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Article 50 - A Look At Revelation
A Look at the Book of Revelation
Jon Gary Williams
(Scripture references from the NKJV)
The word revelation comes from the Greek term apokalupsis which means "an uncovering" or "unveiling." The title of this final book of the New Testament carries the idea of a message being revealed -- in this instance a message which was written in symbolic language. The book of Revelation is sometimes referred to as the Apocalypse, which is simply a transliteration of the original Greek "apokalupsis."
Revelation, the only prophetic book of the New Testament, was recorded by the apostle John (1:1; 4,9; 21:2). The very first verse tells those through whom this book was conveyed to John.
God >> Christ
Christ >> angel
angel >> John
As he penned this book John was under the guidance of the Holy Spirit (1:10; 2:7,11,17,29; 3:6,13,22; 4:2; 14:13).
Why was Revelation given?
Revelation was recorded in figurative (symbolic) language and was given primarily to reveal future events. The overriding purpose of the book was to present a message of encouragement to Christians who were suffering (or soon to suffer) persecution. They were told in this inspired writing that by remaining faithful they would, in the end, be victorious. "You will win" could rightly be the book's grand theme. Revelation is very much like the final chapter of an exciting novel -- by looking ahead and reading the last chapter one can see how the story ends. Revelation, the "final chapter" of God's word, explains that His children will be victorious. Of special significance in Revelation is the word "overcome" (2:7,11,17,26; 3:5,12,21; 21:7).
Could the book of Revelation be understood?
Yes it certainly could be, and indeed was, understood. God would not have given to man a book which could not have been comprehended. The idea of God doing such a thing makes no sense. Revelation was definitely intended to be understood. John plainly states, "Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of this prophecy, and keep [observe] those things which are written in it" (1:3). He also states, "Blessed is he that keeps [observes] the words of the prophecy of this book" (22:7). How could something have been kept [observed] if it could not have been understood?
Revelation's closing chapter gives a stern warning to not "add to" or "take away from" the words of this book (22:18,19). How could the underlying message of Revelation be added to or taken from if the message itself was not understood? Further, John plainly states, "He that hath an ear, let him hear [understand] what the Spirit saith unto the churches" (3:22).
By whom was Revelation to be understood?
In answering this pertinent question, we must determine to whom the book was addressed. In the opening chapter John clearly states, "John, to the seven churches" (1:4) and "write a book and send it to the seven churches" (1:11). Note also how the book closes: "I, Jesus, have sent my angel to testify unto you these things unto the churches" (22:16). Indeed, Revelation was a testimony for the Lord's church of the first century. The book's meaning was intended for those who initially received its message -- those to whom it was sent. If this was not the case, the giving of Revelation was pointless. Of a certainty, the church of the first century did understand Revelation's message.
What enabled the early Christians to understand Revelation's message?
One popular view is that the symbolic message of Revelation came to be understood by a process of "decoding." That is, first century Christians understood the hidden meaning of certain names and numerals and deciphered its encrypted symbolic passages by comparing them with parallel texts from the Old Testament. By these and other methods it is felt that the early church was able to eventually discover Revelation's hidden message.
But is this the way God intended for early Christians to approach Revelation? Were they to look on Revelation as a puzzle to solve or a mystery to slowly decipher? Were they to gradually gain an understanding of its symbolic message? Though this approach is popular with many today, is it the process God intended for the early church? By using such a method of interpreting, how long would it have taken the first century church to gain a clear and complete understanding of Revelation? Would it have possibly taken days? Weeks? Months?
It stands to reason that there must have been some other means available to early Christians for them to quickly and accurately comprehend Revelation's meaning.
Some in the early church possessed special miraculous gifts which were used for both the spreading the gospel and the edification of the saints (I Cor. 12:8-10). One of these gifts was the miraculous gift of "knowledge" (12:8). With this gift, no doubt, some had the ability to explain prophecies. Just as some were given the gift to interpret foreign languages (12:10), there were also those who could explain prophetic language. In addition, the prophets themselves could interpret prophecies. For example, we recall that after the prophet Agabus illustrated a prophetic message, he immediately interpreted its meaning (Acts 21:10,11). And the apostles also had the ability to interpret prophecies (Matt. 4:14-16; Acts 2:29-31).
So it is not difficult to see that the symbolic message of Revelation could be understood when it was received, and without having to wait for it to be "decoded." Obviously, God wanted the churches to understand the message of Revelation at the time it was delivered, in very much the same way that the other books of the New Testament were understood when they were received and read.
The book of Revelation contained an extremely important message - - a message which the early church needed to immediately comprehend. The lives of those early Christians were at stake and there was to be no waiting for the message to be delivered to them. Surely, soon after it was received, the message of this book was made known among the churches of the first century.
The most frequently asked question: Can people today understand Revelation?
The answer depends first on which specific part of the book we have in mind. Some sections are more literal in nature and can indeed be understood by us today. Parts of chapter 1 are quite literal and fall into this category. Also, chapters 2 and 3, composed of brief letters to the seven churches, contain much literal language.
But what about many other parts of Revelation? Can we today say with absolute certainty that we know the meaning of every symbolic passage found in this book? My personal opinion is that we cannot and should not make such a statement. I have in my own library more than twenty commentaries on Revelation, and no two of them agree on everything. This fact alone should remind us to use caution when drawing conclusions about the book's many symbolic passages. When giving interpretations for the symbolic language of Revelation, it is important to openly acknowledge that any particular view is only an opinion.
Something important to keep in mind - - "The only sure interpretation of a prophecy is an inspired interpretation."
For example, prophecies found in the Old Testament have been interpreted for us by the inspired writers of the New Testament. In contrast, this cannot be said of the book of Revelation. Since this was the last book of the New Testament to be penned, its prophecies obviously cannot be corroborated by further inspired writings. We must conclude, therefore, that apart from an inspired interpretation of Revelation, there can be no absolute understanding of many of its symbolic passages.
However, seeing that we today have access to much first century secular history, we are able to go back and identify some of the symbolic language of Revelation. Without doubt, some of these symbols pertain to such things as imperial Rome, Judaism and Christianity. Still, it is always important to exercise caution in the attribution of such symbols. Even though we may not know the precise meaning of all its symbols, we are assured of the overall message of this book -- encouragement for persecuted Christians.
How important is it that we have a complete understanding of Revelation today?
If, perchance, we were able to understand all the symbols of Revelation, would that make us any more acceptable to God? No, it would not. In similar manner, if we were not able to understand all the symbols in the book, would that make us any less acceptable to God? Again, no. This straightforward concept is always worth observing and will help us in keeping a study of the book in perspective.
We should never look to Revelation for the purpose of merely trying to satisfy our curiosity. This is not why God gave this book. Rather, it was given to reveal a message to the early Christians - - a message they did understand.
Why do people have different views of Revelation?
The answer has to do with the fact that people approach Revelation in two different ways. These are: a non-historical approach and a historical approach.
The non-historical approach sees Revelation as a broad allegorical (figurative) story - - a message wholly unrelated to and placing no significance on history. The historical approach sees Revelation intermingled with history. Beyond doubt, this is the more plausible view, as Revelation contains detailed symbols which would otherwise have no meaning.
This leads to another question: How far into the future does the history set forth in Revelation extend?
There are basically two different opinions about this. Some believe it refers to the entire Christian dispensation, covering 2000 or more years. This view is erroneous, for the events of 2000 or more years into the future would have had no meaning to Christians in the first century.
Others believe the writings of Revelation refer to a relatively short period of time. This is easily the more logical view, notably because of the time span which is mentioned in the first and last chapters ("which must shortly take place" 1:1; 22:6). John also said, "the time is at hand." Clearly, these verses suggest a reasonably short limit to the history covered in Revelation.
When did this period of time begin? It is generally agreed that it began at about the time John penned the book of Revelation.
When did John write Revelation?
There are differing opinions to this question. One popular view is that it was written about 95 A.D. Another view is that it was written near the time of the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Which of these views seems to be more reasonable? Though external arguments have been offered in support of both of these views, they are inconclusive.
Of greater importance is to ask if there is anything in the book itself that aids in discovering when Revelation was written. Determining the time of its writing hinges largely on one verse - - 17:10. Here, seven kings are mentioned. John wrote: "There are also seven kings. Five have fallen, one is, and the other is not yet come." Most agree this verse refers to the first seven emperors of the Roman Empire, beginning with Augustus. These emperors are, in order:
August (30 B.C.-14 A.D.)
Tiberius (14-37 A.D.)
Caligula (37-41 A.D.)
Claudius (41-54 A.D.)
Nero (54-68 A.D.)
Vespasian (69-79 A.D.)
Titus (79-81 A.D.)
Note: John writes that "five have fallen," that is, they have died. These five would be Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero. He then writes the key words, "one is." Accordingly, the sixth king, Vespasian, was on the throne when John was writing Revelation. (Another view claims that the first emperor was Julius Caesar. If this view is accurate, it would make Nero the sixth king.) At any rate, an earlier date near 70 A.D. seems to best suit the internal evidence of the scriptures.
An important point to consider: Although we may not know the meaning of everything in Revelation, in many instances we can know what Revelation does not mean.
Some religious groups teach doctrines for which they seek support from the book of Revelation. However, when comparing these doctrines with the plain teachings of other New Testament books, they are shown to be false. In these cases we can know what Revelation is not saying. For example, Jehovah's Witnesses believe the 144,000 figure (7:4) to be the exact number of those who will enter Heaven. This is a false teaching, for the Bible clearly states that salvation is for "whoever" (John 3:16). Many teach that the 1000 years (20:2) refers to an exact period of time that Jesus will reign on earth. However, the Bible plainly says that when Jesus returns he will come no closer than the clouds (I Thess. 4:17).
In these and other examples we can know what Revelation does not mean. Beware when you see a doctrine which is so obscure that its advocates must go to the book of Revelation for support. Any true doctrine should be easily found in the other (literal) books of the New Testament.