Ten Challenges in Teaching Revelation

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Tomorrow night we finish Revelation in our Men’s class. This is the first time I have ever taught a class on Revelation and it was about as difficult as I thought it would be. There are several challenges to tackling this book in a Bible class:

  1. Dealing with disagreement – people have strong and varied views on what this book means. The inability to disagree in love may reveal a lack of maturity. Don’t be offended if people disagree with you. Point out what truth you can from it and move along. Get ready to have your own understanding challenged and be ready to help others see the weaknesses in their understanding of the book. In the end no one understands it perfectly. We will all have errors in understanding when it comes to this difficult book. That leads to the next one
  2. Maintaining Humility – Not sure if this is really a challenge because if this book doesn’t humble you to teach it, you may have a problem with pride. When people disagree we keep coming back to looking at the text with humility and the understanding that none of us will have the perfect perspective 100% of the time on this book.
  3. Presenting the text as unbiased as possible – The way to maintain this balance as best as possible is to keep going back to the question of, “How would they have underst0od this given their cultural and religious background.”
  4. Avoid rabbit trails – There are so many interesting side notes in Revelation. It is important to stick to the main point. I have a friend who decided to teach Revelation and it took him several weeks to cover the first 8 verses. That is overkill. When you over analyze Revelation you can end up in a pickle and dig too hard on something that wasn’t meant to be evaluated to such an extreme degree.
  5. Major in majors, not minors – It is so easy in Revelation to spend way too much time on things that don’t matter all that much. Don’t major in the minors. Know what the central message of the book is and keep coming back to how the various chapters tie back into it.
  6. Don’t neglect the Old Testament – I tried to do a good job with this. I probably didn’t spend enough time talking about Daniel. I just figured it would muddy the waters too much and get us chasing rabbits. Any good commentary (Reddish or Witherington in particular) will point you in the right direction on this.
  7. Avoid the view that John is borrowing imagery from all sorts of sources – Pretty much all the recent commentaries use this language. They will say John borrowed such and such from Ezekiel or Isaiah. Why not stick to this actually being a Revelation from God and that God was the one showing these images to John rather than John coming up with it.
  8. Don’t attempt to build a time line in Revelation – It is a waste of time (no pun intended). Some think the 7 seals, trumpets and bowls are just 7 events told from different angles. Some say 21 different events and some say somewhere in between. There are few “You are here’s” in the book of Revelation so don’t spend too much time trying to figure them out.
  9. Application comes from broader theological principles rather than trying to determine where we fit in the book (see #8) – We can learn a lot about God and Christ from the book of Revelation. We see what God thinks about sin. We hear lots of calls to holiness. There are some tremendous messages of hope in this book. Draw application from these.
  10. Praise the class for the positive things that come out of it – If I think the chapter about to be discussed may generate some tension, I am quick to start the class by thanking them for how well they have handled disagreements in the past. Let people know that you appreciate them wrestling with this book because it really is work!

0 Responses

  1. Great thoughts.

    Number 7 really hits home. I wonder if people who write that even understand what they are saying. As you said, if it is a vision shouldn’t it be consistent with what others have shared? Cutting threw that in study can be difficult but is incredibly important if we are gong to hold firm to the truth that the Bible is the inspired word of God.

    1. I agree that they are all great thoughts… except (I would say) number 7!

      Matt rightly reminds us “to keep going back to the question of, “How would they have understood this given their cultural and religious background?”” Part of the intended audience’s cultural and religious background would have been books like Isaiah, Ezekiel and Daniel. It therefore seems that in order to communicate clearly to this original intended audience God inspired John to deliberately reuse already-well-understood images from Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel etc. in to order to make his point. The original intended audience would have recognised that “John borrowed such and such from Ezekiel or Isaiah” and would therefore have understood what John, under the inspiration of the Spirit, was saying to them, with their memory of what those images meant in Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel etc. helping them to understand. If we *don’t* recognise that “John borrowed such and such from Ezekiel or Isaiah” then we *won’t* understand the images the way the original intended audience was meant to and we’ll miss the point God was making through John by his Spirit.

    2. Jeremy,

      This brings up a really important issue. I don’t know that we will ever really know how all of this took place but it is important that we take what John had to say seriously. John tells us these things were revealed to him by God in these images and symbols, often through angelic means. No where in Revelation does John say God just gave him a fuller understanding of OT scriptures that he was going to lay out in this letter. He does describe what he saw. To me that means God didn’t inspire him to go back to the OT and start scouring it for images to use but that the things John saw lined up with much of what we find in the prophets you mentioned.

      It doesn’t follow that this view negates our understanding of the text because we still have to personally make use of these prophets and the Jewish backgrounds and understandings of these images to get a fuller pictures of what is going on in Revelation. From teaching Revelation to our men’s class I have 65 pages of notes with hundreds of OT references. It is vital we understand these prophets in order to understand Revelation. I think we get ourselves confused that because we have to go back there and look it all up to understand it that John went back there and borrowed all of this. I wouldn’t call it John borrowing it if God revealed these things to him through visual representation. That is where I am differing with your point of view on this and I don’t think it takes anything away from the text. I think it better takes Revelation at face value than the approach you and many others are taking with this.

      There are lots of people smarter than I am who disagree with my approach here. That’s fine with me. I could be wrong. But I do question why someone would rather figure out a different form of inspiration on Revelation than the one plainly laid out by John in the text itself…He says God showed him these things via visual representations…why then say he scoured the OT and borrowed these things? Of course they line up with God’s previous images and symbols given throughout the generations. But that doesn’t mean they are “borrowed”.

      Thanks for taking the time to write up such a well reasoned explanation of yours and others objections to point #7.

  2. I’m a Bible teacher in a church of Christ up in South Carolina, & I’m also wrapping up a lengthy series on Revelation. 🙂

    To some extent, I agree with your “#5. Major in majors, not minors.” One must never lose sight of the big picture. However, the mark of a good interpretation is that it explains a lot of those “minors.” The more minor details that fit naturally into one’s interpretation, the more confidence one can have in that interpretation.

    I am going to have to disagree with “#8. Don’t attempt to build a time line in Revelation.” I think there is a definite timeline presented in Revelation, & following it is the key to figuring Revelation out.

    I am in full agreement with you in that we ought to read Revelation in context – how did the original audience understand Revelation? Revelation was clearly meant to be understood, because John was warning these Christians about certain events that would occur in the near future, & John obviously expected them to understand Revelation since they were to “heed the things” written in it.

    The question is, how could John have expected his readers to understand it? There is complex symbolism being used, & John doesn’t even bother to explain a lot of it. How is it they could be expected to understand it, & yet no one has been able to understand it ever since? A good interpretation would have to be able to explain this, too.

    There definitely wasn’t any uniform agreement on Revelation at my church before I started this series. They laughed at me when, at the start of the series, I said they would all be “experts” on Revelation when we got through, that Revelation wasn’t really that difficult. Since then, I have had a lot of people come up to me in private & tell me that Revelation now makes a LOT of sense. They all don’t agree with me on every little point, but at least the majority agree to the overall interpretation of Revelation. Which is saying something!

    If you’d like, I could e-mail you some of the handouts I made for my class on Revelation. I can’t promise I’ll convince you, but I can promise it will make you think & dig deeper into the Bible. 🙂

    1. T,

      I appreciate you taking the time to write this and even more I appreciate the time you have taken with your class to teach them what can be a very difficult book. I would love to have a look at your notes. Feel free to send them to me – matthewdabbs@hotmail.com

      I would be curious to see the timeline you lay out. When I say don’t build a timeline I mean for the book as a whole. I don’t think any of us are smart enough to pin down all the events of Revelation into a coherent timeline, especially not one that walks through Revelation in a chronological manner. By that I mean that each and every chapter follows in time after the previous ones. I don’t think it was meant to be read that way. I will say there is some chronology given in the book and the end of the book is certainly “the end” of time. But outside of that it gets pretty hard to do and we end up making TONS of speculation that to me are just spinning our wheels and missing out on things that are more important to talk about.

      “The question is, how could John have expected his readers to understand it? There is complex symbolism being used, & John doesn’t even bother to explain a lot of it. How is it they could be expected to understand it, & yet no one has been able to understand it ever since? A good interpretation would have to be able to explain this, too.”

      I am curious how you went about answering that question in your class? One point that could be made is that many of these things that are so foreign to us (the Apollo & Nero myths) are very distant to us and so it is a lot harder for us to wrap our minds around things that were common knowledge in their day. That doesn’t mean it was all easy for them to understand but I am sure it was easier than it is for us since it was written to them.

      Glad to hear everything went well and that the most important thing happened. People ended the study with a better understanding and less confused than they started!

    2. mattdabbs said, “By that I mean that each and every chapter follows in time after the previous ones. I don’t think it was meant to be read that way.”

      OK, we agree there. As far as I’m aware, virtually all scholars acknowledge that Revelation isn’t written in purely chronological order. It goes back & forth among the events depicted in the book.

      mattdabbs said, “I don’t think any of us are smart enough to pin down all the events of Revelation into a coherent timeline,”

      Well, read through my handouts I’m about to e-mail you & let me know what you think.

      I’ll end with a funny but true story.

      I recently moved to South Carolina. So I picked up a SC state driver’s license. The last 3 digits of my DL# is, & I kid you not, 666. I saw that at the DMV & I thought “You have GOT to be kidding me!” Here I am, an ordained minister in the churches of Christ going around with the mark of the beast on my driver’s license!

      On the bright side of things, I am now able to “buy & sell” in the state of South Carolina. 🙂

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