Or if it does happen today, it happens in far off countries. This was naïve and disrespectful to those who are suffering for their faith far more than I am. It also gave the impression that Revelation has little to teach those who live in this generation and in my part of the world.
  • I didn’t speak as clearly on the theme of peace-making as I wish I had. This was in part due to the fact that I know my pacifist views aren’t held by everyone else in my team, and also that I was still working out my position at that point. But I think that Revelation (counter intuitively, perhaps) has a strong message to offer about peace-making through non-violence, modelled on the example of the slain lamb (Rev 5:6). I’m more clear on that now than I have been.
  • Even if none of my listeners is ever to be directly affected by persecution of this scale – either experiencing it personally, or losing others they know – all of us should feel the pain of it and all of us should know how to respond, if in no other way than through prayer. On this, I found Thomas Schreiner’s Biblical Meditation on the ISIS Execution of 21 Christians refreshingly helpful (and was interested to note that he is currently completing a commentary on Revelation, for which I eagerly wait.) We should not be surprised; we are more than conquerors; we grieve with those who grieve; we pray for both our enemies and our suffering brothers and sisters; and we plead for God to bring justice.

I’m sure there is plenty more I would change, and I have no doubt that I will read and re-read Revelation differently as I continue to learn more about it. But I think that’s where I would start. To those who think Revelation is all future-oriented, and those who think it refers to events long-passed, I would want to offer a strong wake-up call: The dual cry of the martyrs’ “how long?” (6:10) and John’s “come Lord Jesus” (22:20) is as relevant today as it ever has been.

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Image: Reflection of the Apocalypse? by Giampaolo Macorig, used under CC

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Elaine says:

    I really enjoyed the series but the thing I found slightly odd was your stance that John was trying to portray certain messages by his choice of imagery (e.g. ‘I think what John is trying to say with this is….’). Also I think one of your basis for dating the book was based on his having lived or not lived through some events that were/were not reflected in the book. The reason for my confusion is that John presents the book as a faithful relaying of scenes that were presented to him – so I’d have thought a) That he is never at any point trying to convey a message by a choice of imagery but rather that Jesus is giving us a message by presenting certain imagery to John and that b) since Jesus presented the image, whether John did/did not live through certain events is irrelevant to the dating as Jesus is not restricted by time so could present future events if he chose to and John just faithfully recorded them.

    Does this make sense? This is a bit exaggerated but it’s almost as if I imagine John rushing to write down everything he saw exactly, regardless of what the underlying message was and you envision John as going away from the vision, thinking about it very carefully and then choosing to change the imagery to better suit a message he wants to get across.

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    1. liamthatcher says:

      Hi Elaine! Sorry it’s taken ages to reply – I only just saw your comment now.

      Thanks for your questions. Glad you largely enjoyed the series. Well, it’s been a while since I taught the series, so I can’t quite remember exactly how I would have phrased things. But here are a few thoughts:

      I mainly agree with point (a) that the message of Revelation is primarily given by Jesus, rather than being crafted by John. But the nature of the Revelation doesn’t seem to have been a word for word dictation, but rather a (largely) visual revelation, which John has then tried to describe in written form. So I think John definitely would have had a huge amount of choice in the words he selected in order to accurately convey what Jesus had revealed to him. What I imagine happening was John seeing this revelation, understanding its meaning, and then seeking to write it down in a way that both captured what he actually saw in the moment, and also conveyed the details in such a way that the meaning/interpretation of it was understandable to his readers. So much of the imagery of Revelation is stock imagery of Apocalyptic literature, loaded with meaning and symbolism. I don’t think, for example, that Jesus said “I’ve got some harsh words to say about Babylon” and that John thought “I know, I’ll depict that by writing about animals and beasts.” I think both that Jesus did reveal his message using this imagery, but also that John exercised some freedom in his choice of words in order to convey the revelation to his readers.

      As for point (b), I’m not entirely sure what point of mine you’re referring to. Of course, I don’t have a problem with Jesus revealing details about future events (the OT prophets are full of revelations like that). But when trying to work out the dating of any given letter, you have to make your evaluation based on details that are internal and external to the letter – whether the author explicitly tells you, or whether you can glean facts from outside the letter (cultural references, use of language etc). My best guess for the dating of the letter – which is fairly common among modern scholars – is during the latter part of the reign of the Roman Emperor Domitian (81-96 AD), probably around 95 AD. It seems that the letter is speaking to particular challenges in this period, and whilst of course Jesus could have prophetically spoken about those challenges from any point in time, the letter reads to me like it is addressing events that seem pretty current, which his readers would have understood.

      To be honest though, whether you put the authorship in the late 60s or mid 90s doesn’t make an enormous amount of difference, I don’t think. The bigger issue for me is whether the focus of the letter was about something that was happening then/soon to happen, or events that are thousands of years into the future. I don’t find interpretations that are solely future-oriented compelling, because they would seem to have so little relevance to the original hearers – or indeed most of humanity for centuries!!

      Hope that helps a little – and thanks again for your comment! LT

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