Keys to Understanding Revelation
Why was the book of Revelation written? The book's very name means to reveal—to unveil, to open to understanding what otherwise could not be comprehended. Yet most people believe that this final book of the Bible cannot be understood at all—that its language and symbols are too confusing to make sense.
Revelation puts many of the earlier prophecies of the Bible into an understandable context and reveals a much-needed framework for prophecies relating to the end of the age. It accomplishes this partly through the use of symbols and figurative language that relate directly to some of the Bible's other prophetic writings.
For example, the prophetic book of Daniel uses similar language and symbols. Many of its visions and figures of speech are clearly explained. But God revealed to Daniel that the meanings of others were to remain mysteriously obscured until the time of the end. Then they, too, would be understood.
Revelation contains many fundamental keys to that understanding, and the book of Daniel contains keys that help us understand the book of Revelation.
Notice the prophet Daniel's explanation of one of his visions: "Although I heard, I did not understand. Then I said, 'My lord, what shall be the end of these things?' And he said, 'Go your way, Daniel, for the words are closed up and sealed till the time of the end" (Daniel 12:8-9, emphasis added throughout).
Contrast this with God's purpose for the book of Revelation. God the Father gave the prophecies contained in the book of Revelation to His Son, Jesus Christ. He passed it to Christ in the form of a scroll sealed with seven seals (Revelation 5:1). But, as John—who wrote the book under God's inspiration—tells us in his concluding chapter, an angel specifically commanded him: "Do not seal the words of the prophecy of this book ..." (Revelation 22:10).
John explains that God the Father gave most of the book of Revelation to Christ in the form of a scroll sealed with seven seals. Jesus then broke those seals and opened the scroll.
"And I saw in the right hand of Him who sat on the throne [God the Father] a scroll written inside and on the back, sealed with seven seals. Then I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, 'Who is worthy to open the scroll and to loose its seals?' And no one in heaven or on the earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll, or to look at it ... But one of the elders said to me, 'Do not weep. Behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has prevailed to open the scroll and to loose its seven seals'" (Revelation 5:1-5).
Here is the key to understanding the book. Jesus alone can unlock the meaning of its symbols, visions and descriptions. The first verse of this book announces it is "the Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him ..." (Revelation 1:1). Christ reveals its meaning. He unlocks its seals. But how does He do it?
Two factors are crucial. First, the keys to unlocking the content of seven seals must be explained by Jesus Himself in His own words.
Second, the Bible tells us that "all Scripture is given by inspiration of God" (2 Timothy 3:16). Therefore we can expect to find clarification of some symbols in the book of Revelation in other parts of God's inspired Word.
By relying on the Bible's own consistent interpretations of its symbols and figurative language, we can have confidence that our understanding is based on God's inspired Word rather than on our own opinions (2 Peter 1:20). After all, revealed knowledge is what the book of Revelation is all about.
Remember, God told Daniel that some of the things revealed to him in visions were sealed, hidden until the time of the end. But then He added: "Many shall be purified, made white, and refined, but the wicked shall do wickedly; and none of the wicked shall understand, but the wise shall understand" (Daniel 12:10). At the time of the end God intends that those He calls "the wise" will understand these prophecies.
Who are the wise in God's sight?
Those who scorn the concept that the Bible is divinely inspired choose to see its symbols as contradictory and confusing. They perceive no value in them. Because they scoff at the idea of God's inspiration, they are blind to prophetic understanding. They choose to be ignorant of what God reveals about the future (2 Peter 3:3-7).
On the other hand, God tells us those who respect Him and keep His commandments are the truly wise. As the Scriptures explain: "The fear [respectful awe] of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; a good understanding have all those who do His commandments" (Psalm 111:10). Scripture also tells us that "the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple" (Psalm 19:7).
The book of Revelation gives us many of the keys that unlock prophetic understanding because it faithfully follows the principle that the Bible interprets itself. Therefore, only those who believe that the Bible is inspired by God and trust what it says will be able to understand the significance of what is revealed in the book of Revelation.
Some of the understanding began in the days of the apostles. One of the stated purposes for Revelation was to reveal to the servants of God "things which must shortly take place" (Revelation 1:1). So some aspects of Revelation apply directly to Christians in the final days of the apostle John.
Christ instructed John to record (verse 19): (1) "the things which you have seen"—his visions and their puzzling symbols; (2) "the things which are"—information concerning the Church at that time; and (3) "the things which will take place after this"—prophecies extending far into the future.
Before we examine the keys to the future we need to understand the circumstances under which this prophetic book was given to the apostle John.
Religious and political setting of Revelation
Within the confines of the ancient Roman Empire, Christianity began in an era of relative peace. The emperors of the time generally followed a policy of liberal religious toleration. This enabled early Christians to evangelize far and wide, both in and beyond the territory of Rome.
But the situation gradually changed. The Romans introduced and enforced emperor worship in the empire. Suddenly Christians found themselves in an intolerable situation. Jesus, not the emperor, was their Lord. They understood that the Scriptures prohibited the worship of anything or anyone besides the true God and His Son, Jesus Christ. Soon incredible pressures were brought to bear on them to participate in the holidays, games and ceremonies honoring the reigning emperor as a god.
Their refusal to participate in emperor worship put them into direct conflict with the authorities at all levels of the Roman hierarchy. By the time Revelation was written some Christians had already been executed because of their beliefs. Antipas is cited as a recent martyr (Revelation 2:13). Christians everywhere, especially in Asia Minor, encountered wide-ranging ridicule and persecution.
Adding to Christians' plight, Roman officials, after Jerusalem's destruction in A.D. 70, ceased to view Christians as just another sect of the Jews. The religious tolerance Rome had extended to them disappeared.
Christians were now often regarded as a subversive and potentially dangerous religious group. Rome saw their teachings of a coming kingdom and a powerful new king as a threat to the stability of the empire. By this time Emperor Nero had already falsely branded Christians as the perpetrators of the great fire in Rome. Their future looked grim.
The apostle John, imprisoned on the island of Patmos near the coast of Asia Minor during this time, explained that he too suffered persecution, that he was their "companion in the tribulation and kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ" (Revelation 1:9).
John fully understood the stress they endured. Yet he reminded them of their goal: the Kingdom of God. He emphasized the patience and faith they must exercise to endure opposition and abuse until the return of Jesus the Messiah to permanently deliver His servants from persecution and grant them salvation.
This is the context in which Jesus revealed to John when and how this satanic persecution, already responsible for the murder of loyal and faithful servants, would be permanently stopped. He pointed out that the roots of the problem go back to the beginning of humankind—to the birthplace of this age of man so filled with human sin and evil.
In the Garden of Eden man first encountered "that serpent of old, called the Devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world" (Revelation 12:9; Genesis 3:1). The evil being's deception has been so successful that most people scoff at the idea that a devil even exists. But the writers of the Holy Scriptures regarded his existence and power as an unquestionable reality. They reveal him as the unseen driving influence behind evil and suffering.
The book of Revelation sums up the impact the devil has, not just on Christians but on all mankind, from the time of John until the return of Christ. It reveals that the ancient conflict between the forces of good and evil will be resolved.
As noted earlier in this chapter, John told early Christians the book of Revelation includes both "the things which are, and the things which will take place after this" (Revelation 1:19). Its prophetic fulfillments began in the days of the apostles and extend to our day and beyond.
The Day of the Lord in prophecy
Most of John's visions focus on that time mentioned by God's prophets throughout the Scriptures as "the day of the Lord," also known as "the day of the Lord Jesus Christ," "the day of Christ" and, here in Revelation, "the Lord's Day" (Revelation 1:10; compare Isaiah 13:6; Joel 2:31; Zephaniah 1:14; Acts 2:20; 1 Corinthians 1:8; 2 Thessalonians 2:2).
Paul plainly spoke of this prophesied time: "For you yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so comes as a thief in the night. For when they say, 'Peace and safety!' then sudden destruction comes upon them, as labor pains upon a pregnant woman. And they shall not escape" (1 Thessalonians 5:2-3).
Some people assume that when John used the phrase "the Lord's day" in Revelation 1:10 he was referring to Sunday. But the context of Revelation clearly shows that John was not referring to any day of the week but to the prophetic Day of the Lord mentioned directly or indirectly in more than 50 passages in the Old and New Testaments.
As The Bible Knowledge Commentary explains: "John's revelation occurred on the Lord's Day while he was in the Spirit. Some have indicated that 'the Lord's Day' refers to the first day of the week. However, the word 'Lord's' is an adjective and this expression is never used in the Bible to refer to the first day of the week. Probably John was referring to the day of the Lord, a familiar expression in both Testaments ... He was projected forward in his inner self in a vision, not bodily, to that future day of the Lord when God will pour out His judgments on the earth" (John Walvoord and Roy Zuck, 1983, 1985, electronic version, emphasis in original).
The mistaken assumption that John was referring to the first day of the week has no biblical support. The only day of the week, biblically speaking, that could possibly be called "the Lord's day" is the Sabbath or Saturday, the seventh day of the week. Jesus specifically referred to Himself as "lord of the Sabbath" (Mark 2:28). And, through the prophet Isaiah, God also refers to the Sabbath as "the holy day of the LORD" (Isaiah 58:13).
John was not referring to any day of the week but to the prophetic time that is the primary subject of the book of Revelation. John specifically tells us that what he wrote is prophecy (Revelation 1:3; 22:7, 10, 18-19). Therefore, John is merely explaining that "in the Spirit"—in divinely inspired visions—he was mentally transported to the coming Day of the Lord.
The Day of the Lord is described throughout the Scriptures as a time of God's direct intervention in human affairs. It is a time of His judgment on His adversaries—on those who defy His correction and refuse His commandments. Jesus sternly rebuked cities in Galilee that refused to hear His message even though they had witnessed His miracles: "But I say to you, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment than for you" (Matthew 11:22).
Isaiah succinctly sums up the Day of the Lord: "Wail, for the day of the LORD is at hand! It will come as destruction from the Almighty" (Isaiah 13:6).
Who is the object of the destruction? "Behold, the day of the LORD comes, cruel, with both wrath and fierce anger, to lay the land desolate; and He will destroy its sinners from it" (verse 9). As Jeremiah explained: "... This is the day of the Lord GOD of hosts, a day of vengeance, that He may avenge Himself on His adversaries" (Jeremiah 46:10).
Notice the prophet Zephaniah's description of the time of God's intervention: "The great day of the LORD is near; it is near and hastens quickly. The noise of the day of the LORD is bitter; there the mighty men shall cry out. That day is a day of wrath, a day of trouble and distress, a day of devastation and desolation, a day of darkness and gloominess, a day of clouds and thick darkness, a day of trumpet and alarm against the fortified cities and against the high towers.
"I will bring distress upon men, and they shall walk like blind men, because they have sinned against the LORD; their blood shall be poured out like dust, and their flesh like refuse" (Zephaniah 1:14-17).
Notice how John describes the awesome events that follow the sixth seal of Revelation: "For the great day of His wrath has come, and who is able to stand?" (Revelation 6:17). Just before this, the martyred servants of God are represented as symbolically crying out from their graves: "How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?" (verse 10). Later in this book of prophecy an angel is sent with the message: "Fear God and give glory to Him, for the hour of His judgment has come ..." (Revelation 14:6-7).
Then, near the end of the book, John gives more details of Christ's second coming. They begin: "Now I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse. And He who sat on him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and makes war" (Revelation 19:11).
Hundreds of years before John wrote the book of Revelation, the prophet Zechariah described Christ's return: "Behold, the day of the LORD is coming ... I will gather all the nations to battle against Jerusalem ... Half of the city shall go into captivity, but the remnant of the people shall not be cut off from the city.
"Then the LORD [Jesus, the prophesied Messiah] will go forth and fight against those nations, as He fights in the day of battle. And in that day His feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, which faces Jerusalem on the east. And the Mount of Olives shall be split in two, from east to west, making a very large valley; half of the mountain shall move toward the north and half of it toward the south" (Zechariah 14:1-4). At the end of this battle "the LORD shall be King over all the earth" (verse 9).
From these scriptures the main thrust of Revelation becomes clear. It portrays in vivid symbols the judgment of God in the last days—at, and just before, the return of Christ. He will oversee the final destruction of the satanic system labeled in Revelation as Babylon the Great.
The real issue: Whom shall we worship?
At the heart of the end-time conflict is a crucial question: Who will mankind worship—Satan or God? Notice the religious orientation of most of humanity: "So they worshiped the dragon who gave authority to the beast; and they worshiped the beast, saying, 'Who is like the beast? Who is able to make war with him?'" (Revelation 13:4).
How extensive will this idolatrous worship be? "All who dwell on the earth will worship him, whose names have not been written in the Book of Life ..." (verse 8). Even now, almost everyone on earth is unwittingly "under the sway of the wicked one" (1 John 5:19)—"that serpent of old, called the Devil and Satan who deceives the whole world" (Revelation 12:9). Satan's direct control over humanity will dramatically intensify at the time of the end.
Man is not left without a warning, however. John records his vision of an angel "having the everlasting gospel to preach to those who dwell on the earth—to every nation, tribe, tongue, and people; saying with a loud voice, 'Fear God and give glory to Him, for the hour of His judgment has come; and worship Him who made heaven and earth ...'" (Revelation 14:6-7).
God sends a clear message through the book of Revelation: The time draws near when He will no longer tolerate humanity's rejection of Him or its worship of the devil. Satan's system of idolatrous worship must be wiped from the face of the earth before Christ begins His rule as King of Kings.
Pleas of God's people answered
The temple in Jerusalem was the center of ancient Israel's worship of God. God's presence was manifested there (2 Chronicles 5:13-14).
In the book of Revelation God is frequently portrayed as seated in a heavenly temple on His throne (anciently represented by the mercy seat above the Ark of the Covenant in the holiest part of the earthly temple). As he watches angels dispense some of the final punishments mentioned in this book, the apostle John notes that "a loud voice came out of the temple of heaven, from the throne, saying, 'It is done!'" (Revelation 16:17).
At another time an angel tells John, "Rise and measure the temple of God, the altar, and those who worship there" (Revelation 11:1). Inside this temple God is pictured receiving the prayers of His servants. "Then another angel, having a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne" (Revelation 8:3).
What prayer does God hear from His true servants over and over again? "And they cried with a loud voice, saying, 'How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?'" (Revelation 6:10). Revelation reveals the circumstances under which those who are the true worshipers of God will finally have that prayer for justice answered in full.
John quotes Jesus promising His servants: "He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God ... I will write on him the name of My God and the name of the city of My God, the New Jerusalem ..." (Revelation 3:12). The tables finally will turn. God's faithful servants will be the real winners. God will greatly reward them for their patience and endurance while they waited for Him to fulfill His promises and answer their prayers.
As God intervenes in world affairs and makes His great power visible to the nations, His true worshipers are represented in Revelation as joyfully singing: "Great and marvelous are Your works, Lord God Almighty! Just and true are Your ways, O King of the saints! Who shall not fear You, O Lord, and glorify Your name? For You alone are holy. For all nations shall come and worship before You, for Your judgments have been manifested" (Revelation 15:3-4).
Revelation's patterns of sevens
Another noticeable feature of the book of Revelation is its organization according to patterns of sevens. The first chapter alone mentions seven churches, seven golden lampstands, seven spirits, seven stars and seven angels.
The major events of the book are organized under seven seals, seven trumpets, seven thunders and seven bowls containing the seven last plagues. We also encounter seven lamps of fire and a Lamb with seven horns and seven eyes.
Then there is a dragon dominating a beast having seven heads and 10 horns. Seven mountains and seven kings are associated with the heads of that beast. What do the messages conveyed by the repeated use of seven have in common?
In the Bible the number seven reflects the idea of completeness. For example, seven days comprise a complete week. God introduced this concept immediately after He finished creating our first human parents: "And on the seventh day God ended His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made" (Genesis 2:2-3).
Revelation explains how God will bring His master plan to completion. It outlines a framework on which the prophetic part of that plan is carried out, especially in the last days.
The representation of completeness is also important in understanding the messages to the seven churches in chapters 1-3. When we compare these symbolic expressions in Revelation to imagery in other parts of the Bible, a clear picture emerges.
In Revelation God is revealing to his servants a comprehensive overview of the most significant factors that will affect their lives—including their hardships and rewards—until His plan for humankind is completed. The concluding chapters (21-22) even give the righteous a brief glimpse into the nature of their relationships with God and each other for eternity. God emphasizes the thoroughness and completeness of this revealed prophetic summary by presenting its most significant aspects in patterns of sevens.
Although biblical patterns of sevens are symbolic in that they represent completeness, they also usually have some real, literal fulfillment. For example, God gave the Pharaoh of ancient Egypt a dream in which seven lean cows ate seven fat cows. Then God arranged for Joseph to explain to Pharaoh that the dream signified that seven years of agricultural plenty would be followed by seven years of devastating famine.
By revealing this information to Pharaoh in a dream, God inspired him to promote Joseph to a powerful role in Egypt. Joseph was then in a position to shelter and feed his father's family—a small clan destined to become the nation of Israel—during the terrible years of famine. God was in control of the dream and its outcome.
In the same way God can predict the result of any aspect of history (Isaiah 46:9-10). He can also control it, bringing it to pass as He desires (verse 10). He can reveal details about the future with unwavering accuracy and precision. So we should not carelessly assume, as some do, that the patterns of sevens in Revelation have symbolic value only. They generally foretell real events and should be taken seriously.
The role of the saints
When John wrote Revelation, Christians were being persecuted, at times martyred, with the approval of the Roman emperors. Revelation frequently contrasts the injustice of the age by emphasizing the future governing role of both the Messiah and the saints.
This is another important aspect of Revelation. The identity of who will have future control of the world is one of the central features of its prophecies.
At the return of Christ we learn: "Blessed and holy is he who has part in the first resurrection. Over such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with Him a thousand years" (Revelation 20:6). In the final chapter we read that God's faithful servants, given eternal life in the resurrection, "shall reign forever and ever" (Revelation 22:5).
Also significant is where they will initially assist Jesus in their governing role. "You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth" (Revelation 5:10, New International Version).
Even at the very beginning of Revelation John speaks of "Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler over the kings of the earth" (Revelation 1:5). Then John tells Christians that Jesus "has made us kings and priests to His God and Father, to Him be glory and dominion forever and ever" (verse 6).
Will servants of God who faithfully endure trials and persecutions—past and future—be given real authority in the Kingdom of God under Christ? Indeed they will. As the apostle Paul reminded Christians in Corinth: "Do you not know that the saints will judge the world?" (1 Corinthians 6:2).
Notice Christ's revelation to John: "And I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was committed to them. Then I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their witness to Jesus and for the word of God, who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received his mark on their foreheads or on their hands. And they lived and reigned with Christ for a thousand years" (Revelation 20:4).
This is part of the incredible future Jesus Christ has planned for His faithful followers—to live and reign with Him forever! Now let's learn what was prophesied to happen to those true followers of Christ down through the centuries until His return.
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