Winston Churchill once described the Soviet Union as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” I believe it would be fair to say that many Christians look at the book of Revelation in a similar way. “How,” they ask, “are we to understand a book that is filled with so much bizarre imagery — a lamb with seven eyes and seven horns, locusts with the appearance of horses, a woman clothed with the sun, a great red dragon, and a multi-headed beast? The book is incomprehensible, right?” Well, no. But understanding Revelation does take some effort.
There are several reasons why Revelation is particularly difficult to understand. First, it is filled with all kinds of strange imagery that must be interpreted. Second, it frequently alludes to Old Testament texts, meaning that a good grasp of the entire Old Testament is necessary to understand those allusions. Third, there is controversy about when the book was written, and one’s understanding of when Revelation was written can strongly influence one’s interpretation of what Revelation means.
Although these issues make the interpretation of the details more difficult, the basic theme of Revelation is clear enough. It is about the victory of Jesus Christ and how that victory is relevant for Christians who were suffering then and who are suffering now.
What Kind of Book is Revelation?
Understanding this basic theme is well and good, but most Christians want to understand a little more than that. In order to do so, the first question we must answer involves the kind of book with which we are dealing. Thankfully, the author gives us the answer. John specifically and repeatedly identifies his book as a prophecy (1:3; 19:10; 22:7, 10, 18, 19). Why is this important? It means that if we understand how to approach the other prophetic books of the Bible, we will have some idea how to approach and interpret this prophetic book.
So, how do we approach the other prophetic books? In the first place, we recognize that the Old Testament prophetic books were given to specific people in specific historical contexts. Many of the Old Testament prophetic books deal with impending judgments on Israel, Judah, or the nations that oppressed Israel and Judah. These books also contain glimpses of future restoration beyond these impending judgments. So how does this help us understand John’s prophecy? It helps us know the kinds of questions we should ask as we read it. Is it addressed to specific people in a specific historical context? Yes, it is addressed to “the seven churches that are in Asia” (1:4). Does it deal with impending judgments? Yes, John speaks throughout the book of imminent judgments. Does it speak of future restoration following the judgments? Yes, after his oracles of judgment, John speaks of a glorious new heaven and earth in which sin and death are no more (chaps. 21–22).
When Was Revelation Written?
John indicates that at the time he is writing, at least some of his prophecies will be fulfilled very soon (1:1, 3, 19; 2:16; 3:10–11; 22:6–7, 10, 12, 20). In fact, the book opens and closes with statements to the effect that these visions involve “things that must soon take place” (1:1; 22:6). It is evident, then, that in order to understand those prophecies and the nature of their fulfillment, it is important to ask when the book was written. The general consensus among contemporary scholars is that the book was written around AD 95–96, during the latter part of the reign of the Emperor Domitian. There is a growing minority of scholars (including J. C. Wilson and Stephen S. Smalley), however, who argue that the book of Revelation was written between AD 64 and 70, during or just after the reign of the Roman Emperor Nero. While there are many good and godly men who disagree, I am convinced that the arguments for an early date are much stronger than those for a late date.
If the early date is correct, then we can make more sense of what John is saying when he speaks of “things that must soon take place” (1:1; 22:6) and says, “the time is near” (1:3; 22:10). This is because an enormously significant judgment on Israel was imminent at that point in history. The final destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the Roman armies occurred in AD 70. Jesus had already foretold this coming destruction in His Olivet Discourse (Matt. 24; Mark 13; Luke 21). If Revelation was written between AD 64 and 70, it is very likely that John was giving Israel a final prophetic warning before this judgment occurred.
It is worth noting that most conservative evangelicals interpret the Old Testament prophetic books that foretold the 586 BC destruction of Jerusalem in a basically preterist manner. That is, we understand that the fulfillment of those prophecies occurred in the past. If many of the prophecies in John’s book concerned the imminent AD 70 destruction of Jerusalem, we should interpret this New Testament prophetic book in a basically preterist manner as well. In other words, we should understand that many of the prophecies of judgment found within it were fulfilled in the past, in the first century, when Rome destroyed Jerusalem. This does not mean that we should automatically conclude that all of the prophecies of Revelation were fulfilled in the first century. Like the Old Testament prophetic books, this New Testament prophetic book also looks forward to an ultimate time of restoration beyond the imminent judgment.
The Big Picture
It is amazingly easy to get lost in the intricate details of Revelation. Before looking at these details, therefore, it is helpful to read the entire book first and get the big picture. With the big picture in mind, one can then focus on the details with some idea of the broader context. Keeping in mind what was said above about the kind of book Revelation is and when it was written, we can discern several basic “big picture” points. First, the book was originally written to encourage suffering and persecuted first-century Christians. Like Paul, they were being persecuted by the unbelieving Jews for proclaiming that Jesus is the Messiah. They were also being persecuted by Rome for proclaiming that Jesus, rather than the caesar, is Lord. Revelation encourages such Christians to remain faithful to the end.
Second, the bulk of Revelation concerns God’s judgment on these two oppressors of His people. Much (not all) of Revelation 6–11 concerns the imminent judgment of Israel. Much (not all) of Revelation 12–19 concerns the judgment of Rome.
Third, it is abundantly evident that in his prophetic book, John uses the same kind of figurative language that the Old Testament prophets used in their books. They often spoke of the sixth-century BC judgment of Judah and the judgment of other nations in figurative language. John often speaks of the judgment of Israel and Rome in the same way. In short, like many of the Old Testament prophetic books, the prophetic book of Revelation concerns the imminent judgment of Israel, the coming judgment of a foreign oppressor of God’s people (Rome), and the ultimate restoration. The fact that the enemies of God’s people are to be judged is intended to encourage Christians to remain steadfast and faithful even unto death.
The Prologue (1:1–8)
It is not possible to give a detailed exposition of Revelation in these few short pages. (See chapter 18 of my book From Age to Age for a more substantive discussion.) What I hope to do here is provide a brief overview, looking at the major divisions of the book and showing how they fit together. In the prologue, John introduces the book by describing it as a revelation concerning things that must soon take place (1:1). This statement provides a major interpretive key to the book because the time frame revealed here indicates that at least some of what John will be talking about concerns things that are imminent as he is writing (AD 64–70). John also sets this prophetic book (v. 3) within the form of a letter, using the same kind of opening that Paul uses in many of his letters (vv. 4–6).
The Seven Churches (1:9–3:22)
The main body of Revelation begins with John’s vision of the exalted Christ and the letters to the seven churches of Asia. In this section, John receives a commission similar to that of the Old Testament prophets. He then sees a vision of Jesus, which borrows imagery from numerous Old Testament texts. Jesus gives John messages for each of the seven churches mentioned in 1:11. The fact that these letters were given to seven real churches in Asia Minor means that this book had specific relevance to their historical situation. Our interpretation of the book misses the point if it entails something that would have been irrelevant to them. In the seven letters, Christ calls these Christians to overcome, to endure suffering and persecution faithfully even unto death.
A Vision of Heaven (4:1–5:14)
In Revelation 4–5, John sees a glorious vision of heaven and the worship of Jesus Christ by the heavenly hosts. The parallels between this vision and Daniel 7 indicate that it is the fulfillment of Daniel’s prophecy. John’s vision depicts the reign of Jesus Christ, which, according to Daniel, is inaugurated at the ascension of the Son of Man. Christ’s ascension in the first century fulfilled Daniel’s prophecy and inaugurated the kingdom (Acts 2:29–36). Daniel 7 also contains a vision of the judgment of several earthly kingdoms (including Rome) in connection with Christ’s reception of His kingdom at His ascension. The vision of Revelation 4–5 sets the stage for the judgments of Israel and Rome that are prophesied in the following chapters.
The most difficult problem in Revelation 4–5 is the identification of the “twenty-four elders” (4:4). While some suggest that these are symbolic of redeemed Jews and/or Gentiles, most argue that they, like the four living creatures in 4:6–8, are some kind of angelic beings (see Isa. 24:23). When the Lamb takes the sevensealed scroll (compare Ezek. 2:9–10), the stage is set for the scenes of judgment that follow.
Seven Seals (6:1–8:5)
Beginning in chapter six, the book of Revelation describes a series of sevenfold judgments associated with the breaking of the seals on the scroll. There are a series of judgments associated with the seven seals, seven trumpets, and seven bowls. The prophecies concerning the seals and the trumpets have to do specifically with the imminent judgment of Israel by the Roman armies, a judgment culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in AD 70. The prophecies concerning the bowls have to do with the judgment of Rome.
The judgments associated with the first four seals use imagery taken from Zechariah 1 and 6 to describe the same judgments Jesus outlined in His Olivet Discourse (Matt. 24:4–10). The opening of the fifth seal reveals the martyrs for Christ who cry out for justice. With the breaking of the sixth seal, we see the coming judgment on Jerusalem described in terms of cosmic destruction — the very imagery often used by the Old Testament prophets to describe the judgments of God that occurred in their day (Isa. 13:1, 10, 19; 34:3–5; Ezek. 32:2, 7–8, 16, 18; Jer. 4:14, 23–24).
The description of the opening of the seals is interrupted briefly in chapter 7. Here John sees a vision in which God marks His people in order to protect them from judgment. He also sees a vision of an innumerable multitude worshiping before the throne of God. The first vision, in which 144,000 servants of God are sealed on their foreheads, echoes Ezekiel 9:4–6, in which faithful Israelites are protected from God’s judgment. Although there is not complete consensus, the 144,000 likely represent believing Jews in Israel. The innumerable multitude in verses 9–17 would then likely represent the church triumphant from all nations.
Seven Trumpets (8:6–11:19)
The stage is set for the seven trumpets with the opening of the seventh seal (8:1–5). The judgments associated with the first four trumpets are similar to the judgments associated with the Egyptian plagues (Ex. 7–10). The final three trumpets are oracles of “woe” (compare Isa. 5:8–9; Amos 6:1–2; Hab. 2:9–10). The fifth trumpet describes the Roman armies as “locusts” just as the Old Testament sometimes describes invading armies as locusts (Judg. 6:5; 7:12; Joel 1:2–12). The sixth trumpet describes in figurative language the armies that came from near the Euphrates to assist Rome against Israel.
The description of the judgments associated with the trumpets is interrupted in Revelation 10:1–11:14. In chapter 10, John describes his vision of a mighty angel with a scroll that John is commanded to eat. This vision is similar to the one in Ezekiel 2:8–3:3, and it indicates that the final period of history has arrived. John is next told to measure the temple of God, which symbolizes the people of God (11:1–2). The outer court of the temple represents the unbelieving Jews and their city, which will be trampled down for forty-two months (which, interestingly enough, was the duration of the Roman siege).
In Revelation 11:3–14, John describes the ministry of “two witnesses” who prophesy in Jerusalem during this time of judgment. These two witnesses may represent believers in general, or they may represent two specific Christian prophets. While the latter option seems most likely, it is difficult to be absolutely certain. With the sounding of the seventh trumpet, it is declared that the kingdoms of the world have become the kingdom of Christ. All of the events from Jesus’ resurrection and ascension to the destruction of Jerusalem form part of the nexus of events that fulfills Daniel 7 and marks the inauguration of Christ’s kingdom.
Conflict with the Dragon and the Beast (12:1–15:4)
Although John is not finished describing the judgment of Israel, his attention begins to turn from Israel to Rome. In chapter 12, he sees a vision that depicts in prophetic language the ages-long conflict between Satan and the seed of the woman (Gen. 3:15). In chapter 13, he sees Satan summon assistance in his war against Christ’s people. John describes a seven-headed beast arising from the sea (compare Dan. 7). This beast represents the Roman Empire. A second beast arising from the earth represents the imperial priesthood, whose duty was to promote the worship of Rome and its emperor. The number of the first beast is said to be 666, the number of a man (13:18). Most contemporary commentators agree that this number likely represents the name Nero Caesar. In chapter 14, John sees the Lamb (Jesus) and the 144,000 standing on Mount Zion (vv. 1–5). This is the Lord’s army, ready for spiritual battle with the forces of the Dragon (Satan). John then sees three angels who each proclaim a message to those on earth (vv. 6–11). There are two possible responses to the proclamation of the angels: repentance leading to salvation (vv. 14–16) or continued sin and rebellion leading to judgment (vv. 17–20).
Seven Bowls (15:5–16:21)
The judgments associated with the first four bowls are similar to the judgments associated with the first four trumpets, but the judgments of the four bowls are far more intense. The trumpet judgments affect “one third” of their targets. The bowl judgments affect everything. The final three bowls all describe in various ways the coming judgment of the Roman beast. In this way, they provide the perfect transition to the next section of the book.
Judgment of Babylon the Great (17:1–19:10)
In this section of the book, John elaborates on the bowl judgments against Rome. The description in Revelation 17:7–14 of the woman and the beast on which she sits is a difficult and disputed passage. Verses 9–11, however, do make sense if we know a little bit about Roman history. The seven heads of the beast are seven kings (emperors of Rome). The five who have fallen (v. 10) are Augustus, Tiberius, Gaius Caligula, Claudius, and Nero. The brief reigns of Galba, Otho, and Vitellius are omitted because of their status as “rebels.” The sixth king, the one who “is” at the time John wrote, is Vespasian. The one who has not yet come and must remain a little while is Titus, who reigned very briefly. The eighth king is Domitian. His father, Vespasian, was named emperor in December 69, but until he arrived in Rome, Domitian reigned in his stead and received the title of Caesar.
If John wrote after Vespasian arrived in Rome, then Domitian can be described as one who “was,” in the sense that he reigned briefly in his father’s stead, and the one who “is not,” in the sense that he has stepped down with the arrival of his father. Moreover, he is “an eighth,” in the sense that he will reign as the eighth emperor, and “belongs to the seven,” in the sense that he ruled in the place of the sixth emperor and is also that emperor’s son.
Following this vision of the prostitute and the beast, chapter 18 contains a prophetic lament for Babylon/Rome that echoes several prophetic laments in the Old Testament against pagan cities (Isa. 13:1–14:23; 23; Ezek. 27; Jer. 50–51). The opening verses of chapter 19, then, reveal the saints praising God for the judgment of the great prostitute.
Transition from Babylon to the New Jerusalem (19:11–21:8)
Between the vision of Babylon/Rome (17:1–19:10) and the New Jerusalem (21:9–22:9) is a section that describes the transition between the two cities. In Revelation 19:11–21, John sees heaven opened and a rider on a white horse coming as the divine warrior. In verse 20, John explicitly connects this coming of the divine warrior to the judgment of the beast and the false prophet (Rome and the Roman imperial priesthood). In other words, this vision graphically depicts the judgment of Rome that began in heaven when Christ was seated at the right hand of God (see Dan. 7:11–14; compare Isa. 19:1).
Revelation 20:1–10 is another highly disputed section of the book. This section describes a “thousand year” period during which Satan is “bound” and the saints reign with Christ. The binding of Satan began during the earthly ministry of Christ (Matt. 12:26–29; Mark 3:26–27; Luke 10:18), and through His death, Christ “destroyed” the Devil (Heb. 2:14). Thus, Satan has been bound in a sense since the first advent of Christ. The reign of Christians with Christ is also descriptive of the present age between the first and second advents of Christ (Rom. 5:17; Eph. 2:6). The “thousand years” is, then, most likely a symbolic description of the entire present age. The first resurrection of which John speaks is likely the resurrection of Christ in which all Christians partake, first in terms of our regeneration (or spiritual resurrection), then, on the last day, in terms of our bodily resurrection. At the end of the present age — the “thousand years” — there will be a final judgment. The vision of this judgment is found in Revelation 20:11–15. Finally, this section of Revelation concludes with a brief glimpse of the new heaven and earth (21:1–8).
The New Jerusalem (21:9–22:9)
Following John’s introductory vision of the new heaven and earth, an angel gives him a detailed look at the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven. The description of the city as a great cube, approximately fifteen hundred miles long, wide, and high, indicates that the description is figurative, since a city two-thirds the size of the moon could not literally sit on the earth. Its perfect cubic dimensions allude to the dimensions of the Most Holy Place in the Old Testament temple (1 Kings 6:20), the place of God’s presence. In this vision, we see God’s original goal for creation fulfilled in the new creation as His kingdom is fully established on earth and His presence is manifested fully with His people once again. The curse, which was the result of sin, is removed, and nothing unclean or evil will ever again harm God’s creation or His people.
Revelation concludes with a brief epilogue. It contains statements by angels, Jesus, and John himself. In contrast with Daniel (12:4), John is told not to seal the words of this prophecy. The end has now drawn near. Jesus identifies Himself as the divine Messiah and Judge, and the readers of Revelation are urged to come to Him, to take the water of life that may be theirs because of the work of Jesus Christ.