I should not start a series of comments on the Book of Revelation by disagreeing with the opening verses, and I won’t. But I will tweak it. We can’t tell for sure who is saying it — John, an angel, or Jesus — but the speaker is pitching the value of the book. “Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy,” says the speaker. Better still: “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy” (Revelation 1:3). Nothing wrong with this; the text calls for reading it aloud at a time when that was how people did it. And yet we must add this variant: “Blessed is the one who reads again the words of this prophecy.”
This is not a translation variant, but it is necessary to say it. “Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a re-reader,” says Vladimir Nabokov. This is good advice in general, but it is a must with respect to a text like Revelation. A sign should be posted at the entrance of the book, saying, “For re-readers only.” Readers of Spectrum will easily meet this requirement, but a reminder won’t hurt, and one-time readers should be warned. John does not lay out his message in a linear fashion. The text jumps back and forth in time. Knowledge of the whole is necessary in order to grasp the parts. We cannot simply use the parts to make the whole. In visual terms, the book is panoramic. In musical terms, it is a symphony. It takes practice to hear the melody and master the theme. Thus this word of caution: “Blessed is the one who reads—and reads again.”
Let me offer two examples to prove that this is not a trivial matter. The most pivotal scene in the book begins with the transition to heaven in chapter 4. John sees a door open into heaven, and then he hears a loud voice. “Come up here,” says the voice (4:1). Up there, in heaven, will henceforth be the vantage point for everything that follows. Then, in the setting of the heavenly council, John sees a sealed scroll in the right hand of “the one seated on the throne” (5:1). Adela Yarbro Collins captures the import of this detail when she says that the first four verses of chapter 5 imply that the heavenly council is faced with a serious problem. How does she know that there is a crisis in heaven? She knows because she is a good reader and, as noted above, good readers are re-readers. Collins explains that “the problem facing the heavenly council is the rebellion of Satan which is paralleled by rebellion on earth.” Let us ask the question again: How does she know? And again, the answer will be: She knows because she is a good reader, and good readers are re-readers. Her insight requires re-reader awareness. The heavenly war is not described until later in the book (12:7–9; cf. 9:1–11), but there would be no crisis except for the war. A linear reading of Revelation fails dismally. The first three chapters of Revelation are more than a warm-up exercise; even for these chapters it is necessary to bring re-reader competence to the task of reading. John’s entry into the heavenly council happens at the point where the council is casting about for a solution to the rebellion of Satan. This is assumed by the participants in the heavenly council and must also be assumed by us.
Heaven offers no reprieve from the problems of earth. Heaven, too, is awash in problems! Heaven is at a loss what to do! John’s tears are not the reaction of a person who has found the solution to the problems facing earth (5:4). Rather, it describes the response of a man who has been brought face to face with a problem that makes mockery of solutions!
‘War’ (polemos) is one of the most important words in Revelation, as a noun (12:7; 9:7, 9; 11:7; 12:7, 17; 13:7; 16:14; 19:19; 20:8) or as a verb (polemeō) with the meaning ‘to wage war’ (12:7; 13:4; 17:14; 19:11). In chapter 12, widely agreed to be the structural center of the book, no sentence is more important than the statement, “There was war” (12:7). Polemos is the word from which the English ‘polemics’ is derived. The word means ‘war,’ but the connotation of ‘polemics’ in English is useful: ‘polemics’ is a form of disagreement playing out in the realm of opinion and argument. This notion fits the conflict in Revelation better than an outright match-up of conflicting parties in the realm of power. On this logic, it is trite to say that Revelation’s foremost errand is to show that God is in control. This cannot be the message if the polemic of Revelation centers on which side in the conflict is telling the truth.
A second reason why re-readership is critical is found in Revelation 1:19. “Now write what you have seen, what is, and what is to take place after this” (1:19). This text is a rebuke to the view that Revelation is mostly about the future. It isn’t mostly about the future; it is not only about the future; it should not be regarded as the source book of the world’s futurologists. In temporal terms, Revelation is about the past, the present, and the future (1:19). Indeed, no book in the New Testament is more a deep-dive into the past than this book (12:7-12), and no book makes it clearer that the solution to the cosmic predicament has been found in time that is present tense for the author (5:1-14). It is a fallacy to believe that Revelation was written when it was seen or that its message comes to us as simple dictation. The scope envisioned in Revelation 1:19 is comprehensive, “what you have seen” as a view of the past, “what is” as present reality, and “what is to take place” as a vision of the future. A fitting title and subtitle for the book might be this: Revelation: The Book of Reality.
Upstream in chapter 1, we are treated to two wonderful affirmations. First, we hear God announcing in direct, unmediated speech: “‘I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty” (1:8). The wording is odd in the extreme in Greek, but it is odd because John tries to preserve Hebrew diction in a foreign language. This is not a claim about God’s existence, as we might assume, Greek-minded readers that we are. The strange self-identification is rooted in the Old Testament (Exodus 3:14), not to make the claim that God exists but that God is the one who is with someone.
Second, just a few verses later, Jesus speaks. “I was dead, and look, I am alive forever, and I have the keys of death and of Hades” (1:18). Jesus is the only one who can talk about death in the past tense. I take this to heart in a special way after attending the funeral of a friend earlier today. “The keys of death” must mean that the speaker is in possession of the means to overcome death. If this is the case, Revelation begins with a promise of a great reversal.
We could stop there, but we shouldn’t. “Death” is not only physical death, and Hades is not only the place where the dead are buried. “Hades” is not empty space (6:8; 9:1). As occupied space, it is the place that disseminates darkness and misperception into the word (9:1-11). To have “the keys of death and of Hades” is a figure of speech not only for reversal but also for revelation. This is not a small matter for us who live on earth. As re-readers will know, it is also the solution to the crisis in the heavenly council.
Sigve K. Tonstad is Research Professor of Biblical Interpretation at Loma Linda University.
Photo by Eduardo Olszewski on Unsplash
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