“A revelation should be revealing,” Martin Luther.

The New Testament book of Revelation (or Apocalypse) is viewed in different ways:

Hands Off

Some folks don’t think much of  Revelation. It’s either too obscure or too bizarre to be worth the trouble. Some, like Luther, distrusted the book, giving it a subordinate status. The problem with this approach is that there is some good stuff in Revelation that gets overlooked.

Historical Analytical

Revelation, by its own words, was written to 7 churches in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey). Reason dictates that the book had a comprehensible message to those original recipients. When in Chapter 13 it says “This calls for wisdom: let anyone with understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a person. Its number is six hundred sixty-six”, Revelation must refer to a person that readers in the first century knew about, and later when it says (Rev 17:9 NRSV) “This calls for a mind that has wisdom: the seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman is seated…” we should call to mind the ancient city that was built on seven hills (Rome). 666 is Nero, the two prophets are Peter and Paul, the baby attacked by the beast is Jesus–all fairly straightforward stuff. The problem with this approach is that Revelation was not written for the primary purpose of being a coded history–its original hearers already knew the history.


There is some wonderful worship language in Revelation. The popular Christian Hymn, “Holy, Holy, Holy” not only takes its title from Revelation 4:8, but it’s second verse, “all the saints adore thee, casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea” derives also from Chapter 4. A message of comfort appears towards the end when it says:

(Rev 21:3-5 NRSV) And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; {4} he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” {5} And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

Comfort in time of trouble was the writer’s theme, it as such this is certainly a valid way to read the book. “Things look bad, but God will win out!”

Pop Literalism

This means taking Revelation literally, and not living by it. Many evangelical Christians fit in this category. They believe that Revelation is a time line for the near-future end of the world.  TV prophets line Jack VanImpe read Revelation into every day’s headlines. Revelation is popular. 666 is Saddam Hussein (or Hitler, Bill Gates, or the Pope, or a host of others put forward), Russia is going to attack Israel and a great battle will be fought on the plains of Megiddo (Armageddon). These same people who buy every book in the “Left Behind™” series and tell you that Jesus is coming soon, write their wills and set up funds for their children’s college education. Such folks are “mostly harmless”, but not much fun to talk to.

Nut-case Literalism

This means taking Revelation literally, and living by it. The most notorious example of this is David Koresh who took a lot of people and a lot of guns to a ranch outside Waco, Texas and ended up dead. Koresh was by no means the only such example. Since the 3rd century, people have been selling all their possessions and going up to the mountain to welcome the return of Jesus, based on a nut-case literalist reading of Revelation. Folks like this think they are personally the center of history. These are folks to avoid.

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