‘The Apocalypse of John is a work of immense learning, astonishingly meticulous literary artistry, remarkable creative imagination, radical political critique, and profound theology.’ (Richard Bauckham, The Climax of Prophecy)

Most people have heard of:-

‘The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’ (Rev 6)
‘The Great Tribulation’ (Rev 6)
‘The 144,000’ (Rev 7)
‘The Mark of the Beast – 666’ (Rev 13)
‘The Battle of Armageddon’ (Rev 16)
‘The Millenium.’ (Rev 20)
‘The New Jerusalem’ (Rev 22)

But what does it all mean?

Richard Bewes has written, ‘you can get too clever with the book of Revelation. The vision was intended to comfort and prepare us, not to test our ingenuity.’

A young student of theology noticed that the old man was reading his Bible. “What are you reading?” asked the young man. “The Book of Revelation.” “The Book of Revelation? Do you understand it?” enquired the student. “Sure I understand it. It means that Jesus is going to win.”

With regard to the millenium, Graeme Goldsworthy recounts the jocular comment of a friend of his who announced that he was a ‘panmillenialist’ because he is sure ‘it is all going to pan out in the end!’

1. What kind of literature is this?

According to 1:1-4, this book combines three kinds of literature: apocalypse (‘revelation’), prophecy, letter.

2. Author

John, 1:4. Probably the apostle John. He was in exile for his faith – this suggests that systematic persecution of Christians (under Domitian) had begun.

3. What period of history is covered?

Some think John wrote primarily about events that took place around the time the book was written (AD 95)

Others think the book is mainly about events that will take place at the end of the present age.

It seems best to regard the book a providing an overview of what Christians can expect throughout the present age, and what they can look forward to at the end of the age.

4. Relationship with other books of the Bible

Revelation contains about 500 allusions to 27 different books of the OT, in order of frequency Isaiah, Psalms, Daniel, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Exodus, Genesis, Zechariah, Deuteronomy, Joel.

For example:-

1:13 – ‘One like a son of man’ – recalls Dan 7:13
11:3-6 – the two witnesses – recall Moses & Elijah

5. Interpretation

There have been several approaches to the interpretation of this book:-

1.  The ‘Preterist’ (from Latin ‘praeter’, ‘past’) method understands the book mainly in terms of the the past events of John’s day.  The book was written to encourage the persecuted church of the day.

2.  The ‘Historicist’ interpretation interprets it as an unfolding of the history of the ages between between Christ’s incarnation and his final coming.  It is ‘history written in advance’.

3.  The ‘Futurist’ view sees the book as predicting the last stage of history.

4.  The ‘Idealist’ or ‘Symbolic’ approach views the book as not referring to any specific age or ages, but as setting out general principles of God’s work in history.

5.  The ‘Parallelist’ or ‘Resumptive’ approach sees the ‘picture’ being built up in separate ‘layers’, rather as a picture might be printed one colour at a time until it is complete.  The same picture is returned to again and again, each time from a different viewpoint.  The sections of the book are not, according to this view, in chronological sequence, but are parallel to each other.

6. Symbolism

The book is full of symbolism – images that are suggestive, rather than woodenly descriptive.

Numbers – e.g. four, seven, twelve
The Lion and the Lamb – 5:5f
‘All hell broke loose’ – 6:12-14
The 144,000 and the ‘great multitude that no-one could count’, 7:1-12.
The woman giving birth – 12:1ff

‘The apocalypse is a book of symbols.  The whole action of the book and every detail of the representation, alike, is wrought out not directly, but through a symbolical medium.  And as nothing is stated, so nothing is to be taken, literally; but every event, person, and thing, that appears on its pages is to be read as a symbol…All its symbols are either obvious natural ones, or else have their roots planted in the Old Testament poets and prophets and the figurative language of Jesus and his apostles.  No one who knows his Bible needs despair of reading this book with profit.’  (B.B. Warfield, Shorter Writings, II, 652f)

7. Purpose

‘We should not forget that the purpose of this prophecy, as of all prophecy, is ethical and not chronological.  All truth is in order to holiness.  And the truths here revealed are not in order to enable us to read the detailed history of unborn ages, but to comfort the persecuted, encourage the tried, and succour the despairing.’  (Warfield, Shorter Writings, II, 653)

‘John writes to encourage the faithful to resist staunchly the demands of emperor worship.  He informs his readers that the final showdown between God and Satan is imminent.  Satan will increase his persecution of believers, but they must stand fast, even to death.  They are sealed against any spiritual harm and will soon be vindicated when Christ returns, when the wicked are for ever destroyed, and when God’s people enter an eternity of glory and blessedness.’ (NIV Study Bible)

A young student of theology noticed that the old man was reading his Bible.  “What are you reading?” asked the young man.  “The Book of Revelation.”  “The Book of Revelation?  Do you understand it?” enquired the student.  “Sure I understand it.  It means that Jesus is going to win

8. Summary

It seems best to see the book as comprising a series of overlapping visions, which describe the sufferings of the church in this present age and the final victory of God in Christ.

1 – Prologue
2 & 3 – The Seven Letters to the Seven Churches – messages of rebuke and encouragement
4 & 5 – A Vision of Heaven – the throne of God, and the Lamb who along is worthy to take the book with seven seals.
6-8:5 – The Seven Seals – opened one by one, they reveal a series of disasters. But God is in control and his love and care for his people never fails. They will be kept safe in the final day of reckoning.
8:6-11:19 – The Seven Trumpets – a series of more intense warning judgements, through which the witnessing church must suffer persecution, until the day comes when all wrongs are righted.
12-14 – The Conflict Between the People of God and the Powers of Evil – as a woman gives birth to a son, the dragon tries to devour.him, but he is caught up to heaven. The dragon, along with his allies (the beast and the false prophet) then persecutes the woman until the time of the final harvest.
15-16 – The Seven Plagues – against a backdrop of the joy and security of God’s people, there is the outpouring of God’s wrath on the impenitent, and the final rout of evil at ‘Armageddon’
17-20 – The Ruin of Babylon, the City of Antichrist – the fall of the godless city, the destruction of the beast, the false prophet and the dragon, the marriage of the Lamb, and the final victory
21-22:5 – The New Creation and the City of God
22:6-11 – Epilogue

Recommended Reading

Richard Bewes, The Lamb Wins! (Christian Focus Publications)

Also helpful are commentaries by Michael Wilcock, Leon Morris, and G.R. Beasley-Murray.