In this chapter from the Rightly Understanding God’s Word series, Craig S. Keener concludes Context of Genre with Part 4, the book of Revelation. What can we learn from this book that so many Christians have disagreed about?
As appearing in Pneuma Review Winter 2006.
Revelation is a particular kind of prophecy; because of its special importance and the interest it generates, I have devoted an entire section to its discussion. Revelation is a mixture of prophecy and apocalyptic (a special kind of prophecy that appears in Daniel, parts of Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Zechariah), delivered in a letter format.
On any book like Revelation, there will be serious differences of opinion, and we must be charitable in our disagreements. Nevertheless, it is worth exploring to see what the methods introduced previously can teach us, and how they can take us beyond many of the views that have circulated widely. Reading Revelation as a whole (paying attention to whole-book context) and in light of its background (Old Testament and other background) will help us avoid or correct many of the common mistakes we have often inherited from others.
Revelation is not meant to be an obscure book. It may not be meant to satisfy our curiosity regarding all end-time details, but it certainly is a very practical book that presents God’s demands on our lives. Thus it opens by promising a blessing to those who heed and obey its message (Rev 1:3)—which presumes that we can at least understand enough of it to obey it! An angel told Daniel that the book of Daniel would be sealed up and understood only in the end-time (Dan 12:9); by contrast, the angel told John not to seal up his book, because the end-time was near (Rev 22:10). Revelation may be “hidden” to those who think they need a special key in someone’s teaching to unlock it. It is certainly unclear to those who interpret it only in light of current newspaper headlines—which require us to readjust our interpretations every year or two. But it is not as hidden to those of us who read Revelation straight through and understand it in its whole-book context. All Scripture should be profitable for teaching and instruction in righteousness from the time it was written (2 Tim 3:16-17)—so whatever else it might mean, at least Revelation must mean something relevant for our lives today.
A History of Misinterpretations
Too often people in the past two centuries have used “newspaper hermeneutics” to understand Revelation—that is, they have interpreted it in light of current events. This is why many prophecy teachers have to change their interpretations of the book so often. That they recognize that Jesus could be coming soon, hence that prophecy is being fulfilled now, is commendable, but assertions that some current event definitely fulfills a biblical passage only leads to disillusionment when today’s headlines end up in tomorrow’s trash bin.