Making Sense of the Book of Revelation
Reading the book of Revelation feels like a wild ride through Universal Studios theme park in Orlando.
It starts like the other New Testament letters with a description of Jesus and his message for the churches (chapters 1-3), then morphs into an awe-inspiring vision of God and Jesus on the throne in Heaven (chapters 4-5), and then morphs again into a science fiction movie with strange beasts doing strange things (chapters 6-18), culminating in an epic movie where the hero vanquishes the villain (chapters 19-20), and then ends like a fairy tale where the bride and groom live happily ever after (chapters 21-22).
Whew, exhausting – kinda like that run-on sentence.
Some of it is pretty straight forward and makes sense to us, but much of it reads like a detective movie set in Egypt where the clues are written in hieroglyphics.
Who’s the beast?
What’s the mark of the beast – 666?
Who’s the false prophet?
Who’s the dragon?
Who’s the woman riding on the dragon?
Who’s the two witnesses who die and are raised from the dead?
So, we go to commentaries to explain what we’re reading, and we find that Christians have all kinds of different opinions about how to interpret the book of revelation and we’re left with all kinds of new questions like:
What’s a rapture?
Is the rapture before or after the great tribulation?
What’s the millennium? Are we in the millennium, or is it yet to occur? Is the millennium figurative or a literal 1,000 years?
Are only 144,000 people going to be saved? Or is that number figurative too?
Is all this past, present, or yet to come?
When is the world coming to an end? Can we figure it out? Are we supposed to try?
All of this can be very confusing, making us scratch our heads and want to throw up our hands in frustration.
No wonder so many of us get to chapter 5 (at best) and then give up on the book.
And yet… there’s something about this strange book that captures our imaginations, draws our hearts, and feels very important. It is an inspired book of the Bible after all, and so God must want us to get something out of it, right? But what?
I don’t have all the answers. And I don’t have room in a blog post to even give you much detail. But allow me to offer a few guideposts that can help you.
1) Revelation is written in code (symbols)
Why? Because it portrayed the Roman government as evil (see Revelation 17 especially), so God gave John a series of visions full of symbols from the Old Testament which would make perfect sense to the Christian community of his day, and yet not get them in any further trouble with the Roman Emperor, Domitian, who was already putting Christians to death for not worshipping him as “Lord and God”.
2) Unlike the rest of the Bible, apocalyptic literature (biblical writings which “unveil” things which are normally hidden and “reveal” the future) is to be taken figuratively, not literally, unless the immediate context demands otherwise
So, for example, numbers are figurative, not literal.
Excerpt from Gordon Ferguson’s article, “The Fallacies of Popular End Times Teaching”:
“To the Jewish mind, numerology was very important. Many numbers had well-defined meanings, and they conveyed spiritual lessons. For example, the number “1” carried the idea of unity. Think of the series of “ones” in Ephesians 4:4-6. The number “2” carried the idea of strengthening. Jesus sent out his early preachers two by two. Revelation 11:3 mentions God’s two witnesses. Then, the number “3” was the divine number (Father, Son and Spirit). Next, “4” was the cosmic or world number. In Revelation 7:1, you find four angels, four corners of the earth and the four winds of heaven.
Combine the divine number and the world number and you get “7,” the number of perfection. Thus, in Revelation 4:5, the seven spirits most likely refer to the Holy Spirit in his perfection. The number “6” was an evil, sinister number because it fell short of the perfect number. In America, many of our hotels do not designate a 13th floor. In that Jewish setting, they would not have had a designated sixth floor. The “666” of Revelation 13:18 carries with it the idea of evil and failure. The next significant number was “10,” which signified completeness (all fingers or all toes). You find this number often in the Revelation. A multiple of that number would be 1,000, denoting ultimate completeness. The 1,000 years in Revelation 20 show this kind of completeness, as a look at the references mentioned earlier will demonstrate.
The number of organized religion was “12,” calling to mind the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles. In Revelation 7, the twelve tribes are connected to John’s mention of the 144,000. If you take the organized religion number, multiply it by itself, and then multiply it by 1,000, the number of ultimate completeness, you come up with 144,000. Therefore, if you understood the way that numbers were used symbolically, you would expect this number to signify the ultimate number of a religious group. And we will see that this is precisely what is being done in Revelation 7. Finally, the other key number in Revelation is “3 1/2,” found as three-and-a-half years, forty-two months, 1,260 days, and from Daniel, a time, times and a half a time. This number, in whatever form, symbolized the period of persecution itself, an unstable time, but one with an end to it.”
Okay, so that’s a good start.
We learned that the book of Revelation portrayed the Roman government as evil (as well as powers of the world in every generation who are opposed to God’s people). So, the book is purposefully cryptic to outsiders so that the Roman authorities of John’s day would not have further reason to seize and arrest Christians for treason, and yet the Christians who were well versed in Old Testament symbolism and prophecy would understand the coded message fairly easily.
So, that explains why most of us today, who are not as well versed in things like the Jewish numerology that Gordon explains above, would be just as dumbfounded as the Romans of John’s day.
Hopefully this background information and Gordon’s article excerpt gives you a couple of guideposts to help you navigate through the book a little easier.
But what’s the point of the book? What’s the sweep of the story? What’s the Cliff’s Notes version of Revelation? And what are the main spiritual lessons God wants Christians of every generation to get from this strange and fascinating book?
I’ll try to answer those questions as simply and clearly as I can in my blog post next week (without getting bogged down in all of the eschatological controversies that have perplexed commentators for centuries – sorry, that’s above my pay grade :-)
Spoiler alert: God wins in the end!