I used to be afraid to read Revelation at night. That's right. What with all the horsemen, bowls, plagues, and beasts, I simply couldn't read it for fear of being beset with nightmares. Like many, I grew up with a loose pre-millenial dispensationalist undertanding of the Apocalypse, not because I was seriously working in the text (I could barely read it), but because it was simply in the air. I thought the message of Revelation was basically this: you better hope you get raptured before the beast shows up. It wasn't that I was deeply committed to this reading of the book; I just didn't know there were options.
About seven years ago, when I began studing the Bible and Church history with significanly increased seriousness, I discovered not only that there were alternative approaches to reading Revelation, but that my default approach was a relatively recent historical development and that it was not firmly based on a careful reading of Revelation (or any part of scripture for that matter). But if Revelation isn't about flying away to escape the horrors of the coming beast, then what is it about?
Simply put, the message of Revelation is twofold. First, it is a word of encouragement and hope calling persecuted Christians to persevere. Second, it is a warning of judgment for those who would oppress and persecute the Church, and included within this second element is a warning to those within the Church who think they can compromise with the oppressors to maintain their comfort and avoid hardship.
In terms of encouraging the Church, Revelation reminds her that her God is both faithful and sovereign. It declares that the God who created the world is also the God who is in the process of creating it anew. It is a reminder that the people of God are the followers of Jesus Christ, the faithful martyr and the slaughtered lamb who now lives and reigns forever. It is a word of hope that despite every evil effort of the beastly nations to kill off the Church, the people of the lamb are the people of the God who raises the dead. He will vindicate them. And those who conquer, even when conquering means dying, will become the final dwelling place of the Living God and the Lamb.
It is a word of warning for those who would seek to oppress the people of God and manipulate the world for their own ends. It is a warning to the beastly nations and their leaders who prop themselves up as lords and masters of the world. It is a declaration to them that they are but a parody of the Lord Jesus Christ, and that the slaughtered lamb has and will triumph over the regimes of all who oppose him. Included here is a warning for those who think they are faithful followers of the lamb and yet collude with the enemy embracing its values, perspective, and activity. You cannot be a citizen of Fallen Babylon and the New Jerusalem at the same time.
To adapt a well-worn phrase about preaching: the message of Revelation is one of comfort for the afflicted and affliction for the comfortable. To the afflicted faithful: Persevere. Your God will vindicate you. To the comfortable compromisers: Beware. God will undo you.
Reading Revelation is no longer a fear to me. It is now always an experience of joy and hope. I love the Apocalyse, and I turn to it when I need to be encouraged and uplifted. The message of Revelation is not one of fear. No, for the followers of the Lamb, it is a message of hope.