The Book of Revelation: Can It Be Understood?
The assumptions we hold when we read or listen to something have a huge impact on what we get out of it. This fact is nowhere more clear than in our understanding of the last book of the Bible: the book of Revelation. Revelation is a complex, highly-symbolic book. If I assume that Revelation is foretelling the years leading up to Jesus’ return, that’s what I’ll see. Likewise, if I assume that Revelation is map of Christian history, that’s what I’ll see. Whatever assumptions we bring to this book will inevitably shape how we perceive its message. This is one of the reason there are so many different views of Revelation – everyone is approaching it with different assumptions.
So is Revelation a locked box? Is there any way to get at what the true message was and is? Do we simply pick the view that makes us ‘feel’ the best?
Is there anything we can do to make sense of this book?
I believe there is. As I’ve read and studied Revelation over the past year, I’ve come across several assumptions that the text implies. You see, I believe that the Revelation actually informs us what we should assume about it. Although there are a number of different assumptions we should make, I want to highlight three today.
1. Revelation is a Book of Symbols
Though there are very few texts like Revelation in the Bible. It isn’t a unique book in the way it’s written. Revelation is a piece of apocalyptic literature.
Revelation is Apocalyptic Literature
Apocalyptic literature has its roots in the prophet Daniel’s visions as recorded in the book that bears his name. I’ll leave an in-depth examination of apocalyptic literature for another day. For now, it’s enough to note that Revelation was written as a book of symbols.
John did not intend us to take hundred-pound hail, horse-sized locusts, or seven-headed dragons literally. How do I know? For one thing, that’s not how apocalyptic literature works. For another thing, John’s angelic guide often tells him that certain images are symbolic of other realities.
Certain Symbols are Explained in the Text
For example, John writes that the dragon is “the serpent of old who is called the devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world” (Revelation 12:9). Likewise, in the first chapter John is told by Jesus that the seven lampstands which surround Christ “are the seven churches” (Revelation 1:20). This book is filled with these kinds of asides that point John behind the image to a further reality.
We should be careful though that we don’t turn Revelation into an allegory where everything – and every description of everything – has a symbolic or spiritual meaning. Many of the symbols in Revelation are broad. For example, hail, fire, locusts, and blood are all symbolic of God’s judgment. I believe many interpreters have gone off the rails by looking for deeper meanings than what’s really there.
As we’ll see in our next point, we shouldn’t read the symbols in Revelation too closely. However, if we forget that Revelation is a book of symbols, we’ll inevitably turn it into a horror story rather than the glorious Gospel message that it is.
Why does this matter?
If Revelation is a symbolic book, then we need to be careful about what we take literally. We should look for symbols that carry over from the Old Testament. I would especially note the parallels between Genesis/Exodus and Revelation. John tore many of his plague in Revelation right out of the pages of Exodus and Israel’s escape from Egypt. That isn’t a coincidence. These are the kind of symbolic references that are important to note as we read Revelation.
2. Revelation was Meant to be Heard
In Revelation 1:3, John pronounces a blessing on “he who reads and those who hear the words of the prophecy.” Though it may not seem like it, this is a significant statement. Why? Well, we ought to note that the verb for ‘to read’ here is especially used “of public reading in the congregation” (Kittel). And that’s not all. John’s blessing also extends to “those who hear the words of the prophecy.” In other words, Revelation was meant to be read – or performed – for a congregational audience.
At this point you may be wondering, so what? It’s well known that many people couldn’t read in the first century and books weren’t exactly cheap. Why is this fact important for the way we understand Revelation?
Too Many Have Put Revelation Under a Microscope
Think for a moment about the way many people have interpreted Revelation. One approach is to treat it as if each word has special significance. Some even act as if it’s an encoded book that we must ‘translate.’ And so they see the word ‘fire’ or ‘hail’ in the Revelation and then go searching for the right ‘translation’ of that word – usually by pulling a verse from the Old Testament that includes both words. But this is a recipe for disaster and confusion! It opens the door to reading Revelation any way we want – so long as we can find an Old Testament passage that connects an idea in Revelation to an idea we want to find there.
Some go a step further by building up convoluted explanations for why certain ideas in Revelation really mean this or that. For example, Uriah Smith, a Seventh-Day Adventist interpreter of Revelation went to great lengths to ‘prove’ that the mark of the Beast was Sunday worship (Revelation 14:9). His explanation is logical. But it’s also so complex, there’s no way anyone hearing Revelation read would have come to his conclusions.
And that’s why it’s important to constantly remember that John wrote Revelation as an ‘audio-book.’
Revelation, a Realistic Landscape…
Many people treat this book as if it’s a realistic landscape. Like this one for example. Notice how examining the painting up close doesn’t really confuse us. Since the artist used such a fine brush, we can tell that there are rocks up at the top, a log at the bottom, and a shoreline in between. And if we had the actual painting, instead of a low-resolution photograph, examining it up-close might reveal even more detail. Now, this doesn’t mean we wouldn’t – at times – need to back up and look at the whole thing in order to truly grasp its beauty. But it would mean that we could understand it regardless of whether we examined up close or far away.
Or an Impressionistic Painting?
Compare this to an impressionistic painting. It’s much harder to appreciate the beauty of impressionistic artwork when we examine it up close. From far away, we can make sense of it all. But when we zoom up, we can’t make heads or tails of it.
If I were just to show you the zoomed-up sections of both paintings, you’d easily be able to identify the first but the second? Who could tell? It may be the ocean. Or the sky. Perhaps even a shirt or a hat or any number of other blue things. There’s simply no way to tell until we back up because impressionistic artwork can only be understood from a distance. And if we try to zoom up too closely, we’ll miss the forest for the trees – or, to keep the painting metaphor, we’ll miss the painting for the strokes.
So, why all this talk about paintings? Well, if I take seriously the fact that John wrote Revelation to be read and heard, then I need to also take seriously the possibility that Revelation is a work of art done in an ‘impressionistic’ style rather than a ‘realistic’ one.
Revelation: The Movie
Hearing this book read aloud would not give you the time to construct convoluted arguments linking the mark of the Beast with Sunday worship. Instead, it would paint a more general picture of taking on qualities and characteristics of the Beast.
Recently, I’ve been thinking about Revelation more and more as a sort of first-century movie. There are various scenes and the action moves quickly from here to there. You might not hear every word of dialogue or notice every little easter egg but at the end, you know the basic plot. And on repeat viewings, you notice even more. The second, third, and fourth viewings reveal a kind of depth that isn’t obvious at first. Revelation works the same way.
Why does this matter?
If John wrote Revelation to be heard rather than read silently, then we should treat it like an impressionistic painting. We should look for broad strokes – themes, symbols, words, and images. Likewise, we should take it in passages rather than verses. And we should beware of overly-complicated interpretations. Finally, we should try reading it out loud or listening to a recording of it. That is, after all, the way John wrote it.
3. Revelation was Meant to be Immediately Understood
From early in the book, an angel guides John through the vision, interpreting certain symbols and pointing things out along the way. Before the angel departs, he shares one final command.
Revelation, an Unsealed Book
John writes, “And he said to me, ‘Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near'” (Revelation 22:10).
Now, this by itself might not mean much. After all, there’s a lot of talk about Jesus’ second coming being ‘near’ in the New Testament. That doesn’t necessarily imply anything by itself. However, we ought to note that the command John records here is very similar to one that Daniel receives at the end of his prophecy – with one slight difference.
At the end of Daniel’s prophecy, the angel who delivers his vision tells him, “But as for you, Daniel, conceal these words and seal up the book until the end of time; many will go back and forth, and knowledge will increase” (Daniel 12:4). Five verses later, he repeats himself, “Go your way, Daniel, for these words are concealed and sealed up until the end time” (Daniel 12:9).
Daniel wrote a sealed book. No one could understand it until a later time. But the Angel called Revelation an unsealed book because “the time is near.” There is nothing in the book of Revelation that implies time must pass before it becomes clear. This sets it apart from Daniel. Revelation was understandable.
John Implies It Could Be Understood
This is made even more evident by the several statements in Revelation which imply that its original hearers could have understood it. For example, when John writes about the Beast and his famous number, he says, “Here is wisdom. Let him who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for the number is that of a man; and his number is six hundred and sixty-six” (Revelation 13:18). John doesn’t say, “Let him who gains knowledge as it increases calculate the number of the beast.” He writes as if his original audience could have understood what he was saying. And in fact, I believe any first-century hearer would have rightly assumed that he could calculate the number. In other words, it’s only natural to think that this would have made sense right away.
Again, there’s no reason to assume that time needed to pass for Revelation to be understood. And there’s every reason – including the command in Revelation 22:10 – to assume that John wrote Revelation as an intelligible book in his own day.
In addition to this, Revelation includes many allusions to John’s first-century culture. Chapters 2 and 3 are explicitly about congregations that existed in John’s day. All of this simply reinforces the idea that Revelation was a book that had immediate meaning.
Why does this matter?
If John wrote Revelation to be immediately understood, then we should treat it more like we treat the rest of scripture. We should seek to understand the original context as best we can. We should try to understand what it meant to them before we look for a modern-day or even future meaning. And we should be wary of any interpretation that makes the book pointless until a date in the future (i.e. past the second century).
Honestly, I could go on and on about the above assumptions as well as a number of others that have been rolling around in my head as I’ve studied Revelation this year. I believe it’s vitally important that we approach this book from the right angle. If we ask Revelation the wrong questions, we will get the wrong answers.
So when you study, do it based on the text itself, not what you think the text should be saying.
I hope to write some more on Revelation in the future. Leave a comment and let me know what you think about this beautiful but complex book.
Kittel, G., Bromiley, G. W., & Friedrich, G. (Eds.). (1964–). Theological dictionary of the New Testament (electronic ed., Vol. 1, p. 343). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.