Understanding the Book of Revelation
Donald P. Ames
The book of Revelation seems to be completely beyond the comprehension of many; hence it is never studied, never understood, easily and often misinterpreted, and usually very confusing. It is often approached by some like a giant jigsaw puzzle, in which they become so bogged down looking at the individual pieces that they completely lose sight of the overall picture, hence it seems hopeless.
Indeed the book of Revelation is like a giant jigsaw puzzle, and when we lose sight of the overall picture, we lose sight of the very key to understanding the book itself. While it may be true that all the details of every example may not be fully comprehended by any (I do not know of any two commentaries that agree on every particular), I do believe that the basic general picture of Revelation can be understood. I also believe that the refutation of many false theories can be easily comprehended.
We shall not, in this one setting, attempt to go into an examination of each and every theory that has been advanced on the book of Revelation. Such is neither practical nor necessary. However, if we can comprehend the basic nature of Revelation, we will be in position to not only recognize a false interpretation, but to see wherein it has departed from the true message of Revelation. This we shall attempt to do by recognizing three basic keys of understanding to the message of this great book from God.
Revelation, by its very nature, was not designed to be interpreted literally, as is readily apparent to anyone who sits down to actually read it. John affirms in Rev. 1:1 that it was sent and "signified"-a term which means to speak in signs or symbols (hence not literal, but figurative). Such symbolic language is common to us from the parables, illustrations in John 10, the Lord's Supper, etc.
Reading the book itself reveals that even those who claim to interpret it literally do not do so. (1) Rev. 7:48, 14:3-4 mention the 144,000, which the Jehovah Witnesses love to claim must be interpreted literally, but they reject the idea that it refers to literal Jews (note that even the 12 tribes are not literal, but rather that the tribes of Levi and Joseph have been substituted for Dan and Ephraim), that it means only men, that it means only unmarried men (i.e., virgins), and that they followed a literal "lamb." (2) Rev. 12 could not be literal by any method of interpretation. The woman described was of enormous size (if literal), and so is the dragon. If sufficiently huge he is capable of hurling one third of the stars to earth, obviously we would have no earth left. Yet, having done so, he is then cast down to what is left of the earth, stands on it, and pursues the huge woman, who is able to find a hiding place on it also. (3) Rev. 14:20 would require blood flowing for a distance of 200 miles, filling up all the valleys, gulleys, lakes, etc. Again, obviously, literal logic cannot be applied to the interpretation of this passage. (4) Rev. 20:1-6 is used by those teaching the theory of Premillennialism, and the term "1,000 years" is seized upon as literal, while rejecting the literal nature of a "bottomless pit," of only "souls" involved, of only souls which were "beheaded," and excluding any who were not beheaded.
The very nature of Revelation then, as John affirms, is not to be literal, but figurative, and hence must be so interpreted (in harmony with other plain statements found elsewhere in the Bible, and also in light of other similar expressions found in the Old Testament which are explained for us). We will have more on this point later.
The second major point we need to understand about Revelation is the time for which it was written. Revelation was written to convey a message to those then living, and efforts to make it refer to specific events centuries later utterly ignores this point. There could be no way anyone then reading it could be blessed (1:3) if it did not convey a message to them as they read it then. Why should they heed its message (22:7) if it had no reference whatsoever to them, but referred to something going to happen yet 2,000 or more years into the future?
The truth of the matter is that John was writing Revelation with them in mind. Again, we turn to the very first verse, where he affirms he is writing about those things "which must shortly take place." One Premillennial commentary I read recently noted this term, changed it to surely, and proceeded to affirm everything from the middle of the third chapter was yet future. This is not what John was talking about! The term here, commented on by Vincent, means: "the aorist infinitive geneszai is not begin to come to pass, but denotes a complete fulfillment; must shortly come to pass in their entirety." Again, if it is to "shortly" come to pass, it cannot be talking about over 2,000 years into the future!
This message is carried throughout the book of Revelation. Note that the time is "near" or "at hand" in 1:3 (cf. Matt. 3:2, Mark 9:1); "about to suffer" (2:10); "1 am coming to you quickly" (2:16); "that hour which is about to come upon the whole world" (3:10); "1 am coming quickly" (3:11); "a little while longer" (6:11); "delay no longer" (10:6); "the third Woe is coming quickly" (11:14); etc. Even in the last chapter we see the same message repeated repeatedly: "the things which must shortly take place" (v. 6); "1 am coming quickly" (v. 7); "for the time is near" (v. 10); "1 am coming quickly" (v. 12); and "I am coming quickly" again in verse 20. Obviously the "coming" here does not refer to the second and final coming, or the Lord lied in saying it was "quickly," "shortly" and "at hand." Frequently the same term is used with the idea of coming in judgment (cf. Matt. 10:23, Isa. 19:1-not literal), and this seems to be the message John was giving to the oppressed Christians of that time.
This same idea is born out even further when we note the expression used "from Him who Is, and who was and who is to come" (1:4,8; 4:8) which is changed to "who art and who wast" in 11:17 and 16:5 (Note: the KJV has "and art to come", but this is not found in the NASB nor the originals, and thus does not belong here. It is also interesting to note that we find he "hast (past tense) begun to reign" in 11:17 and "didst judge" in 16:5). Thus, we find that the "to come" part has been fulfilled at this point by the action taken already, and not something yet to happen over 2,000 years in the future.
This being so, recognizing the time element of the book of Revelation, there is no way Jehovah Witnesses, Premillennialists, Armstrong, Adventists, etc. can claim Revelation is either being fulfilled today or refers to events yet in the future. This same error lies in the way of the popular Historical approach taken by the Gospel Advocate commentary and some other brethren today. They are "too late," just as those who contend the kingdom is yet in the future are "too late" in their recognition of the time element involved. And, efforts to apply Matt. 24:6-7 to events today in this same light also ignores the context of what is under consideration here too (see v. 1-3, 34). If we went no further, these two points alone are sufficient to refute most of the error taught about the book of Revelation. But there is one more point we need to note to complete our picture.
The third point we need to grasp is the full jigsaw picture itself, as we look at the book of Revelation as a whole. Why was it written, and what was its message? The book was written as an encouragement to the Christians of that time in the face of discouraging persecution from the Roman government. The tribulation was already on them, and more were yet to die (2:10, 3:10, 6:11). In view of these continued deaths, the cry was raised, "Is it all in vain?" "How long, O Lord, holy and true, will Thou refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth" (6:10), and John's message is the reply to this cry. The book centers around their cry for vengeance-nor for the sake of revenge itself, but as a testimony it had not all been in vain. But, first, God says, it is all according to a plan: others must first die too (6:11), but "a little while longer," and My purpose will then unfold. Now, note in 16:6-7 that Christ "didst judge" these things, giving His enemies blood to drink for having poured out the blood of the saints, and the "altar" (cf. 6:9) now sees that "true and righteous are Thy judgments." Again, in 19:2, in direct reference to 6:10, we find "He has avenged the blood of His bond-servants on her." And, finally, in triumph, those who had remained faithful to the Lord throughout the persecution are now sharing in the triumph of the cause of Christ in 20:4-6. Thus we see the picture, each part of it contributing to the whole, and all tied to "its own special background and history" (The Saints Victorious by James P. Miller, p. 31).
Hendriksen, in More Than Conquerors, p. 11, says that the purpose of the book is "to comfort the militant church in its struggle against the forces of evil. It abounds with consolations for afflicted believers." Again, in the foreword of his book Revelation: Message From Patmos, Weldon Warnock adds, "Revelation was written to serve an immediate need for the suffering Christians of Asia Minor. It was written to console, comfort and assure those saints who were experiencing affliction, even death, at the hands of the Roman Emperor, Domitian, and his cohorts. It fulfills this need perfectly." And, Ray Summers in his commentary Worthy Is The Lamb, p. 100, adds, "This does not mean that every detail of the book is to be an immediate fulfillment. The interval of time between the beginning of relief for the Christians and the final consummation was not revealed to John; neither he nor the other Christians needed to see that. They needed the assurance of immediate relief and final complete victory. That is exactly what was given them." I believe the chart which accompanies this article (which I have composed from personal study of the book as a whole) well illustrates this message as it is carried through the book of Revelation.
But Why Figurative?
At this point, the question is again raised, But why then is the book figurative? Why didn't John just come out and say that? Remember Pharoah's reaction in Ex. 5:2, 5-9? The pattern for giving a message to God's people, which they understood and their enemies thought was "the ravings of a lunatic" was then set in Ezekiel 4. The same was now employed here the Christians understood the wonderful promise of relief and victory, but the Romans thought it was the writings of one "not worth bothering with." Again, from Ray Summers' commentary, we note the following: "Often one is led to question as to why literature is presented in such a cryptic manner as characterizes apocalypses. The answer to such a question is seen in the fact that this literature was written in dangerous times. The personal safety of both writer and reader was endangered if the persecutors understood the true meaning of the book. For this reason the message of the apocalypse was written so as to conceal and to reveal---to conceal the message from the outsider but to reveal its message to the initiated" (Worthy Is The Lamb, p.5).
All that is contained in this book: the events, the beasts, the judgments, etc. must be kept within the concept of the time, nature and purpose of the book, or we no longer have a context, but a pretext. This does not mean that it does not contain a message for us today, for surely it does, just like the message on church discipline found in 1 Cor. 5. We must not become discouraged and assume God has lost control, but to recognize He has a purpose and in the end, He will vindicate His cause!
The failure to recognize these important truths, though, has led to many speculations-all the way from the Premillennial position to the Jehovah Witnesses' position to the Historical Position (which has to be revised every 100 years to account for "new events." This view, by the way, also reverses the beasts of Rev. 13 as well).
Revelation is much like the American battle of Independence. We declared our Independence in 1776, but it took a war to confirm it. Dan. 2:44 and Heb. 12:28 affirmed we have received a kingdom which could not be destroyed. It was tested by Satan, and confirmed by the Lord. As before, Satan went down in defeat, even though he threw everything he had against the church in its infancy: The power of the Roman government, the pressure of Caesar worship and the worldliness of the city of Rome as well. His final defeat has been foretold (Matt. 25:46), but he will not surrender! Would you rather follow a loser, or to follow our Lord in His final victory and the glories of Heaven, which He offers as a reward for those who remain faithful to Him?
Truth Magazine, XX:18, p. 8-10