In his book, Reversed Thunder, the late Eugene Peterson offers a simple strategy for reading the last book of the New Testament: Before you read Revelation, read all the books that come before it first. He says,
“. . . no one has any business reading the last book who has not read the previous sixty-five. It makes no more sense to read the last book of the Bible apart from the entire scriptures than it does to read the last chapter of any novel, skipping everything before it. Much mischief has been done by reading the Revelation in isolation from its canonical context. Conversely, the Revelation does some of its best work when it sends its readers back to Genesis and Exodus, to Isaiah and Ezekiel, to Daniel and the Psalms, to the Gospels and Paul. St. John did not make up his visions of dragons, beasts, harlots, plagues, and horsemen out of his own imagination; the Spirit gave him the images out of the scriptures that he knew so well; then he saw their significance in a fresh way. Every line of the Revelation is mined out of rich strata of scripture laid down in the earlier ages.Eugene H. Peterson, Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination (San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row, 1988), 23.
Sound advice, I’d say. Peterson wrote these words in 1988, and I suspect they are just as important today as they were then. Today’s volatile socio-political climate, for example, tends to nurture extremism of all sorts. The church is by no means immune to this. In fact, in some Christian sub-cultures, such extremism—cloaking itself as “sound biblical interpretation”—is not only tolerated but even encouraged and given a platform. Recently, the well-known New Testament scholar Craig Keener offered a needed warning in this regard:
Keener is right. Those who eagerly and ignorantly (even if done out of sincerity) promote silly interpretations of the Bible are themselves being co-opted by, and for, something sinister. This is disheartening, to say the least.
One way to combat this problem and thus promote sound interpretations of scriptural texts like Revelation is to follow Peterson’s advice above. Revelation, as an apocalypse, cannot be isolated from the canon of Scripture. That is its home. If folks desire to read Revelation carefully, they must never divorce it from the story of the Old Testament. It cannot be abstracted from the stories of creation and chaos, election and exile, Israel and the nations. Neither can it be lifted from the context of the Gospels, Acts, and the Epistles, all of which existed within the multi-layered context of the Greco-Roman world—of its gods and goddesses, beautifully adorned temples, and not least the Imperial cult.
John of Patmos assumes so much from both the canonical context and his own historical context that Revelation is itself unintelligible when either one is ignored. These contexts serve as the backdrop for the drama of the Apocalypse and thus serve as a frame for St. John’s vision. Those who propose interpretations of Revelation that are detached from these contexts flirt with silliness and court hermeneutic disaster. To do so reduces the book (and letter!) of Revelation down to nothing more than a modern-day crystal ball, leading countless folks astray and creating unnecessary fear in the process.