I used to read the book of Revelation as a detective, trying to ferret out details and establish a chronology of what was going on, with the goal of understanding what would happen at the end of time. This is how I had been taught to read it, as if it was a novel containing a mystery that had to be solved. This was the era of Hal Lindsey’s “Late Great Planet Earth”, whose theology and eschatology (doctrine of last things) found later expression in Frank Peretti’s fictional series “Left Behind”.
Sadly, by reading Revelation that way, I missed most of what it was designed to do in me. I missed the deep hope that is found in it. I missed the calls to worship that are embedded in the text. I missed the invitation to wonder, to grow strong and courageous, and to persevere. It occurs to me that these are the sorts of things we need more than ever today, as we grapple with the world’s brokenness and seek to live lives that participate in God’s in-breaking Kingdom.
Over the years, I have learned to read Revelation as a worshipper. Revelation is full of images and poetry and action scenes, all of which pull back the curtain on deep reality and allow us to take a peek. Of course we don’t understand it all or “get it”. The fact that deep reality would overwhelm our ability to understand it is one of the reasons God chose to become present on the planet not as raw Trinity but as a human being.
We see the glory of God’s reign, in the Throne Room. We see battles between the forces of Heaven and the forces of evil. We see things and hear sounds and smell smells – it’s a bit like performance art.
And we see how the Story ends.
A while ago I was reading Revelation 12, which is what the Christmas story looks like from the perspective of deep reality: a dragon waits to devour a child who is about to be born, but the child is snatched up to heaven and war breaks out between the angels of heaven and the angels of the dragon. (I have yet to see this version of the Christmas story enacted in a Christmas pageant!) Here we see the epic-scale of the battle between good and evil, and how central to that battle is the birth of Christ.
All of the misery and suffering and corruption that we experience today are echoes of that story. Still, today, the dragon waits to devour all that is good and to vandalize God’s good creation. Evil can’t create, it can only de-create. Revelation 12 continues to echo in our lived experience.
In the story, the dragon is cast down to the earth. For the moment, evil is overcome. But the story continues, as the dragon pursues the offspring of the woman . . . the Church. The battle continues.
We do know how the Story ends, however. In Chapter 22 of Revelation we see that God’s home, the Holy City, arrives on planet earth, the new dwelling place of God and His people. Throughout human history God has been gardening glory in the nations of the earth, and all of that is now brought into the Holy City. At the end of time, God triumphs!
In the diversity of the Church we may have many different ways of reading and approaching Revelation. But surely one way to “test” our readings is to see whether they produce hope, obedience, joy, courage, perseverance, and expectation. If they don’t, i.e. if they don’t produce the fruit of the Spirit in us, we should abandon those ways of reading.
If we read Revelation as worshippers, we will discover that it takes on the character of devotional literature, strengthening our devotion and filling us with God’s life. In times of trouble, and indeed in all kinds of times, we need to be reminded of how the Story ends.