Let’s Study Revelation
By Robert Lee
Do you like opera? To be honest, my wife and I have never enjoyed that kind of music. But her employers invited us to join them for a performance of “Romeo and Juliet” a few years ago, and we decided to go, probably more to please them than for any other reason. However, instead of enduring an afternoon of expected torture to our ears, we received an informative education about operatic forms, and the more we learned, the more we enjoyed the performance before us.
I believe the same can happen with the book of Revelation. An initial look at this New Testament prophecy may cause the reader to see it as only a string of incomprehensibly weird scenes. But with patient study one can find in this book an inspiring story of hope and divine compassion in the midst of dreadful persecution. Admittedly, there is so much disagreement over what Revelation means, with some explanations being extremely speculative, that many have decided understanding this book is impossible. Instead, we should believe God has an important message for us in John’s vision and that studying it will bring rich rewards.
Pointers for Studying the Book
We need to trust our common sense as we approach Revelation. It does not have to remain as obscure as it might seem at first. Learning historical facts about the times in which it was written and what happened in the years after it was completed helps immensely in drawing conclusions about its meaning. Also, familiarity with the Old Testament assists greatly when one is seeking understanding of this prophecy. It helps, too, as these scenes unfold, to keep thinking, “This is what John sees; now what does it mean?”
Revelation is in the category of literature known as apocalyptic, which was commonly used in the first century. It is intended to be an unveiling, a revealing, just Revelation 1:1 says. Apocalyptic literature uses symbols, numbers and colors to convey truths. The imagery makes the story come alive and evokes emotions, as does much poetry. It also attempts to capture grand themes and portray great historical vistas, appealing to the imagination often more than the rational mind. We need to be content, especially when starting a study of the book, to grasp the main drift and the larger issues being communicated rather than getting mired in details. With time and repeated exposure (like with opera) we can appreciate more fully the nuances of what has been given to us.
Has It Been Fulfilled?
Perhaps one of the most important questions about Revelation is, “Has it been fulfilled?” The book primarily calls for loyalty to God when facing opposition no matter who the enemy is, assuring eventual victory, but it also prophesies regarding some future events. Revelation 1:1 says that it is a revealing of “what must soon take place,” and 1:3 also says “the time is near.” Near the end of the book these ideas are repeated. Chapter 22:6 speaks of what “must soon take place” and 22:10 emphasizes that “the time is near.” (This is in contrast to Daniel 8:26 where Daniel is told to seal up the vision because it deals with distant times.) The safest approach is to take the writer literally on this point and to see these events as occurring close to the time the book was written, having now already taken place.
Prophecy and Timeless Truths
Revelation contains two primary elements. As just mentioned, first is the predictive element, which Jim McGuiggan believes has been fulfilled. The book mainly focuses on the Roman Emperor Domitian, who stands for the worst persecution by the Roman Empire against Christians. Even though most, if not all, of the predictions of Revelation have been fulfilled, it still has great application to our lives today. As Brother McGuiggan writes, “There is profoundly more about life with God than having a calendar of future events in our pocket.” The central message of Revelation is important for God’s people at all times. God alone is to be worshipped and served, even in the face of violent persecution. The Roman Empire expresses the spirit of the world that always opposes God’s kingdom as found in Jesus Christ and his followers. Eventually the Lord always will defeat his enemies and establish his Lordship. Therefore Revelation primarily provides comfort in the knowledge of God’s ultimate triumph through his people.
This brings us to the second major element of Revelation, its timeless truths. For example, the book presents the unchanging certainty that God is the Almighty Lord and he alone is worthy of all praise and worship. Truths like this are eternal, and Revelation powerfully communicates foundational beliefs of the Christian worldview.
Author(s) and Time of Writing
Revelation is actually a collaborative effort. The apostle John is the human agent by whom the book was penned (Revelation 1:4). He received it on the Lord’s Day while on the island of Patmos, apparently in a time of suffering (Revelation 1:9-11). But the revelation originated with God himself (Revelation 1:1). It was given to his Son, who revealed it to John and all those who have pledged themselves to Christ (1:1). Jesus Christ is presented as the one who was worthy to open the seals of the scroll that reveals this apocalypse to the world (5:5), and he sends his angel to testify about these events (22:16). The Holy Spirit also has a central role in inspiring John to write down this book (1:4, 10; 4:2; 21:10). John is said to have recorded it while “in the Spirit.”
Brother McGuiggan gives strong evidence that Revelation was written in the period of 77 to 79 A.D. Revelation 17:8 says, “The beast that you saw was and is not, and is about to come up out of the abyss and to go to destruction….” Verses 10-11 reveal that the seven heads of the beast are “… seven kings; five have fallen, one is, the other has not come, and when he comes, he must remain a little while, and the beast which was and is not is himself also an eighth, and is one of the seven, and he goes to destruction.” Although admittedly mysterious, this perplexing description fits well with the history of the succession of Roman emperors in the first century. The five fallen kings would correspond to the first five Roman emperors — Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero. Nero, a brutal persecutor of Christians, was followed by three inconsequential emperors, Galba, Otho and Vitellius, who altogether served only a year and a half. The next three emperors were Vespasian, Titus and Domitian. Thus the ruler who “is” would be Vespasian, who brought the empire back to stability. He followed an emperor who had persecuted terribly, and another would follow him who “is not” (Titus), then there would be one who was one of the seven (Domitian), who would claim divinity and would renew devastating persecution of believers. Thus the time of the writing of the book seems to be 77-79 A.D., somewhere near the end of the reign of Vespasian. (John’s vision here is essentially the same as Daniel’s prophetic vision, in Daniel 7.)
God is the central character of the book, the sovereign creator and sustainer of all things who will defend and vindicate his people. The Roman Empire is presented as (1) a sea-beast, i.e. Rome’s destroying political and military power (13:1-10); (2) an earth-beast, i.e. its religious power (13:11-18); and (3) a prostitute and a city, i.e. its vast commercial power (17:1-18:24). This may seem like an undefeatable foe for the people of God, who are represented by several images: (1) the 144,000 who are sealed (7:3-17; 14:1-5), (2) a glorious woman (12:1-17), (3) a glorious city (21:2-22:5), and (4) the two witnesses (11:3-12). But behind the scenes leading the victorious forces of good is Jesus Christ, and the devil is behind the losing force of evil.
Of course, this is only a brief introduction referring to some of the features of this great book. But with serious study and repeated reading of Revelation, we can gain a working understanding of the message intended to inspire hope and produce perseverance for God’s people until Jesus Christ returns.