Symbolism Is Not The Message: Teaching Alongside The Revelator

IMG_4810‘Many problems arise when eager Christians try to make concrete what God has left pictorial’
………………………………………………………….(Dickson & Clarke, p.85)

This artists impression of Revelation 11-13, comes out of notes from our current journey through the wonders of John’s testimony.

Although Revelation isn’t an easy book to walk through with teenagers and littler ones, the study is going well.

It’s been interesting to note the unusually high amount of distractions and frustrations that have hindered our path.

Call it coincidence or not. In general, one of the deep realities of this text is that it calls us away from ourselves, our comfort, our complacency and half-heartedness. So there’s bound to be some spiritual challenges that cross our path.

There is more to the unsettling way in which Revelation grabs us. More than the first response of our intellect and emotions allow. Sense experience only goes so far. Whether that be total rejection of John as a nut job, suspicion over any mythological lag of the era being conveyed or unquestioning acceptance that hypes up parallels to modern events without restraint.

One of the primary go to points for me when teaching this has been the caveat of not reading into the text. I remind myself constantly to fight easy assumptions that  link this number to that historical figure or that metaphor to any number of current events.To paraphrase many a theologian worthy of their qualifications: like the rest of the books of the bible, read as it is, Revelation reads us.

With this responsible frame, working through the text with our homeschoolers is bringing up some opportunities to recreate images and scenes. Just going with what John says, without adding anything to it via speculation, frees us to explore the large amount of activity John testifies to. It’s also meant that cross referencing the texts with other biblical texts.

Brief and simple introductions to the historical setting and language makes things easier. Free of confusing interpretations, teaching eschatology (end of the old in Christ/beginning of the new in Christ) gets a lot more exciting.

With the fog cleared, it’s easier to see that this book of hope is full of colour; adjectives and verbs, repetition and mathematically mapped out illustrations. Noting this helps when looking at the detail and care John has put into relaying what he has witnessed to the people of his day.

For us, a hypothetical example of the impact of John’s message on his audience might have been stated like this: Working with John’s ‘one third of all’ lists we put 1/3 of 6 billion people into a pie graph, then work the fractions into percentages. (Given time constraints we couldn’t do this with land mass of the earth or the oceans), but the reason for focusing on this brings home John’s point, a major and very physical event affects one third of the inhabitants of both continents and oceans.

Repetition of measurements are one of the most interesting aspects of Revelation. In some sense it gives a plausibility to the text. Meaning that Revelation cannot be easily written off as the ramblings of a madman.  John’s own words, “this calls for wisdom”(Rev.13:18), reflect a call towards a more cautious and sober approach to the text.

More than with Luke and Acts, in teaching Revelation I’ve been more aware of my own prejudices towards the text, both learnt and those imposed through popular views of Revelation. Including the popular mockery of society attached to it. Some of which is not unwarranted. I’m learning that part of teaching the text responsibly requires going into battle against these subversive lens’ and others like them.

Instead of finding something specific about the future, in Revelation, we hear of Jesus Christ, his people, his victory and how humanity is found, then rescued by God through His Son. We are told of a now and not yet. All speculation pales when put up against these facts present in the text.

Revelation is alive. John calls the Church to reform, tells his people of a war on Christians, and encourages them to endure persecution patiently. It’s a prophetic reminder that a history lived without the redemption of Jesus Christ is one bound and deceptively enslaved to sin’s constant downgrading of humanity on all fronts. John tells of how God answers us and directs our attention to the present and future hope we are gifted in the unconquerable, Jesus Christ – Christus invictus!

‘Unquestionably, the most common interpretative error in reading the symbolism of Revelation is to confuse the symbols of the book with its message. The symbols are not the message; they carry and embody the message…John wrote to awaken and shape the moral and religious imagination of Christians on his own day.’
(Achtemeier, Green & Thompson, p.562)


Achtemeier, P.J., Green, B.J., & Thompson, M.M. 2001 Introducing The New Testament Wm.B. Eerdmans Publishing

Dickson, J.& Clarke, G. 2007 666 And All That: The Truth About The Future, Blue Bottle Books


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