In this podcast episode, I give you 7 keys to understanding the Book of Revelation. If you want to understand the Book of Revelation, this podcast will send you off in the right direction.
In this discussion of the Book of Revelation we look at:
- The 7 Keys to Understanding the Book of Revelation
- Revelation is Highly Symbolic
- Revelation is not about “When?”
- Revelation Shows Us How to Read the Bible
- Revelation Reveals the Heart of Humanity
- Revelation Reveals the Heart of God
- Revelation Reveals that God is like Jesus
- Revelation Presents us with a Choice
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The book of Revelation has challenged Christians and teachers for nearly 2000 years.
In the next 30 minutes or so, I am going to solve the entire debate and clear up the confusion surrounding this tricky book.
And if you believe that, I’ve got some oceanfront property in Arizona I want to sell you.
Look, nothing I can say will clear up all the problems and difficulties of this challenging book. I definitely cannot solve them all in 30 minutes or less. But what I hope to do is provide you with some of the ideas and insights I have discovered over the last twenty years or so which have helped me begin to make sense of the book of Revelation.
I have been reading and studying and thinking about Revelation for a couple decades, and I have read as widely as I could from all different perspectives and approaches, and I have pulled bits and pieces from all the different approaches in an attempt to accept their strengths and avoid their weaknesses while still providing some sort of coherent message to the book of Revelation.
As a result of my studies, I have come up with seven different keys which help us make sense out of the book of Revelation. Some of these are tied in with what we learned in Genesis 1–4, and some of them tie up loose strands from the Bible as a whole. That’s why I’m including this study here. I typically prefer to teach through portions of Scripture verse by verse, but what we learned in Genesis 1–4 helps in every area of life, and especially in studying Scripture. We will see some glimpses of this as we look at the seven keys to understanding Revelation.
Let us begin with the first key to understanding the Book of Revelation.
1. The Book of Revelation is Highly Symbolic
Everyone knows this, of course. Yet what some people fail to realize is that the Book of Revelation was primarily symbolic for the people to whom it was written. It was not primarily symbolic for people living today. The horses that shoot fire out of their mouths (Rev 9:17) are not symbolic of helicopters and the locusts (Rev 9:3) are not flying drones, as I recently heard one pastor teach.
No, if we are going to make sense of the imagery in Revelation, we must begin with the assumption that the images made sense to the original readers of this book. The Apostle John, as the author of this book, was a Jewish man living in the Roman Empire, and writing to persecuted Christians within that Empire. The symbolic message he wrote to them would have been understood by them for what it was.
I believe that the first recipients of the book of Revelation understood a lot more about this strange book than we do today. The further away we get from John in history and geography, the harder it becomes to understand this book. Therefore, to properly understand it, we must immerse ourselves in historical and cultural studies of the Greco-Roman culture and the Jewish culture of the first century AD.
To the first readers, the Book of Revelation was religiously and politically subversive. It took images and symbols that were common to that time, and challenged, subverted, and undermined these symbols in a way that nobody could have missed. The Book of Revelation is a subversive document which undermines the coercive power of the Roman Empire (and all Empires that follow).
Therefore, to understand this book, we must first seek to understand it the way the original audience and author understood it, which means we must immerse ourselves in the Hebrew Scriptures and Jewish ways of thinking, and we must spend lots of time researching what life was like in the first century Roman Empire. When we understand the history, customs, culture, and symbols from that time, the book of Revelation will begin to make a lot more sense.
What this means, of course, is that the Book of Revelation is not primarily about the future. This is the second key.
2. The Book of Revelation is not about “When?”
Most of the problems surrounding the various interpretations of the Book of Revelation stem from the fact that most Christians have begun by asking the wrong question. We come to this book, and we want to know “When did the events of this book take place?” or “When will they?” And then we debate about the timing of the events described in the book. Are they in the past? Are they in the future? Or are they some sort of combination of both?
The answer to these questions is “Those are the wrong questions!”
Rather than asking “When?” we should be asking “What?” and “Who?” What is this book about? Who is this book about? What questions are answered in this book? What issues are being addressed? When we come to the book with these sorts of questions, it starts to make a lot more sense.
This means that even though the symbols and imagery of the Book of Revelation were most easily and readily understood by the first century Christians living under Roman rule, this book was not only for their time. If it was, that would answer the “When?” question, wouldn’t it? We need to avoid the “When?” question as much as possible.
Or maybe we could say that the “When?” question is secondary to the “What?” and “Who?” and “How?” questions. You cannot answer “When?” until you know the answers to “What?” and “Who?” and “How?” And when you answer these other questions, you discover that the answer to “When?” is “Now.” When we discover what the Book of Revelation is about, and “Who” is primarily in view, it is then that we learn that the Book of Revelation is talking about “Now.” It is about the present time.
And I don’t mean the year 2016. I mean that it was about whatever year is “Present” to the people who are reading it. When the first audience read this book almost 2000 years ago, it was about their time. When Christians read this book 1000 years ago, it was about their time. And when we read it today, it is about our time. Yes, we have to remember Key #1 and seek to study this book in light of first century imagery and symbolism, but when we do that, we are better able to see the message and meaning of Revelation, and why it applies to whomever is reading it “right now.”
The Book of Revelation is not primarily about the future, nor is it primarily about the past. I would say that the Book of Revelation is primarily timeless. It is a book about the present. It was a book about the present-day situation of the original audience, and it was a book about the present-day situation of the people who read and studied this book 1000 years ago, and it is a book about the present day situation for us as well. So yes, it’s about the future. Yes, it’s about the present. Yes, it’s about the past. It is about whenever and wherever humans have lived.
How can this be? Well, the next five keys will answer the “What?” and “Who?” and “How?” questions, which then enable us to see why this book is so timeless.
3. The Book of Revelation is about How to Read the Bible
In my studies, I read that there are more references and allusions to Old Testament passages in the book of Revelation than in any other New Testament book. Once scholar says that there are over 600 such references and allusions to the Old Testament. So if we are not well-versed in the Hebrew Scriptures, we will not be able to understand the book of Revelation.
But the interesting thing about Revelation, is that since it refers to Scripture so much, this also means that it is a guide to helping us understand Scripture. I tend to think of the Book of Revelation as an illustrated commentary on the Bible.
And this illustrated commentary goes in reverse. The Book of Revelation begins with a revelation about Jesus and then two chapters about the churches, which is parallel to what we read in the Gospels and Acts. From there, the book moves into a long section which is full of blood and violence, which is what we read about all over the place in the Old Testament. The final chapters of Revelation take us all the way back to the Garden of Eden. Many of the symbols and imagery from Genesis 1–3 find their way into Revelation 20–22.
At the end of Revelation, death is done away with, everyone gets resurrected, and there is hope and healing for the nations. The description of the New Jerusalem coming down to earth is reminiscent of the Garden of Eden. We see the Tree of Life, and people going in and out from the gates of the city, which are never shut. There is no more sorrow, pain, enemies, or danger. All is right with the world. All has been set straight. The great turbulent and painful period of teaching humanity about the knowledge of good and evil has come to an end. The Bible ends where it begins.
So Revelation is the entire Bible is reverse. If you want to understand the Book of Revelation, seek to understand the grand narrative of Scripture, and if you want to understand Scripture, the Book of Revelation will help.
But the Book of Revelation also reveals something else. It not only helps us understand Scripture, it also helps us understand ourselves.
4. The Book of Revelation Reveals the Heart of Humanity
Like the rest of Scripture, the Book of Revelation is a revelation about humanity. It reveals what humans have always been like, and will always be like until Jesus Christ returns and rules and reigns over all. The truths we have seen in Genesis 3–4 are everywhere in Scripture and in the book of Revelation as well, truths about how humans are built for relationships, and how relationships build with imitation. But imitation has a dark side, which is rivalry. And rivalry leads to blame, accusation, scapegoating, and violence. If you do not understand the basic human problem that has enslaved humanity and which is carefully revealed in Genesis 3–4, and then explained over and over and over throughout the rest of the Bible, you will have great trouble understanding the book of Revelation.
But as part of revealing what humanity is like, the Book of Revelation gets more personal, and also reveals the condition of our own hearts. It does this through how we interpret the book. Our interpretation of Revelation reveals more about the condition of our own heart than anything else. This is the same way it is with the rest of Scripture.
There are two ways of reading the Bible: The violent and bloody way, or the gracious, loving, and forgiving way. The book of Revelation can be read in the same two ways. And the way you read both Revelation and the Bible depends in large part on what God looks like to you.
The Bible reveals God to us, but at the same time, the type of God you believe in determines how you read the Bible. The type of God you see in the Bible says more about you than it does about the Bible. The Bible is not so much a Revelation about God as it is a Revelation about humanity. The Bible serves as a mirror that reflects the inner secrets and hidden places of our hearts.
If you believe that God is vengeful, angry, and violent, the Bible can be read in such a way, but such a reading of Scripture doesn’t reveal what God is like. Instead, a violent reading of Scripture only reveals what your own heart is like. And vice versa. If you believe that God is loving, gracious, kind, and forgiving, the Bible can be read in such a way, and this way of reading the Bible reveals what is in your own heart as well.
Now, the Bible does reveal God to us as well, but the age-old question of Scripture, theology, and the church has been “What sort of God is revealed in the Bible?”
5. The Book of Revelation Reveals the Heart of God
People have argued over this since the very beginning. This question is one of the primary questions behind the opening chapters of Genesis, and is also the question behind so many other book of the Bible, such as the Book of Job.
One of the ultimate questions about life is: “What is God truly like?” Now, you may think you know what God is like, and I may think I know, but if we disagree, how can we know who is right? Even if we say, “Well, Scripture tells us what God is like,” Scripture reveals a two-faced God. We have the loving and forgiving God and the violent, angry, bloody god. And you cannot say that the two are just different sides of the same coin. You could never say that a man who beats his wife and children is also a good father. The same goes for God.
So which strand of Scripture is true? Which strand reveals the heart of God and which strand reveals the heart of mankind? Is He violent and angry or loving and forgiving?
The Book of Revelation answers this question, and it does so in the most amazing way.
6. The Book of Revelation Reveals that God is Just Like Jesus Christ
The answer to the question “What is God like?” is “God is like Jesus.” Now initially, this doesn’t help us very much, because a surface reading of the book of Revelation seems to portray Jesus as being extremely violent. When people argue that God is violent, they very often point to the Book of Revelation as proof. Here we seem to be presented with a violent and bloody Jesus starting wars, and sending floods and famines and diseases, and finally, at the Battle of Armageddon, coming down Himself to slay people so that the blood runs as deep as bridle of His horse.
So although we can say, “God looks like Jesus,” this doesn’t initially seem to help much, because Jesus appears to be pretty violent in the Book of Revelation. Is John siding with those who say that God is violent? In portraying Jesus as violent, is John saying that God also is a bloodthirsty, death-dealing, enemy-hating warrior deity?
Well, here is where we get to the seventh and final key to the Book of Revelation, the one that sort of ties the previous six all together. It is this:
7. The Book of Revelation Presents Us with a Choice
Since the Book of Revelation, like the rest of the Bible, seeks to reveal both God’s heart and our own heart to us so that we are forced to choose between the two, both hearts must be exposed within the text in all their graphic detail.
The book is satirically and graphically violent. It is garish in its detail. In fact, I think that the Book of Revelation might best be described as a graphic novel, also known as an “Adult Comic Book.” If you could draw and color the events described in this book, they would be full of color and light and action, much like the various panes of a Graphic Novel today.
When read this way, it makes me think that the story is over-the-top bloody to make a point. All the blood and gore of the book of Revelation reminds me of a mother I once heard of who caught her teenage son smoking behind the woodshed out back. She didn’t want him to smoke, so do you know what she did? She forced him to sit down and smoke until he was sick. After that, he never smoked again. Now I don’t know if that is a true story or not, but I sort of see John doing something similar here.
We humans have a problem with violence. Everybody knows this. But worse yet, we like to blame our violence upon God.
So John says, “OK… So God is violent like us humans? Fine. Let’s take the violence of God to a ludicrous extreme. Let’s look at what life on earth would be like if God was truly violent. You want God to come destroy your enemies? OK. Let’s describe what that looks like. You want God to send famines and diseases on the wicked sinners? Well, guess what? When that happens, a large percentage of the earth’s population is killed (cf. Rev 6:8; 9:15; Zech 13:8-9; 13:8-9).
Is that really what we want when we ask God to judge the earth?
In this way, the Book of Revelation is a caricature, or satire, on what some Christians (then and now) wanted Jesus to be—a conquering Warrior Messiah. In John’s day, some Christians wanted Rome overthrown, just as we today, want our Jesus to kill our enemies. John says, “Really? Okay. Here is how that would look.” He makes it so bloody and gruesome, that by the time it is over, we realize how impossible it would be for Jesus to act in such a way. In light of this, Revelation is also a stomach-turning expose of violence. It shows you where violence leads and what happens in a holy war.
And we are forced to choose if we really want God to act this way.
But there are always some who say, “Well, it’s not up to us. God will do what He wants. And if He wants to slaughter His enemies and kill all the sinners and unrighteous, who are we to talk back to God?”
Yes, well, that is true. But this is where the genius of the Book of Revelation really shines through. Every time in the book when we think that Jesus is about to behave in some sort of bloody and war-like way, we see John flip the image upside down and subvert the idea that Jesus is violent in any way.
Let me just give you one quick example. After John is taken up to heaven to receive his vision, he first encounters God on the throne, surrounded by the twenty-four elders, the seven spirits of God, and the four living creatures. That’s all in Revelation 4. Then in Revelation 5, God presents a scroll that is sealed with seven seals, but no one is found worthy to open the scroll, and so John begins to weep, because He really wants to know what is written in the scroll.
The scroll, I believe, represents the Scriptures. The Scriptures come from God, and one of the goals and desires of every Christian is to know and understand what is written. But we get frustrated to the point of tears, because no one is able to reliably unlock its secrets. That is, while we all have educated guesses as to what the Bible means, none of us are infallible interpreters, because none of us are God. Only God can be trusted to explain what is written in the scroll.
But in Revelation 5:5, one of the elders said to John, “Do not weep, Behold, the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has prevailed to open the scroll and loose its seven seals.”
Do you see this? The Lion of the Tribe of Judah, and the Root of David, is a clear reference to Jesus as the Messiah. And both of these images or violent images, but especially the image of the Messiah as a Lion. Lions have fangs and claws. They defeat their foes with brute strength and vicious attacks. They are meat eaters, carnivores. Lions are universal symbols of conquest and kingship through force and strength. And the elder says to John, “Hey! Don’t weep, the Messiah, the Lion of Judah, is able to open the scroll.”
So John turns, and he is fully expecting to see a Lion. This is, after all, what all Jewish people expected to see when the Messiah arrived on earth. They expected a fierce and strong king who would overthrow Roman occupation and slaughter the enemies.
But when John turns, what does he see? He does not see a Lion, but a Lamb. And not just a lamb, but a lamb that was slain. Then the Lamb goes and takes the scroll and begins to unroll it, which takes us into Revelation 6.
But do you see the way John subverts and reverses the violent image of the Lion of the Tribe of Judah? He introduces the Messiah the way some texts in the Old Testament introduce the Messiah, as a violent, bloody ruler, who defeats His enemies with sword and shield. But when John actually looks, it is a Lamb, and though the Lamb is bloody, it is covered in its own blood, which was shed for His enemies.
This first glimpse of Jesus in the main section of John’s vision provides the hermeneutical key to the other violent portrayals of Jesus in the Book of Revelation. Later, for example, Jesus does have a sword, like we would expect of any conqueror, but then John tells us that this sword comes out of His mouth. The sword is not a piece of metal to slaughter His enemies, but is the Word of God, which at the end of the book, goes forward to heal and restore the nations, not slaughter and kill them.
A while later we are told that Jesus’ robe is covered in blood, and we think of a soldier on the field of battle covered in the blood of his enemies, but John tells us that the blood on Jesus’ robe is His own blood; not the blood of his enemies. And we know that it was His blood because He died for them.
Do you see the way John paints a gruesome, gory, bloody picture, but then turns the image upside down when viewed through Jesus Christ and His death on the cross, which I call the crucivision lens? All the violence gets turned around, and we see that throughout the book, Jesus is supremely non-violent. He comes to rescue, save, and deliver, not to kill, steal, and destroy.
By writing the book this way, John was forcing his readers to make a choice. Would they ignore what John has revealed about Jesus? Would they continue to chase after violence and praying to God to slay their enemies? Or would they follow the way of Jesus, and seek to stand up against evil through love and forgiveness?
Remember, during Jesus’ first coming, the religious people rejected Him because He wasn’t violent enough. They wanted a military messiah who would throw off the Roman occupation of Israel, and when Jesus refused to do this, many of the religious people rejected Jesus as a false messiah. They had a choice to make: Jesus’ way of love and forgiveness for all, or the human way of violence, retaliation, and revenge.
Today, as we read the Book of Revelation, and the Bible as a whole, we are faced with the same choice. Because we humans want violence, we want our Messiah to be a Lion, but when Jesus shows up, He appears as a Lamb. A slain Lamb. And the blood which covers the Lamb is not the blood of His enemies, but His very own blood, shed for His enemies.
And who are His enemies? We are. While we were yet His enemies, Christ died for us (Rom 5:8-10). And why did Jesus die and shed His blood for us? To expose and reveal to us our own violent tendencies, and then call us to cease such activity once and for all.
God is not like humans. Humans are violent. God is not like that. We attribute violence to God, but God is not violent. He is like Jesus, who would rather die for His enemies than kill His enemies. Jesus is not a pacifist, but He is definitely also not a warmonger. He is not bloodthirsty; He is not out for revenge. God does not set foot on the warpath. The question now is, “What will we do?”
The Book of Revelation ends with everything being set right. With the land and the earth being healed. With death, and sin, and Satan being exiled forever. And with God coming to dwell among His people.
Way back in Genesis 3–4, God told Adam and Eve that one would come who would bring humanity back to the Garden. Adam and Eve thought this promise referred to Cain, and when he believed it himself, he ended up killing his brother. And humans have been ruled by violence ever since. But in Revelation 21–22, we see all the violence come to an end because the one who was slain has shown us a better way.
And although this universal peace will not fully arrive until Jesus returns again, nevertheless, the Book of Revelation ends with the question: Since Jesus has already lived and died and is living again, and since Jesus has shown us that God is supremely non-violent, but it is only humans who, since the days of Cain have murdered our brothers, how will we live now? Will we follow in the way of Cain, the way of Satan, and the way of violence? Or will we follow in the way of Jesus, the way of blessing, and the way of love?
Since you will follow Jesus in eternity, how then will you live now?