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Reading the Book of Revelation without Freaking Out

By Brandon Smith

I didn’t grow up a Christian, but as soon as I began following Christ and attending a local church, I was almost immediately introduced to the Book of Revelation via the movie Left Behind. Like most Southern Baptist churches in the 90s, we talked a lot about the rapture, the Antichrist, the Tribulation, and miscellaneous details we could supposedly understand by decoding Revelation’s bizarre language and imagery.

Relatedly, I always remember being told I’d spend forever in Heaven, once I was raptured with Jesus and this world was destroyed. When I thought about Revelation, it was mostly wars, meteors, and desolation. Many of you can probably relate. I’m, grateful, though, that I’ve been able to study Revelation for many years now, including as a major piece of my dissertation. In my experience, Revelation has been underplayed, under-appreciated, and simply misrepresented.

Here are a few ways the Book of Revelation is different (and better) than you probably learned growing up.

1. Revelation is not a book about destruction and fear

Revelation certainly has its destructive elements—bowls of wrath poured out, beasts, the fall of Babylon, etc. However, these elements point to a greater hope, a hope found in God’s justice in his war against sin and death and evil. These sometimes terrifying elements of the book serve to show us that God is making all things new and redeeming the world fractured by the Fall (Gen 3.; Rev. 21-22), not that he’s coming for us with a fireball in one hand and a lighting bolt in the other. Revelation has destruction within it, but it isn’t about that. It’s about hope in the culmination of God’s promises.

2. Revelation is not about escaping Earth

“This is not my home, I’m just passing through” is a sweet hymn, but it’s wrong. We don’t spend eternity in some far away place in the sky. Rather, we spend eternity right here, on this planet, the way God intended from the beginning (Gen. 1-2; Rev. 21-22). This place is our home, though it’s certainly due for a major renovation. Sin didn’t cause a Plan B in God’s sovereign blueprint. He’s not abandoning the Earth because we messed things up; no, he will resurrect his people just like he resurrected his Son (1 Cor. 15). Heaven and Earth were joined together in the beginning, and they’ll come back together in the end.

3. Revelation is not merely about future, end-times events

This is probably the most misunderstood portion of Revelation. It is an apocalypse with future events, to be sure, but the book is also addressed to a specific audience (Rev. 1-3), and deals with issues that the original audience could understand and apply. It’s safe to say that Rev. 21-22 are about future events that haven’t happened yet, but the timeline of the rest of the book is at least somewhat debatable. Likely, most of Revelation applies to its original audience and every generation afterward at the same time. Many of the allusions to Babylon, an antichrist, etc. can be applied to Rome and the Caesar the original audience knew, while also being a representations or types for future worldly kingdoms and rulers.

4. Revelation is not divorced from the rest of the Bible

The numbers vary depending on who you ask, but most scholars say that Revelation has approximately 600 references or allusions to the Old Testament. In my study of Revelation, I’ve seen these allusions over and over again. Revelation’s author, John, never directly quotes the OT, but there are unmistakable allusions or hat-tips to the OT every few verses. John likely sees himself as a type of prophet, self-consciously telling the story of how Jesus finally fulfills all of the promises and expectations of the prophets, from Daniel to Isaiah to Zechariah to many others. Revelation is very much a capstone to the Bible’s unified storyline, not a freaky add-on to the end.

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Reading the Bible Isn't About Us

By Brandon Smith

Through my work with the Christian Standard Bible, I recently came across research on Bible reading in America. The stats showed that 88% of American households own a Bible, but only 37% of people read it once a week or more. Most people said they don’t read the Bible because they don’t have enough time. But is there more to it than that?

Why Don’t We Read the Bible?

So let’s assume that’s true, that we don’t want to make the time to read our Bibles. Why don’t we? I mean, the God of the Universe has given mankind his Word. He could’ve tapped out when we disobeyed him in the Garden, but he didn’t. He didn’t let us hide from him–he went looking for us and spoke to us (Gen. 3). Isn’t that enough? No.

Frankly, it isn’t enough for most of us. Certainly not because we don’t revere or even worship God, and not because we don’t think the Bible is valuable. We don’t read it regularly because we don’t understand how Scripture works, and because we think it’s all about us. We think God left a book behind thousands of years ago as a trail of breadcrumbs to help us find him or to inspire us to live a better life, but we don’t give it much more credence than that.

Reading the Bible Isn’t About Us

We shouldn’t merely open the Bible and read it like we do any other book. We shouldn’t set aside time to read the Bible because we want to be entertained in the same way a movie will entertain us, either. Instead, we should consider the basic function of Scripture. Paul tells Timothy:

“All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim. 3:16-17)

Notice the verbs: Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable. Pair this with the powerful words in Hebrews 4:12-13:

“For the word of God is living and effective and sharper than any double-edged sword, penetrating as far as the separation of soul and spirit, joints and marrow. It is able to judge the ideas and thoughts of the heart. No creature is hidden from him, but all things are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give an account.”

Again, notice: the word of God is living and is effective and is able to judge the ideas and thoughts of the heart. If Jesus is the Word of God (John 1:1) and he ain’t dead, then the power of God’s Word on the pages of Scripture ain’t dead either.

Through the illumination of the Holy Spirit, our spiritual eyes are opened to the supernatural, life-giving truth of God’s living Word. When we open its pages, the Bible speaks to us and calls on us to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps. 34:8). Instead of going to the Bible looking for a nugget of wisdom to get us through the day, we should open our Bibles ready to worship the God who meets us there.

Want to know what God thinks? Not just what he thought, but what he thinks? Open your Bible. The Spirit lives within you to help you understand God’s will and character, to help you taste and see something fresh and new that you’ve never seen before. A passage you read five years ago might speak to you differently today, because the living God speaks to you through his living Word, right here and right now.

Be sure, my friend: the same Word that spoke creation into existence and filled Adam’s lungs with oxygen (Gen. 1), is the same Word that creates life inside of you. He’s still speaking to you right here and right now, because you were created for him, not vice versa. When reading Scripture terminates on you, it’s stale; but when you hear from God and are drawn into worshiping him in all his glory, it’s all-satisfying.

Posted by Brandon D. Smith with