Corrective Strategies and Themes for Understanding the Book of Revelation (Tired of the chaos? Me too!)

Corrective Strategies and Themes for Understanding the Book of Revelation (Tired of the chaos? Me too!) May 7, 2013
Used by Permission. "Design by Jim LePage." Click Image to Purchase.
Used by Permission. “Design by Jim LePage.” Click Image to Purchase.

After my most popular status update ever affirmed it a few months back, I’ve decided to do some intentional thinking about the book of Revelation. These posts will be scattered for a time, but will eventually make up a series of posts.

This biblical bookend is perhaps the most abused text in all of christendom. Many of us who distinguish between christendom (the church as the center and dominant force in society) and post-christendom (a return to community, discipleship, and mission from the margins of society) often note the poor way that this book is interpreted.

Revelation is a book that continues to be used as “trump card” against Christian nonviolence as it posits a future tribulation and war in which Christ comes back to lead people into a battle, one that apparently contradicts everything he taught during his earthly ministry. And of course there’s the baggage of the “Left Behind” series that imagines a rapture followed by the rise of an “anti-Christ” and a literal 7-year tribulation which fuels a mentality that the book is mostly about what will happen and how to escape that fate. I want to suggest that most of what you were taught about Revelation, especially if you watched the cheesy Christian movies or grew up in conservative/fundamentalist expressions of evangelicalism, is wrong.

I plan to say much more about the many ways we need to re-interpret Revelation over the next several months. For now, let it suffice to say that Revelation, although it has important and lasting significance for our day, speaks first and foremost to circumstances facing the churches in the Roman Empire (late first century). How will they resist Babylon – the Empire then (Rome) and of any age – while partnering with God to usher in the emerging renewal of creation (Revelation 21-22)?

Broad Approach to Revelation*

This book is theopoetic (“worship”), in that it is similar to a counter-liturgy, one that reminds Christians both then and now that the civil religion of Empire must never capture our imaginations. Our version of reality must be informed by our allegiance to the Slaughter Lamb and to worshipping the God and Father of our Lord Jesus. Reading Revelation poetically should shape our imagination as faithful disciples in circumstances where the pressures of Empire attempt to lure us. As we worship God the temptations of this evil age fade as we bring glory to God.

Revelation is also a theopolitical text (it is “uncivil”). The Roman Empire brought various forms of harassment to God’s people, including John of Patmos, who was exiled for his representation of the way of Jesus. Revelation upsets the status quo, calls out civil religion in all of its forms, brings peace where there is violence, and summons us to live as an alternative polis in the midst of rampant idolatry, greed, and injustice.

Finally, Revelation carries with it a pastoral-prophetic tone (“witness”). This circular letter attempts to speak truth to various churches in Asia Minor (and to our churches today!) to remind Christ-followers of the radical cost of discipleship. The powers of evil, both invisible and embodied, must not win by pulling the church away from faithfulness to Christ. Revelation 1.3, at the beginning of the letter, set this agenda clearly:

Favored is the one who reads the words of this prophecy out loud, and favored are those who listen to it being read, and keep what is written in it, for the time is near (Rev. 1.3 CEB).

Had this book been primarily about some wild future (of course, with the exception of the renewal of creation in chapters 21-22), the call to “keep what is written in it” would not be so blunt here and throughout the book as a whole. To “keep” Revelation is to walk faithfully with God on the narrow road of discipleship in the face of temptation and to thereby refuse compromise as the church becomes a visible alternative to the powers of the Empire.

7 Theological Themes**

In Reading Revelation Responsibly, Michael Gorman offers seven theological themes that come to us through the letter to the seven churches. I will summarize them here:

  1. The Throne: The Reign of God and the Lamb. The rule of God is ultimately expressed in the Slaughtered Lamb. If you want to know who God is, look at Jesus, the crucified and risen one. God and Christ rule from the same throne and will share in the final victory.
  2. The Reality of Evil and Empire. Empire is one of the key manifestations of Evil. Empire was then and empire is now. Empire is what happens when civil religion is used to justify violence and various forms of injustice. This sort of evil always alienates people from God and people from each other – “promising life but delivering death – both physical and spiritual” (75).
  3. The Temptation to Idolatry and Immorality. Christians easily can be lured by the civil religion of Empire as rituals and practices legitimize dehumanizing actions for the sake of security or peace. The byproduct of the idol of civil religion are often the exploitation of the most vulnerable. This was true in the late first century (and may be true today as well).
  4. The Call to Covenant Faithfulness and Resistance. God’s people are called to resistance through subversive patterns of community as they seek to faithfully unite themselves to God in Christ. Covenantal faithfulness of this sort “requires prophetic spiritual discernment and may result in various kinds of suffering” (76).
  5. Worship and an Alternative Vision. The practice of discernment under the influence of the Holy Spirit is the only way to properly challenge Empire. This challenge always acknowledges that God is King and is worthy of worship. As the church centers themselves around the Slaughtered Lamb and God, they practice “uncivil” worship in anticipation of a [re]new[ed] creation.
  6. Faithful Witness: The Pattern of Christ. A faithful witness always looks like Jesus. Gorman’s words get to the point: “Christian resistance to empire and idolatry… is not passive but active, consisting of the formation of communities and individuals who pledge allegiance to God alone, who live in nonviolent love toward friends and enemies alike, who leave vengeance to God, and who, by God’s Spirit, create mini-cultures of life as alternatives to empires’s culture of death” (76).
  7. The Immanent Judgment and Salvation/New Creation of God. A day is coming when all evil will be judged and purged from creation and this world will become the eternal home for God, humanity, and all creatures. This will bring about the justice of God where “every tear will be wiped from their eyes.” New Creation is the ultimate Christian hope to which those who are suffering can find assurance in.

The above seven themes help to focus our interpretation of the book of Revelation and serve as correctives over-against the pseudo-futuristic views that we have been inundated with over the years. To help rid us of the bad theology of global destruction and fear, the following strategies should be kept in mind.

5 Corrective Strategies for Understanding Revelation***

  1. Recognize that the central image in Revelation is the Lamb that was slaughtered. Christ is victorious by absorbing violence, not by inflicting it. His word (a sword) is more powerful than any weapons of the Empires of this age. God’s Christ defeats spiritual and physical evil through being executed by the empire and through such “Lamb Power” shares the victory with all Christ-followers.
  2. Remember that Revelation was first of all written by a first-century Christian for first-century Christians using first-century literary devices and images. Revelation first and foremost addresses a first century audience with the real pressures of conformity and idolatry specific to their situation. The letter to the churches was likely written in the time of Domition in the nineties CE and addresses ‘that’ situation more than ‘our’ situation. With that said, Revelation speaks to us because every age has to deal with the pressures of “Babylons” that rise and fall. Therefore, taking the unfamiliar language of Revelation as though it should be understood by our standards of wooden-literalness imposes our perspective on the text. Forgetting this fact is what leads to theological systems like the dispensationalism of “Left Behind.”
  3. Abandon so-called literal, linear approaches to the book of Revelation as if it were history written in advance, and use an interpretive strategy of analogy rather than correlation. Revelation is loaded with images and cartooning that were loaded with significance during the first century that may not have direct correlations to our day. Yet, we should note that this is a book that continues to warn us of the various forms of “Babylon” in our midst today and into the future. Gorman adds: “We should… be examining our ideologies and -isms for manifestations of idolatry and immorality as expressed in imperialism, militarism, nationalism, racism, classism (the worship of the corporate self and the degradation of the corporate other), consumerism, and hedonism (the worship of things and pleasure)… [W]e must especially examine our own Western, Northern, American, and even Christian systems and values, not some putative one-world government, for evidences of that which is antichrist” (78-79). Revelation doesn’t “predict” the future, but rather calls Christians to faithfulness in any age in which evil manifests itself.
  4. Focus on the book’s call to public worship and discipleship. This is to remember the invitation into patterns of community life that are non-conformist even if it leads to persecution or death. The hope of “a new heaven and a new earth” (Rev. 21) invites Christians to worship and follow Christ as advanced signs of a world flooded with the love and justice of God. Gorman states that “Revelation calls believers to nonretaliation and nonviolence, and not literal war of any sort, present or future. By its very nature as resistance, faithful nonconformity is not absolute withdrawal but rather critical engagement on very different terms from the status quo. This is all birthed and nurtured in worship” (79).
  5. Place the images of death and destruction in Revelation within the larger framework of hope. These dark images are “symbolic of the judgment and cleansing of God that is necessary for the realization of the hope offered in Christ for a new heaven and new earth in which God and the Lamb alone reign forever among a redeemed, reconciled humanity…” (79). Judgement, then, is good news for the world!

Reading Revelation Today

Hopefully, this broad overview of strategies, themes, and approaches to Revelation proves helpful in your journey. This post was mostly informed by my favorite “intro” book to Revelation (by intro I really mean academically informed and readable), Reading Revelation Responsibly by Michael Gorman. Over the next several months (and years?) I will continue to wrestle with this strange-yet-beautiful book of the Bible and will occasionally jot down what I’m learning in the process.

Long live the Slaughtered Lamb!!!!


*These categories and many of the insights of this post come from Michael Gorman’s Reading Revelation Responsibly: Uncivil Worship and Witness – Following the Lamb into the New Creation (67-68).
**Gorman, 75-76.
***Gorman, 78-79.


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  • The book and small-group/Sunday School curriculum I used a number of years ago was called “Breaking the Code” by Bruce Metzger. It was such a refreshing read after reading the Left Behind novels.

  • I’m looking forward to this series Kurt! I just finished co-authoring a book on Revelation, so we clearly have a lot to talk about!

  • Good stuff man! Pumped to follow along in the learning process with you. Peace!

  • This is great, Kurt, and I’m looking forward to your posts. I’ll be preaching a series on Revelation this fall and will be focusing on this idea of reading and participating with the text responsibly (Gorman’s book is so good-and needed).

  • Love this post. I would challenge your calling Revelation “uncivil.” I would say that it is more a transcendent civility (one that exists on different terms than the world’s civility).

  • Looking forward to the series, Kurt. I have often been known to say that anyone who claims to really understand Revelation is, on the basis of that claim alone, proving they are full of crap. Maybe you will be the exception to prove me wrong! ;{)

    Seriously, though, I strongly suspect that much of Revelation is actually written in code, understood by first-century Christian readers, the decoder ring to which is lost to us today. There remain important, accessible themes, however…the principal of which is “in the end, our team wins!”

  • I don’t usually plug my own posts so directly, but a few months ago I related Revelation to Old School rap and Jay-Z. Talk about theo-political :

  • Kurt, well thought through essay and has hit the mark bringing meaning to where we are today using God’s Word helping us make sense out of what we are facing NOW.
    Is Gorman the author of Vol 1 The Book of Revelation from the Word Commentary Series. If this is the same guy a great author and teacher. I need to check. Corky

  • heavenbound

    As we have looked back at Revelation and the return of Christ with each generation looking forward to this great anticipation could it be that, it was written with a forward intent…..was stopped by God? Like the offering of salvation to the Jews alone and not including the gentiles until the apostleship of Paul and his appointment to lead gentiles to Christ….A change in the prophetic program. Do we dare to explore that God in his infinite wisdom decided that Christ’s death burial and ressurection and his grace was sufficient for all mankind? That the book of revelation was destined NOT to be fulfilled? That grace is all that is needed? When you take Paul’s epistles out of the equation of the Jews and prophecy…there is a marked change in the outcome for the Jews. Destruction of the temple in 70 A.D. is definitive proof that the prophetic program ended.
    Thanks for the opportunity to share some thoughts

    • Though I’m fully preterist and do not hold to the complex future prophecies claimed by many premillenialists, I think you’re pretty far off-base here, heavenbound. The O.T. prophets…particularly Isaiah and Jeremiah, make quite clear that God’s intent was to extend salvation to gentiles long before Jesus’ incarnation. And Paul’s epistles are part of the equation with regard to actually getting the church to recognize that intent of God to save Gentiles, so I’m not sure how taking them out of the equation furthers your argument.

  • Jamie

    Well done and well said! I am looking forward to what you will be bringing to the conversation. And now I have another book to add to my “to read” list. It just keeps getting longer!

  • heavenbound

    Surely John in his wriings new what he was writing. Did he forget to mention that the temple was no longer….he did not. If it was interpretation from God why didn’t he include the destruction and the dispersion…Could it be that it hadn’t happened? My point is that God intervened and changed the program. That the prophetic program which was earth bound no longer was in play….that’s why, in my studies I surmised that a change had taken place and Peter and the 12 were replaced by Paul and Timothy and their message of salvation, apart from Israel…..and prophecy.
    The fact that its been 2000 years of silence, surely you must agree that something is wrong trying to place revelation and prophecy in play for us today

  • bevt

    I am excited to hear about this book. I too believe that John wrote Revelation in code. He had no choice because of the religious and political situation he was in. I also believe that the churches it was sent to understood it. I and others have been searching out references from the old testament. When the context and meaning of the old testament passages are applied to revelation an awesome picture of God is revealed.

  • Matthew 24

    Lets just say your assumption on the book of revelation being theopoetic That still doesnt take away from it being prophetic. The psalms for example are poetic and prophetic at the same time as most of the messianic prophecies were hidden in it until Jesus came. We “futurist” dont believe Jesus comes with the saints to wage war that is a gross misunderstanding the FACT is when he comes with his saint it is his spoken WORD that destroys and renews the earth and not war as you Kurt implied. Gods word is eternal and prophetic Genesis to Revelation is God creating and reveling himself to mankind slowly throughout the ages. With of course his final revelation of himself in the person of Jesus Christ in this age. The world as we know it will end but it will not be the end of the earth Just the of this ages as eternity is ages to ages. The book of Revelation is collectively about the REVELATION of JESUS CHRIST and what to look for and what the signs will be before his second coming When he comes now not as the suffering servant but Glorified King of Kings to set up the new age and messianic kingdom. any other interpretation is Just that interpretation and stipulation and speculation and no true to the word of God as allowing God to speak thru his word as he would by his spirit as HE reveals its truths as Jesus promised the holy spirit would. Jesus is coming this generation and the warnings Jesus gave in the parable of the ten virgins and the workers in the field where one was taken and one left behind. Also the warnings are in the seven letters to the churchs for Christians to wake in which ever church applies to them specifically in whatever time God ministered to them.

    • Nate

      Punctuation. Must. Have. PUNCTUATION.

  • CDR

    This strikes me as a nice humanistic approach to Revelation which largely ignores the prophetic aspects of the book and the majority of the last 2000 years of scholarship. There’s something about this approach that also reminds me of the communal philosophy of the late 60s, but with a Christian twist, which may be even more disturbing. (Yes, I’m that old. No, I am not a dispensationalist and I don’t believe in the rapture as in the “Left Behind” scenario.) However, the outline above seems to also ignore what Christ said about the end times and His return, perhaps not denying it completely, but definitely playing it down to be concerned about “Empire” and “isms,” (perhaps overly concerned as Christ clearly said He did not come to bring peace, but division, for the truth divides. But He came to bring reconciliation with God — which is arguably an individual peace). I am not totally discounting what is said here, but it gives me concern.