Every story must have a beginning. The story of the Bible, for example, begins by answering the question of origins. But we also need to know how a story ends; for this we turn to Revelation, the closing act of the biblical drama. In effect, the book of Revelation allows us to peek at the last chapter of human history to see ending of the Bible’s grand narrative.
In addition to this desire for narrative closure, we instinctively feel a need to know something about the future. Without a knowledge of how history will end, we would feel insecure and perplexed as we see human culture decline. The Book of Revelation tells us enough about the future that we can be confident of ultimate victory in Christ.
The Timing of the Book of Revelation
The author tells us that his visions concern “the events that will happen soon” (1:1 NLT). John wrote these words 2000 years ago, and there is good reason to believe that some of his prophecies were fulfilled already in the First Century A.D. Thus, we should not assume that everything in Revelation is simply futuristic. Surely, most of what John portrays has happened in some form throughout history, including in our own day. Yet this is not to deny that the events portrayed in Revelation are also recurring, ever-escalating, and heading towards a climax at the end of history.
It is a safe premise that the symbolic mode of Revelation makes it always relevant and perpetually up-to-date. To cite an obvious example, the visions of the cataclysmic decline of the elemental forces of nature look more familiar with every passing year as our planet’s ecological crisis grows. To believe that the predictions of Revelation will be ultimately fulfilled at a coming end of history should not prevent us from seeing how much of the book is happening right before our very eyes.
The Form of the Book of Revelation
Several important literary forms converge in Revelation. Most obviously, the book presents a series of visions. Instead of telling a single, linear story, these visions are arranged in the form of a pageant, with mysterious visions rapidly succeeding each other—and never in focus for very long.
Secondly, the individual units fall into place if we apply the usual grid of narrative questions, such as: (1) Where does the event happen? (2) Who are the agents? (3) What action occurs? (4) What is the outcome? Any passage in Revelation can be charted in terms of these basic questions.
The Book of Revelation falls into a type of writing known as apocalypse. While the ingredients of this genre do not provide an analytic grid (as narrative does), knowing the ingredients will help us know what we are looking at as we read. The ingredients of apocalyptic include:
- Dualism (the world divided clearly into forces of good and evil)
- Visionary mode
- Futuristic orientation
- Focus on the appearance and work of the Divine Messiah
- Presence of angels and demons
- Animals as characters and symbols
- Numerology (use of numbers with symbolic meanings)
- Cosmic forces (e.g. sea, land, and sky) as actors in the drama
- Denunciation of the existing social order
The Most Important Thing to Know about the Book of Revelation
The basic medium of expression in the book of Revelation is symbolism. This means that instead of portraying characters and events directly and literally, John the Evangelist pictures them indirectly by means of symbols. Jesus is portrayed as a lamb and a lion and a warrior on a horse, for example. Churches are portrayed as lamps on lampstands, and so on.
To highlight the non-literal mode of Revelation, the author employs fantasy, which is always characteristic of apocalyptic writing. Only in the fantastic imagination do we find horses that are red (6:4) or a red dragon with seven heads (12:3). The right way to assimilate this kind of writing is to accept the strangeness of the world that is portrayed and abandon a literal way of thinking in favor of reading symbolically.
To say that the mode of Revelation is symbolic, however, is not to deny that the characters and events are real. What is at stake as we interpret the book is how the characters and events are portrayed. They are symbols that speak of realities—beings who really exist and events that do happen.
The Symbols of the Book of Revelation
The best rule of thumb for interpreting the symbols and visions of Revelation is to relate them to common teachings of the Bible and to obvious events in our own world. In particular, Jesus’ outline of coming events in his Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24-25) provides a blueprint for the visions of Revelation. Jesus outlined the following sequence of events that will happen at “the close of the age” (Matthew 24:3, ESV):
- Wars, earthquakes, famine, false teachers (24:5-8)
- Persecution of Christians (24:9-22)
- False Christs and false prophets (24:23-28)
- Natural disasters, the appearance of Christ, the harvesting of the elect (24:29-31)
- Final judgment (24:32-25:46)
We repeatedly cover this same material in the visions of Revelation.
A safe question to keep asking of a given vision is this: To what familiar doctrine or event in salvation history does this symbol refer? Examples in Revelation include the sovereignty of God, God’s judgment against evil, God’s salvation of believers, the existence of heaven and hell, the great battle between good and evil, etc. We do not need to look for mysterious and hidden levels of meaning. The very word apocalypse means “to unveil”; the purpose of the visions of Revelation is not to confuse us, but to confirm our understanding of the Bible, and to help us interpret events in the daily news.