Thoughts on Revelation 2: What Did John Actually Know or Understand?

Recently, as a way to review what we’d read in previous Bible studies, I was listening to an audio version of the book of Revelation, as read by actor David Suchet (I know him a little from the Poirot tv series). It’s really a wonderful reading of scripture, particularly of Revelation. In fact, the way Suchet read Revelation was itself a revelation.

He reads it with a note of wonder in his voice, as if he was actually describing what he saw in the vision, as if it was John’s first time sharing the vision. This made a significant difference in how I read and hear Revelation. I’ve tended to read and hear it as if John writing down deliberately coded imagery and narrative, like he’s kind of winking at us and saying, “I know a lot of things but I can’t tell them to you directly, so here it is in code that I hope you can figure out.” It’s our job as modern readers to decode it and try to figure out what exactly John is on about.

With Suchet’s reading, I began to realize that just maybe John is actually just describing what he saw in his vision and that he himself may not know what it all means either. After all, Jesus invites John to “write what you have seen” (1:19). John sees something, but he doesn’t necessarily know what it all means. There are places where John explains something apparently on his own (such as identifying the dragon as Satan in 12:9). On the other hand, when Jesus tells John to write what he sees, he has to explain to John what he had already seen (the seven stars and seven golden lamp stands, etc., 1:20), suggesting that John doesn’t quite understand what he sees.

This is speculative on my part, of course, but I don’t recall seeing anything in the text that suggests that John understood everything he saw. A first century reader/hearer/seer (such as John) might be able to untangle the Old Testament imagery sprinkled throughout better than most average modern readers can, but maybe even for them it was largely a mystery too.

On the other hand, there are some parts that are clearer than others and there are some overarching themes that are also clear. This would emphasize that the point is really to get these more obvious big picture things. Things such as: Jesus is victorious king and worthy of worship, be faithful, endure what you may have to endure, all shall be well, and not get hung up on some of the other weird imagery which may just be intended to evoke something more like general understanding (e.g. evil is at work in the world, Christians will likely face persecution of some kind, etc.) rather than being imagery we are meant to decode. This is how I’ve been reading it already, but mostly so that the youth do get the big picture and don’t get too hung up on sorting out all the weird stuff—but I always with a sense that we are nevertheless missing something.

I tend to agree (with Toni 🙂 ) that much of Revelation is referring to events in Rome in the first and second century, but this doesn’t really change anything for us in terms of reading it the above way, because even if it was written to and about that time period, the book is nevertheless for us, and the big picture stuff we see at work through the centuries.

I started writing this post weeks ago, and it only now occurs to me that this approach presents a sort of irony when it comes to reading and interpreting Revelation. To say that John is simply reporting a vision he saw is to read Revelation in a straightforward, literal way (which is not what I necessarily advocate doing). Yet it is those who tend to read Revelation in a woodenly literal way who seem to be hung up on explaining all the imagery and seeing modern-day significance in every object, creature, and beast.