Pulling back the Curtain – first draft of themes

The books keep dropping through the letter box and I realise that this Study Leave, although an extended period compared to my usual, will only be the start of what is in danger of becoming an obsession that may last a lifetime.

paradigm shiftOne of my aims, going forward beyond the SL, will be to help people see Revelation with new eyes – and hear with opened ears! Perhaps most importantly, to imagine with a creativity from the Spirit that will make this Apocalypse the multi-sensory experience it was designed to be. It may be that we need to pack up our preconceptions about the book in a box and put them to the side in order to experience the paradigm shift that relegates the views of people like Hal Lindsey to the past in order to see things John’s way. Paradigm shifts are hard and take time to work through, so walking with people through that transition will be an important part of the next few months.

Over the last few days I have unexpectedly travelled further along the road of putting the series of Sunday Studies and midweek Forum discussion themes. You can find them in the  PDF below. Comments and suggestions welcome, along with ideas for songs and presentational methods. Let me know of any books you have found helpful in the past, and thanks in anticipation.

Hay – JW – Schedule – Revelation 2015

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Is Revelation a unity?

So far, in my Study Leave, I’ve been mainly concerned with getting to grips with the overall flow of the book. One of the questions raised by the material relates to the structure and unity/disunity of the material.

rev - unity or compositDr Ian Paul, in his blog, reflects here on whether or not Revelation is a unity or a composite book. David Aune, in his Word Commentary, suggests the latter partly based on the discontinuity of characters appearing in the story. Ian assesses this and finds a remarkable degree of continuity. Link below to his blog post, based on a paper due to be published in a multi-author volume.


Hi Ian,
thanks for this. I’m working on trying to understand the overall structure of Revelation at the moment, and have been impressed by the sheer variety of ‘structures’ in commentaries. Some of them have descriptions for sections that are so broad they are useless at describing the contents. Many seem to work with two main sections in the body of the work, with subdivisions.

The description that I’ve found most attractive, in part because of the use of the idea of ‘closure’ at certain points, is the that of David Barr in his ‘Tales of the End.’ A ‘Three Scroll’ (Scroll being used metaphorically I think) structure: Letter Scroll ( to 3:22) Worship Scroll (to 11:18) and War Scroll (to the end). I suspect that because there are so many ‘sevens’ in the book that the temptation is to look for (& find/manufacture) a seven-fold structure that does not adequately describe the contents of the various sections.

Will post a link to your Blog if I may to let my FB friends know about it.


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The Shape of Things to Come

Those who  may have seen my study leave photo on Facebook will know that I have over thirty commentaries on Revelation, and a myriad of other books. Some of these are introductory, and some are on specialist subjects. There are more on the way! I have yet to find two of them that agree on an overall structure to the book – there seem to be as many structures as readers, yet all working with the same material nineteen centuries or so old. One might have thought that by this time we would have reached consensus, but no.

Occasionally, one finds people who think that the book shows signs of editorial work, being published in more than one edition, although I’m not aware of any textual evidence for that. In getting more acquainted with the text itself (in Greek and English), and becoming more aware of what some people have written about it as a complete entity, I have become more convinced that Revelation is a unity. I can see how what some think of as Interludes, even interruptions to the flow of the story, are actually integral to the way in which the book works, simply because it is a book to be heard.

Searching online for illustrations of the variety of structures around, I came across this picture, put together by Rob Turnbull of Australia, who calls himself The Backyard Bard. I share this with you both for the pleasure of seeing his creativity, and in the hope of us learning how important the public reading of Scripture, especially this Scripture, is. You’ll find a link to Rob’s website below.

Structure - Rob T


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The Story of the Scroll(s)

papyrus-sealed-with-seven-seals_1246685_inlStarting out on the journey of reading Revelation, one is struck by how orderly things are to begin with: John is told to write to seven Churches and then we are given these letters to read; he is called up to the Throne Room of God and witnesses the slaughtered Lamb receiving a scroll with seven seals (we are immediately alerted to the numerical repetition) and then we are told what happens when the Lamb removes each numbered seal – that is, until we reach the sixth seal, and that’s where things become more complicated. Before the seventh seal is broken, other important events take place, and the succeeding visions seem to part of what happens as a result of breaking this seventh seal. The following series of seven trumpets is also interrupted, but the last series, of seven plagues, is told as one uninterrupted vision. Are these indications of an original, simpler, document that has been edited, or is Revelation actually a unity that has a more complicated structure than might at first appear?


One of the ways in which to test these theses is to examine the narrative structure of the book to see how the different parts fit together, and how they move the story forward. This should, at least, give an idea of whether or not it could be conceived of as a unity. Although a good editor might be able to achieve a document where we can’t see ‘the join,’ in Revelation ‘the joins’ are so obvious and intrusive that we must wonder if the material was intended to be there in the first place.

For the purposes of this exercise I’m using two books that identify themselves as ‘narrative commentaries.’

James L. Resseguie, The Revelation of John: A Narrative Commentary, Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009.

David L. Barr, Tales of the End: A Narrative Commentary on the Book of Revelation, Salem: Polebridge Press, 2012 (2nd ed).

Barr especially is very helpful in understanding the nature of how literature works, and, in particular, how this difficult literature works.

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The Lord’s Day

This is the first Sunday of my Study Leave – perhaps this is the first day when things will feel really different for me, because rather than leading the people of God in their worship, I will be in the congregation being led by others.

It seems to have been during Sunday worship that John had this kind of transcendental spiritual event (like Isaiah): an overwhelming and revelatory experience of the presence of God.

sevenCitiesMap‘I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus, was on the island of Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. 10 On the Lord’s Day I was in the Spirit, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet, 11 which said: ‘Write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches: to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea’’ (Rev 1:9-11).

When John is invited to enter the throne room of God, his words stretch to breaking point in order to describe the glory and majesty of the one who sits on the throne and lives for ever and ever. But it is there, with representatives of all creation, and with those who led the people of God (Twelve Tribes and Twelve Apostles), that John hears the songs that offer the worship that the one sitting on the throne is worthy of. It is to God we owe our existence and by whom we were created (whatever the mechanism used); it is to God we owe our worship because he is our Creator.

Now, I need to go to join with the Lord’s People on the Lord’s Day to give to the Lord God the worship that belongs to God and God alone.

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Followers of the Slaughtered Lamb – the deaths in Charleston

There’s no doubt that we see, and interpret, the reality around us differently according to what is uppermost in our own experience at the time. I well remember the effect that conducting the funeral of a stillborn child had on me shortly after our own first child was born.

Now engaged in the study of Revelation, it was through this lens that I saw the tragic killing of nine black Christians at a prayer and Bible study group in Charleston, S.C. They were shot by a white supremacist, now in custody. Along with the usual debate about guns in US society (he was given a gun as a 21st birthday present), there is the revulsion that such a thing would happen in a place made holy by prayer, as people were praying.

Events like this are not new, however. In my lifetime we have seen the martyrdom of Óscar Romero, Janani Luwum, Jerzy Popiełuszko and Dorothy Stang, who are only illustrative of the many women and men from across the continents whose lives have been taken because of their faith and defending the marginalised.

Such martyrdom is, in fact, a major part of the narrative of Revelation, written to Churches in Asia who had known the loss of some of their own, and who are warned that they will face great persecution in the near future. While the term ‘martyr,’ or ‘witness,’ had not yet taken on the idea of giving one’s life as a witness, it was because of the increasing frequency of its occurrence that it did so.

‘When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. 10 They called out in a loud voice, ‘How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?’ 11 Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the full number of their fellow servants, their brothers and sisters, were killed just as they had been’ (Rev 6:9-11).

bound_lamb_3-300x179Who opens the seals of this scroll? It is the one John sees standing as a lamb having been slaughtered – Jesus. It was by his slaughtering (we tend to sanitise such words to make it less graphic in our minds, but we need to be sensitive to the bloody nature of the death) that he triumphed, and his followers will share in that victory. But in the meantime, they also share in his suffering. Being followers of the slaughtered Lamb they have experienced the same painful, bloody, messy death.

While part of John’s intention is to forewarn his listeners (the book was written to be heard) of what is to come their way, he also seeks to give them comfort and hope. Yes, the martyrs must wait for the slaughtered Lamb to bring them justice, but they will not need to wait for ever. In the meantime, they are rewarded with garments purified by his blood – there could hardly be a more dramatic oxymoronic metaphor than laundered white in blood. But in the end, they, together with the slaughtered Lamb, will triumph. Not by responding violently to the violence they have experienced, but through the suffering of the great tribulations they have experienced.

13 Then one of the elders asked me, ‘These in white robes – who are they, and where did they come from?’

14 I answered, ‘Sir, you know.’

And he said, ‘These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. 15 Therefore,

‘they are before the throne of God
and serve him day and night in his temple;
and he who sits on the throne
will shelter them with his presence.
16 “Never again will they hunger;
never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat down on them,”[a]
nor any scorching heat.
17 For the Lamb at the centre of the throne
will be their shepherd;
“he will lead them to springs of living water.”
“And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Rev 7:13-17).

May the visions of Revelation help our suffering sisters and brothers in Charleston interpret their present reality, and also bring them comfort and hope.

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Pulling back the curtains

curtainsThe last time I was at the theatre I saw, ‘Pressure,’ a play about the Scots weather-man who persuaded Ike to wait 24 hours to launch D-Day, thus ensuring its success. It was funny, poignant and dramatic, revealing ‘behind the scenes’ events of the greatest sea-borne invasion the world has ever known. But it could have been a disaster because of the weather. A day’s delay gave them an open door for a few hours, and through that door they entered continental Europe to bring deliverance. The events on which the play was based had taken place seventy years before, and doubtless the dialogue was an imaginative reconstruction of conversations that might have taken place, stitching the whole narrative together.

When we take our seats to wait for a play to begin, the stage curtains are closed. As they are drawn back, we are invited into a different world from the one in which we are living; we are being given a new interpretation of reality to consider. ‘Apocalypse’ is the word that was used to convey this sense of revelation – it is the unveiling of something previously hidden to us.

Reading the Book of Revelation is a bit like going to the theatre. John the Seer is drawing back the curtains on the great story of the world and its destiny. He is opening a door for us to enter into the story, and give us a new perspective on the reality around us – sometimes a very strange way of seeing it, but a way that takes us to the heart of what it means.

As we open the pages of his book, the curtains are drawing back. He invites us to step out of our reality and into his so that we might, at the end, have a deeper understanding of the reality in which we are living, and where it is heading.

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