I used to avoid the book of Revelation completely. I remember in High School I did one of those read through the bible in a year projects, and for the New Testament section, I just stopped after Jude, because Revelation seemed too daunting. I had read enough of it to know how challenging it was, and I seriously doubted that I would be able to make any progress in understanding it. In addition, it seemed irrelevant to my life – how am I supposed to be edified by this bizarre apocalyptic literature?
However, in the last year or so I have developed a much greater appreciation for how much we need the difficult and strange books of the Bible like Revelation. I would even say that the parts of the bible that we find most difficult and offensive are probably the ones we need most urgently. The more a certain book or teaching rubs us the wrong way, or is a struggle to understand, the greater potential for learning and correction.
Here are seven reasons why we should not avoid difficult books in the Bible like Revelation:
1) According to II Timothy 3:16, “all Scripture … is useful.” Useful was not a word I would have used to describe the book of Revelation until recently. But apparently it should be. If every part of the Bible is equally from God, then every part should be received with gratitude and held in high esteem.
2) Twice (once at its beginning and once at its end) Revelation pronounces a blessing on the person who reads and heeds its word:
“Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it.” (1:3)
“Blessed is he who keeps the words of the prophecy in this book.” (22:7)
One could find similar statements in other difficult biblical books. For example, as difficult as we often find the Old Testament law, blessing is attached to reading and obeying it (e.g., Deuteronomy 30:16, Joshua 1:8).
3) If we only read the parts of the Bible with which we are already comfortable, we are not really submitting to it (at least not as fully as we could be). We are not completely under it. Think about it – if a son obeys his father only when it makes sense to him, and when it is in accord with what he already wants to do, but never obeys when it hurts, or costs, or is difficult to understand – is this sincere obedience? True submission manifests itself in a willingness to hear what is difficult as well as what is natural, a willingness to actually be corrected and changed.
4) If every part of the Bible makes a unique contribution to the overall biblical message, then by erecting “a canon within a canon” we can actually alter or distort what God is communicating in the Bible. By never preaching from the Old Testament prophets, for example, we can develop an insufficient theology of God’s wrath, the seriousness of sin, and God’s sovereignty over the nations. By never reading from the Psalms, we can develop a simplified or flat view of spirituality. If we neglect Jude, we won’t be as well equipped to respond to false teachers in the church. And so on – each chunk of the bible makes an important contribution to the overall message.
Take the book of Nahum as an example. The book of Nahum starts off, “The LORD is a jealous and avenging God; the LORD is avenging and wrathful; the LORD takes vengeance on his adversaries and keeps wrath for his enemies” (1:2, ESV), and then proceeds to pronounce an intense prophetic judgment against Ninevah (the capital of Assyria). Many preachers today avoid texts like this, perhaps fearing that they won’t be well received in our culture of pluralism and tolerance. But the book of Nahum tells us important things about the God we worship (and it makes a lot more sense when you understand how unthinkably brutal ancient Assyria was). We don’t need to be embarrassed of anything in the Bible, or afraid of where it will lead us if we believe it. This is what it means to confess the Bible as God’s word: we can trust it and lean into it wholeheartedly.
5) The word canon literally means “measuring rod.” If the canon of Scripture is our measuring rod for discerning truth, and we confine ourselves to only certain parts of it, then we are “measuring” (discerning truth) with an incomplete measuring rod. How then can we expect to be successful in distinguishing what is false from what is true?
6) A foundational principle of biblical interpretation is to “Scripture interpret Scripture.” We need all the various parts of the Bible to understand each other. There is so much in the New Testament, for example, that presupposes a familiarity with the Old Testament – while the Old Testament itself is very much incomplete without Christ and the New Testament. By avoiding certain parts of the Bible, we limit our understanding of the rest. And if nothing else, reading the tougher parts of the Bible will make you appreciate the easier parts!
7) The Bible’s diversity is a safeguard against reductionism, which is the cause of many theological errors. Learning to appreciate, rather than resist, the vast diversity of biblical genre and terminology can help us cultivate a godly and healthy openness in theological reflection and dialogue. Truth is one, but it can be looked at from different angles and communicated with different words and styles. Diversity is good. Even God has diversity built within his Triune being. Good is inherently diverse, while evil is monotonously repetitive.
Recognizing the Bible’s diversity can deliver us from the attitude that says, “you have to say things just like I say them.” After all, if God himself has chosen to spoke in diverse languages, through diverse people(s), at diverse times, in diverse situations, through diverse means of revelation, in diverse genres (law, proverb, oracle, narrative, poetry, epistle, etc.), to communicate a message which is essentially one – if God himself had done this, then shouldn’t we be willing to accept other Christians who use different words and styles than we do?
Part of the reason I go into all this I am reading through Revelation in my devotions now and I am really enjoying it. I just finished chapters 8 and 9 this morning. While different hermeneutical approaches to Revelation (e.g., preterism, futurism, idealism, historicism, etc.) yield important differences of interpretation, I am convinced that there are some theological emphases in Revelation that are so forceful and clear that they can be agreed upon by thoughtful readers from all these different perspectives.
Here are two theological emphases that I have noticed so far in chapters 1-9 that are not dependent upon any particular hermeneutical approach:
1) Revelation has a high Christology: almost every chapter emphasizes the deity, authority, and glory of the risen Christ. Even if you understand nothing else in the whole book, its worth reading Revelation for this emphasis alone. You cannot read the description in 1:12-16, for example, without getting a sense of how awesome and glorious and terrifying Christ’s physical appearance is. His authority over nations and kings is highlighted again and again. His atoning death, his intimate involvement in the life of the church, his just judgment on his enemies – all these themes come through forcefully. This is important, it seems to me, because sometimes we put so much emphasis on the humiliation of the cross that we forget the glory of Jesus’ current resurrection life.
In short, Revelation will deliver you from having a wimpy view of Jesus.
Consider, for example, 19:11-16:
11Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. 12 His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems, and he has a name written that no one knows but himself. 13He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God. 14And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. 15 From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. 16On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords.
2) Revelation shows how intense and glorious is the worship of God in heaven. The vision of chapter 4, for example, is overwhelming: 24 elders, 4 living creatures, innumerable angels (cf. 5:11), lighting and thunder, torches, a rainbow, a sea of glass, incessant praise songs – with God in the center of it all. All the images bombard the reader with a sense of the height and awesomeness of the events described. In an uncertain world, that vision of heaven is enough to base your whole life on.
I am finding Four Views on the Book of Revelation a helpful parallel book as I read. So far Kenneth Gentry’s case for the preterist interpretation has been the most convincing. That will be the focus of my next post on Revelation.