At some point after my doctorate, I would like to make studying the book of Revelation one of my life projects. It coheres with some of my other interests, like the doctrine of heaven, and its a book that continually fascinates me. I would like to study it because:
1) Its probably the most misunderstood and perhaps the most difficult book in the Bible. Partly for that reason, I think its often neglected. For instance, John Calvin wrote commentaries on almost every book in the New Testament except Revelation (and 2 and 3 John), and Martin Luther once said of it, “Christ is neither taught nor known in it” (though he later changed his mind). Many Christians simply avoid Revelation altogether, and those who have devoted study to it have often stumbled into some bizarre and fanciful interpretations. (As G.K. Chesterton quipped, “though St. John the Evangelist saw many strange monsters in his vision, he saw no creature so wild as one of his own commentators.”)
I’m not necessarily hoping to make progress in the contested areas, but I would like to explore the book as a whole because of this tendency to shy away from it. I have found that the book’s ability to edify and encourage often comes through even when we don’t know exactly how to interpret it. For instance, when I read Revelation 6-18, I don’t always know what its talking about, but I still find it making certain theological and spiritual impressions on me as I struggle with it. I remember hearing about a child who approached the preacher one Sunday after a sermon on Revelation and said, “pastor, I normally don’t understand your sermons, but today I was fascinated!” And he had drawn pictures from the text all over his bulletin. What a great anecdote of how Revelation contributes to the canon! The very pictorial vividness that baffles theologians captures the imagination of children.
2) Revelation, so far as I can see, is unique within the canon in terms of its genre, placement, and message. I was charting out the major movement of each Testament the other day, and it struck me that each has essentially three movements (OT: Law–>Historical Books –> Wisdom and Prophetic literature; NT: Gospels –> Acts –> Epistles). Each Testament proceeds, very generally, in a three-fold movement of deposit, development, and commentary. But I wonder where does Revelation fit on this spectrum? I can’t think of any other book in the Old Testament to compare Revelation to—maybe Daniel? But it has so much that makes it unique. If the biblical narrative were a musical piece, Revelation would be like the crescendo, the grand finale. Like the end of the fireworks show when they go really fast. In some respects it is very different from what comes before—and yet at the same time its intricately and organically connected, like a fitting conclusion. And because Revelation is both radically different from, and everywhere connected to, the rest of the Bible, studying Revelation provides a great viewpoint from which to look at the rest of the Bible. It has the same important, exciting feel as the last chapter of a long novel, the chapter that concludes and at the same time clarifies all the previous ones.
3) People generally think of Revelation as making a contribution in the area of eschatology, but I actually think there are numerous areas where Revelation makes a unique contribution within the canon. For instance, worship, perseverance, prophecy, angelology, demonology, history, and the character of God. Also atonement (chapter 5). In my own personal learning, I have found that Revelation 2-3 provides us with a very powerful window into how Jesus treats churches. If this portion of Scripture were cut away from our Bible, our understanding of the relation of Jesus to local churches would be significantly reduced; but with it there, there are all kinds of things that we know. These letters are one of my favorite portions of the canon.
4) At the end of the day, I simply love Revelation’s vision of heaven. Its language and promises are very beautiful. “To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment” (21:6). It seems to me that looking forward to heaven on a daily basis is simultaneously one of the most enjoyable and most spiritually fruitful things we can do. If we are going to be spending eternity there, it makes sense that it should order our lives here, rather than the other way around.