The following is a rough draft for a short chapter in a book I am working on, Revelation Speaks. Though unfinished (I may add more to it), it seemed worth posting and inviting comments. What do you think about what I am saying? What thoughts about Revelation occur to you as you read this?
Having made a study of Revelation several times all the way through and having taught the book on more than one occasion (three times through, if my memory is correct), I find that my understanding has changed from beginning to end. I should thank my congregation for allowing me to experiment on them, as in each case, by the time I arrived at the end of John’s apocalypse my opinions were slightly changed from the beginning. I am not saying, by any means, that I have arrived or that you should uncritically consider any of my ideas about Revelation, but there is no substitute for reading the works of other interpreters and occupying oneself with the sacred text again and again.
It did not take me long to be persuaded that Revelation is the final book in the New Testament, not only in the sense of modern printed Bibles, but also chronologically. Revelation is theological and its theology represents what seems to me the highest or final form of many ideas developed from the beginning to the end of the canon.
For me, reading and rereading, studying and studying again, as well as digesting the ideas of diverse commentators, has been first a process of unlearning. Many ideas I accepted uncritically early on subtly distorted my view of things. I have learned to read this apocalypse in its four important contexts: Hebrew Bible, apocalyptic writings, the New Testament, and the experience of the first century community in Asia Minor. I find, within these contexts, that Revelation is quite a theological book.
Revelation is Messianic (the common term in Christian theology is that it is Christological). In fact, it would be fair to say that Revelation brings concepts about Messiah to their fullest expression in all of the Bible. Progressing from Torah through the prophets, writings, gospels, letters to the congregations, and finally to Revelation, we have the final word, the end of the long chain of developing Messianism.
Revelation is doxological (doxology means “about glory”). Revelation increases a God-centered view of history and the final redemption. By no means does Revelation ignore the human dimension of working for Tikkun Olam (the repair of the world). The innumerable saints from all nations and the 144,000 from the tribes of Israel, play their part. Yet the hymns and visions of Revelation leave no doubt: the Holy One from his heavenly Temple orchestrates final redemption in both its painful aspects and its glories.
Revelation is apologetic (which means a defense against the problems of everyday faith). Its refrains and images reinforce a worldview which explains the pains of human life. The problem of evil finds some answers here. The dragon cast down, the unwillingness of evil to repent, and the requirement of justice from the inner nature of God speak to the questions and problems we who live in a broken world would raise.
Revelation is eschatological (teaching about last events and final redemption). Those who would idealize, historicize, or limit these visions to anything other than eschatology are operating in a worldview foreign to Revelation. No first century Jew would read this book and think it a swell coded attack on Roman imperial power and nothing more. The modernistic assumptions of much Revelation scholarship are like reading Homer according to the standards of a modern novel.
Revelation is theological in the best sense of that word. It teaches, for those who wish to hear, a way of viewing reality. It gives us a matrix through which to view even our own times as well as history. It presents us a window to the glorious future of final redemption and the long-awaited completion of God’s creation.