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Understanding the Book of Revelation

The Book of Revelation is by far the most controversial in the Bible. By thumbing past the Book of Jude in the New Testament, we arrive at the opening to the book. It’s here that Christians hold their breath, wondering if it is profitable to read, let alone understand. Revelation – not Revelation(s) as many have come to incorrectly call it – is chalk full of vivid imagery, strange symbols, mysterious visions (getting even weirder). It’s anyone’s guess what it all means, some think. Why the mystery? The Book of Revelation is the most controversial for one reason: It alone spells doom for the world in its last days, according to many. That’s scary — and inaccurate.

Contrary to popular belief, the Book of Revelation is not hard to understand. Many don’t think so. They like to make it complicated. But it’s not. How is that? Well, by breaking it down into parts and putting it into the context in which its author, John, had originally wrote it, the Book of Revelation we think is scary and prophetic becomes a book about hope, God’s power, and his authority over the world.

What is the Book of Revelation?

The Book of Revelation was written by a man named John. The scholars who’ve made it their career to study this material agree widely that John the Apostle, one of Jesus’ 12 disciples, wrote this book. He had been exiled on the island of Patmos for preaching the good news of Jesus as high king over the universe. That message the Romans did not like. They had their empire, and their own emperor, Caesar, claimed to be “god” and in control of the stars – quite the wild claim. To have John preaching about Jesus being the superior ruler with authority over Caesar was not something the established empire of Rome appreciated. To show their lack of appreciation, the Romans had John poisoned, obviously hoping he’d die, but God didn’t like that idea. John vomited the poison out of his system and lived. With their plan having failed, the Romans did the only remaining thing they could do: They exiled John to Patmos. After some time, he somehow returned to Ephesus and wrote about his vision. His words became letters to the seven churches in Asia, which centuries later, became the Book of Revelation that we read today.

The vision John had, a kind of dream, showed Jesus as coming into authority as the King overall, promising the day that God would make all things right and usher in a new world of peace and harmony for all of us. It was encouragement for the churches. They needed to know that their Lord was on the throne in heaven, overseeing all human affairs. At the time, the Church was going through a lot of persecution. The emperor ruling during that time was particularly prejudice towards Christians and made it his mission to cause great suffering. He didn’t want anyone under his authority, benefiting from imperial protection as Roman citizens, worshipping someone else other than himself.

Key Themes in Revelation

Good vs. Evil: Revelation talks about the ultimate battle between good and evil. More specifically, it’s the battle for control over life. Good wants life to flourish, thrive, and grow, but evil only desires to control life, manage it, contain it, and when life doesn’t obey, punish it for not being controllable, manageable, or contained. And that’s precisely what the Roman empire was doing; it was controlling its people through fear, lies, and tyranny, punishing its citizens for not worshipping Caesar who felt entitled to their worship. This hostility was discouraging to Christians who wanted to worship the real God, the true authority of the universe who loved and cared for them. To remind his people that their suffering was not going unnoticed, God spoke through John in Revelation.

Hope and Encouragement: Even though there are scary images throughout, they are not meant to be taken literally. Instead, John wrote them to mean very different things than what Christian readers think. For example, there are multiple references to a third of this and a third of that being burned or being killed off. While this makes the eyes of many readers widen with fear, their imaginations whisking them away to apocalyptic nightmares, the text actually caries a deeper, more ancient meaning. You see, it’s about thirds, like a 1/3 of a cup of flour in baking cookies or making pancakes. To the ancient Israelite, a third of mankind or of animals, meant Creation itself. The Jews loved thirds. To them, the number 3 represented completeness. In Revelation, when it says a third of man perished and a third of the moon and stars went dark, it means things are happening on a cosmic scale where only God has control, not Caesar. This literary method of communicating cosmic superiority was God’s way of saying that he has control over the universe, not Caesar a mere man. That means when Jesus promises to return someday to make all things right, Caesar can do nothing to stop that because it’s God’s will.

Basically, Revelation shows that God is all-powerful and in control, no matter how bad things seem.

Symbols and What They Mean

To communicate these themes to the ancient Christian reader, the Book of Revelation uses symbolism, which embody meaning related to the book’s message. Here are a few important ones:

The Lamb: Jesus is the Lamb of God who in the Old and New Testaments, took away the sins of the world through self-sacrifice as a pure and holy offering. John uses this animalistic symbol from books like Daniel so that the Christian readers of his time would easily recognize the hero of the story.

The Dragon: Satan or evil is symbolized in the Dragon, the great serpent. In ancient times, especially times further back than the first century in which John wrote Revelation, people used the characteristics and behaviors of animals to convey emotional and spiritual meaning. In this case, the Christian reader of the time recognized the serpent as an animalistic symbol of deception and evil by the way it slithered across the ground, representing how lies can slither into our minds, making their removal a real challenge. A dragon can also “slither” about. In ancient literature outside Israelite culture, serpents (or snakes) have been known to be animated with the morphing ability to look like a dragon, adopting legs and wings to resemble the towering monster.

The Beast: As a symbol of corrupt human governments or leaders who oppose God, the Beast can describe how inhuman a human leader (a tyrant) can be.

The New Jerusalem: The new, perfect world God will create, the New Jerusalem means a hard reset to the power and authority structure of the world. God promises that one day he’ll be recognized as the supreme authority over everyone and all things, putting all those who assumed abusive and arrogant power dominance over others under his feet to learn what true justice and governance looks like.

Interpretations of Revelation

Here’s where things get… Complicated. Over the years, people have tried to understand what Revelation means. A brief history of the Christian church describes believers as struggling to love a world that loves darkness. We’re anxious to see the world be remade with harmony and peace. For centuries, the Church has been sweating bullets trying to understand when and under what circumstances Jesus will return. Here’s a basic outline of the interpretations:

Historical: Revelation describing events that were happening at the time John wrote it, giving hope to early Christians under Roman rule.

Futuristic: Revelation predicting the future, including events that haven’t happened yet, like the return of Jesus and the end of the world.

Symbolic: Revelation symbolically explaining the ongoing struggle between good and evil, rather than predicting specific events.

These interpretations don’t represent the full measure of thoughts about the text that are out there. To provide a brief overview of those interpretations, there’s the Pre-Tribulation, Mid-Tribulation, Post-Tribulation, Pre-Millennialism, and Post-Millennialism (sigh). That’s a lot. There are many who cling to these interpretations passionately and fervently. Sadly, though, believing in something deeply doesn’t make it true. Unfortunately, these interpretations all rely on literal interpretations of the symbolism. They don’t take into account the ancient context in which again John wrote Revelation. As a result, today’s readers misinterpret the text. One example is the Rapture, a term coined by the Church to mean that one day, all believers will be taken up into heaven with Jesus, leaving everyone else who’s not a believer to suffer in a world that is far less polite and far more violent. Where Revelation references the idea of a Rapture, it is actually referring to those whom God warns to flee from Jerusalem before it is destroyed. Historically speaking, Jerusalem was utterly destroyed in AD 64 or thereabouts. The Christians living in Jerusalem who read John’s letters recognized the warning and fled the city before its destruction. In other worlds, the Rapture that the Church is hoping for in the near future has unfortunately already happened. It happened almost 2,000 years ago.

Why Revelation is Important

Jesus coming back means a lot for everyone, both good and bad, whether they believe it or not. To those who do evil, Jesus and his return is the furthest from their mind. They’re too busy partying, drinking, gambling, making lots of money, and just all-around having a good time being selfish. For those who walk with God, having a personal relationship with Jesus, the return of the Son of Man (Jesus) means the ushering in of a new age of justice and peace. Jesus promises to bring the hammer this time in his return and set things right, dealing out justice to those who need it and sentencing evil to Hell where it belongs. For those of us not interested in seeing this world continue on endlessly with its corruption, bloodshed, violence, and deception, the return of Jesus is a wonderfully exciting thought.

His return gives us something to hope for, and Revelation reminds Christians to stay strong in their faith, regardless of how current events unfold. Right now, world is a scary place where wars are being fought and rumored about and people are growing more concerned about their future. These are unstable times, to put it lightly, but Jesus is our rock. He’s the Way, the Truth, and the Life we can always stand on in confidence.

How to Read Revelation

When reading Revelation, it’s important to remember a couple things:

The book is not for us to predict. The text was written for an audience from long, long ago. It still has meaning for us to benefit from today, but the majority of what it talks that’s scary already happened centuries ago for a specific purpose. The images and events describe an ancient story that happened to the Church at the time in which it was written.

Don’t get lost in the details: The numbers described in the book are not like numbers today. They’re not calculations.

Conclusion

Reading the Book of Revelation can feel overwhelming and scary, but remember, that’s not the intent behind it. With a correct understanding of its imagery and symbolism, the book is an encouragement to stay faithful to God through difficult times. By understanding its symbols and messages, we can appreciate its important lessons about faith, perseverance, and the ultimate victory of good over evil. God is in control. He has the power, even when his hand is not easy to see. We don’t need to see him. He dwells within us. Revelation speaks to the heart, not the mind.