The book of Revelation (Greek: Apocalypse, “unveiling” or “disclosure”) is the most Old Testament-like of New Testament books. The Apocalypse is typically dismissed as irrelevant by many, avoided by most, obsessed over by others, and the sweet nectar for paranoid doomsdayers. John Calvin wouldn’t include it in his NT commentaries. Martin Luther was sure he lived in the last days but considered the book of Revelation “neither apostolic nor prophetic,” and relegated it to an appendix in his New German Bible. Scholars are divided; some say its visions were fulfilled 2000 years ago, others say they are imminent, yet others hold for distant future fulfillments. What should we take from this extraordinary book that closes Scripture’s message?
by Ken Westby
What do you make of a symbol-laden book filled with visions and bizarre imagery of dragons, other-worldly beasts, frightening evils, worldwide cataclysms, warnings of persecution and death, mysterious numbers, reoccurring sevens, heavenly scenes of angels singing and God speaking, and concluding with a dream-like future world without suffering or death? Revelation is unlike any other book in the New Testament. If the Apocalypse “unveils” or “discloses” something, what is it?
Are we to read Revelation literally, newspaper in hand, trying to apply its imagery and terminology to current or future events? Do we see it as descriptive prophecy of “what must soon take place” (1:1) in our generation? Or, looking back two thousand years, do we understand it as descriptive history of what took place among that first century generation who received it from John?
I’ve been a lover of this book since I was a teenager over fifty years ago. I’ve studied it seriously, have over two dozen scholarly commentaries on Revelation, dozens of popular books and have read hundred of articles attempting to fathom its mysteries and understand its secrets. Does that make me an expert? No, just a student. The famous quip by Mark Twain fits well the subject at hand:
“The researches of many commentators have already thrown much darkness on this subject, and it is probable that, if they continue, we shall soon know nothing at all about it!”
After hearing a sermon or reading yet another scenario on who the beast is or the latest prediction of when the end will come, frustrated Christians throw up their hands in agreement with Mark Twain. You can’t blame them. For many Revelation had become irrelevant or just plain foolishness. Understandable, but tragic.
A Book for Whackos?
Curiosity about “the end” is normal. We’d all like to have an idea of our times and when things will wind down to the end. But if we are told we can’t know that date with any specificity, as scripture clearly does, shouldn’t we back away from pursuing the unknowable? Nevertheless, the desire to know a date for “the end” seems just too attractive to simply leave it in God’s hand. Sincere pseudoprophets have ignored all warnings letting their fertile minds run wild making predictions and setting dates. Other self-appointed prophets saw date setting as the means to build a following with the money and power that usually follows.
“Obsession is the appropriate word to describe some eight million prophecy buffs today, poring over the prophecies of the Apocalypse in Nostradamus style, anachronistically correlating current events with its ancient cryptic warnings.” So wrote C. Marvin Pate, general editor, in his introduction to the book, Four Views on the Book of Revelation. He continued:
Pursuing this angle, these interpreters equate Red China with the “kings from the East” (16:12-16), the European Common Market [EU] with the “ten horns of the beast” (13:1-10), the mark of the beast (666) of Revelation 13 with everything from credit cards to the Internet, and the Antichrist with a parade of prominent people, including Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Henry Kissinger, and Mikhail Gorbachev [many now add Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran and even president Barack Obama! to that list]. …Such a crystal ball reading of the last book in the Bible, however, has undoubtedly caused more harm than good and is best avoided by responsible hermeneuticians.
It seems many prophecy buffs are “Saturday night mechanics” when it comes to interpreting the Apocalypse. Each having his or her take on its symbols (“locusts” of 9:3-10 = Blackhawk helicopters, their “stings like scorpions” = nuclear weapons, etc.) and creatively pounding their picture together using what tools happen to be on the work bench. Through the centuries to the present, nightmarish pictures have been created out of paranoia intended to moralize people by appealing to scare tactics. Their prophecies failed, their interpretations missed the mark. Much mischief and deceit hide in the winding warrens of the false prophets who misuse Revelation and lure aside the innocent. Let the traveler beware.
The Apocalypse is not a book about how terrible the Antichrist is, nor how powerful Satan is. It is, as the very first verse says, The Revelation of Jesus Christ given to him by Yahweh, the One True God. It is about Christ’s Lordship, our salvation, our reward, and God’s wonderful plan for our life. It tells us that evil in all its iterations will be defeated and vanquished. It tells us that the kingdoms of this world will melt before the Kingdom of our God, and of His Christ, and that we will reign with them forever and ever (11:15). It encourages readers to see the real Power, supernatural heavenly power, at work to bring us into God’s presence. It counsels endurance, patience, belief, obedience, hope, praise and worship of God, and yes, rejoicing.
A Book for All Seasons?
This article makes no attempt to offer a thorough exposition or interpretation of Revelation, of its symbols, or of possible present or future prophetical fulfillments. Such a project would require volumes, and many have been written. Rather, I intend here but a brief introduction to fundamental facts which can guide the reader to a more sound approach to Revelation. An approach that I believe will yield better understanding and allow Revelation’s message to powerfully speak to us anew today.
The Apocalypse is not fiction (certainly not science fiction), but it is a carefully crafted piece of literature perfectly suited to the material revealed and to the people who would first read it or hear it read. Revelation is a book, like all NT books, addressed primarily to first-century Christians and easily understood by them, because–and this is key–they were thoroughly familiar with OT imagery. Once one grasps these OT idioms, Revelation will become more understandable to us today.
But the more I study Revelation the more I understand why it is in the canon of Scripture and why it is the perfect conclusion to what began the Torah, the book of Genesis. It discloses heavenly secrets in visionary form to a servant of God for the benefit of believers experiencing suffering or perceiving themselves victimized by some form of deprivation–the first-century recipients of John’s book. But its over-all message is sufficiently universal to apply to all Christians in all ages, which is why it found its important place as the conclusion to the biblical canon.
One has to work at understanding Revelation since we are so far removed from its style of presentation. It can’t be read the same way one would read the Gospels, or the narrative of Acts, or the letters of Paul. Before one can properly interpret any piece of literature, the Bible included, one must determine its genre or literary type. One doesn’t read a romance novel with the same expectations as reading The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, or the 2010 World Almanac, or the stock market page in the newspaper, or the comics page, or obituary page, or the editorial page, or the weather page, or the news stories. Each is specific to the information it presents. Each is a different literary style suited to the information offered.
The Bible contains many a genre of literature from poetry, to historical narrative, to prophetic, to epistolary (letters), to apocalyptic. The most strange type to our literary experience is the last which is the classification given Revelation.
In order to understand Revelation, we need to know our Bibles backward and forward. To properly understand it we must become familiar with the “language” or genre in which it is written. Revelation requires work. Ignore the lazy expositors and the shoot-from-the-hip prophets who will, as Mark Twain quipped, “throw much darkness on the subject.”
The Most OT of NT Books
Familiarity with the Old Testament is a key to understanding Revelation. Steeped in OT imagery and terminology, which provides the dominant source of its information, of its 404 verses 278 contain allusions to the OT. The writer (likely the Apostle John) as a Christian prophet, received and formulated his message in the imagery of the OT, predominantly from Daniel, and of the Synoptic Gospels, particularly the traditions of Matthew 24.
Although Revelation is completely saturated with the OT, John did not employ a method of citations, but creatively adapted the ancient traditions to his own purpose. The use of the OT is, therefore, prophetic in nature and not midrashic. His focus is not on the OT text as such, but on the prophetical reality which he depicts by means of the Hebrew Scriptures. The writer so easily combines the OT with the apocalyptic traditions of Matthew 24, and its parallels, which had already given the prophecies of Daniel place and authority. By the visions from God (via Jesus and “his angel”) John offered a profound reinterpretation of the whole of OT prophecy in the light of his understanding of Jesus Christ.
It must be remembered that most first-century Christians were infused with the OT, and many attended synagogue. Torah, the Writings, and the Prophets saturated their minds and found their way quite naturally into their writing and speaking. Their OT references need not come with chapter and verse citation (which in those days were not available and books were scrolls) as we moderns do, but flowed naturally from a mind accustomed to hearing the scrolls read. Most did not own or read the scrolls, but heard them read in synagogue and by traveling teachers or rabbis. Much of scripture was committed to memory, made easier by their context in the colorful stories and pictures given by OT writers.
John merges hundreds of OT passages into the Apocalypse many of which are subtle allusions to little-known rituals of Israelite worship. Revelation is very much like a worship service. John did not write a manual of prophecy, but a heavenly worship service in progress. Revelation is a God-centric book and the worship of God is central to everything in life. It is the most important thing we do. Most casual readers may miss the considerable liturgical aspects of Revelation and their implications for our worship today.
Scholars have noted the liturgical scaffolding into which the visions of Revelation are built. Like the book of Hebrews, temple ritual and sacrifice form the backdrop and stage for the message. We have scenes of the throne of God surrounded by twenty-four elders. The throne reflects the altar before which the twenty-four courses of the Hebrew Priesthood served in the temple. There are robes, lamps, the Glassy Sea, the Cherubim, Candlestick, Laver, offerings, prayers, incense and a Lamb that is both priest and victim, a temple filled with God’s Shekinah, fire and smoke, blood from offerings, sprinkling blood seven times toward the veil and the pouring out of seven bowls as a libation upon the land that had been soaked in the blood of Jesus and his martyrs. The picture is of one great altar of burnt-and blood offerings with Father and Son using the temple motif to mete out justice on earth.
The book of Leviticus should be required reading prior to reading Revelation. When reading the Apocalypse’s visions of God’s judgment of seven seals, seven trumpets, and seven bowls, we can easily recall this pattern of sevenfold judgment from Leviticus: “If after all this you will not listen to me, I will punish you for your sins seven times over” (Lev. 26:18, 24, 28). (See Philip Carrington’s The Levitical Symbolism in Revelation).
The influence of the OT on Revelation is overwhelming. The seven-sealed scroll (5:1) should bring to mind a scroll similarly described and in analogous context in Ezekiel. There the prophet saw for living, winged creatures, much like those John sees (Ezek. 1:5-10; Rev. 4:6-8). Near the creatures Ezekiel sees a crystal-like expanse and a glorious throne overarched by a rainbow, much like that John sees. What was the point of Ezekiel’s vision? Judgment on Israel. In Revelation divine judgment is again in view and this is why God’s throne of judgment is so prominent in the book. John mentions God’s “throne” in eighteen of Revelation’s twenty-two chapters. Of the sixty-two appearances of the word “throne” in the NT, forty-seven of them are in Revelation.
The idea of “souls under the altar” crying out to God (Rev. 6) is also a Hebrew, not a Christian concept. Rabbi Akiba is reputed to have said that whoever was buried in the land of Israel was considered as if he were buried under the altar, and if buried under the altar as if he were buried under the throne of glory. It likely derived from the fact that the blood of a sacrifice, which was considered the life of the victim, ran down the base of the altar; thus the life would literally be under the altar. The martyr was seen as representative of the people of Israel and the cry of the martyrs in 6:10 for the Lord to render judgment reflects the appeal of Abel’s blood recorded in Gen 4:10 crying out to God for justice.
The Apocalyptic Tradition
In the Hebrew Bible the book of Daniel best represents the prophetic type of literature called apocalyptic. It was a popular literary form from Daniel’s time until about the second-century in our modern era. Dozens of books were written in this style including such non-biblical works as the Ethiopian Enoch, Jubilees, Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, the Book of the Watchers, the Astronomical Book, the Book of Dreams, the Apocalypse of Weeks, IV Ezra, and many more. In the Christian era dozens appeared after John’s Revelation such as the Apocalypse of Paul, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Apocalypse of Peter, Jacobs’s Ladder, Apocalypse of the Virgin Mary, Apocalypse of James, and many more apocryphal (fictitious) apocalypses. For centuries this was a popular literary form. The Dead Sea community at Qumran had several apocalyptic works which were found when the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in the late 1940s.
The apocalyptic style is very visual, full of colors, creatures, sounds and sights that can cause wonder and reach one’s mind and emotions with an effect standard writing cannot match. But with its powers there are dangers and cautions–particularly in the matter of interpretation.
Revelation is a highly figurative book that we cannot approach with a simple straightforward literalism. Nevertheless, it strongly represents actual historical events in John’s near future, though they are set in apocalyptic drama and clothed in poetic hyperbole. Symbolism is not a denial of a real historical happening, but a matter of literary presentation. John is seeing things–forty-one times he says he “sees” these events, most in symbolic form such as the slain lamb, the seven-headed beast, and the Babylonian prostitute. The visual nature demands symbolic interpretation, which except for a very few instances (e.g., 1:20; 4:5; 5:6,8; 7:13-14; 12:9; 17:7-10), the symbols are not interpreted for us.
Revelation is concrete and historical as John is writing to seven actual churches is Asia Minor. God and John no doubt had specific persons and geopolitical events in view throughout the book, but these were left opaque and partly hidden by the visionary presentation. This was by divine design. Directed by God’s “unveiling,” John writes to human beings to spiritually motivate them to remain faithful, to see God’s mighty hand at work, to see the victorious work of Jesus, and to catch a spectacular scene of the Golden Age of the coming Kingdom of God.
Daniel was the recipient of heavenly visions and understanding his OT work can provide insight in understanding Revelation. One example is Daniel’s depiction of the imagery of “time, two times, and half a time” (Dan. 7:25) in relating to great persecution and the end. This is adapted and continued in marking Revelation’s tribulation periods mentioned in 11:2 and 12:6, 14. These two sections are not set in a chronological scheme, but depict the same prophetical sequence from different perspectives. This is an OT pattern of reduplication or recapitulation seen in Revelation.
Daniel sets forth an initial prophetic vision of the future which moves through a sequence of four kingdoms until the last is destroyed by the coming of the kingdom of God (ch. 2). Chapter 7 then repeats the same sequence, but focuses attention on the period of the fourth monarchy in the coming of the divine rule. Again in chs. 8 and 10-11 the same pattern is followed and interpreted from yet another perspective. In spite of an intensification of the changing imagery the pattern of reduplication of the one prophetic sequence is evident. The focus in Revelation seems to center upon that fourth kingdom which was it its height of power when John wrote.
It should come as no surprise that much of Revelation’s material may not be constructed along strictly chronological lines, but by a pattern of reduplication. The purpose is to enrich and enlarge the basic prophetical message. The visions of Revelation include and duplicate other apocalyptic sections of the NT (Mat. 24 and parallels; 2 Thes. 2; 2 Pet. 3).
“The basic outline is provided by Daniel with the portrayal of the persecution of the saints, the coming of the messianic woes leading up to the great tribulation, and the appearance of the Antichrist. The NT prophet thus affirms the truth of the older prophecy respecting God’s people. When the church has been taxed to its uttermost limit, the kingdom of God is ushered in with the coming of the Son of Man. However, this basic apocalyptic scheme of the NT has been enlarged and developed by imagery from other parts of the OT. Psalm 2 provided the standard imagery for the rebellious nations (Rev. 2:26), Joel 2 for the cosmic disorders (Mat. 24:29f.; Rev. 6:12), and Isa. 66 for the hope of the new heavens and earth (Rev. 21:1).”
Is it not logical that there would be great similarity in Daniel and other OT material and Revelation given the fact Yahweh stands as source behind all the visions and judgments? Same God, same plan, same ultimate outcome. But time moves on and circumstances on the ground change and so from time to time God provides fresh insights, portrayals, and encouragement to His Saints. And what makes Revelation so very special is the powerful presence of the Son of Man, Jesus Messiah, recently exalted, glorified, and now sharing God’s throne in the Great Vision.
Discover the Rich Jewel
The Apocalypse “revealed” to Christians of the first-century things which must “shortly come to pass.” It was “Apocalypse Now” for the saints standing on the edge of disaster as that fourth kingdom in Daniel’s vision was spewing forth its evil. It was a call to endure and to know that the ultimate victory was to be God’s and theirs. Secondarily, it was also “Apocalypse Later” as evil would continue to manifest in the centuries following until God and Christ bring an end to the Devil’s rule and replace the kingdoms of this world. This is the prophetic element to the book. The resurrection of the saints and the return of Christ finally bring the Apocalypse to its climatic end.
Revelation presents unseen realities of God’s heaven and his activities on earth in bringing ultimate victory to the Kingdom of God. It helps us see the dimension of reality from the perspective of God’s heaven. Eternity is not timeless, but unfolds in stages that humans will live through. Evil will be crushed. Death replaced with life. The righteous vindicated and rewarded. The scales of justice finally balanced. “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants” gives tender guidance to the faithful to endure to the end. It offers divine help to endure trials and imparts hope of eternal life in the sparkling paradise of God’s new heaven and earth.
The Apocalypse is a stunning, many faceted jewel. Expose it to light and watch it coruscate with a rainbow of flashing colors. Its message for the Godly is clear. Its visions brilliant, scary, reassuring, and leading to an end that echoes Jesus’ model prayer: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
I recommend the advice of William Tyndale, a true hero of the Faith, and suggest it be applied to this most beautiful and final book of God’s Word.
Though a man had a precious and rich jewel, yet if he knew not the value thereof, nor wherefore it served, he were neither the better nor richer of a straw. Even so though we read the scripture, and babble of it ever so much, yet if we know not the use of it, and wherefore it was given, and what is therin to be sought, it profits us nothing at all.
It is not enough, therefore, to read and talk of it only, but we must also desire God, day and night, instantly, to open our eyes, and to make us understand and feel wherefore the scripture was given, that we mayapply the medicine of the scripture, every man to his own sores. unless we intend to be idle disputers, and brawlers about vain words, ever gnawing upon the bitter bark without, and never attaining unto the sweet pith within; and persecuting one another in defending of wicked imaginations, and phantasies of our own invention.
—William Tyndale; prefixed to the translation of the Pentateuch, 1530.
The doors of God’s heaven are open to us (Rev. 4:1). Let the visions of Revelation (a picture is truly worth a thousand words) stir our souls to praise, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty,” and to action by overcoming all temptations to stand at the final triumph of God.
 Acts 1:7; Mt 24:36; see also Daniel 12:9.
 Pate, C. Marvin, general editor, Four View on the Book of Revelation (Preterist, Idealist, Progressive Dispensationalist, Classical Dispensationalist), Zondervan Publishing House, 1998, p. 9.
 While generally apocalyptic, it also includes epistolary and prophetic material.
 According to Wescott & Hort.
 see Childs, Brevard S., The New Testament as Canon (An Introduction), Fortress Press, 1985, p. 509.
 Carrington, Philip, Appendix A in The Days of Vengeance (An Exposition of the Book of Revelation) by David Chilton, Dominion Press, 1987, pp. 593-611.
 Pate, p. 50
 The Anchor Bible, Revelation Vol. 38, J. Massyngberde Ford, Doubleday, 1975, p. 110-111.
 Childs, p. 510.
 Ibid. p. 511.