The book of Revelation has puzzled Christians for centuries. Many today believe it holds the key to climactic events in the near future leading up to the second coming of Christ. However, the true key to reading Revelation is to ask how the original recipients of John’s letter would have read it. John wrote his letter to Christians in the last decade of the first century, specifically to seven churches in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). These churches were challenged not only by the temptations of idolatry and sexual immorality but also were suffering persecution from the Roman empire and the Jewish community (Rev. 2:9-10). For these particular readers, the book served a two-fold purpose: its pastoral message was to encourage those who were suffering and possibly facing martyrdom; its doctrinal message was to emphasize the ultimate victory over evil that Christ had already won on the cross.
Those who interpret Revelation as a codebook for the second coming of Christ overlook the book’s focus on the atoning work of Christ at his first coming. Describing events thousands of years in the future would provide little comfort to John’s original audience in the midst of persecution. These readers, however, would share the same hope that Christians of all times have in the victory over sin and death that Jesus’ blood provides. We do not look to the future for this ultimate achievement, as it has already been accomplished and is securely ours.
When we study Revelation, we should keep certain interpretation guidelines in mind:
- We need to understand the book in its historical context. Revelation was probably written 90-95 AD during the reign of the Roman emperor Domitian. The purpose of the letter was to provide comfort, strength, and hope to those who faced the threat of death if they did not worship the emperor. If the book were describing events thousands of years in the future, it would not provide comfort to those in John’s day. We must first decipher what John’s message meant to its original readers.
- Revelation is a form of writing called apocalyptic literature, which depicts a cosmic drama using fantastic, bizarre imagery. Symbols may not correspond directly to historical events, as this is primarily spiritual warfare. Even numbers are used symbolically (such as the frequent repetition of 7) and should not be read as a means to calculate years and dates. Jesus said he would come as a thief, without warning or signs. Even he did not know the time of his return.
- OT prophecy explained Israel’s suffering as God’s punishment for their sins, whereas apocalyptic literature describes the righteous suffering at the hands of God’s enemies.
- Similar to Aesop’s fables, the apocalyptic lesson emerges from the overall story. Don’t get caught up in all the details (what color was the tortoise? how long did the hare sleep? these are fruitless questions). Each symbol may not have a specific meaning, but serves to paint a broad, colorful picture of spiritual realities.
- It helps to get a sense of the dramatic structure of the book, which records four overlapping visions. These visions should not be read as a sequence of future events, but rather they describe the same themes in different ways. Look for parallels from one vision to another.
The following notes give an overview of the book and not a verse-by-verse interpretation.
Notes on the First Vision (ch 1-3)
- Revelation begins with a series of letters from the risen Jesus to seven churches in Asia Minor (modern Turkey).
- The first verse indicates that the events described in symbols will “soon” take place, that is, in the time of the original readers. In v. 3 John says “the time is near.”
- (1:3) gives the first of seven blessings in the book.
- (1:7) paraphrases Dan. 7:13 and Zech. 12:10.
- John’s first vision begins in 1:10 where he sees seven lampstands which represent seven churches (1:19-20). It is important to notice when the book explains its own symbols, and to avoid speculation when it doesn’t.
- The vivid, somewhat bizarre imagery of Christ is typical of apocalyptic style, obviously not meant to be read literally. Jesus does not have a sword coming out of his mouth; this image comes from passages such as Isa. 49:2 and Heb. 4:12.
- The first letter goes to the church at Ephesus, which church history says was led by John himself.
- The letters to Smyrna and Philadelphia are entirely positive in praising their faithfulness.
- In 2:5 and 3:3, Jesus warns the church that he will come to them, not at his return, but coming in judgement in a spiritual way. When Revelation speaks of Jesus’ coming, it does not necessarily refer to his Second Coming at the end of time, as so many people today assume.
- These letters to the churches may seem out of place with the rest of the book’s dramatic symbolism, but each letter foreshadows themes mentioned at the end of the book, tying the parts together in a literary unit:
- 2:7 refers to the tree of life mentioned again in 22:2.
- 2:11 mentions the second death, referred to in 20:6.
- 2:17 describes the new name that Christians wear, also in 3:12, 14:1, and 22:4 (cf. Isa. 62:2).
- 2:26 refers to those who overcome receiving authority over the nations; 3:21 says they will sit on thrones. 20:4 speaks of the reign of the martyrs with Christ.
- 2:28 mentions the morning star, which describes Christ in 22:16.
- 3:5 describes the book of life, also in 20:12.
- 3:10 warns of great suffering and tribulation. This time of trial would occur in their lifetimes, not at the end of time, as God tells the churches he will “keep you from the hour of trial.” The idea of divine protection during persecution resembles the sealing of the 144,000 in ch. 7.
- 3:12 describes the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven, foreshadowing ch. 21.
- (2:13) The throne of Satan may refer to the temple of Zeus or the emperor cult which was prominent in Pergamum. Domitian was worshipped as a god.
Notes on the Second Vision (ch 4-11)
- This vision begins with a prelude in heaven. We see a throne where God in his glory sits with a scroll in his hand, sealed with seven seals. He is surrounded by 24 elders, who possibly represent the 12 tribes of Israel and the 12 apostles, mentioned in 21:12-14. Four living creatures resemble the cherubim described in Ezek. 10:14.
- The question is raised, “Who is worthy to open the seven seals?” Only the Lamb, who was slain, who purchased men with his blood. The Lion of the tribe of Judah has already triumphed. Notice the emphasis on Christ’s atoning victory at his first coming.
- Then the seven seals are opened one at a time (ch. 6). Each seal represents trials which are common to earthly life and will occur throughout history. These calamities are similar to Jesus’ general warnings in Matt 24, which he called false signs, as they do not signify the End. In this life there will always be war, famine, poverty and death.
- The white horse stands for conquest.
- The red horse stands for war and bloodshed.
- The black horse means famine and poverty.
- The pale horse symbolizes death.
- The fifth seal: in the midst of suffering, the Christian martyrs plead for justice from God (6:10). They will receive their answer in 16:6-7.
- The sixth seal reveals warning signs of God’s judgement: the sun darkens, the moon turns to blood, the stars fall. These are symbols, not literal events, similar to many OT prophecies of the Day of the Lord. This Day doesn’t specifically refer to the Final Judgement but to any judgement that God inflicts on wicked nations such as Babylon and Israel (Isa. 13:10, 34:4, Ezek. 32:7, Joel 2:10, 31, 3:15, Amos 8:9).
- In ch. 7 John inserts an interlude, a break in the action of the drama. God places his seal of protection on the 144,000, his chosen people. As the book makes clear, he does not protect them from suffering but from his wrath on his enemies, described in the next section. This number is not literal but represents the tribes of Israel (12 x 12 x 1000) as is explained in 7:5-8. We see a preview of their future salvation, after they have come through tribulation (7:14).
- After this interlude, the seventh seal opens and begins a vision of seven trumpets.
- The seven trumpets symbolize punishment of the wicked in this life, each describing partial not total destruction, limited not final judgement. As much as it sounds like it, this is not the end of the world. History shows how the Roman empire fell from a combination of natural disasters, external invasion, and internal corruption. All the first four woes are natural calamities but limited in scope.
- One third of the earth is destroyed.
- One third of the sea is destroyed.
- One third of the rivers are destroyed.
- One third of the heavens are destroyed.
- An invading army of locusts/scorpions torment those who are living.
- An angelic army of 200 million kill one third of mankind. These two describe human loss of life. But notice that even after these punishments, the wicked do not repent of their sins (9:20-21).
- In a second interlude before the seventh trumpet sounds, an angel tells John to measure the temple, indicating God’s property or ownership (imagery taken from Ezek. 40-3, and Zech. 2). This measuring parallels the sealing of the 144,000, representing God’s protection of his people from eternal wrath.
- The martyrdom of the two witnesses (in Greek the word for witness and martyr are the same) acts as a brief summary of the entire book of Revelation: the people of God will suffer because of their testimony, but in the end they will be vindicated for their faithfulness. The witnesses are patterned after Moses and Elijah (11:6).
- In 10:7, the angel says that the mystery of God will be accomplished at the seventh trumpet. Elsewhere in the NT “mystery” refers to the gospel of the cross, a secret which has now been revealed (Rom 16:25-6, Eph 1:9-11, Col 1:26-7), not some mysterious future event. When Allied forces died in the battle on D-Day, they had no idea whether or not their efforts were in vain. But Christian martyrs know that they are already on the winning side. Victory is assured because of the cross.
- The seventh trumpet sounds. The key to understanding the book of Revelation lies in 11:15: “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ.” This final trumpet celebrates Christ’s victory on the cross, something already accomplished, not a victory after some future battle with an antichrist. Revelation focuses not on the second coming, but on the victory which Christ won at his first coming. Jesus’ reign began after his resurrection (Acts 2:30-1).
Notes on the Third Vision (ch 12-20)
- The third vision tells of the eventual punishment to fall on the Roman Empire, specifically on Domitian, the source of Christian persecution. Domitian was assassinated within a year or so of the writing of Revelation.
- These events are a specific application of the punishments that fall on the wicked in the second vision. Once again, we see terrible events which will occur within human history, not at the End.
- This vision has two parts: the Dragon and the Beast, and the Great Harlot, both of which represent the fate of Rome.
Part One: The Dragon and the Beast
- The woman in ch. 12 represents the people of God. In the early stages, she is Israel, the twelve stars in her crown standing for the twelve tribes. Israel “gave birth” to the Christ-child, who will rule the nations with a rod of iron (see 2:27, 19:15). The dragon, identified as Satan in v. 9, tries to devour the child, but he is taken up into heaven (a very brief account of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ). Now the woman represents the people of God as the early church, pursued by the dragon. Even before the drama with Rome (the Beast) begins in ch. 13, Satan’s initial defeat is depicted, as Christ is exalted to heaven and the woman (symbol for the early Christians) escapes into the desert to be protected by God.
- Michael’s war in heaven with the dragon does not describe some prehistoric event of Satan as an angel being banished from heaven, as told in John Milton’s epic Paradise Lost. Instead, this angelic battle is a symbol for the spiritual victory which was won on the cross through the blood of the Lamb (12:11). Satan was defeated at Christ’s first coming, as Jesus himself notes (Luke 10:18, John 12:31). “Now have the come salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ” (10).
- Satan now finds an ally in the Beast with seven heads, identified in 17:9 as seven hills. Rome was famous for its seven hills, so this is a clear indication of the Beast’s identity. One of the heads has a fatal wound which now has healed: some commentators believe that this refers to rumors that the emperor Nero had come back from the dead (mentioned in extra-biblical literature: Ascension of Isaiah 4, Sibylline Oracles 4, 5, 8).
- Many people today identify the Beast with the “Antichrist” but this term does not appear anywhere in Revelation, only in John’s epistles (1 John 2:18, 22; 4:3; 2 John 7). In those letters John says there are many antichrists present in his day, for an antichrist is anyone who denies that Christ has come in the flesh. In John’s letters, antichrist is not an eschatological figure. The Bible does not teach that there will be a superhuman Antichrist at the end of time.
- The second beast, also called the false prophet, which causes people to worship the first beast is probably the official state religion of Rome. The emperor Domitian considered himself a god and demanded worship. The number of the beast may have been some mark or document which identified those who had obeyed the decrees and made an offering to the emperor. Of course, faithful Christians refused to do so and were punished.
- The number 666 has been interpreted in many ways, but we should probably admit that it was a code John’s readers understood, but we cannot. The number could be purely symbolic, 6 being less than the perfect number 7, thus representing a trinity of inferior beings.
- In ch. 14, Christ stands against the evil threesome. First, those who wear the name of Jesus are protected from the coming wrath which will fall on Rome. This symbolism is parallel to the sealing of the 144,000 in ch. 7. Next, Rome’s eventual doom is proclaimed: Rome is equated with the ancient city of Babylon (see 1 Peter 5:13), which had fallen to God’s judgement in the OT. The angel with the sickle is similar to the medieval image of the Grim Reaper, who brings death to Rome. Finally, seven angels with seven bowls filled with God’s wrath appear (ch. 15-16). They pour out punishment on God’s enemies, resembling the plagues of Egypt.
- In 16:7 the martyrs under the altar of God (6:10) proclaim that God is just and has avenged their deaths.
- Before the seventh bowl can be poured, the enemies of God gather their forces at Armageddon (16:13-16). Megiddo was a fortress in northern Israel that had served kings such as Solomon and Ahab. King Josiah died in battle at this spot (2 Kings 23:29). It was strategically located on a major trade route from Egypt to the east, and was the site of many major battles throughout history (even during World War I). John uses this well known battlefield as a symbol for Satan’s stand against God. However, notice that God destroys his enemies before any battle begins. Satan’s forces are no match for God. In the context of these chapters, Armageddon represents the final defeat of the Roman emperor, as he represents Satan, not some future world war between good and evil at the end of history.
- 14:13 gives the second of seven blessings in the book. 16:15 gives the third.
Part Two: The Great Harlot
- In the next scene, an angel shows John a replay of the judgement on Rome. This time Rome is depicted as the Great Harlot who drinks the blood of the martyrs. She sits on a beast with seven heads, identified as the seven hills of Rome (17:9), and the horns are the emperors. This vision of Rome’s punishment does not follow but recaps the first part with the Dragon and the Beast. Once again, an angel proclaims, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the Great!”
- The number of kings (7) is possibly symbolic. John isn’t trying to identify the present emperor (his readers would already know that) but what he represents, the power of the Beast.
- 18:8 mentions the plagues that fall on Rome, reminding us of the previous depiction of the bowls of wrath. These two visions overlap each other, describing the same judgement on Rome.
- John next sees a vision of Christ the conqueror (ch. 19). This rider on a white horse differs from the one in ch. 6; the type of crown he wears is a different word in Greek. Christ rules with an iron scepter (2:27, 12:5). The rider wears robes dipped in blood, again emphasizing the victory on the cross which has already occurred. This is not Christ’s second coming, but his coming in judgement for Rome; notice the treading of the winepress (19:15) as a symbol of God’s wrath on Rome, mentioned earlier in 16:19.
- Once again, parallel to the previous reference to Armageddon, “the beast and the kings of the earth and their armies gathered together to make war against the rider on the horse and his army.” But they are defeated without a battle. The literary parallelism indicates this is the same defeat as shown in ch. 16, not another battle.
- The glorious wedding feast of the Lamb (19:7) stands in stark contrast to the gruesome feast of flesh in vs. 17-18 (image taken from Ezek. 39:17).
- 19:9 gives the fourth blessing in the book.
Part three: the binding of Satan
- Finally, after the Beast and the enemies of God are defeated, John sees the binding of Satan himself (ch. 20). Satan’s power was limited by the initial work of Christ. Jesus said, “Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out” (Jn 12:31). Jesus told a parable about binding a strong man which refers to Satan (Mt 12:29). He also says he saw Satan fall from heaven, which in context refers to Jesus’ time on earth (Lk 10:18).
- However, Satan has not completely been destroyed. He is bound but on a long leash, like a vicious dog on a chain. We can still be hurt by him if we allow ourselves within his reach. (The imagery of binding demonic forces is also seen outside the Bible in 1 Enoch 10:4-12, 54, 56, 88.)
- In another analogy, Christ’s victory on the cross over Satan can be compared to the battle on D-day. After the Allies’ victory, the defeat of Hitler was almost a certainty, but the war lingered on for many months, with many further casualties. Likewise, we continue to struggle against the powers of sin, but know that the ultimate victory is assured.
- To give hope to those in the midst of the struggle, John describes Christ reigning with the martyrs as their reward (20:4-6). The doctrine of Premillennialism teaches that this 1000 year reign will occur after the second coming, but several NT texts refer to Christians reigning with Christ now: Rev 2:26, 3:21, 1 Cor. 15:23-6, Eph. 2:6-7, 2 Tim. 2:12. Jesus’ reign on David’s throne began with his resurrection (Acts 2:30-3) and will last until Death is defeated (1 Cor 15:24-8). His reign is a present reality, not some future event.
- The first resurrection (20:5) refers to Christ’s resurrection (Col 1:18), in which we participate (Col 3:1) in a spiritual resurrection (we were dead in sin but now made alive: Col 2:13). We have been raised with Christ in this first resurrection. Jesus himself distinguished between the spiritual and physical resurrections (Jn 5:24-9, 11:25-6). The first resurrection of Jesus rescues us from spiritual death (separation from God; the second death, 20:6) while the second resurrection (our bodily resurrection) will rescue us from physical death.
- All Christians reign with Christ in one sense, but this text refers specifically to martyrs killed by the beast (addressing their cry for justice back in 6:9-11), implying they participate in Christ’s victory even in death.
- Thus the 1000 years represents with a symbolic number the extent of present human history during which Christ reigns, not some future time after Christ returns. No other text in scripture mentions this 1000 years, nor do we find it in any other Jewish writings of the time. Too much speculation has been built on this one passage.
- At the end of the vision, Satan is released to gather his armies for one last effort (parallel to 16:16, 19:19) but again they are defeated without a battle. Revelation never depicts an actual battle at Armageddon; fire from heaven simply devours the enemy.
- The enemies of God are represented by Gog and Magog, symbols from Ezek. 38-9.
Notes on the Fourth Vision (ch 21-22)
- These final chapters are the only part of the book which takes place in our future, describing the vision of the New Jerusalem and the New Eden.
- John sees a vision of “a new heaven and a new earth,” quoting Isaiah 65:17, 66:22, and also mentioned in 2 Pet 3:13. According to the Bible, the life to come will not take place in a heaven somewhere “out there” up in the clouds or outer space, but on a recreated earth, made perfect by God. (This new creation is also mentioned outside the Bible: Jubilees 1:28, Enoch 92:17, 4 Ezra 7:75)
- Presently, creation is groaning, awaiting its liberation (Rom 8:19-23) which will occur when we receive our new bodies at the resurrection. After melting this present earth by fire (2 Pet 3:10-13), God will bring forth a new world. Jesus speaks of the “regeneration of all things” when the Son of Man is seated on the throne (Mt 19:28).
- What this new earth will be like, we don’t know any more than we can know the nature of our new bodies. Paul compares it to the difference in the seed and the plant which springs from the ground (1 Cor 15:35-37). But in this new world God will be immediately and always present (Rev 21).
- Paul mentions the Jerusalem “from above” in Gal. 4:26. (The idea also occurs in 4 Ezra 7:26, and the Testament of Dan 2:12). This is not the earthly city of Jerusalem with a rebuilt temple, as many today anticipate.
- The city walls are made of gems similar to those on the high priest’s breastplate (Ex 28).
- 22 depicts the new earth as Eden restored, with the tree of life.
- 22:6 again emphasizes that the visions John has seen will take place “soon.”
- The book ends with the sixth (22:7) and seventh (22:14) blessings.
- Jesus is coming “soon,” not at his physical second coming, but in a spiritual victory over his enemies, those who persecute his people.