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Apocalyptic Literature

Five Strategies for Reading Revelation

The book of Revelation is full of symbols and images that are confusing when we remove them from the context of the Hebrew Bible. But if we understand the context, community, and nature of apocalyptic literature, the text can reshape the way we see the world. In this final episode of our series How to Read Apocalyptic Literature, Tim and Jon look at the book of Revelation.
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Episode Details

June 1, 2020
54 min

Episode Details

June 1, 2020
54 min

Show Notes


In a way, the book of Revelation is the culmination of all the design patterns of the Hebrew Bible. And then it gives you, the reader, the commission to go look at your reality in your time through the lens of the design patterns. And that’s the function of the Bible; it’s a set of glasses through which you see and make sense of your world.


  • There are five main ways to read the book of Revelation, between viewing it as a code and as a lens and seeing it as applicable to the past, present, or future.
  • The most important ways to avoid pitfalls in reading Revelation are to read it in context and community and realize this literature comes from scripturally-saturated visions.
  • The symbols in Revelation are meant to reshape our imagination so we think differently about the world. This is especially true of the lamb on the throne.

Five Ways to Read Revelation

In part one (0:00–14:45), Tim and Jon jump into the last episode in our series on how to read apocalyptic literature. In this episode, they talk about how to read the book of Revelation.

Tim shares that most people already read Revelation through one of five lenses. He borrows much of this content from Michael Gorman’s book, Reading Revelation Responsibly.

Gorman illustrates views on Revelation in a grid with four quadrants. The vertical axis represents a timeline for past, present, and future events that Revelation could represent. The horizontal axis represents reading the text as a code on one side versus reading the text as a lens on the other. Below are the five views of Revelation.

  1. The Predictive Futurist: This view sees the text as a code that represents future events. The original meaning wasn’t fully understood by its original audience and will only be revealed when the events happen.
  2. The Pretorist: This view sees the text as a code, but the events represented by the code already happened in the 1st century.
  3. Poetic or Theopoetic: This view sees the text as poetic language used to express ultimate truths about God, evil, and history.
  4. Theopolitical: This view sees the text as a form of political protest and dissent against the Roman empire that emerged out of a time of persecution in the 1st century. In this view, an emphasis is placed on the Kingdom of God as the antithesis to the kingdoms of this world.
  5. Pastoral/Prophetic: This view sees the text as anchored in the past but meant to speak to every generation of readers. The imagery is seen as a challenge and comfort by showing us a heavenly perspective on the events of our world throughout time.

Tim shares that he is convinced the correct way to view Revelation is as a lens to view the world that is applicable for every generation. However, Tim also shares that all five views identify something important in Revelation.

Apocalyptic Literature as a Lens

In part two (14:45–26:30), Tim and Jon unpack these views by asking questions about the text as a lens, a code, and a pointer toward future culminating events.

As a code, the goal of reading Revelation would be to map specific textual details to precise historical events in the past, present, or future. As a lens, the symbols in Revelation fit better into the wider biblical drama and show how they apply across time. In a sense, Revelation is the culmination of all these design patterns in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Jon asks whether the symbols point us toward real, culminating events leading to the new creation, and Tim says they are. However, Tim says that the symbols aren’t meant to map precise details of the future. Instead they help us to live in all ages in light of the coming new creation.

Tim and Jon muse over a final timeline for earth, and Tim mentions that God’s sense of time from Scripture is radically different than ours. Jon mentions a video that explores where the universe could be heading trillions of years into the future.

Avoiding Common Pitfalls

In part three (26:30–36:30), Tim and Jon look at a specific example from the book of Revelation to discuss how to approach symbols and avoid pitfalls. Tim gives a quick overview of the first chapters of Revelation before jumping into Revelation 12.

Revelation 12:1-6
A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars; and she was with child; and she cried out, being in labor and in pain to give birth.

Then another sign appeared in heaven: and behold, a great red dragon having seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads were seven diadems. And his tail swept away a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she gave birth he might devour her child.

And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron; and her child was caught up to God and to his throne. Then the woman fled into the wilderness where she had a place prepared by God, so that there she would be nourished for one thousand two hundred and sixty days.

Tim shares a few broad steps for understanding this passage.

  1. Read the work as a whole. The Bible is meditation literature, so understanding doesn’t come all at once. Look for the most repeated themes and ideas. The one on the throne, the lamb, and the dragon are repeated themes in Revelation.
  2. Realize this is dream literature. That means the visions and the way they’re represented in literary works will be dense and full of hyperlinks and symbolism tied to the Hebrew Bible.

Tim compares understanding the symbols in Revelation with someone outside our space and time trying to make sense of political cartoons. In order to understand the symbols, Tim shares that we need to look first to the Hebrew Bible and then to 1st century Greco-roman literature.

Old Testament Allusions in Revelation 12

In part four (36:30–49:00), Tim and Jon take a deeper look at the biblical context for the symbols in Revelation 12. Tim says that this whole section is a symbolic echo of Genesis 3:15.

  • The image of humanity among the stars calls to mind Genesis 1, 12:1-3, Psalm 8, and Proverbs 8.
  • The language of pain in childbirth comes from Genesis 3, which also foretells the snake-crushing savior.
  • Seven heads and crowns represent all human kingdoms, the seed of the serpent.
  • “Ten horns” is language that comes from Daniel 7.
  • The dragon is represented through the kingdoms of the earth, but he has also rallied the stars—the rebel divine council.
  • The description of the son of the woman comes directly from Psalm 2.
  • The promised son is exalted to heaven, as in Daniel 7.
  • The woman becomes a stand-in for the child, and she goes into exile in the wilderness like Hagar and Lady Zion in Lamentations for half a sabbath cycle.

Tim mentions that Daniel and Revelation are like the deep ends of the pool in the Old and New Testament. Both books assume a lot of the reader, which is why the best way to understand them is to read the rest of the Bible. Other tools like biblical concordances can help to identify many of the repeated themes. This is also why reading the Bible with others is important.

Tim shares data from a scholar named Dr. Steve Moyice, who compares Old Testament references and quotations in Revelation. Tim shares that compared to other books in the New Testament, Revelation has by far the most allusions to the widest array of Old Testament books.

Like poetry and metaphor in the Bible, this section of Scripture appeals to our imagination and changes the way we think about the Bible. Apocalyptic literature is meant to shape how we think about the world more than it is meant to tell us what to think about the world.

The Image of a Lamb

In part five (49:00–end), Tim and Jon conclude the conversation by talking about how the images of Revelation, especially of the lamb on the throne, should shape the way we see the world.

The image of the slain lamb extinguishes any sense of human achievement or greatness. Though humanity partnered with the dragon to kill the lamb, not even death can conquer the life and love of the lamb that he freely gives as a gift.

Tim concludes, “The pastoral role of Revelation is to summon every generation of readers to follow the lamb in its footsteps and to resist the beast within and without and to suffer along with the lamb if need be in bearing witness to what he’s done. If that’s not where it ends, we’ve totally missed the purpose of apocalyptic literature.”

Additional Resources

Show Music

  • Defender Instrumental by Tents
  • Snacks EP by No Spirit
  • Fills The Skies by Josh White

Show produced by Dan Gummel and Camden McAfee.

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