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The book of Revelation is “a call for the endurance and faith of the saints”.

That is, the book is addressing the fears of a church experiencing intense persecution. That church needs to stay focussed on its trust in God, resisting the temptation to despair. The purpose of Revelation is to encourage them and motivate them to remain faithful.

But which church? On the one hand, the immediate answer would have to be “the church of the Roman empire”. Like every other prophet in the Bible, John is addressing the people of his own time, in the first instance. When he speaks to them in the first chapter, he says “I share with you the tribulation and the patient endurance.” Their bad experience began with Nero’s vindictive treatment of the Christians in Rome (A.D.64), and came to a climax in the grand campaign (A.D. 302-311) set in motion by Diocletian. John will be referring to Nero’s persecution, or to something a little later like the troubles of Domitian’s reign.

On the other hand, the vision itself is describing God’s reaction to the persecution. In other words, looking into John’s future. Clearly the bulk of what the vision foresees has not been fulfilled, even in metaphor. In particular, nobody can claim that we are living in the “new Jerusalem” of the last two chapters. So it is reasonable to suppose, as many people do suppose, that John is addressing a crisis-troubled church of the future.

I believe the answer to the conundrum is that John is addressing both churches at the same time. There are two troubled Christian communities, two oppressive regimes, two periods of tribulation, and two triumphant victories of God over a persecuting world. One set for the church of the Roman empire, and the other set for the future church. I shall keep referring to these two functions, so I had better label them as the First Message and the Second Message.

That answer is also the key to understanding what the book of Revelation says. The God of the Bible is a communicating God. He wants people to understand him. If this book was given as a message for the church of John’s time, then it should have been possible, in principle, for the church of John’s time to grasp its basic meaning. Otherwise they would get no benefit. So what makes it difficult for modern readers to grasp that basic message? What’s missing, in our case?

One factor is the difference in situation. Let me offer an analogy. In the days when I was commuting into London, I frequently found myself standing near a notice which began with the unsettling words “It is usually safer to remain on the train.” If I had taken that warning literally, keeping still and waiting for further advice from railway staff, I would never have reached my destination. Reading between the lines, though (and remembering other notices on other trains), I could recognise the suppressed opening clause; “In the event of an accident or other emergency…” In other words, the message was not really meant for me. It was meant for future passengers in different circumstances.

At the time of writing, we in the modern church are living in the comparatively peaceful interval between the tribulation imposed by the Roman empire and the tribulation imposed by the Beast. So the message of Revelation, addressed to a church in tribulation, cannot be understood by us without an effort of the imagination. We must put ourselves in their place in order to perceive the central theme of Revelation, namely God’s faithful response to the world’s oppression of the church.

Another factor is that the church of John’s time were probably more at home in the Old Testament scriptures than the average modern Christian. That was a vital advantage, because the message of Revelation is carried by the overtones of its imagery, an imagery borrowed extensively from the Old Testament. This turns the Old Testament into a kind of code-book for Revelation, from which the Christians of John’s time should have been able to read off the symbolic meaning of most of the visions.

In this connection, I ought to mention that the term “God’s people”, as used in this work, will mean “Israel” in the context of the Old Testament and “the faithful church” in the context of the New Testament. The New Testament treats them, so I treat them, as one continuous history. That s why Christians felt entitled to appropriate for themselves the promises (and warnings) of the Old Testament.

Therefore my own approach to understanding the book of Revelation will work by re-creating what they must have been doing instinctively. At every step, I will be looking for echoes from the books of the Old Testament, A detailed index of the allusions which have been discovered, book by book, will be found at the end of the work.


The above post is an extract from the foreword of a new book (my own, under the name Stephen Disraeli).
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