What do you think are the greatest challenges facing the church today? There are a number of ways we could answer that question. But I suspect near the top of most people’s lists would be increasing hostility from the world around us. A generation ago Christianity was part of mainstream culture. Our ethics were considered the norm, even if people didn’t live up to them. But think about how our society now considers our views on sexuality, homosexuality, marriage, gender identity and gender roles, not to mention our views on the uniqueness of Christ, the nature of sin and the reality of judgment. Ideas that were once mainstream are now not only marginal, but considered deviant. Christians have become the immoral people of our age. Social media amplifies this hostility until the ‘noise’ is deafening.
It’s not just our sexual morals which are questioned. We also live in an age of rampant consumerism in which who you are is defined by what you own or how you look. International trade brings benefits, but also leaves much injustice in its wake and the impact on the environment is reaching crisis levels. An economics shaped by love feels like a romantic fantasy.
We live in an idolatrous and unjust age. And so for contemporary Christians the challenge of remaining faithful to Christ is immense. Elsewhere in the world Christians face violent opposition, imprisonment and martyrdom.
A familiar context
This is precisely the situation for which the book of Revelation was written. The book is not an ambiguous description of events in some far off future. It’s a description of our world – with all its challenges and traumas – seen from the perspective of heaven. ‘After this I looked,’ says John, ‘and there before me was a door standing open in heaven.’ (Rev. 4:1) This is the ‘stand-point’ or ‘view-point’ of the book. Revelation is a book for our generation; a vital resource if we are to remain true.
John was writing to small Christian communities under the Roman Empire. Everywhere they looked they saw the propaganda of Rome. The coins in their hands, the standards carried by soldiers, the inscriptions on public buildings – all proclaimed the might of Rome. The elites of the cities in which John’s readers lived did well out of Roman rule and in return they were keen to impose conformity on those under their influence. To get on in life you needed to be part of a trade guild, but that involved sacrificial offerings to the imperial cult. Roman trade extended across the known world, but it had a dark side as John acknowledges when his inventory of traded goods ends with ‘human beings sold as slaves’ (Rev. 18:13).
So the book of Revelation is like any of the other letters of the New Testament. Just like 1 Corinthians, it addresses the specific challenges faced by its readers. But, like 1 Corinthians, it does so in a way that provides rich resource for us today.
Make sense of our turbulent times
What John does again and again in the book of Revelation is take on the critique of idolatry and injustice made by the prophets of the Old Testament, and reapply it to the idolatry and injustice of his day. In doing so, he provides a model of us to do the same in our day. So Revelation is a powerful tool to help us make sense of the chaos of our globalised world, to see it from the perspective of heaven.
So in some key ways Revelation is like any other New Testament letter. Except, of course, it doesn’t read like other New Testament letters! What are we to make of all the imagery and visions? How do we make sense of the beasts, angels, sevens, horsemen, dragons, angels and so on?
Fire up your imagination
Let me suggest Revelation is not as weird as we might first assume. We are actually adept at making sense of imagery. Imagine the opening scenes of a movie. Lightning streaks across a darkened sky as a streams of bats fly from the silhouetted shape of a castle tower. You know immediately you’re watching a Gothic horror movie. Or imagine instead a beautiful young woman, looking fraught, her arms full of files, collides with a young man, sending papers everywhere. With upbeat music in the background, they both bend down to pick up the papers and clash heads. We know we’re in Rom-Com territory and that after a few ups and downs this couple are going to end up getting married.
We just need to bring those skills to the book of Revelation. Don’t think of a John as an engineer designing a workflow for the future. Think of him as a composer evoking a mood and addressing the heart. The book of Revelation is a sustained appeal to the imagination.
If John’s readers were to survive they needed a bigger vision to sustain them. They needed an alternative to the propaganda of Roman power. That’s what the book of the Revelation provided. It is the same today. If we are to remain faithful we don’t just need information about Christ, vital as that is. We also need our imaginations to be fired. We need the perspective of heaven. We don’t just need a textbook; we need a drama, a sound and light show, a movie. We need something to capture our imaginations. That’s why the book of Revelation is a book for our generation.
Revelation For You by Tim Chester is available now. This is article first appeared on The Good Book Company website.