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The key that unlocks the Book of Revelation

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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, who bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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).

(http://postmillennialismtoday.com/2014/02/21/preterist-principles-original-intent/)

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)

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4 thoughts on “The key that unlocks the Book of Revelation

  1. If you look at the Greek word behind ‘soon’ means ‘quickly’, so you mustn’t get your theology just by reading n English version.

    The problem with the AD 70 before is that the Book was written to seven churches in Asia. Also most historians around the time place John’s exile to the reign of Domitian’s reign and he only reigned from AD 81, so he couldn’t have been n the Island before that.

    http://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2010/01/28/the-king-and-i-exiled-to-patmos-part-2.aspx

    But since you say the events of Revelation have happened then we should be able to say who is the the beast and false prophet, who is the harlot of Babylon? also some events that a described in lain detail should have happened, like in one event we are told that 1/3 of all non human life dies and many humans die in the same event. There are also events were 1/3 and /14 of all humanity dies, so when did they happen?

    • “If you look at the Greek word behind ‘soon’ means ‘quickly’, so you mustn’t get your theology just by reading an English version.”

      I wasn’t as clear as I could have been in my post. Indeed I am getting my theology from the original Greek. I know that neither of us has studied New Testament Greek in any depth so we have to rely on the testimony of experts.

      The book by Kenneth Gentry states that his research shows that New Testament Greek Lexicographers seem to be universally in agreement that the Greek phrase for ‘soon’ in Revelation 1:1 does not mean ‘when the events begin, they occur quickly’.

      Each of the following Greek Lexicons agree that the Greek Phrase ‘en tachos’ supports this meaning:

      • A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, Arndt and Gingrich
      • Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, Thayer
      • A Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament, Abbot-Smith

      Using biblegateway.com, I surveyed all of the English versions available for their translation of Rev 1:1. Only 3 out of the 38 versions do not translate this phrase as meaning ‘coming soon’. The Lexham English Bible and Young’s Literal Translation are ambiguous, only the Jubilee Bible 2000 translates it as ‘convenient to do quickly’. If this phrase does not mean ‘occurring in the near future’, the vast majority of New Testament Greek Lexicographers and English Translators are mistaken.

      This is my understanding of the current scholarly research into this phrase and its translation. If you have any further insights I would like to hear them.

    • Thanks for the link to the Bible Archaeology site, some interesting stuff there.

      Agreed, that many historians place the writing of the Book of Revelation around A.D. 95. However, I would encourage you to have a read of Kenneth Gentry’s book Before Jerusalem Fell (available at: http://www.rpts.edu/media/BeforeJerusalemFell-Gentry.pdf), pages 41-109.

      Gentry’s conclusion after reviewing all the external evidences for the dating of the Book of Revelation:

      “There was no sure, uniform, and certain tradition in the early centuries of the Church on this matter. All that is certain is that John was banished to Patmos and there wrote Revelation. In the matter of details, there is confusion and contradiction that betrays the possibility of various hypotheses floating about,
      rather than firm convictions.”

      What is apparent from these early writings is that John was exiled to Patmos twice, once during the reign of Nero (pre-A.D. 70) and once during Domitian (A.D. 96). This seems the most likely reason for the early confusion and contradictions concerning the date.

      I will finish by saying that relatively recent events in archaeology has proven that the majority of historians have been very wrong about Bible dates and history many times and in many important ways. I believe that the evidence internal to the Book of Revelation is far more important than extra-biblical scraps of conflicting information.

    • You also raise some very important questions regarding my view of the Book of Revelation. I endeavour to answer them all below, but do not have the room to properly document the reasoning behind each (a small book could be written on each one).

      The Beast
      Generically identified with the Roman Empire. Rev 7;8,9 says that the seven heads of the beast are seven mountains. Rome is famous for it’s seven hills, something which the people of that time would have recognized as well.

      Specifically identified as Emperor Nero. Rev 13:18 says the number of the beast is 666. Revelation was written to Hebrew people. The beast’s number is found using Hebrew gematria, The ancient spelling of Nero Caesar perfectly fits the value.
      Nero was the first to persecute Christians (Rev 13:7) and his persecution prevailed as a virtual state of siege for 42 months (Nov. AD 64 to June AD 68, Rev 13:5).

      The False Prophet
      This is the second beast (Rev 13:11-12). This represents the apostate Judaism as concentrated in its religious leadership. Rev 13:11, the beast arises from the land (the land is Israel), appears as a lamb (reminding us of temple worship, the lamb being the dominant sacrifice), spoke like a dragon, that is, Satan (which reflects what both John and Jesus said they had become (Rev 2:9, Rev 3:9 and particularly Jesus’ words in John 8:44).
      Apostate Judaism rejected the Messiah preferring their own temple worship and allegiance to the Roman Empire (the first beast, see John 19:5).

      Harlot of Babylon
      This is Jerusalem, not Rome. Rome is the first Beast and it is redundant to have both Babylon and the Beast represent Rome.
      Babylon is called ‘the great city’ (Rev 14:8), and the first mention of ‘the great city’ is Rev 11:8 which is without question Jerusalem.
      Babylon is filled with the blood of the saints (Rev 16:6; 17:6; 18:21, 24). Jesus says that all the blood of the righteous is upon her (Matt 23:34-37), and Stephen before he was stoned (Acts 7:51-52) rebukes Jerusalem for killing those God sent to her.
      Babylon is dressed in the Jewish priestly colours of purple, scarlet and gold.
      Babylon is a harlot. Rome was never in a covenant with God, Jerusalem was God’s wife and has committed adultery against Him.

      The Trumpet and Bowl Judgments
      Due to the fact that John said that the events would soon come to pass, we understand that the events leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 fulfill what is symbolically written about in the Book of Revelation.
      The trumpet and bowl judgments are said to be cast down or poured out upon “the earth” (e.g. the first trumpet, Rev 8:7). This Greek phrase ‘the earth’ can sometimes mean the entire earth, but can also be translated as ‘the land’, referring to a local country or fixed region, depending on the context. When the judgments are sent to ‘the earth’, we can understand it to mean ‘the land’ of Israel.

      The ratios of destruction, that is beginning at one-quarter in Rev 6 and escalating to one-third in Rev 8, speak of an intensification of the effects of the judgments and not necessarily of a literal number.

      For details of this view, read Kenneth Gentry’s excellent book He Shall Have Dominion (http://www.garynorth.com/freebooks/docs/pdf/he_shall_have_dominion.pdf), the chapter on ‘Revelation’.

      Some details are provided below from (http://reformed-theology.org/html/revelation.htm):
      These judgments reflect the plagues upon Egypt at the Exodus.26 Jerusalem has become the equivalent of Egypt (see Rev. 11:8).

      With the fifth trumpet, we witness an outbreak of demonic torment (Rev. 9:1-21). The fallen star here is Satan, “the angel” of the pit (v. 11). The demons confined to the pit (2 Pet. 2:4; Jude 6; Luke 8:31) are loosed to torment Israel (vv. 2, 3; cf. Rev. 18:2), just as Christ warned (Matt: 12:43 f). The period of torment is “five months,” which indicates the final siege of Jerusalem by Titus, when the Jews were driven mad as they were hopelessly trapped.

      At the sixth trumpet, Roman reinforcements are sent (Rev. 9:12-2 1). The four angels are destroying “angels” loosed upon Israel in fury. They represent the four Roman legions kept at the Euphrates.

      [The] vials bring increasing woe (Rev. 16). The Roman armies come with ease from the Euphrates (Rev. 16: 12). Josephus notes that “there followed [Titus] also three thousand, drawn from those that guarded the river Euphrates” (Wars 5:1:6). The Roman soldiers were supplemented with troops provided by auxiliary kings from the east (Rev. 16:12: Wars 3:4:2;5:1:6): With the convergence of so many trained soldiers, Jerusalem divides into three bickering factions (Rev. 16:19). The Roman legions pummel the city with talent-weight stones (Rev. 16:21): “The catapults, that all the ‘legions had ready prepared for them, were admirably contrived; but still more extraordinary ones belonged to the tenth legion: those that threw darts and those that threw stones, were more forcible and larger than the rest . . . . Now, the stones that were cast, were of the weight of a talent, and were carried two furlongs and further . . . . As for the Jews, they at first watched the coming of the stone, for it was of a white colour: . . .”

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