If you’ve ever read the book of Revelation at the end of the Bible you’ve probably noticed it’s… weird.
There are seals and bowls of wrath, beasts coming out of the sea and earth, a dragon, and whoever wrote this book has a real obsession with the number 12. Beyond this, there is talk of a mark of the beast that allows you to buy and sell and both Babylon and Jerusalem are heavily featured.
Some people like to say it’s a literal roadmap to how the end of the world will play out (or at least as literal as it can be when we’re talking about dragons and beasts). Others suggest it’s a metaphor for something else entirely. How should those of us living in the 21st century read this odd and archaic book? Does it have anything notable to say for us today?
First of all, to give some context, Revelation was written most likely between 81-96 AD. This would make it the latest book in the New Testament canon. The authorship is somewhat disputed, with some scholars believing this to be John the Apostle (who wrote the Gospel of John and the three Johannine epistles) while others disagree. What we do know is that this John wrote the book of Revelation while exiled on the Greek island of Patmos. He exile was most likely due to anti-Christian persecution under the Roman emperor Domitian.
The letter—it is a letter after all—was written to the seven churches in the province of Asia Minor. This should be our first clue as to how to read this mysterious book. Revelation had an original audience; an audience that would have been able to make sense of what John is writing.
If Revelation were first and foremost a literal roadmap for how the world would eventually end 2,000 or more years later it would have been virtually useless to these people. What good does it do first century Christians in Asia Minor to know how world history will play out thousands of years into the future?
Babylon and Jerusalem themselves are also clues as to how we should read this book. To quote Tony Campolo,
There is an intriguing description of two cities in Revelation 17: one city is called Babylon; the other Jerusalem. Most biblical theologians agree that Babylon refers to the dominant culture in which Christians find themselves living. To the first-century Christians, that was the Roman Empire. When early Christians spoke of the empire, they avoided arrest as unpatriotic subversives by speaking about ‘Babylon’ instead of about their own literal “Rome”. The Christian community in the ancient Mediterranean world understood this code… Opposing the idolatrous city of Babylon is the new kingdom that John labels Jerusalem. Again, as with John’s use of Babylon, we are dealing with a code word: to ancient Christians, it was a reference to the new society that Christ was creating through the church.
Babylon and Jerusalem are codes. They’re metaphors; ways of speaking about the Roman Empire and the subversive nature of Christianity without explicitly using those terms.
As we mentioned before, the book of Revelation was written during a time when the Roman Empire was persecuting Christians. Christians were being killed for their faith both in the capital as well as the farthest flung regions of the empire. John wrote his gospel in an attempt encourage those who were suffering for their faith.
The point is not simply that Jesus wins in the end, it’s that the empire loses. John used many metaphors—dragons, beasts, gematria (a Jewish alphanumeric code, we’ll discuss that in another post)—as a way of talking about the Roman Empire and its rulers without every addressing them directly. The first-century Christians would have picked up on all of this instantly.
At the same time, Revelation is a prophetic book. We’ll discuss this more in a future post but Biblical prophecy is less about predicting the future and more about describing who God is. That means Revelation, as a prophetic book, will continue to have relevance beyond its initial audience.
Revelation doesn’t just speak to the empire of the time, the Roman Empire, but to all empires everyone. Revelation warns us of the dangers of idolizing any empire, whether that’s Rome or our modern empire of consumerism and materialism. Revelation issues us dire warnings of who and what we should be willing to sacrifice for.
In a world where so much of the Evangelical church has been willing to trade in its prophetic voice for a little bit of political power, I can think of few books of the Bible as relevant as the book of Revelation.