This post was first published September 9, 2013.
Revelation: A Short Version
Revelation is a difficult book to understand. It is an apocalypse which means it is, in contemporary terms, like a fantasy. Apocalyptic and fantasy writings feature unnatural characters in unreal settings. Fantasy books contain one or more story lines in a given setting. Revelation has its two story lines in different settings and separate sections of the book although the story lines overlap to a certain extent.
The first story line begins with the author of the book, John, on the island of Patmos in approximately AD 95 and ends with the second coming of Christ at, as you can be sure, an unspecified time. The second one begins with the formation of the nation of Israel at Mount Sinai sometime around 1450 BC. This is symbolized in chapter 13 by the descent of a beautiful woman. This second story line never ends.
The setting of the first part of the book (1:1 to 11:18) contains letters to seven churches, Christ as the Lamb worthy to open the seven seals, and the blowing of seven trumpets. These are all related to human history and happenings on earth. The second part of the book is set in heaven. John sees events featuring angels, beasts coming up out of the earth and the sea, and so forth; in other words, he is seeing spiritual events invisible to human eyes.
Revelation was written to encourage Christians to overcome the adversities of this world. These include dysfunctional churches, wars, famines, diseases, death, natural disasters, cosmic disasters, persecution, worldly ideologies, and oppressive governments. Christians have had to endure these things for almost 2,000 years. However, there are seven encouraging promises in chapters 2 and 3 for those who are victorious and continue to believe Christ’s promises.
As any attempt at researching Revelation will show you, there are many questions about every aspect of the book and many different understandings of what Revelation means. This post is not based on any one of the common interpretations of Revelation. It approaches the book as if it were any of the other books of the New Testament. This means it looks at what the book says, considers what it meant to the people who first read it, tries to understand what it says to us, and attempts to see how we can apply it to our lives to come closer to what we should be as Christians.
Story Line One: From About AD 95 to the Second Coming
We are told early in Revelation that the knowledge in the book was given to “his servant John” by sending spiritual messengers in visions to communicate “what soon must take place…for the time is near.” (1:1–3) “Soon” might present a problem to us if we think of Revelation as an end-times prophecy. However, if we think about “to show his servants” (1:1) we can see that the content of the book applies to the first readers of it, the last readers of it, and all of us who are somewhere in the middle. “Near” does not mean that John thought the second coming of Christ was about to arrive but that the history described in Revelation was about to begin.
The first readers of Revelation were embedded in the first-century Roman Empire. About twenty-five years before Revelation was written the Romans had captured and destroyed the city of Jerusalem and scattered or enslaved the Jewish people living in Israel. The readers were subjects of a powerful, confident, and wealthy government that had a certain amount of hostility to their religion. It is hardly necessary to draw the parallel to our own time.
The first eleven chapters of Revelation provide us with an overview of what has happened, is happening, and is going to happen in the period of history from John’s life until Christ returns. As the threats to our peace and prosperity increase, we are as much in need of assurance that Christ is in charge of history as were the first readers of Revelation, and of reminders that we must remain faithful to him.
The first three chapters of Revelation might be thought the easy part of the book since the imagery is relatively clear (though not everyone agrees as to its meaning) and the basic structure revolves around the situations of seven, most likely existing, churches. The message of these three chapters is that we are to persevere in our faith in Jesus, regardless of difficulties or attractive distractions, so we will receive rewards in the life to come.
Chapters 4 through 6 begin with a throne room scene that is used to establish Christ’s worthiness to be in charge of history, and then they provide us a history lesson. Why would we need one? Because we would like to think we can make a heaven on earth out of a world in “bondage to decay” (Romans 8:21).
The breaking of the first four seals reveals the most familiar images in the Bible—the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Most interpretations of Revelation have placed the horsemen somewhere other than in our time and place, generally at the end of the Roman Empire or in an end-times future. However, with our knowledge of history we can see that the horsemen have ridden from John’s time until the present time and most likely will continue to ride until history ends.
The opening of the fifth seal tells us of the martyrdom of Christians that continues even now. It might seem un-Christian for martyrs to complain about delayed justice and the lack of vengeance. Jesus asked God to forgive those who crucified him (Luke 23:34). However, they are not told to forgive their persecutors but are given white robes and harps as a reward for their righteousness.
John’s vision following the opening of the sixth seal apparently includes both geological and astronomical phenomena. Perhaps it foretells the near miss of an asteroid whose gravitational pull triggers a great earthquake. Its breakup produces a meteor shower. The stresses on the earth trigger volcanoes producing dust clouds. This may be what John was seeing.
Chapter 7 gives us images of two groups of people who are removed from the hazards of history. One group, the 144,000 Jews, is given a temporary respite from the troubles of the world in order to find salvation in Jesus Christ. The list of tribes (verses 5–8) does not correspond to any list of the twelve tribes in the Old Testament. This indicates that this passage does not tell us of a formal restoration of Judaism but possibly speaks of Jews as being individually sealed.
The other people are the great number of Christian casualties of history who “are coming out of the great tribulation” (7:14). These are rewarded by being given white robes and palm branches, and the privilege of participating in the heavenly worship of God and the Lamb. The Greek word for tribulation, thlipsis, appears only here in Revelation in the NIV translation.
The opening of the seventh seal at the beginning of chapter 8 produces a rather surprising half-hour of silence in heaven. This may tell us there will be times when heaven is closed and prayers will go unanswered, prophecy will be unavailable, and Christians then must continue to believe in Christ by faith, holding on to the Word and the sacraments. Following the silence, there is the sounding of seven trumpets that bring disasters upon people who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads.
Chapters 9, 10, and 11 contain many mysteries that, if nothing else, have tested the ingenuity of Bible commentators. We may not want to think about judgments from God because too many times we have been accused of worshipping a wrathful God. Yet, Paul in his letter to the Romans (Romans 1:18–32) appears to speak of God’s wrath as coming upon godless and wicked people and this not just at some final judgment.
At the end of chapter 11 the seventh trumpet sounds. This is the third and final woe to those who have refused to accept God’s righteousness, as it ushers in the time of judgment. It is the Second Coming for those who have remained faithful to Christ. It is also the end of John’s account of history from an earthly standpoint. As Revelation continues we are going to look at the happenings on earth and in heaven from the standpoint of spiritual beings. We are entering a section of Scripture that will need a different kind of thinking, one that may be entirely unfamiliar to us. We need to go to this new method of thinking so we can truly know more of the things of God.
Story Line Two: From the Formation of the Nation of Israel to the New Jerusalem
The second section of Revelation extends from time into eternity. It begins with the formation of the nation of Israel at Mount Sinai and extends beyond time to when and where believers live happily forever in the New Jerusalem. It seems odd that the two story lines of Revelation have different starting places, but that is because they each tell a different story. The first part is about Christians in the world. The second is about the spiritual lives of believers.
Chapter 12 begins with a glorious woman descending from heaven. This describes how God sees the nation of Israel and why the Old Testament is full of expressions of God’s love for her. Satan, pictured as a dragon, goes to war with the woman and eventually drives her into exile. The dispersion of the Jews is depicted by the woman flying like an eagle to live among other peoples. The chapter ends with the frustrated dragon turning his anger from the Jews to the Christians.
Chapter 13 shows us two beasts. The first comes out of the sea and may represent the values and power of the Roman Empire. John’s first readers struggled to maintain their Christian witness and values in a culture opposed to them. We need Revelation to remind us we are not the first, nor will we be the last, Christians to face antagonism, marginalization, and persecution.
It is the nature of the second beast to deceive humanity (13:14). His deceptions may encompass rationalism, materialism, scientism, socialism, communism, postmodernism—in short, all the isms that surround us. The second beast disguises his deceptions by giving them the appearance of good, but we should recognize that all the isms of the secular worldview are fundamentally hostile to Christianity.
The fourteenth chapter begins a series of episodes all of which show us the value of remaining faithful to Christ and the judgments that come to those who reject him. It starts with a group of 144,000 people (vs. 1–5) who have God’s name, then moves on to the second section (6–13) where the people on earth receive a last call for salvation, and next shows the beginning of the separation between those who hear the call of God and those who worship the beast or bear the mark of his name. The third part (vs. 14–20) shows the results of the separation between believers and unbelievers when the end-times arrive.
We are entering the part of Revelation where the accounts are definitely not chronological. For instance, in 14:8 an angel announces, “Fallen! Fallen! is Babylon the Great.” This same pronouncement is made in 18:2 and then elaborated upon. This repetition does not require any critical agonizing. Revelation is not a timeline. It is a vivid depiction of spiritual reality, and how could it be spiritual if it is just like what happens in the material world.
The wrath of God, symbolized by the contents of seven bowls, is poured out on non-Christians in chapters 15 and 16. These seven plagues are said to be the last ones. The results are various forms of spiritual suffering but the unbelievers still continue to reject the rule of God, while their attempt at self-rule is destroyed at Armageddon (16:16).
Chapters 17 and 18 are full of imagery and serve as another challenge to interpreters. The Great Prostitute, whatever she may represent, drinks the blood of the saints but is destroyed by the beast she rides. This is described in 18:4–8 as God giving back to the prostitute the evil she has put into the world and paying her back double for the spiritual blood she has caused to be shed.
Chapter 19 begins with a celebration of the destruction of the Great Prostitute/Babylon and ends with the death of the second beast and the prophet, and those who were deceived by them. In between these two events we get a foreshadowing of the marriage feast of the Lamb and a picture of Christ as a victorious warrior. We are comforted here by seeing the end of the times of evil and knowing we are closer to our final blessing.
In chapter 20, the earth comes to an end. The present earth is not a suitable habitat for those whose names are written in the book of life, and there is no remedy for its defects except destruction. We should note that there is no battle at the gathering of Gog and Magog. Fire simply comes down from heaven and devours the multitude (20:9). Satan is returned to the lake of burning sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were thrown (20:10).
In chapter 21 we come to Christ’s judgment of humanity. The result of his righteous judgment is either a second life or a second death (21:6–8). The second life is given to those who overcome; the second death is for those who are “the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars (21:8). It is for all those who reject ultimately the righteousness of God. The second death can be people ceasing to exist. This would be eternal but it would also demonstrate God’s mercy in two ways. It would be short in duration and satisfy those who claim to welcome nonexistence after this life.
We might wonder why so many people risk the second death instead of choosing the eternal life available in Christ. However, we who have chosen life are told in Revelation how hard this choice may become. As for Revelation, we are told to keep its words in our lives so as to do the things it tells us to do. The two different story lines of Revelation, the historical and spiritual, supply the balance we need in our lives as we seek to mature in our Christianity.