Revelation is one of the most intriguing, yet least understood books of the Bible and lots has been said about it, especially recently. People want to know what will happen at the end of the world and look to the different theories on the book, but it’s difficult. What do all of those crazy images mean?! I decided I would get in on the conversation as well, so here’s a mini blog series on how to read and interpret the book of Revelation. But first, a disclaimer: I think that the questions “How do I explain the book of Revelation?” and “What happens at the end of time?” are two different and un-related questions. However, the book of Revelation is a beautiful picture of the way Jesus loves His Church. So these next several posts will be MY INTERPRETATION of the book of Revelation. Not everyone agrees with me, and that’s ok, but over the next several weeks I will be going over what I think is the most accurate way to dive into the book. So let’s get started with
THE CONTEXT: WHAT WAS GOING ON BACK THEN?
Who Wrote It: The apostle John wrote the book of Revelation while he was banished to the island of Patmos. Patmos is a rocky and uninviting island located about 70 miles southwest of Ephesus. The island is about 10 miles long and 6 miles across as its widest point. The sea almost pinches it off in one place, forming a harbor. Maybe that’s why the word “sea” shows up so often in this book.
What’s the Time Frame: This is super important. The major question is: “Is Revelation talking about what happens at the end of the world?” I think that question is answered in the very first verse. “The revelation from Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants WHAT MUST SOON TAKE PLACE”. John is seeing things that were supposed to take place soon, not at the end of the world. Want more proof? Daniel was given a vision (Daniel chapters 7-8) and was told to seal it up because it was going to be a long time before it happened. His vision came true 400 years later. John is told (in chapter 22) not to seal up his vision because the events would happen soon. If 400 years is long enough to seal up a vision then why would almost 2000 years be considered soon enough to keep that vision open?!
Why was the Book Written: The book of Revelation was written to provide comfort and encouragement to the people of God and let them know that God had not abandoned them. God was not comforting persecuted first century Christians by telling them about what would happen 2000 years later. The focus of the problem was first century Roman persecution, and the focus of Revelation is first century Rome.
How is the Book Written: Revelation is written in Apocalyptic language. What is that? This is found in many Old Testament books. This type of language uses tons of symbols and figurative language. Apocalyptic language is almost always used when God judges an oppressor and saves his people.
How do we Read the Book: When reading the Bible, the best approach is to read it literally UNLESS we are forced not to. For example, when Jesus says, in the Sermon on the Mount, to cut off your hand if it causes us to sin, we understand not to take that literally. With Apocalyptic language, we do the opposite. We should read it figuratively, unless forced not to. Why? Because it uses vivid and dramatic symbols to describe dramatic events. Revelation is also full of references to the Old Testament. We must understand that in order to read it as well.
What was Happening: Christianity upset Rome because it taught that all men were lost without Christ. They worshipped a criminal that Rome has executed. The persecution of the church was especially bad during the reign of Emperors Nero and Domitian. In AD 66, a fire destroyed much of Rome and a rumor spread that Nero started it. Nero got scared and blamed the Christians for it since they were expecting an end of the world that involved fire. Christians were covered with skins from wild animals and torn to death by dogs. They were fastened to stakes and burned to provide light during the night.
We have to read Revelation from the view of a Christian being persecuted by Rome. During the time Revelation was written, Caesar worship dominated Rome. Christians who refused to worship Caesar were persecuted and killed. Everyone was required to confess, “Caesar is Lord”. Christians were left with a choice; Caesar or Christ. The book of Revelation is a call to be faithful till death in order to win the crown of life.
Next Week – Part 2: Letters to the Churches