How NOT to read the Book of Revelation

Many people, when they first come to the faith and decide they want to read the Bible, turn right away to the Book of Revelation. This is especially true of born-again Christians.fourhorsement1 The reason they turn to the Book of Revelation is that it’s easy reading and it contains fascinating stories. I always recommend, however, that people NOT begin with the Book of Revelation and instead start with the gospel accounts. The Book of Revelation, while fascinating, is easily misunderstood and by reading it without understanding it, can cause harm to the person trying to come to faith by sidetracking them into pointless discussions and endeavors that prevent them from truly understanding the Gospel of Christ and the call to salvation. Let’s talk a little bit about exactly what the Book of Revelation is and is not, first by using this example:

Suppose you were to get a letter from a friend who wrote to you, “Today was a horrible day! My mother got canned and my father got thrown in the slammer!” You know right away what the person meant: his mother lost her job and his father was sent to prison. He is using idiomatic expressions that have clear meaning for us. Now imagine several hundred years from now, somebody in another culture finds your letter, translates into his own language and responds “Oh my goodness! Look how horrible they were back in the 21st century in America! They took this man’s mother and stuffed her into a little can, and then they took his father and slammed him between two big bricks!” We get a good laugh at the idea. But this error is precisely what often happens when people in 21st century America read the book of Revelation. The book of Revelation is written in a style called “Apocalyptic Literature.” It is highly stylized, and uses a lot of idiomatic expressions and cryptic language that would be understood only by the people to whom it was written. A lot of its meaning is lost on us 21 centuries later. So therefore, people who try to read the book of Revelation as if it’s a literal forecast or prediction of what’s going to happen at the end of time are making a huge mistake and frightening themselves for no reason. What’s worse, they start aligning their faith with solely trying to decipher these expressions and live their lives based on what they’re reading or think they’re reading in the Book of Revelation and missed the whole point of the gospel.

The basic point of the Book of Revelation is that God sent his word to St. John to comfort Christians during a time of persecution. Many were being threatened to abandon their faith in Christ and follow the pagan religion of the Empire, and some were going along with it. The Book of Revelation reminds them with vivid language and cryptic terms that we don’t understand but that they did not to give away their faith in Christ and abandon it for pagan religions, because pagan Rome will be destroyed and the faith will survive, just as the Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed. Some of the language is actually referring to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 A.D, which had already happened by this time, and it reminded Christians that just as the Temple fell, so will pagan Rome and the temples of paganism fall. So if you abandon your faith in Christ to go with the pagan religions, you’ll be siding with the losers in the final struggle. And then ultimately of course the most important part of the Book of Revelation is a reminder that Christ will return in glory and there will be a new creation a new heavens and new earth where he and those who follow him will reign together. That’s about all we need to know! Getting caught up in specific numbers, whether it’s “666” or the thousand years before the devil rules or only 144,000 being saved as other denominations of Christianity and other groups have done, is completely missing the point. People who do so are translating literally cryptic languages from ancient times into modern English and assumed they’ve captured the fullness of the meaning. This can be as wrong as reading “he got canned” and understanding it to mean someone was shoved into a tin container! Just as in order to understand the  writing from any different times – even from different cultures in our contemporary times –  we need to know their idiomatic expressions, figures of speech, and popular references, etc. Similarly, we need to know those things about the times in which the Book of Revelation was given in the end portions of the first century A.D. to Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians living specifically in Rome. So before getting all frightened by everything in the Book of Revelation, remember when you read it that your reading a type of literature we do not understand – apocalyptic literature – and that much of its significance is lost on us. We would need an extensive education in the idiomatic expressions and the cultural references of the first century A.D. in order to more completely understand exactly what was being said.

So to sum up: the revel the Book of Revelation is not a prediction of exactly what’s going to happen when Jesus returns! There is no sense wasting time worrying over the rapture and the tribulation and looking for specific signs in comets and asteroids and earthquakes and plagues and trying to see how they come together to forecast the end of time. This is silly! Instead, remember the point of the Book of Revelation: do not abandon your faith in Christ for anything, because Christ has won the victory and he will return in glory on the last day. He has guaranteed the victory. He is the winner. Side with Christ and you will be on the side of the Victor on the last day!

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