Learning to Hear What John has Written
The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, 2 who bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw. 3 Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near. (Revelation 1:1-3, ESV)
Exercising My Fantastic Imagination
If one is permitted a favourite book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation is mine. Apart from the Gospels, it was the only book in my little red Gideon New Testament that I read repeatedly years before I became a Christian. (I still have that little New Testament.) I was drawn to its fantastic creatures (dragons, beasts, demonic locusts and horses) engaged in a cosmic battle over the fate of humanity. In addition, there was the added mysterious element that this book was in some way supposed to be true — that is it was not merely an interesting work of fiction like a Wrinkle in Time, The Belgariad, Star Wars or Star Trek.
Learning to Misunderstand John
My maternal grandfather, Stan Taylor, was fascinated by this book as well and showed me his dispensationalist charts and timelines that purported to interpret this text and map its fantastic images allegorically onto current events. I had also seen movies like Schwarzenegger’s End of Days and The Seventh Sign starring Demi Moore that played on this way of reading this fascinating little book. So, with the aid of my grandfather and American pop culture, I quickly learned to misread this book. The Revelation was treated by both believing Christians and the general public as something akin to a first century Nostradamus like text. Revelation was a riddle to be solved by anachronistically mapping later historical events (i.e. WWI or the spread of communism) and later inventions (i.e. atomic bombs, helicopters, and tanks) and later nation states (Russia, America, Germany, modern day Japan) onto John’s fantastic images.
Unlearning to Learn Anew
I credit Gordon Fee, Professor of New Testament Studies at Regent College, with teaching me how to read this book well and, although my posts on Revelation will not be strictly exegetical (for that, invest in Fee’s commentary), his influence is certainly behind everything. While Fee’s course in the year 2000 was instrumental in learning to read this text, a professor of Western Literature at Western University (London, ON) was the first person to ask me to read this text as piece of literature and to attempt to understand it in it’s historical context. This professor (whose name I have forgotten) helped me see afresh the cosmic narrative that first captured my imagination as a young boy who occasionally read Revelation in bed before falling asleep. Later, Darrel Johnson, also a professor at Regent, influenced my interpretation of the text as a pastoral document. After all, Revelation is as much a letter from John to his flock in the Roman province of Asia Minor as it is a prophetic word or an apocalyptic narrative vision. One line of Johnson’s which sticks with me is,
“Do not ask what happens next. Ask what does John see next?”
Once one has learned to misread John’s book as history written in advance, it is quite difficult to break the habit of mapping current events or looking for a timeline in John’s visions. Darrel Johnson’s reminder helps to keep the focus on John’s vision and break the timeline habit. In this way, I believe what Jesus revealed to John continues to have relevance today.
Next time I’ll dive into the actual text. In the meantime, check out my list of the best books on The Book of Revelation.
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