Reading the book of Revelation: “The Elephant in the Room”

Dwight D. Sheets, an expert in the area of Jewish and early Christian apocalyptic literature, says that the book of Revelation, the Apocalypse, “exhibits a strong sense of imminence” that is often ignored or explained metaphorically.

According to Sheets, John believed that Jesus would return soon, and that the nearness of his return was not a peripheral issue in the Apocalypse.  Sheets adds, “The warning of Jesus’ return occurs three times in chapter 1 (Rev 1:1, 3, 9) and five times in chapter 22 (Rev 22:6, 7, 10, 12, 20), effectively bracketing the message of the book.”

And more to the background and danger these early believers faced, which were imminent, Sheets continues,

The lure of the Roman system, the rise, popularity and threat of the emperor cult and the accommodation of believers to the system could easily fit within early Christian traditional eschatological expectations.  John may have interpreted these events as fulfillments of prophecy, a phenomenon that has a significant role in the rise of apocalyptic expression.  It indicated to John that Jesus’ return was near.  If John’s concerns are chiefly eschatological, it becomes more difficult to assume that Revelation is a paradigmatic program of resistance to empires.  Revelation becomes primarily a warning to the churches that Jesus was coming soon and that participating with Rome would disqualify them from participating in the kingdom of God.”  (Jesus Is Lord, Caesar Is Not, pp. 199-200)

It is precisely because of this imminence of Christ return to the original readers and what such meant to their historical situation why I eventually ditched Dispensationalism for Amillennialism (see this post).

In other words, “The nearness of [Christ] return was not a peripheral issue in the Apocalypse.”  It doesn’t have to be the elephant in the room.

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11 Responses to Reading the book of Revelation: “The Elephant in the Room”

  1. Jon Hughes says:

    Partial preterism?

  2. Simon says:

    An interesting fact is that Revelation is not read liturgically in the Eastern Orthodox Church. The reason was that people were misinterpreting this book and it could easily lead people astray. Quite prophetic if you ask me, and pastorally responsible. Revelation is not a book that is given to personal study without guidance. Even corporately, it is a very difficult book to understand. I am reminded of a quote by GK Chesterton:

    “St. John saw many strange things in his Revelation, but nothing as strange as his interpreters.”

    • TC says:

      Simon, Calvin didn’t write a commentary on it precisely for that very. I love that Chesterton quote. Nice. :D

  3. Simon says:

    TC, John Chrysostom, former Bishop of Constantinople, who was probably the most prolific Bible commentator in antiquity, also does not comment on Revelation.

    To be clear, this isn’t to say that we shouldn’t read Revelation, only that we should be extremely cautious in drawing hard and fast conclusions and not try to satisfy our curiosity about the future from that text. It is a book full of hope. It’s not crystal ball into every minute detail of the future. Revelation is probably the most misused text in the Canon and we should be very careful with it.

    • TC says:

      Yes, I read that somewhere before. Gordon Fee takes the same approach of hope, most notably regarding the Rev 20 millennium (see my review here).

      • Simon says:

        Gordon Fee is excellent. He is one of the shining lights within North American evangelicals.. if only more were like him. ;)

  4. Jon Hughes says:

    But let’s not forget, it is part of Scripture, with a specific promise of blessing attached to those who read and hear it; is full of illusions to the O.T. (as brought out in the best commentaries), not to mention the fact that it provides the people of God with a grand redemptive flow of history, exalts the Lord Jesus as Alpha and Omega, Lion of the tribe of Judah, King of kings and Lord of lords, proclaiming His VICTORY; and reminds us that while the Bible begins in a garden it ends in a city.

    “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people. God himself will be with them and be their God.” (Revelation 21:3)

    It strikes me that those early believers who had it read to them didn’t study its minutiae – they didn’t have the luxury of Study Bibles (or even personal copies of Bibles) like we do in the West today. Therefore a good way of reading Revelation with profit would be to get the overall grand sweep without getting bogged down in the details, as Simon suggests.

    Personally, I try to avoid eating magic mushrooms when reading it ;-)

    • Colin Heath says:

      I think Jon has provided a measured and helpful overview here. Revelation may not have been the first NT text to reach the Canon, but it is indeed Scripture, so we must read and engage with it.

      I am reminded of something RT Kendall said to J John some years ago at a preaching day at St Andrews Chorleywood here in the UK. When asked if there were passages he had not preached from, he stated Revelation. Because it was difficult to understand properly and explain to others. And if he felt that……………..

      But in simplistic grand sweep terms the message is that God wins – I can’t recall where I heard that one.

      Reading too much in the minutia puts us at risk of going down JW route and similar. And in view of a piece on BBC Breakfast News this morning, I too will be wary of picking mushrooms.

      • Jon Hughes says:

        Colin,

        Richard Bewes wrote a commentary on Revelation called “The Lamb Wins!”

        R.T Kendall was my pastor when I was at Westminster Chapel (1998-2001).

        I’ll have to check out that piece on the BBC :)

        I meant to say “allusions” to the O.T., not “illusions”!!

  5. TC says:

    Simon, Gordon Fee is a gem. I tend to read anything he has put his proverbial pen to.

    Jon, yes, excellent summary of things. But let’s not forget the exegetical prowess of a Chrysostom and a Calvin, since we mentioned them above. However your point on limitations stand to a degree.

    Colin, yes, the Apocalypse, though a blessing is assured in reading it, the same cannot be said for thoroughly understanding it. Let’s say that I too am not impressed with later systems.

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