The book of Revelation has one of the most colourful interpretive histories of any Biblical writing. The notes and talk here take the approach that the imagery of this book relies heavily on the Old Testament and that the series of visions describe the same period of time – the time between Jesus’ ascension and his coming again to bring the earth its final Sabbath rest. The book of Revelation has a postive message for us who live in the uncertainty of these last days. [Audio | Notes]
How to understand the book of Revelation
It is a book about Jesus Christ (the hero of the story) and a revelation of Jesus Christ (1:1) to his churches (Chapters 2 & 3)
It is from God, through Christ, to the churches to be read, heard and kept and it is intended to bless those who read or hear it read (Chapter 1). That is, despite the warnings and images, the message of this book is a positive one.
It comes in the form of:
- A revelation; apo-calupsis – a type of writing designed to reveal the realities controlling current and future events.
- A prophecy; forth-telling (reminding of God’s words in the past), foretelling (predicting) and fulfilment.
- A letter; to the seven churches (1:4, 22:16).
It is a message for the first century church (22:10) a message to the church throughout history as well as a message for us. The main interpretations of the book are:
- Past – relevant to the 1st Century only
- Historical – an outline of church history. A continuous story of the different stages of world history.
- Futurist – a prophecy for times that are still to come. Emphasis on Armageddon and the Millennium.
- Last days – a description of life in the last days from the ascension of Christ until his return. Therefore, relevant to every century.
- Allegory – a non-historical depiction of spiritual truths.
- Post-modern – a random tapestry of images with no discernible structure that can be used as a tool to realise our own spiritual journey.
These notes support option 4.
It develops and fulfils Old Testament (OT) themes, language and images. This is important as poor interpretations arise when we interpret Revelation’s imagery using symbols from our world or experience rather than from the OT. Revelation is the Bible interpreting the Bible through previously established themes such as: Creation, Exodus, Tabernacle, Temple, Prophecy.
- There are 404 verses in the book, 278 of which use the Old Testament
- It uses symbolic language drawn from the OT for example:
- Numbers: 1 = excellence, 7 = fulfilment or completion, 6 = imperfection, 12 = people of God, 1000 = large number/uncountable.
- Colours: White – divine presence, victory, dignity; Black – disaster, distress; Red – blood & violence; Green – death; Purple/Scarlet – immorality
- Symbolic language: 1:12-16 – word as a sword. 1:20 – 7 stars are angels. 5:5,6 – Lion of Judah who is the slain lamb of God. 11:8 – allegory. 13:18 – need for wisdom to understand. 17:5 – this woman is the mystery, Babylon the Great.
The millennium is the 1000-year period mentioned in 20:1-7 and it is not found elsewhere in the Bible. In the modern church we need to work out what this passage means as it will determine our understanding of the rest of the book. There are three main views:
- Postmillennial – The world improves as the Saints gain power over the world and then Christ returns. Unfortunately, we don’t see this happening and it encourages the idea that the work of the church ultimately saves the world. Self-salvation is not born out by a careful reading of the rest of Revelation.
- Premillenial – Christ’s return is followed by a 1000-year reign on earth, then rebellion and then the final judgement. This doesn’t stand up to a careful reading of chapters 19 and 20.
- Amillenial – the book of Revelation does not recount consecutive events but parallel events. The same period of the last days described in various ways until the final judgement in 20:11-15. The millennium is then another way of describing the time of the church in these last days. That it is described as the rule of the saints, a golden period, reminds us of Charles’ Dicken’s description of the French Revolution as the worst of times and the best of times in A tale of two cities – there is good going on within the chaos of world history described elsewhere in the book. This is the interpretation follwed in the notes below.
Revelation expands on Jesus’ warnings about the last days regarding deceivers and false Christs (2,3,13); wars, earthquakes and famines (6,8,9,12); witness during suffering (11); abomination of desolation (13,17); changes to the Sun, Moon and Stars (12); the coming of the Son of Man (1,19,22). (See Mark 13 and Matthew 24).
Early church interpreters upto and including Augustine of Hippo and then onto modern commentators like Graham Goldsworthy, Paul Barnett, Leon Morris and Richard Baukham observe that the book of Revelation gives us parallel or concurrent descriptions of history between the resurrection and second coming of Christ. To put that another way, the dramatic stories in Revelation cover the same time period but from different perspectives. The trumpets don’t chronologically follow the seals followed by the signs, followed by the plagues (even though the visions follow each other chronologically, for example: 7:1, 10:1, 13:11, 14:1); rather these are separate views of what it is like to live in the last days, the days of the church, the days of the rule of the saints (Chapter 20). These parallel views of human history are interrupted throughout the book by interpretations of world events seen from heaven.
The table below summarises the parallel images of the book of Revelation.
If you allow for the prologue and letters at the start of the book as an introduction and application of the book’s teaching; then the visions of seals, trumpets, beasts, plagues, Babylon and the Bride and the final Sabbath consummation makes seven sections to the book. It is a complete account; neither to be added to or taken from (22:18,19).
|Seven seals (6-7) Persecution||Seven trumpets (8-11) Repentance||Seven beasts/signs (12-14) Persecution||Seven plagues (15-16) Repentance|
|1. White horse of conquest||1. Hail, fire and blood. A third of vegetation burnt up.||1. The pregnant woman.||1. onto land. Boils and sores for those who worship the beast.|
|2. Fiery red horse of war and destruction.||2. A mountain thrown into the sea. A third of sea creatures die.||2. The seven headed dragon (the enemy and destroyer)||2. onto sea. All the sea turned to blood.|
|3. Black horse of famine/want||3. A Star falls from the sky. A third of fresh water turns bitter.||3. The male child is snatched up to God.||3. onto fresh water. All turned to blood.|
|4. Pale horse of death and Hades.||4. A third of the light of the Sun, Moon and Stars fails.||4. Beast of the sea who causes people to worship the dragon.||4. onto Sun. Burns people who remain unrepentant.|
|5. Souls of the martyrs. “How long, Sovereign Lord, Holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood ?”||5. The king of the Abyss (Satan) releases the torture of the locust/scorpions upon all who don’t have the seal of God. (illness)||5. Beast of the earth does signs to glorify the dragon.||5. onto the throne of the beast and his kingdom becomes darkness. People remain unrepentant.|
|6. Uncreation. “The day of the wrath of the lamb.”||6. Angels released to kill a third of humankind.||6. Image of the beast set up. The killing of those who refuse to worship, along with economic persecution. Name and mark of the beast.||6. onto Euphrates river, to prepare way for Kings of the east.|
|Heaven’s view: “A great multitude that no one could count….’who are these?’ … 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.” Silence in heaven||Heaven’s view: “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ (11:15). Humankind still unrepentant and idolatrous. John (and the faithful with him) must nevertheless go on prophesying. God’s witnesses only ever appear to be defeated – God will see them triumph.||Heaven’s view: The saved and marked are kept in heaven now. The eternal gospel has defeated great Babylon. The ultimate torment and destruction of those who worship the beast is promised.||Heaven’s view: The dragon fights back with evil spirits who gather the world’s armies for a final conflict, but no conflict arrives.|
|7. Silence in heaven||7. “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and his Christ.”||7. The Son of Man reaps in harvest and judgement.||7. onto the air. “It is done” The nations judged and destroyed – divided.|
For further thought
Read the book to answer: “Why was the book of Revelation written?”
Q: What difference does it make to the reader to learn that the ultimate victory has already occurred and is not a future event? (1:18)
Q: How is the doctrine of the Trinity supported by Revelation 1? (see also 22:13)
Q: Here are references to the Old Testament allusions in chapter 1.
White hair and robe & son of man: See Daniel 7:9-14
Golden sash: see Exodus 39:8-21
Feet of fired bronze: see Daniel 2:27-47
Q: Do these images make sense?
Q: How could this vision effect you own life with God?
Prophecy now – Revelation 1 (A talk outline)
A revelation of Jesus Christ (1-3)
A prophecy for us
A letter to us
One like a Son of Man
Write what you see, what is & what will take place (19)