Revelation is a book of profound theology, intense prophetic insight and dazzling literary accomplishment. But most modern readers find it baffling and impenetrable. They do not know how to read it. Nothing in the rest of the New Testament—or in modern writing—prepares them for the kind of literature it is. Moreover, they are often not sure it is worth attempting to understand, since they most readily associate it with eccentric and even dangerous sects addicted to millenarian fantasy. Yet this is a book that in all centuries has inspired the martyrs, nourished the imagination of visionaries, artists, and hymn-writers, resourced prophetic critiques of oppression and corruption in state and church, sustained hope and resistance in the most hopeless situations. Both the Christian mainstream and the prophetic minorities who have so often reminded the church of its forgotten vocation owe a great deal to Revelation. Reading Revelation is demanding but rewarding, like the life of uncompromising Christian witness to which it calls its readers.
Revelation (or the Apocalypse, an alternative rendering of its title) belongs to a genre of ancient Jewish and Christian literature—the apocalypses—of which the book of Daniel is the only other example within the Christian canon of Scripture. Revelation shares important features with many of the apocalypses, such as the idea of a heavenly disclosure of truth made to a seer, a concern with the contradiction between God's rule over his creation and the apparently unchecked dominance of evil in the world, the hope of an impending final resolution of history in which God will bring eternal good out of all the evils of this world and renew his creation, the use of symbolic visions and more or less fantastic imagery to fund alternative perceptions of the world, its history, and future.
The apocalypses are a literature which deploys the theological imagination to draw its readers into different ways of seeing things, and the most important sense in which Revelation resembles them is in its aim to ‘reveal’ or ‘unveil’ the truth of things as seen from God's heavenly perspective. It speaks to a world whose imaginative view of the world is controlled by the power and propaganda of the dominant political and economic system. By envisioning the same world from the perspective of God's kingdom—which means both from the perspective of heaven, as God sees it, and from the perspective of the final future, as God's purposes intend, the final coming of God's kingdom in all creation—Revelation liberates its readers from the dominant world-view. It exposes the idolatry that from top to bottom infuses and inspires the political, economic, and social realities in which its readers live, and calls them to uncompromising Christian witness to the true God who despite earthly appearances is sovereign. By seeing the world differently, readers are enabled to live and to die differently, as followers of Jesus' way of faithful witness to God even to the point of death. They are empowered to live their allegiance to a different way of being in the world, the kingdom of God, and to live in hope of the coming of God's kingdom as the ultimate truth of the world which must prevail over all that presently opposes God's rule. Revelation's purpose is to enable its readers to continue to pray and to live Jesus' prayer: ‘Your kingdom come.’
While Revelation bears a generic resemblance to the ancient apocalypses, it is also, without contradiction, a prophecy. Indeed, it clearly understands itself to be the culmination of the whole biblical prophetic tradition. Its text is a closely woven fabric of allusions to the OT, and is largely unintelligible without awareness of this essentially intertextual character. Readers cannot hope to appreciate Revelation in the least adequately without acquainting themselves with the book's OT sources and the way in which they are taken up into the message of Revelation. The author, the prophet John, sees the unity of OT prophecy in its hope for the coming of God's universal kingdom on earth, and so he gathers up all those strands of OT expectation which point to the eschatological future, focusing them in a fresh vision of the way they are to be fulfilled. As a Christian prophet, he reads OT prophecy in the light of the beginning of its fulfilment in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, but he also interprets Jesus and his church by means of OT prophecy. It is through Jesus' way of cross and resurrection that God's kingdom will come.
However, Revelation does not just gather up previous prophecy; it claims a new prophetic revelation as to the way in which God's kingdom is to come: that the church is called to participate in Jesus' victory over evil by following his path of witness even to the point of death. This will be the great conflict between God's kingdom and the worldly powers that oppose God. The conflict is for the allegiance of the nations, and John's new revelation is full of hope that by this means of victory over evil, witness to the truth in the face of the illusions and delusions of idolatry, and even at the price of life, the nations may be converted to the worship of the true God.
Among prophecies and apocalypses, Revelation is distinctive in that it is also a circular letter written to seven specific churches in the Roman province of Asia ( 1:4, 11 ). This means that we must take the first-century historical context of its first readers seriously in reading the whole book, but it also means that the various contexts of the first readers, as seen with John's prophetic insight, are sketched for us in Revelation itself, in the seven messages to the churches (chs. 2–3 ). We are shown Christian communities living in various degrees of conflict and compromise with Roman power and the Roman political religion, the business and social life of the cities with its inextricable associations with idolatrous religion, and the local Jewish synagogues. We find that the readers are by no means all poor, oppressed, and persecuted; many are complacent, compromising, and close to apostasy, when judged by the demands of faithful witness to God's kingdom as Revelation understands these. To these diverse readers in their various contexts, Revelation points the way of faithful witness, the great conflict with the idolatrous world system which will ensue, and the eschatological goal to which God's purposes are assuredly leading.
The messages to the seven churches, as well as other key features of Revelation, remind us that, like biblical prophecy in general, it addresses its contemporaries and is intended to be intelligible and relevant to them. We cannot read Revelation adequately without some recognition of its original historical context, to which it itself makes explicit allusions. Like all biblical prophecy, Revelation is prophetic as much in its discernment of God's purposes in the realities of its contemporary world, and in its call to appropriate response by its readers, as it is in predicting what must ultimately come to pass in God's purpose for establishing his kingdom. But, like all biblical prophecy, Revelation also transcends its original context and speaks to later ages, not by literalistic prediction of historical events, but by its power to illuminate the truth of new situations in the light of God's kingdom and to continue to point to the eschatological future. John brings the ultimate future into direct relation to his own present. In this way his prophecy confronts the world and the church as they are with God's final purpose for what must be in the end, that the truth of the present can be discerned and the way from there to the future pointed.