1. We’re afraid we won’t be able to understand it.
Revelation is filled with strange creatures, other-worldly imagery, and scenes that we find difficult to imagine and decipher. It demands that we use our imaginations, and we’re not really used to doing that when reading the Bible. Revelation is written in a genre of literature we’re not used to reading and therefore don’t instinctively know how to read and understand. This means that if we’re going to rightly understand it, we’ve got to develop our skills for reading the literary genre of apocalyptic prophecy. As we do, we find this book opening up to us.
Revelation was not written for scholars, so you don’t have to be a scholar to understand it. It is a letter written to ordinary believers in the first century with the expectation that they would understand its message. It was written to unveil or reveal hidden realities, not to make them harder to see and understand.
Revelation was not written to create confusion, conflict, or fear in those who read it. Rather, it was written so that ordinary believers who hear it and embrace what is written in it will not only be able to understand it; they’ll be blessed by it—blessed in a countercultural way that the world simply cannot understand and does not value.
2. We know there is lots of disagreement about Revelation.
The fact that there is lots of disagreement about Revelation is true. There are a variety of approaches to how to read and understand Revelation, some more valid than others. And there are lots of people who have very strong opinions about how to read and understand Revelation. Sadly, the varying approaches of interpretation can tend to create a barrier that makes this a closed book to many. And I think that’s tragic.
3. We think Revelation is mostly or completely about the future with nothing practical for us today.
Most people assume that Revelation is primarily or even exclusively about the future. But think for a minute. Would it really make sense that John would address a letter to seven churches in the first century that was mostly about things only the generation alive at the return of Christ would need to know and recognize? Doesn’t it make far more sense that John wrote to believers in his day as well as to believers in every era between his day and the day of Christ’s return about what they need to know, how they are to live, and how they can cope with the harsh realities of life in this world?
Revelation presents a past, present, ongoing, and future reality that servants of Jesus living in between his ascension and return need to see. It sheds light on history as it has unfolded in the past and is unfolding right now. It serves as a corrective to any assumptions we might have that the status quo will continue, and that resistance to the world’s system is futile.
Clearly there are things described in this book that are yet to happen. There is a future culmination of the ongoing conflict that has been a reality in our world ever since God put enmity between the serpent and the woman in Eden. There will be a final battle. Jesus will return. And Revelation is going to help us to see these things more clearly. But that doesn’t mean it is entirely or even primarily future-focused.
Revelation is actually less about when Jesus will return and more about what we are to do, who we are to be, and what we can expect to endure as we wait for Jesus to return to establish his kingdom.
We tend toward being very pragmatic. We want to walk out of Bible study with a to-do list and may assume that the cosmic struggle represented in Revelation doesn’t lend itself to practical application. But that simply isn’t so. Revelation presents a repeated call that is urgent for every one of us to respond to right now, today. Revelation has everything to do with how we invest the capital of our lives, what is worth getting excited about, or being afraid of. Revelation speaks to our big and little compromises with the world around us, how we view political and governmental systems, and what we expect our money can provide for us.
If we are concerned with what’s practical, the day will come when we will look back and it will be clear to us that there was nothing more practical than prayer, nothing more practical than perseverance, and nothing more practical than praising the triune God even when evil was pressing in on us. We’ll discover that worship was the “ultimate subversive activity” in a world of idolatry and materialism.1 Enduring in our allegiance to King Jesus even when it costs us, and living as if we do not expect this world to applaud us, approve of us, or satisfy us, is subversive. It’s shocking. And at the same time, it is the ordinary Christian life. It is what is expected of a citizen of the kingdom of heaven living in the kingdom of the world.
4. We know that there is a lot about persecution of believers in Revelation, and that makes us uncomfortable.
Maybe it isn’t so much the strangeness or the controversy of Revelation that keeps us from this book. Perhaps, for many of us, it is our love of comfort and our lack of ability to relate to being under assault as a believer. The threat of being exiled to an island prison for declaring allegiance to King Jesus is so very far away from the comfortable lives many of us live. We simply find it hard to relate to the tension, the threat, the life-or-death consequences in this book. It is hard to relate to crying out “How long?” when we have the security of a nice house and a good job, a football game to watch on a big-screen TV, and food being delivered to our front door. If we’re honest, perhaps our comfortable lives and all we’re looking forward to acquiring and accomplishing and experiencing in this life make us perfectly content for Jesus to wait a while before he comes back to intervene in the affairs of this world.
Perhaps it is not until we dare to allow ourselves to be moved by the reports of believers in other parts of the world being tortured or killed for their faith, or when we sit with a woman who has been raped or saw her husband killed in front of her eyes by Islamic extremists, or when we consider real people whose churches have been burned and their pastors executed that we finally feel the ache expressed in Revelation by the believers asking how long it will be until Christ comes to set things right. Revelation invites us to share the ache of the persecution endured by our brothers and sisters around the world and throughout history. And it speaks into this ache, telling us that the days of evil having its way in this world are numbered.
- Iain Duguid, “Doxological Evangelism in Practice: Preaching Apocalyptic Literature,” Westminster Conference on Preaching and Preachers, Westminster Theological Seminary, October 21, 2020.
Content adapted from Blessed by Nancy Guthrie.This article first appeared on Crossway.org; used with permission.
If you’re interested in studying the book of Revelation, check out this Core Bible study.