In these difficult days marked by deep divisions, deadly diseases, and societal decay, we need discerning wisdom and dogged hope. There’s often more heat than light in our social media feeds and news cycles, which offer vast oceans of drama and worry but with tiny islands of wisdom and hope. As Jeffrey Bilbro writes, “We don’t just need the media to cast a more piercing light; . . . we need to reevaluate the light we rely on to understand our times and discern how to respond.”
To that end, let’s reflect together on the Bible’s last word in the Revelation of Jesus Christ. My claim, as suggested in the title, is that Revelation offers God’s people wisdom and hope in difficult days.
There’s often more heat than light in our social media feeds and news cycles.
For many Christians, Revelation is a fascinating yet frustrating puzzle. Interpreters have proposed different keys to unlock this enigmatic book. Many popular authors and speakers commend reading Revelation in the light of current world events.
One recent book discusses “the countdown to the End of the Age.” Another elucidates “ten prophetic issues as current as the morning news,” explaining to readers “where we are, what it means, and where we go from here.” Yet the confident analysis from so-called “prophecy experts” often misses the mark and seems far removed from Christ’s revelation to John and the seven churches.
Alternatively, biblical scholars typically stress that it’s important to understand the situation of Revelation’s first readers in the late first century. So, “the beast” is not a future antichrist arising from the European Union or the UN but rather the Roman Empire with its idolatrous emperor worship and economic oppression.
While rightly seeking to understand the historical-cultural context of the book, many scholarly treatments fail to read Revelation as the capstone of Christian Scripture for the enduring benefit of the church in each generation. Revelation is unique among the New Testament Scriptures, and the book’s opening verses signal it’s an apocalyptic prophecy packaged as a letter to be read in corporate worship.
“The revelation of Jesus Christ” (Ἀποκάλυψις Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ) serves as a title or summary of the book while clueing readers in to its genre. In the New Testament, the term ἀποκάλυψις (the basis for “apocalypse” in English) consistently refers to divine revelation or disclosure of hidden or unseen realities.
Revelation resembles biblical and extrabiblical apocalyptic writings in at least three ways: (1) it discloses God’s ultimate purposes in salvation and judgment, (2) it presents a transcendent, God-centered perspective on reality, and (3) it challenges the people of God to evaluate their troubles in light of God’s present rule and future triumph.
Revelation is also a book of prophecy to be heeded by God’s people (1:3; 22:7). John receives this genuine prophecy in the Spirit and writes what he sees and hears about “what must soon take place” (22:6) in order to comfort struggling saints and warn those who are in spiritual danger. This apocalyptic prophecy comes in the form of an ancient letter addressed to seven churches with a greeting and benediction resembling many New Testament epistles. Douglas Webster aptly calls Revelation a “prison epistle,” penned by a prophet, poet, pastor, and political prisoner who was immersed in the prophetic Scriptures.
I argue that Revelation’s canonical context—not current events or ancient history—is the most decisive for understanding its mysterious and magisterial visions. As Dennis Johnson states, “Revelation makes sense only in light of the Old Testament.” John stands in the line of Isaiah, Ezekiel, and other faithful prophets as he writes down the divine visions and messages he’s received. But John also uniquely receives a “revelation from Jesus Christ” (1:1, NIV) and is commanded not to “seal up the words of the prophecy of this book” (22:10), reversing the command to Daniel to seal up his prophecy until the end of days (Dan. 8:26; 12:4, 9). Thus, John is a true prophet writing at the culmination of redemptive history.
This book reveals how Christ has begun to fulfill the prophetic hopes through his death, resurrection, and heavenly reign, and how he will soon return to consummate God’s purposes to judge evil, save his people, and restore all things.
Revelation’s remarkable and perplexing prophetic pictures of a diabolical dragon, a seven-headed sea monster, a seven-horned lamb, a sealed scroll, a lake of fire, and a happily-ever-after paradise stretch our minds and stir our hearts. These visions should make us hate what is evil and love what is true, good, and beautiful according to God’s perfect standards, beckoning us to live counterculturally as faithful witnesses who “follow the Lamb wherever he goes” (Rev. 14:4).
Revelation’s remarkable and perplexing prophetic pictures visions should make us hate what is evil and love what is true, good, and beautiful according to God’s perfect standard.
While many seek to decode Revelation’s riddles with the key of current events or ancient history, we must remember God has given us this book with its apocalyptic imagery in order to decode our reality, to capture our imaginations, and to guide our way in this world. Revelation is written for embattled Christians who need endurance, wisdom, and hope.
The messages to the seven churches present various threats facing God’s people. Christ calls believers in Smyrna to “be faithful unto death” (2:10), and he refers to the martyrdom of Antipas “where Satan dwells” (2:13). There are also more subtle and insidious dangers: the Ephesian church loses her first love (2:4), false teaching exerts its seductive appeal in Pergamum and Thyatira (2:14, 20), Sardis is spiritually sleepwalking (3:1–3), and Laodicea is proudly self-reliant (3:17).
The risen Christ urges his church to remember, to repent, and to remain steadfast that we may receive all he has promised. “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (2:7).
This article is adapted from “Wisdom and Hope in Difficult Days: Reading Revelation in 2022?” by Brian J. Tabb which appears in Themelios 47, no. 1 (April 2022). Access the full journal online.