Earlier in the week I started a three-part series on how to read the book of Revelation. We will get to the mark of the beast next week, but first, an explanation of what Revelation says about itself.
You can tell a lot about a book by its introduction. Read the first few sentences of a fairy tale, a memoir, or a logic textbook, and you will instinctively know that there are certain “rules” for interpreting these works correctly. A good introduction helps us approach the rest of the book in the right way. That’s what the introduction to Revelation does. It orients us to the type of literature we are about to encounter.
In particular, the first three verses of Revelation tell us three important things about the type of book we are reading. Revelation is an apocalypse, a prophecy, and a letter.
The word “revelation” is simply the English translation of the Greek word apokalupsis found at the beginning of verse 1. The book of Revelation is about the uncovering or the unveiling of what must soon take place. To be sure, in some ways, this is a mysterious and difficult book. But we must remember, Revelation is not meant to shroud the truth but to reveal it. God means for us to understand this book.
“Apocalyptic” can sound like an intimidating word, but all we need to understand that as an apocalypse, Revelation is a book of showing. That’s what makes it so intriguing and so tricky. The book doesn’t give us precise legal codes; it gives us verbal pictures. “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him [Jesus] to show to his servants the things that must soon take place” (Rev. 1:1). It’s important to note that John doesn’t draw us a picture of what he saw or act it out in a play. He expects his visions to be read and heard. We are still dealing with text. But don’t look past the obvious: Revelation is a book of showing. The verb “to see” appears 52 times in Revelation. We are meant to “see” what we read on the pages.
We should look at the visions of Revelation as we would look at portraits in an art gallery. Revelation is not given as sequential clips from a movie, but as self-contained portraits that often show the same thing in a different way. The word most scholars use is “recapitulation.” It means that Revelation is not a chronological road map from chapters 4 to 22, but a series of visions that overlap and repeat. The seven seals are a portrait, and the seven trumpets are another portrait, but they do not necessarily follow one after the other.
Let me see if I can explain this recapitulation better by giving you some examples. Look at Revelation 11:15-18. It’s clearly a picture of final judgment for all people, the righteous and the wicked, the small and the great. Compare these verses with Revelation 20:11-15, which is clearly another picture of final judgment. It will be difficult to make sense of these sections if we think one follows chronologically after the other. We aren’t watching a movie unfold in real time; we are looking at different portraits of the same reality.
You could also look at Revelation 16:17 where the seventh angel pours out his bowl and says, “It is done!” Then in 21:6, he who sits on the throne says, “It is done!” If chapter 21 occurs temporally after chapter 16, we are left with a lot of confusion. God declares “It is done” in two different places. But if Revelation is full of recapitulation, this is not a problem.
Here is one more pair of verses: Revelation 6:12-17 and 16:18-20. In both sections we encounter the day of God’s wrath with a cataclysmic earthquake, islands fleeing, and mountains removed from their place. How can the earth crumble to pieces two times? It doesn’t. But in Revelation, we often have two different portraits of the same event.
We can’t read Revelation like every other book. Revelation is a book of symbols in motion. The graphic images and pictures (given with words) point to a deeper reality. The seven stars are angels, and the seven lampstands are seven churches (1:20). The seven heads are seven hills (17:9). The prostitute is a great city (17:18). Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of the saints (19:8). The ancient serpent is the Devil (20:2). Unless we are prepared to look at Revelation symbolically—in pictures—we will miss the point.
Because Revelation is a showing book, full of symbols, numbers play a crucial role. John doesn’t use numbers as secret codes to crack but as signs of completeness, totality, and perfection (or the lack thereof). Three numbers are particularly important: seven, four, and twelve.
Seven is the number of completeness, especially in a spiritual sense. Thus, John writes to seven churches (real churches) as a representation of all churches. Likewise, we see seven spirits, seven judgments (in the seals, trumpets, and bowls), and seven lamps. The phrase “Lord God Almighty” occurs seven times (1:8; 4:8; 11:17; 15:3; 16:7; 19:6; 21:22), as does the phrase “the one who sits on the throne” (4:9; 5:1, 7, 13; 6:16; 7:15; 21:5) and the word “Christ” (1:1, 2, 5; 11:15; 12:10; 20:4, 6). Prophecy is mentioned seven times (1:3; 11:6; 19:10; 22:7, 10, 18, 19). Peoples, tribes, languages, and nations are mentioned seven times (5:9; 7:9; 10:11; 11:9; 13:7; 14:6; 17:15). The Spirit/Holy Spirit is mentioned seven times in relation to the seven churches and another seven times in the rest of the book (1:10; 4:2; 14:3; 17:3; 19:10; 21:10; 22:17). Jesus is used 14 times (7 x 2), and Christ is called the Lamb twenty-eight times (7 x 4).
The number four points to universality or worldwide scope. That’s why we read of four living creatures, four horsemen, the four corners of the earth, the four winds, and the four-fold phrase “people, tribe, language, and nation.” Similarly, the phrase “the one who lives forever” appears four times (4:9, 10; 10:6; 15:7) as does “seven spirits” (1:4; 3:1; 4:5; 5:6) and references to lightning, sounds, and thunder from the throne (4:5; 8:5; 11:19; 16:18).
The number 12 and its multiples indicate the fullness of God’s people. Hence, we have 12 tribes and 12 apostles. We read of 24 (12 x 2) thrones and 24 elders. We see God’s people symbolically depicted as 144,000 (12 x 12 x 1000). And in the depiction of the New Jerusalem where God’s people dwell for all eternity, the number 12 occurs 12 times.
You get the picture (pun intended). Revelation, as an apocalypse, is a book of symbols and a book of showing.
Revelation is also a prophecy (1:3; 22:7), and as such, it’s rooted in Old Testament imagery. We will misread Revelation if we try to find referents from our day instead of first of all seeing allusions from the Old Testament. Think of all the Old Testament imagery that Revelation borrows: the tree of life, the ancient serpent, the plagues, the Song of Moses, Jezebel, Babylon, the temple, Jerusalem, the 12 tribes of Israel, priests, incense, Balaam, the water of life, the winepress of God’s wrath, and on and on and on. Even though Revelation is about the future, it, more than any other book in the New Testament, only makes sense when seen through the eyes of the past. A list of Old Testament allusions and parallels in Revelation would fill several pages, with around 500 references.
Moreover, Revelation is not just steeped in Old Testament imagery, it is the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. Think, for example, of the connection between Revelation and the book of Daniel. In Daniel 2 Daniel interprets a dream for King Nebuchadnezzar. In his dream Nebuchadnezzar sees a large statue made of gold, silver, iron, and clay. The statue is broken to pieces by a rock that then becomes a huge mountain that fills the whole earth. The four metals are four kingdoms, and the rock is a final kingdom set up by God that will destroy all the other kingdoms and never be destroyed. In Daniel 2:28 Daniel says, “God has shown King Nebuchadnezzar what will happen in days to come.” And in verse 29 he says, “The revealer of mysteries showed you what is going to happen.” This language is similar, and identical in parts, to the language used in Revelation 1:1, except this time John speaks of a revelation that God gave to show what must soon take place. The phrase “what must soon take place” is used four times in Revelation, and the connection with Daniel is deliberate. What Daniel interpreted as going to happen in latter days is now close and even at hand. The appointed time when God would set up his divine everlasting kingdom—that rock that destroyed the statue of gold, silver, iron, and clay—has arrived.
Let me highlight one more connection, this time between the end of Daniel and the end of Revelation. In Daniel 12:4 Daniel is told, “But you, Daniel, close up and seal the words of the scroll until the time of the end.” In Revelation 22:10 John is told, “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, because the time is near.” You can hear the similar language. But, whereas Daniel was told to seal it up until the end, John was told to keep it open, because the time is near. What Daniel saw was coming to culmination in John’s day. What had been far off was now near at hand.
This means we are in the end times/last days and have been for years (cf. Acts 2:17; 1 Tim. 4:1). This doesn’t mean the end of the world is tomorrow. The “end times” or the “last days” is the designation for the time following the triumph of Jesus Christ on the cross. A new day has dawned in salvation history. That’s the point of the connections between Daniel and Revelation. The divine kingdom that would destroy all other kingdoms has already come—it is at hand. But it is not yet fully established. The prophecy of Daniel and the whole Old Testament, really, has come to its zenith in Revelation. The triumph of the Son of Man, the coming of the divine kingdom, and the salvation of the righteous, and the judgment of the wicked have already occurred, and they are not yet completed. In other words, the time that John saw as soon to appear has not been fully realized, but it has been inaugurated.
If all this sounds confusing, it’s because most of us don’t understand how multi-layered biblical prophecy is. Most prophecy in the Bible works by speaking to the immediate context and spinning out into the future. Most prophecy has an already and not-yet fulfillment.
For example, Isaiah 40:3-5 says, “A voice of one calling: In the desert prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. And the glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all mankind together will see it.” What is Isaiah talking about? Well, he’s talking about the return from exile in Babylon, but he’s also thinking of a deliverance more complete. Therefore, when the Gospels see in John the Baptist the fulfillment of Isaiah 40, they aren’t making things up. They are seeing the fulfillment of God’s ultimate salvation. The New Testament writers understood—as the Old Testament prophets did—that prophecy usually has a near-term and long-term fulfillment.
It’s as if a prophet came to America after 9-11 and said, “Hear, O my people, in America. Your days of fear will soon be over. I will topple Hussein. Bin Laden will I find out. Baghdad will be a haunt of jackals and Al-Qaeda a wasteland. No more will terror strike your land. Mothers will no longer weep. Children will not be fatherless. I will deliver you from all your sorrows. Death shall be destroyed, and your punishment ended. I will be among you always. I am the Lord your God, and there is no other.” Obviously, that’s not a real prophecy. But since it deals with familiar people and places, we can more easily hear near-term and long-term fulfillment. My made-up prophecy speaks hope into the immediate context, but the language is also so exalted and otherworldly as to point us to a later, fuller fulfillment. That’s how prophecy worked in the Old Testament and how it is fulfilled in Revelation.
Revelation is an apocalypse, a prophecy, and a letter. It is a letter written by John and sent to seven real churches. Some of the churches were under attack: spiritually, physically, and materially. And some of the churches were knee-deep in compromise and worldliness. The message that this letter conveyed was, above almost all else, an exhortation to overcome. “Don’t give up. Don’t give in. Jesus has won the victory. Live like him. Die like him. But do not succumb to the devil and the world.”
Revelation was probably a circular letter meant to be read at one church and then sent on to the next. Revelation would be read in a worship service, probably in one sitting. Much of the congregation would have been illiterate. They couldn’t have studied the letter even if they had a copy, so the church would listen as the reader read.
You might think, But how could they possibly understand a book like this? They didn’t have commentaries, or concordances, or Bible software, or inductive training methods, or even a Bible to follow along in! But they did have several advantages we don’t have.
First, they didn’t have TVs, movies, and the internet, so they were probably just plain better at learning with their ears.
Second, they probably knew the Old Testament better than we do.
Third, they didn’t need a translation.
Fourth, they lived in the world and culture in which the letter was written. That’s a huge advantage. No matter how brilliant and diligent our study, we will never be able to know the world of first-century Asia Minor as well as the people who lived in it. I’m sure there were all sorts of idioms, symbolisms, and referents that we struggle to uncover that they would have known instantly. We have to read big fat books to figure these things out, but things would have been much clearer had you been sitting in the First Church of Smyrna.
This isn’t to make us despair of understanding Revelation. With a good knowledge of the Old Testament and some historical knowledge, we can understand this book. After all, God gave it to us to show his servants what must soon take place. The point I am trying to reinforce is that we must not forget Revelation was a real letter to real people. It was written for a first-century audience. Now, it still has significance for us, but it was first of all written to seven churches in Asia Minor who lived in the first century, understood Greek, and were threatened by persecution and tempted to compromise. While it’s quite possible for Revelation to signify more than first-century Christians could fully understand, it must never mean less. As a letter, our interpretations of Revelation must be constrained by John’s authorial intent and the original audience’s ability to make sense of what was written.