Note: This article is the first in a series.
Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written in it; for the time is near. (Revelation 1:3, NKJ)
The book of Revelation is, perhaps, the most misunderstood book in the Bible. Contrary to popular opinion, it is not a “road map” of future events that will happen around the time of the Second Coming of Jesus. Rather, it is a book about the church as it is exists on the earth right now. It is difficult to interpret because it is a book of symbols. As John writes in Revelation 1:1, “… And He sent and signified it by His angel to His servant, John…” G.K Beale argues that the word translated “signified” can mean “to communicate by symbols.” So Revelation is a communication from God through His servant John to the church done by means of symbols. Symbols are not reality; they are pictures of reality. Nowhere in the universe will we find a seven-headed, ten-horned sea monster that is part leopard, part bear, and part lion (Revelation 12:1-2). We will find something even more hideous, which is institutional powers arrayed against the people of God and intent on destroying the church. To have any hope of accurately understanding Revelation, we must grasp that it is a revelation in symbols, and we must learn to interpret the symbols properly. The interpretative key is realizing that the symbols come, almost exclusively, from the Old Testament Scriptures. The symbols are not drawn from our newspapers or our history books, they come from the Bible.
It also helps to understand the context in which Revelation was written. The book was written to persecuted Christians living in the Roman Empire in the first century. Many interpreters seem to forget that the book is actually a letter written to “the seven churches which are in Asia” (Revelation 1:4). The book had meaning to its initial audience and, as sacred Scripture, it has meaning to us today as well. Interpreting the locusts of chapter 9, for example (“They had tails like scorpions, and there were stings in their tails.”), as Apache helicopters outfitted with Stinger air-to-air missiles, is to rob the book of having any legitimate meaning to its initial audience. Asking, “How would this vision have been understood by its initial audience,” is critical to getting at the true meaning of the book. When a proper, historical-grammatical hermeneutic is used, the incredible value of the book to the church today unfolds.
Another critical insight to understanding the book is to realize that the time period covered by the visions is the entire church age. It is not a book just about heaven or the Second Coming. Revelation does show us pictures of things in the distant future, but it also shows us many pictures of what is happening now. Its emphasis is actually on the whole period of time between the two comings of Jesus, during which the church waits for the Lord’s return. In addition, the church’s ongoing battle with the world and the Lamb’s ultimate triumph are shown through a series of visions that cover the whole period of the church age from several different angles. This understanding of the book addresses another common interpretative mistake: that of reading the book like a straight chronology. The book does not progress in a simple, straight line from Christ’s ascension to His return as you read the book from beginning to end. Rather, that territory is covered several different times (probably seven) from various perspectives. This is why there are cycles of seven seals, seven trumpets, and seven bowls. We are seeing multiple symbolic depictions of the forces at work in the world until Jesus comes again, with each cycle giving us additional insight into the conflict and its resolution.
A proper understanding of the book of Revelation makes it one of the most pertinent and useful books in the Bible – especially for Christians living under persecution. Revelation’s message is designed to strengthen Christians in their fight against the dragon, the beast, and the false prophet – all images of forces at work in the world today. The sad abuse of the book of Revelation has robbed it of much of its value to the church in the west today where the book is either used as fodder for wild, end-times speculation or ignored altogether.
My hope is to write a series of articles looking at various passages in Revelation, showing how incredibly relevant and powerfully helpful the book is to the church today. One of the fascinating but underappreciated aspects of the visions of Revelation is the symbolism used to portray the church as it exists on the earth awaiting Jesus’ return. Much has been made of the images/metaphors used for the church in the rest New Testament. The church is pictured as a body, a flock, the Israel of God, priests, the temple, etc. The book of Revelation adds some beautiful and profound images of the church to help us understand who we are in Christ as we live in a hostile world. Revelation shows us the church as golden lampstands, as 144,000 Israelites, as a great multiethnic multitude, as the temple and its courtyard under siege, as two witnesses who rise from the dead, as a woman clothed with the sun with the moon under her feet, as a glorious bride, and as an enormous city.
God willing, we will look at these pictures in turn and see what God says about His church. On the ground, it is easy to view the church as weak and insignificant. That is exactly how the devil wants you to see it. From the perspective of heaven, though, the church is something unique and glorious. It is the dwelling place of God on the earth, and it is never more so than when it stands faithful to its Savior while under attack. When Jesus comes again, you won’t need the book of Revelation. As a saint living in the world of today, you need to study this book, embrace its message, and rejoice that you are part of His church.