Revelation: A Synopsis

by Travis Allen

Revelation’s first vision shows the Lord in majesty and power. He tells John to record what he sees, and pronounces a blessing on those who read, hear and heed these words.

Chapters 2 and 3 contain a short letter from the Lord to each of seven churches in Asia Minor. In them he commends, rebukes and warns as appropriate. He threatens the disobedient that he will come and deal with them if they don’t repent, admonishes all to remain faithful during times of trial, and promises great blessings to those who overcome. These letters have lessons for “all the churches” (2:23), then and now.

Prophetic Visions Begin

Chapters 4 and 5 assure God’s people that no matter how frightening are some of the things they are about to read, everything is going to be all right. The throne that governs the universe is not in Rome where the emperors rule, but in heaven. And heaven is open to the people of God, who are called “those who dwell in heaven” (4:1-2; 13:6; see Philippians 3:20). Those who worship the beast, on the other hand, are said to be “dwellers on the earth” (13:8, 12, 14). Chapter 4 shows God as Creator and Chapter 5 shows him as Redeemer. In the middle of the throne that rules the world is the Lord in the image of a lamb, bearing the marks of having been slain, yet standing and revealing the immediate destiny of the saints by removing the seals from “the little book” (5:1-5) . Only he is worthy to open the book and break the seals.

In Chapter 6, the first seal is removed, revealing Christ as a warrior, going forth conquering and to conquer. When other seals are torn away, it is revealed that war, death and hades will soon slay many people, using the sword, famine, plague and wild beasts (6:3-8), the “four sore judgments of God” (Ezekiel 14:21). Many believers would die, and these are shown under the fifth seal with a question to God: Will the ungodly get away with it? They are told to be patient until God fulfills his purpose through the evil ones (6:11).

Reassurances and Judgments

Because the saints are in for a trying time, they are given repeated visions to assure them that they are exempt from the horrific judgment to come upon the earth, but not from the pain generated by that judgment. The sixth seal closes with the question, “Who is able to stand?” and Chapter 7 answers, “Those who are God’s and wear his mark.” The seventh seal reveals seven trumpets, which are blown in Chapters 8 and 9, warning of judgments to come in the form of plagues which remind us of the plagues that fell on the Egyptians when God sternly warned them to let his people go. But, like Egypt, Rome did not repent.

Chapter 10 says Rome won’t be warned again (10:6). An angel has John eat a book and tells him to prophesy, in a scene reminiscent of instructions to earlier prophets (10:8-11; see Ezekiel 2:8-3:11 and Isaiah 6).

In Chapters 11 and 12 the righteous are again encouraged. God’s people (the temple and the city) are seen as trodden under by the enemy, but their center can’t be taken — the inner sanctuary remains standing. God’s people (the two witnesses) may wear sackcloth while the enemy is in power (42 months, 1260 days), but they can’t be stopped from preaching. When it seems they have been stopped by being killed, they are dead for only three and a half days before being resurrected. In Chapter 12 the people of God (the glorious woman and her seed) endure a wilderness experience, but they are protected and nourished while they are there. The dragon loses against the woman, against the child, and against Michael the archangel. All this assurance is needed in view of the beasts about to be described.


Beasts and Kings

Two beasts in Chapter 13 represent the Roman Empire. The sea-beast is Rome as the brute military power, and the earth-beast is Rome as the sly religious kingdom. The sea-beast has seven heads (13:1), and in 17:9-10 these heads represent two things — the hills on which the harlot sits and seven kings. (Coins and etchings of the era show Rome as built on seven hills.) The ten horns of the beast are ten subordinate rulers whose authority comes from Rome (17:12-17).

Chapters 14 and 15 lift the hearts of the righteous. John sees God’s people (the 144,000) marked with God’s name, faithful and victorious, singing praise and full of joy. Angels proclaim the good news of the imminent fall of Babylon — that is, Rome (14:6-9, 17-18). The events they announce occur one by one in the rest of the book. The evil city is going to fall (14:8 and Chapter 18). The beast’s worshipers will be judged (14:9-11and 20:11-15), and the righteous will be gathered in like reaping a crop (14:18-20; compare Chapters 21-22). Chapter 15 introduces the seven angels who have the final plagues, the full outpouring of God’s wrath (15:1,7-8).

Chapter 16 tells of the bowls of God’s wrath being poured out. The effects are similar to those of the trumpets but more severe, with previews of Armageddon and other events to be developed in Chapters 18 through 20.

The woman of Chapter 17 is a great city, ruling the world in John’s day (17:18), and built on seven hills (17:9). She’s the world’s leading commercial power (Chapter 18) — and she is not a church. In Chapter 18 she goes down in flames. Nero had set fire to Rome and it survived, but God would (in a figure) set fire to it and it would not again be the power it had been.

Chapter 19 speaks of celebration and then Armageddon. The celebration takes place first, evidence of total assurance of victory. The armies in the battle are named in keeping with Chapter 16, and an angel proclaims the result even before the war commences (19:17-18). The evil army is defeated, the two beasts are thrown into the lake of fire, and their followers are put to death by the Lord.

The Church Triumphant

Chapter 20 contains visions which seem to form a turning point for many who have accepted that the previous visions are apocalyptic but choose to apply literal interpretations to the rest of the book. If you hold that view, please read on anyway and consider this possible alternative.

As far as the Roman Empire is concerned, the devil is completely stopped and Christians are triumphant. These are the concepts involved in the “1000 years” of Satan’s bondage, not a period of time but an expression of the completeness of his defeat. Now those who died for Christ are raised from the dead (the first resurrection) to reign with him, while those who died serving the devil remain dead.
Later, Satan is released for “a short time.” In his effort to deceive the nations everywhere, Satan recruits a vast horde, led by “Gog and Magog,” to attack “the camp of the saints.” The term “short time” pertains to Satan’s weakness, not to the calendar. He is under control and is defeated. Gog and Magog represent any enemy that may attack God’s people at any time; no matter how large the army, God will bring about its defeat. The same names are used in Ezekiel 38 and 39 to present the same kind of assurance, although Magog is depicted there as a land rather than a person.

The second resurrection, in Chapter 20, is quite different from the first. Now the servants of Satan are raised, but only to die a second time. These are “the rest of the dead” (20:5), those not included in the first resurrection. John has seen the first death, that of both saints and sinners; now he sees the “second death,” when sinners are cast into the lake of fire. Like a similar fire prophesied in Isaiah 34:9-10, this imagery is a figurative portrayal of the utter defeat of those who oppose Christ. In this judgment all are condemned; the book of life is consulted, not to exonerate people whose names are in it but to validate the sentence on those who are not there.

Chapters 21 and 22 describe the triumphant people of God. The first vision is of “a new heaven and a new earth,” which is not a new figure at all. Isaiah used the same terminology in connection with the people’s return from Babylonian captivity (Isaiah 65). He also wrote of heaven being dissolved and rolled together as a scroll (Isaiah 34:4) as part of God’s judgment against Edom and other nations, but we know that didn’t literally happen. Heaven and earth are depicted in Revelation 20:11 as fleeing from God; in judgment God has taken away the world of the persecuting Romans.

The new heaven and earth are a new environment for the church. They are not the church, since in John’s vision the holy city comes down from heaven and the city is identified as “the bride, the wife of the Lamb,” which is the church (21:9: see Ephesians 5:22-23, 25-27). The description which follows is of the church in history under Jesus Christ the Lord. (In this sense, a prophecy of Revelation is still in the process of being fulfilled.) Much of this language is like that of Old Testament prophets, who of course were inspired by the same Spirit who inspired John. In several ways the “city” described here is like the one described in the last chapter of Ezekiel, which also appears to be apocalyptic language referring to the church of God.

The light of the glory of God, the water of life, the tree of life, the walls of protection — these all depict the blessings of God in providing for the righteous. Even the nations outside the church will be affected by it (21:24), and it will provide material for their healing (22:2). The fact that there are “nations” clearly distinguished from the city is another indication that this description is not set in eternity. Here is revealed something of the mission of the church: to shine on the nations and to offer spiritual healing to them. So Jesus himself invites them to “come” and “take the water of life without cost,” a blessed invitation that is still beckoning to people who are outside of the church.

Finally, the Lord says, “Yes, I am coming quickly,” confirming the nearness of the time when the Lord would visit Rome in judgment, fulfilling the main prophecy of Revelation. He had made the promise (or threat) to “come” to several churches unless they repented of their errors. His coming to those churches depended on whether or not they repented (Chapters 2 and 3), making it apparent that he was not speaking of his coming at the end of the world. And he had earlier predicted his “coming” in the judgment of 70 A.D. as well, when Israel fell to Rome (Matthew 24:30, 34).

Most of us, probably, have assumed that the city in Chapters 21 and 22 is heaven and assigned a more or less literal meaning to the description of it. But isn’t it comforting to think of the church in these grand terms — and to realize that heaven then must be even greater! The “city” (the church) is something we can visualize, but heaven itself may very well be beyond our power even to imagine. On this point, Brother McGuiggan included the following in an e-mail exchange not long ago: “Whatever ‘heaven’ turns out to be, there’ll be glory and life. And if the OT can use such speech of God’s ancient city/people in triumph, and John can use the same speech of the NT city/people in triumph, we can use it for glory and triumphant life.”

In times like these, when enemies of the cross grow bolder and bolder in their raving and threats against Christianity, it will serve us well to remember and believe the ultimate message of Revelation: as Christians, we win!

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