Does the book of Revelation have anything to say about the everyday Christian life? How can I discern what God is telling me in this mysterious book?
Most of us don’t often encounter hordes of locusts, enraged dragons, or apocalyptic horsemen. These are symbols, of course, but it seems initially unlikely that these visceral and technicolor images correspond with the mundane features of my altogether ordinary life. If I don’t know what the symbols mean, how can I apply them?
Revelation actually comes with a reader’s guide, a user’s manual, a template for practical application. If you want to understand and apply the book, begin with its answer key: the seven letters found in chapters 2 and 3.
What’s It For?
The mysteries and interpretive challenges associated with Revelation are so obvious, so fraught, and so controversial that it’s easy to forget the primary reason God gave the book to us: so that we might “keep what is written in it” (Rev. 1:3).
God gave Revelation to the church so we might obey it, not merely study it.
Biblically, “keeping” means more than just holding on to a thing, or even protecting and treasuring it.
You keep a family heirloom by putting it in a display case, but you can’t keep Revelation that way. You keep its words by obeying them (Rev. 2:26; cf. John 8:31). Many contemporary discussions of Revelation are so preoccupied with what the book means that we’ve ignored what it’s for, which isn’t complicated: it is to be obeyed (14:12) and rejoiced in (19:7), and we are to be convicted (2:16, 21) and emboldened (2:10) by it.
Revelation is not given to us primarily to predict what will happen at some indeterminately future date. It might do that too, but its chief purpose is more practical. It is to be “kept”: like laws are kept, like obligations are kept, like promises are kept, like relationships are kept. Revelation is fundamentally about Christian practice.
It’s a Letter
We can better understand this practical side of Revelation by remembering it’s a letter. Why’s that important? Because letters are practical and easy to understand—at least comparatively so. You likely already intuitively appreciate this fact, which is why you are not (as) intimidated by the letters of Revelation 2–3, even if the rest of the book remains mysterious.
Why are letters more intuitively approachable? Because most are situational, specific, and concrete. Consider the last time you received an ordinary letter or email. Why did you receive it? Probably to thank you for a gift, or to ask you about something, or to instruct you in some way.
The seven letters in Revelation are similar. They are personal; they signal the reason for which they were written; they state explicitly the problem that needs to be solved; and they provide specific solutions to that problem. We could call them “advisory letters,” and we’ve all received letters of this type—from a grandparent when we graduated college, from a colleague when we joined the team, from a mentor when we did something wrong.
The seven letters in Revelation are all personal.
Here’s the good news: Revelation doesn’t just contain letters; it is a letter, and that means it’s similarly situational and concrete. This is often under-appreciated, but John opens his letter in classic form: “John, to the seven churches that are in Asia, grace” (1:4). He doesn’t leave us wondering about the situation that occasioned his writing, but tells us directly: “I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet saying, ‘Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches'” (1:10–11).
God has a message for these seven churches, and John has been appointed messenger. What’s the content of the message? Everything “you see,” which is to say the entirety of John’s vision (1:10–22:19).
The “hard part” of the book, chapters 4–22, is a vision bundled within a letter. The letter character of Revelation frames and packages what follows. In the rest of the book the reader will be drawn up into the heavenly assembly (chapters 4–5), do battle with draconic forces (chapters 11–12), and walk victoriously into the heavenly city (chapters 21–22)—but even there the reader hasn’t stopped reading a letter.
The prophetic and apocalyptic are embedded in the epistolary.
The letter of Revelation as a whole helps us understand how the seven letters within it function. They’re not an aside or intrusion; rather, they set an interpretive trajectory. They are guides and templates for how the rest of the book is to be applied. God is telling each of these churches what the rest of the vision means for them; he’s applying the vision to their particular situation and moment.
The seven letters are guides and templates for how the rest of the book is to be applied.
For example, later in Revelation we encounter “the great prostitute,” around whom is gathered “people and multitudes and nations and languages” (17:1, 15). Of what relevance is this for, say, the church in Thyatira? John explains: “You tolerate that woman Jezebel” who is “seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality” (Rev. 2:20). Let the reader understand: Jezebel is the Great Prostitute, or at least one form the Prostitute will take. Don’t be led astray. Don’t be seduced.
Or Smyrna. They’ve been faithful in much, but they’ll soon face great turmoil. Yet they are encouraged not to fear “what you are about to suffer,” because “I will give you the crown of life” (2:10). The sheep of Smyrna are about to tangle with the dragon (chs. 11–13), and as they read about that cosmic battle they’re to apply it to their present suffering, knowing that even if they’re martyred they’ll be taken up into the heavenly counsel (6:9–11), dwell in the celestial city, and eat from the Tree of Life (22:14).
Revelation is about them, and they should read it that way, envisioning their lives through these symbols and pictures.
Kept Until the End
These letters are guides for us, too. Notice John writes to seven churches—not six, not eight. Further, these seven churches are signified by seven lampstands and seven spirits before the throne room of God (1:12–13).
Seven is no accident; it’s symbolic. These seven represent the whole church in every age. They are types, each with typical problems, for which Revelation 4–22 is the ever-relevant answer. Even though we read these letters so many years later, it’s right to see ourselves represented within them.
This is why these seven letters are the answer key or application guide for the rest of the book. The challenges these churches faced were historically specific, but also universal. They function as mirrors—like all great stories do—for our own experiences and challenges.
Revelation, then, is to be passed on from church to church, from generation to generation, and God’s people in every age must keep it. How? By putting it into practice, just as these first recipients did. Look into these mirrors, find yourself there, and gaze at what God wants you to see.