Just before going to morning worship I was reading the first chapter of the Book of Revelation in preparation, since our pastor is preaching through the book. It struck me that while it is a book in two parts, there are also two major strands running through the book. The book deals with events (“to show to his servants the things that must soon take place”, 1:1) and behaviour (“who keep what is written in it”, 1:3). Thus, the purpose of the book is to show coming events, while the purpose of showing the events is to encourage readers to live in coming with those coming events.
The events are not unimportant, but are not an end in themselves. Of far greater importance is the kind of life lived in the knowledge of those events, what David Gooding would call “the moral and spiritual implications of prophecy”. Peter’s question is relevant to any study of Revelation — “since all these things are to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness … ?” (2 Peter 3:11).
But while the main purpose of the book is to encourage a Christian lifestyle consistent with the teachings of Revelation, and by extension the Bible as a whole, the means God has employed to encourage us to live this kind of life is to reveal future events. So we must not neglect understanding what it is God has revealed to us. While it can be an attractive option to skim lightly over the events in Revelation, and be happy to agree to disagree with others on the detail, that is unlikely to yield sufficient benefit from any reading of the book.
If the keeping of the teaching is related to the knowing of the events, it must surely be more difficult, if not impossible, to understand the teaching without understanding the events. And a further implication for any interpretation of the book is that as it was God’s intention to reveal the events, rather than conceal them, interpretation must not only be possible, but is unlikely to be exceptionally difficult. That is not to say that a superficial reading of Revelation will yield any or all of the meaning and teaching of the book, no more than it will for any other part of Scripture.
It may, of course, rank alongside those difficult parts of Paul’s letters to which Peter alludes (2 Peter 3:15-16). But the problem is not, he tells us, the difficulty in understanding, but ignorance. If we do not know what Revelation is about, and that would include the events, then there is a very real danger that our ignorance, combined with instability, will lead to our destruction. If we don’t know the events, and don’t discover the doctrine, that will impact our behaviour.
Peter is not specific about the instability he mentions, but given the context of understanding Scripture, it is reasonable to conclude that he is on a similar tack to James, where wisdom and unwavering faith are the antidote to instability (James 1:5-8). Paul himself indicates that mature understanding of doctrine is an essential antidote to instability (Eph 4:11-16). There he stresses the importance of knowing Christ as an effective remedy against instability.
If we are to understand Revelation properly, we must get to know Christ, as he is portrayed throughout the book. Chapter 1 brings us with John to the feet of Christ. If we are to understand the seven letters that follow, we must understand what chapter 1 teaches about Christ, for the letters are closely related. And Christ appears similarly throughout the book — in chapter 5 as the Lamb in the midst of the Throne; in chapter 10 as a mighty angel, astride land and sea; in chapter 14 as the Lamb amidst the 144,000; and in chapter 19 as the rider on the white horse. Are these other pictures of Christ similarly related to the passages that follow them?
It would appear, then, that the key to understanding Revelation is to understand the events, and the key to understanding the events is to understand Christ as he reveals himself in the book. But then that is no different from the rest of Scripture, as our Lord himself taught us, as he showed the disciples in the Seven-Mile Sermon, where he began “with Moses and all the prophets” and “interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27).
So without understanding Christ we will fail to understand Revelation. But perhaps John’s reaction to the vision of Christ in chapter 1 is also instructive for our understanding of the book — he fell at Christ’s feet (1:17). It is most likely because of the overwhelming nature of the encounter, rather than worship, though often his falling is taken to be worship. We, too, can be overwhelmed by the vision. But we need to take Christ’s reassurance not to fear to heart. We need to heed the guides John has throughout the book, who patiently explain the meaning of the various things he saw. Interpreting Revelation may not necessarily be straightforward, but it will be needlessly more difficult if we fail to see Christ in its pages, and heed the guides embedded within the text.
But worship will be important in gaining a proper understanding of the book. John may not have worshipped in chapter 1, but Christ’s appearance in chapter 5 elicits worship from the heavenly multitude. It is expected of God’s people that they will worship in response to what they see and hear in this book. In chapter 13 , by contrast, the earth dwellers and beast followers worship the dragon and the beast (13:5, 15), and one senses disapproval at that point.
When John finally falls down himself in worship (19:10; 22:8,9) he is rebuked for attempting to worship anyone less than God himself. And throughout the book we have regular refrains of worship that must lead us to conclude that the only adequate response to this book will be worship. If our supposed grasp of it does not lead us to worship then it might be a reasonable conclusion that we have failed to obtain a truly sound grasp of it, however much we might claim to understand the events described in it.
To understand Revelation aright we will need to get to grips with the events, and from them deduce the doctrine. The test of our understanding will be in our behaviour in the light of the events, and our evident worship stemming from our grasp of the teaching, and the Christ of the book.