I’m not going to tell you what the book of Revelation is about as such. I am going to help you with the how of discovering what it means.
Firstly, a short word on how we discover what the Bible actually teaches. Your understanding of the Bible depends on the ‘rules’ you use to interpret the Bible. My firm conviction is that in order to discover what the Bible means with any kind of integrity you need to approach it in two ways.
- The Bible means something. We interpret grammatically – the words have a certain meaning, we can’t assign our own meaning to words. Most of the Bible can easily be understood by taking the plain meaning of the language. Sometimes we need to take into account literary devices (like metaphors, similes etc.) and symbolic imagery.
- The Bible means something to those to whom it was written. We interpret historically – the question is not “what does it mean to me?” but rather, “what did it mean to those whom it was originally written?”
With this in mind, how do we approach the Book of Revelation? It is filled with apocalyptic imagery of many-headed beasts, harlots drinking blood, keys, pits, chains, trumpets, seals and bowls. How are we ever to come at an understanding of what this can all mean?
Take heart. The book is not incomprehensible nonsense. It means something and it meant something specific to those it was written to. Also, although much of the book describes John’s visionary revelations, there are parts that are written in plain language. The prologue (or introduction) is one such part and it contains the key to understanding the book.
Revelation 1:1-3 (ESV)
1The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, 2 who bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw. 3 Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near.
- It is the revelation of Jesus Christ. The book is designed to reveal, uncover, make plain, and disclose the truth. The purpose of the book is not to obscure a message or make it incomprehensible to those it was written. Any symbolic imagery used would be understandable to those it was written to.
- The book details things that must soon take place. John says that the time is near. The events outlined in the vision were to take place soon, for they were near. In fact, in the conclusion of the book, John writes, “…And the Lord …has sent his angel to show his servants what must soon take place.” And in verse 10, “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near.” (ESV, emphasis mine).
The key to this book is that it was the revelation of events that were soon to take place. The events in Revelation lie in our distant past, but in the very near future of those the book was written to.
A look into history reveals that the incredible events described in this book find their fulfillment in the events surrounding the destruction of the Jewish temple in A.D. 70. Kenneth Gentry summarises it well on his blog:
…the birth of new covenant Christianity at Pentecost (A.D. 30) necessarily leads to the death of old covenant Judaism in the holocaust (A.D. 70). According to Acts 2:16-21,40, tongues were a sign of the “blood and fire” to envelop Jerusalem in A.D. 70. For rejecting her prophesied Messiah (Lk 23:18-32; Mt 21:33-46; cp. 1Th 2:14-16), God judges Israel’s people, land, city, and temple (Mt 23:34-24:34). This judgment concludes for all times the typological-ceremonial era of the OT (Heb 8:13; cp. Jn 4:21; Heb 10:23-25; 12:18-29), which narrowly focused on one people (Dt 7:6; Ps 147:19-20; Am 3:2) in a confined land (Gen. 15:18; Psa. 135:10-12). This dramatically opens God’s redemption to all peoples in all the world (Mt 8: 10-11; 24:29-30; 28:18-20; Lk 24:44-49; Ac 1:8).
There are a few objections to this view that the Book of Revelation was written about the events surrounding the A.D. 70 destruction of Jerusalem.
1. The Book of Revelation was written after A.D. 70 and so could not predict these events.
An excellent book by Kenneth Gentry Before Jerusalem Fell (http://www.rpts.edu/media/BeforeJerusalemFell-Gentry.pdf) outlines a solid case for the early dating of the authorship of the Book of Revelation. It seems to me that this argument is nothing more than an inexpensive way of dismissing the serious claims of this view without engaging in proper historical or scriptural analysis.
2. The terms soon and near do not mean they will happen soon, but that when they happen they will happen quickly.
There is nothing in the context of these passages of scripture that will lead you to redefine the plain meaning of “soon” to mean “happen quickly”. According to the research conducted by Gentry (see his book, above), there is absolutely no basis for this interpretation. He writes, “Lexicographers seem to be universally agreed with the translators as to the meaning of the word.” (p. 138).
Also, these passages outlining the “soon” and “near” timing of the events are non-symbolic, frequent and varied throughout the book.
The only reason for this redefinition can be your own presuppositions that the Book of Revelation is speaking of distant and not near events.
3. Related to the previous objection is the idea that John is speaking of God’s timing, not man’s. Scripture informs us that a thousand years with the Lord is ‘as a day’ (2 Pet. 3:8).
In addition to the above responses, these passages in Revelation are written to people and require a response from them, the one in Peter is a theological statement about God. There is no reason to assign God’s timing to a book that requires people’s understanding and response.
John writes to seven specific and historical churches, dealing with their present circumstances. Revelation deals with the current suffering of the people and of the nearness of judgment that would free them. Again from Gentry (p.140), “What mockery of anguished pain and mental suffering to write to persecuted saints: “Help is on the way in God’s time – which may be a couple of thousand years or more away.” If the ‘soon-ness’ of the Book of Revelation means ‘anytime between now and a couple of thousand years or more’, it loses any sensible meaning to the people it was written to.
Instead of looking for coded meanings in Revelation that will somehow unlock a secret understanding of present day events, we can confidently stride forward with the Gospel of God’s Kingdom that will see “The kingdom of the world …become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever”. (Revelation 11:15 ESV)