When I was younger, I was presented with two possible ways to approach the Book of Revelation: literalism and skepticism. Literalism meant taking almost every image at face value. If the New Jerusalem was 1500 by 1500 by 1500 miles, you were to expect to be able to measure it out like this yourself. Golden streets? Check. (I remember one friend noting, “I don’t think that would look so good.”) This was often coupled with the idea that much of what was described could be seen as a description of what future events֫—and modern military hardware—might look like to a first-century person. It was suggested that grasshoppers might be helicopters, and beasts from the sea submarines. How else would a first-century viewer of modern events be able to describe such things? Once you bought into this, you expected that what you saw on the nightly news might be the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy. This was especially true if there was violence in the Middle East, or progress toward a singular, world currency.
I burnt out on this approach after a few disappointments. In a way, this was a good thing.
Some fuel was added to that fire when I went to a seminar by John Warwick Montgomery, where he showed us some of the Biblical prophecy books from prior generations claiming that Louis Napoleon (see Michael Paget Baxter’s 1868 book, Louis Napoleon The Destined Monarch of the World) or Mussolini (see Gerald Winrod’s 1933 Mussolini’s Place in Prophecy) was the Antichrist. Montgomery swore to us that these were worked out with the same care and detail as anything we could currently find in our Christian bookstore.
So I ruled out this type of literalism when it came to understanding Revelation.
The other option was skepticism, like that of the proverbial priest or theologian, who said, “St. John was on drugs when he wrote that book!” Skepticism was rooted in anti-supernaturalism, so it held no appeal for me. But I had been burned before by using a dispensationalist approach to determine how close we were to the end of the world. I settled for being a Pan-Millennialist, who held, “It would all pan out in the end.”
Eventually, I had an opportunity to take a class on the Book of Revelation. I had wanted to take a course on a book, and this was about the only one that fit my schedule, so I signed up, despite finding the book off-putting after my earlier disappointments.
The course started out by using the book’s first verse as an overview of what to expect and, therefore, how the book should be read. The first verse reads as follows:
“The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John” (Rev 1:1).
We discover in the book that all of history is unfolding according to a plan, but the plan is hidden from our typical ways of seeing.
The initial words, “The Revelation of Jesus Christ” are rightly understood, even by those with the most literalistic views, to tell us the purpose of the book. When we are in the mess of history, we do not see what we would expect if Jesus were reigning. We see bad things happening—natural disasters on the one hand, and injustices and persecutions on the other. The lion is not lying down with the lamb. Where is God in all of this? But this book tells us that it offers a “revelation,” as when someone removes a veil, like the one covering Moses’ face after returning from Sinai (Ex 34:33). We discover in the book that all of history is unfolding according to a plan, but the plan is hidden from our typical ways of seeing, where only advancement and success would be signs of God’s work.
Moving ahead with the verse, where the ESV has “made it known,” we were told to take it as “made it known by means of signs.” A parallel is found in Daniel 2:45, where God is making known to the king what will happen in the future and uses dream imagery to do so.
This offers an answer to the (smart) question: “If we don’t take this literally, what’s to keep us taking everything figuratively?” The answer is: We do expect there to be some clear indicators in the text that we are dealing with something less than literal. We have other books like Daniel and Ezekiel which present the future shape of history using dream imagery. This kind of imagery made itself known as early as Genesis, where Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dream to him, with what is coming presented under the sign of figurative animals, and even symbolic periods of time, where a unit of time is given as a cow, rather than the year for which it stands (see Genesis 41). So we have precedent within Scripture itself. The first time we see such imagery, we are explicitly told it is a dream. Later, we are familiar with it and don’t need to be told.
Knowing what we are told at the beginning of the book, we can answer the question of whether or not we should expect to find current day newspaper or TV news events in the book. The answer is, “Yes!” But not like we might have expected from a dispensationalist reading. Revelation is not only a presentation of war scenarios to take place only at the end of the age, but a presentation of what is happening in human history, especially since the first coming of Christ into the world. (He is born several times in the book, an indicator that the time is not presented in a straight forward fashion, either.) Many images seem to point to events throughout the church age, but others are reserved for the end. In Biblical terms, the whole period since the coming of Christ could be termed the “Last Days.”
The first time we see such imagery, we are explicitly told it is a dream. Later, we are familiar with it and don’t need to be told.
This has been described as “prophetic perspective.” An Old Testament prophet sees events in the distant future, and his vision seems to encompass a short period of time. As we approach closer and closer to these events, we discover they are distant from each other. Think of Eve. She was given a promise of a redeemer who will crush the serpent, and she imagines when she gives birth to Cain that this is the redeemer. And yet we still have not seen the end of Eve’s story! Human history may continue longer than we would imagine possible.
The book of Revelation is equipping us with the imagination needed to see God on the throne despite whatever future may be in store for us. So let us read the book as it asks us to read it: knowing that its imagery is not primarily there to describe futuristic visions of military hardware for one last generation, but rather borrows from earlier imagery to let us know what is going on. If it describes a future, it is the entire future of the church so it includes us whether we are the last generation of Christians or not. Take up the book and read it again. I am less worried about whether or not you end up as a Premillennialist, a Postmillennialist, an Amillennialist, or a Panmillenialist, so long as you find Christ in the book.