Can you understand Revelation?

At the church I serve, we’re about the preach the book of Revelation across all our congregations, as well as studying it in our growth groups concurrently.

Several people have recommended Vern Poythress’ commentary The Returning King: A Guide to Studying Revelation, which he kindly makes freely available online.

I found this very encouraging in the introduction.

Can you understand the Book of Revelation? Yes, you can. You can summarize its message in one sentence: God rules history and will bring it to its consummation in Christ. Read it with this main point in mind, and you will understand. You will not necessarily understand every detail—neither do I. But it is not necessary to understand every detail in order to profit spiritually.

Now you might put it slightly differently in your one sentence summary. But he’s right. Chapter 1 makes it crystal clear Revelation is all about the gospel. That is, it’s all about Jesus: redeeming by his death, now risen and reigning, though still finally to return. 

A little later Poythress explains the approach he thinks is critical for clarity: picture book, not puzzle book. It’s a great line and a great insight…

If Revelation is clear, why do so many people have trouble with it? And why is it so controversial? We have trouble because we approach it from the wrong end. Suppose I start by asking, “what do the bear’s feet in Revelation 13:2 stand for?” If I start with a detail, and ignore the big picture, I am asking for trouble. God is at the center of Revelation (Rev. 4-5). We must start with him and with the contrasts between him and his satanic opponents. If instead we try right away to puzzle out details, it is as if we tried to use a knife by grasping it by the blade instead of the handle. We are starting at the wrong end. Revelation is a picture book, not a puzzle book. Don’t try to puzzle it out. Don’t become preoccupied by isolated details. Rather, become engrossed in the story. Praise the Lord. Cheer for the saints. Detest the Beast. Long for the final victory.

The truth is, some teachers of the Book of Revelation have set a bad example. They turn the Book on its head; they turn it into a puzzle book. In their example they preach obscurity instead of clarity, and of course people end up feeling incompetent.

“I’m confused.” “It’s so complicated.” “I’m lost.” “It’s all a puzzle, and only this expert teacher can make sense of it.” “I give up.”

But some few refuse to give up. Instead, they develop an unhealthy interest. They search for some complicated new scheme of their own to try to “solve” the puzzle. They end up tickling the fancy, and missing the real point.

In contrast, people uninfluenced by super-duper teachers do better.

“Poythress: Revelation is a picture book, not a puzzle book.”

He then shares a couple of beautiful stories to show you don’t need a university education or a theological degree to understand it.

One time as I was teaching Revelation, I noticed many children in the congregation.

“I want you children to read Revelation too. If you are too young to read it for yourself, have your parents read it to you. You too can understand it. In fact, you may understand it better than your parents.”

A boy about 12 years old came up to me afterwards. “I know exactly what you mean. A short time ago I read Revelation, and I felt that I understood it.”

“Praise the Lord!”

“I read it just like a fantasy, except that I knew it was true.”

I thought, “Precisely.”

“Revelation: “I read it just like a fantasy, except that I knew it was true.””

And this…

A group of seminary students finished playing basketball in a gym. They noticed the janitor in a corner, reading a book.
“What are you reading?”
“The Bible.”
“What part of the Bible?”
We’ll help this poor soul, they thought. “Do you understand what you are reading?”
They were astonished. “What does it mean?”
“Jesus is gonna win!”


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