“Revelations is about the end of the world, right? Scary stuff.” On a regular basis I hear some variation of that phrase. And it betrays the fact that many people have many ideas about the book of Revelation and its contents. Few people, however, have actually read that book. Even fewer, it can reasonably be argued, understand it. As one New Testament scholar observes, “Few writings in all of literature have been so obsessively read with such generally disastrous results as the Book of Revelation.”
From Hal Lindsay to Tim LaHaye, from Left Behind to The Thief in the Night, from an obsession with Israeli politics to Harold Camping, the end of the world is a subject which is, without debate, fascinating to many. We buy books, attend seminars, and watch YouTube videos promising to tell us “how it’s going to happen.” Our focus in all this is in error. And it is an error that John himself addresses in the book of Revelation. Consider his words here:
Then the angel said to me, “Write: ‘Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!’” And he added, “These are the true words of God.”
At this I fell at his feet to worship him. But he said to me, “Do not do it! I am a fellow servant with you and with your brothers who hold to the testimony of Jesus. Worship God! For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.”
In this part of John’s vision an angel announces good news to John—”the true words of God”—about the wedding supper of the Lamb. This ‘supper’ is the long awaited wedding feast of God’s people. They had been promised to God in the Old Covenant. Their betrothal was sealed with the death and resurrection of Christ. Now, the Church awaits the final consummation of her relationship with Christ (mystic union, if you will). To a people who struggle against sin and Satan in the world, whose life is a struggle against foreign powers (that is, to the recipients of John’s Revelation), this is the best news imaginable.
It is such good news that John falls to his feet to worship the messenger. Immediately he is rebuked. “Don’t!” says the angel, “I’m like you—worship God instead!” Seizing John’s attention, the Angel redirects him to Jesus, the object of prophecy.
There are a few observations that are in order here. First, whenever John performs an action in the book of Revelation, I think we are to see ourselves as performing the same action. When John falls at the feet of Jesus in Revelation 1:17, it is because we ought to fall at the feet of Jesus. When John eats the bittersweet scroll in Revelation 10:9-11, it is because we ought also to eat a bittersweet scroll to remind us that the message of the book of Revelation is both good and bad news (i.e., that the telling of the gospel is always tinged with compassion and sadness). When John asks for help interpreting what is going on in Revelation 7:13-14, it is because we ought to be asking for help with what is going on. And here, in Revelation 19, when John falls down in worship at this message, it is because we also might be tempted to worship the word, rather than the One to whom the word points. John stands in our place and as our example throughout this book.
With his body, then, John has identified a great temptation for us who read this book—that we would worship the words of the prophecy rather than the Lord of Prophecy. It is a depressingly overlooked fact that the title of this book is “The Revelation of Jesus Christ.” Not just ‘Revelation’ (or even ‘Revelations’—where did the ‘s’ come from?). The unveiling that this book performs has a highly specific purpose: to reveal Jesus Christ to the world. We are reading to get at Christ, and no other thing.
Our human temptation to worship the words rather than the Person to Whom the words point is clearly a kind of idolatry. It shows up in our world in a host of ways. It is present in the endless speculation about the end of the world (e.g., Harold Camping). It is present in the dispensationalist focus on Israeli politics as an indicator of the end of the world. It is present in Left Behind, in The Thief in the Night, in Hal Lindsay and a host of other sources as well. It is present in charts, maps, and diagrams of the end times which are all harbingers of that most deadly of exegetical dangers, the combination of Math + Revelation (which always, incidentally, = Confusion). All these focus on the words of prophecy and obscure the object of that prophecy. In short, we get a ‘Revelation’ that doesn’t focus on Jesus.
There is great pleasure in speculation—it is the pleasure of the conspiracy theory. We feel that by reading this book we now have special, spiritual insight into the end of the world. But Christ has made it clear that his return will be unpredictable (Matthew 24:36), unavoidable (Romans 14:11), and highly visible (Mark 13:26). He has also made it clear that the signs of his imminent return are present even now—wars, rumors of wars, false Christs, persecution (Matthew 24). Furthermore, to read Revelation as a kind of newspaper for the future is a grave error. Eugene Peterson writes that “Everything in the Revelation can be found in the previous sixty-five books of the Bible. The Revelation adds nothing of substance to what we already know” (xi). What this means is that we do not read it for news, we read it to experience teachings we know in new and fresh ways. Given all this, the central message of the book of Revelation is simply this: we live in the end times right now, and Jesus is coming soon. Are you ready for his return?
John offers us this clear warning in Revelation 19. He warns us against speculation and obsession with the prophetic. Yes, these are good words; in fact they are great words! They are the true words of God. But if they take our attention away from Christ rather than driving us toward Christ they are idols and must be destroyed.