One who takes seriously the promise of Revelation 1:3 “Blessed is the one that reads the words of this prophecy … ”1 cannot ignore reading this book.
Interestingly, and curiously, many who are interested in Revelation do not read the book itself but, rather, read books about the book. The reader will gather from verses 1, 3, 7 and 19 of chapter 1 that, although written in the first century, the days of John, the Lord’s “scribe”, the content is about the future, a future of which we might very well be or become a part. It demands both our reading and our attention.
There is another reason. This book is “the revelation of Jesus Christ.” It is a revelation which God gave Him and He is sharing it with any who care to read it. Can any afford to ignore it? While a knowledge of the future is attractive, a knowledge of Jesus is essential. The Gospels are the biographies of the Son of God while on earth. The Revelation acquaints us with the Son of man’s post-ascension cosmic role. Acquaintance with the former is indispensable to a study of the latter.
Let’s turn to this last book in the Bible.
While some Bibles call it Revelation, others call it The Apocalypse. Why?
The earliest New Testament manuscripts extant were written in the Greek language of the day. The name “Apocalypse” comes from a Greek word which means a “disclosure,” a “revelation.” The associated verb means to remove the cover, to reveal, so that we can see what we normally would not be able to.
Today, the word “apocalypse” has become popular. April 1993 we saw on TV the fiery end of property and the lives of more than 70 people at a place popularly called “Ranch Apocalypse” near Waco, Texas. If you knew a bit about The Apocalypse, you might have thought that that was a v-e-r-y appropriate name for a place owned by a group of people who were fascinated with “The End.” A movie buff might have even smelled a whiff of “Apocalypse Now.”
Why? What is there about The Apocalypse, a.k.a. Revelation, which prompts such thoughts? Take a look.
Notice a few of the word pictures:
A bleeding lamb
- Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing in the center of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders. He had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth (5:6).
Horsemen riding colored horses
- I looked, and there before me was a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest (6:2).
- Then another horse came out, a fiery red one. Its rider was given power to take peace from the earth and to make men slay each other. To him was given a large sword (6:4).
- When the Lamb opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come!” I looked, and there before me was a black horse! Its rider was holding a pair of scales in his hand (6:5).
- I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him. They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth (6:8).
A great earthquake, the sun turns black, the moon turns blood red, and the stars fall (Revelation 6:12-13).
A burning mountain (Revelation 8:8)
A wild animal coming out of a bottomless pit (Revelation 11:7)
A wild animal coming out of the sea (Revelation 13:1
A wild animal coming out of the land (Revelation 13:11
A city in the form of a cube (Revelation 21:16
This literary style, heavy with word pictures, is typical of certain ancient Jewish writings with a style just like that of The Apocalypse. Called “apocalyptic literature” for that reason, these writings include the Old Testament books of Daniel and Zechariah, and parts of Ezekiel. Their authors were writers, not artists. They didn’t paint pictures. They wrote what they saw. If they didn’t explain the meaning of the pictures and their contents we would be left wondering! In fact, sometimes we are. Therefore it is the impression of the moving picture that matters more than the particulars. In the case of The Revelation we could say, “You have read the Gospels, the Acts and the Epistles. Now see the movie.”2
Because the content of this book is symbolic in its expression, it would not only be unwise but unsafe to be dogmatic on matters that are not clearly explained by John or taught in the preceding books of the New Testament. The Revelation will illustrate or even fill out what has already been contributed, but will not teach a new doctrine.
This book is relevant to today’s society made up of people who often wonder about their own future. Why? Because, if we are to take Scripture seriously, it is about the future. For the first readers it was “to show … what must soon take place (Revelation 1:1).”3
It is for us to consider the forecasts that have already been fulfilled and those which have yet to be.
There have been several methods of interpretation. These are the preterist (with fulfillment in the past), the futurist (with fulfillment in the future, the historicist (with fulfillment throughout history) and the idealist (with no specific incidents forecast but rather a forecast of ideas and philosophies that will emerge in the future). Each method of interpretation has its strengths and its weaknesses. There are aspects in some visions that are still without interpretation.
Maybe, then, there is room for another method of interpretation: the impressionist. And this could be true given the fact that the apocalyptic prophets were “visionaries” writing rather than drawing what they saw.
Even so, “the primary meaning of the Revelation is what John intended it to mean, which in turn must also have been something his readers could have understood it to mean.”5
Revelations occurred in the early Christian communities. St Paul experienced them. They were one of the spiritual gifts in the church in Corinth. See 1 Corinthians 1:7; 14:6, 26; 2 Corinthians 12:1; Galatians 2:2. The last book of the Bible contains a revelation given to Jesus most likely after His ascension because there is no reference to it per se in the Gospels.
The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. He made it known [to us] by sending his angel to his servant John (Revelation 1:1), …
The message, then, originated with God, was given to His Son and shared with human beings by an angel who entrusted it to the apostle John, as scribe. Thus, John is able to write in chapter 1:4,
John, To the seven churches in the province of Asia: Grace and peace to you from him who is, and who was, and who is to come, and from the seven spirits before his throne, …
and again in 22:8
I, John, am the one who heard and saw these things.
According to some historians, John wrote it about A.D. 90 while in exile on the Aegean island of Patmos just off the west coast of Asia Minor, modern-day Turkey. Victorinus, who died c. A.D. 303, says that John was “condemned to the labor of the mines by Caesar Domitian,” and that while there “he saw the Apocalypse.” Domitian ruled A.D. 81-96.6
While most readers are fascinated with the imagery and the action, we should take another look at John’s opening words.
“The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who testifies to everything he saw — that is, the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ.”
Although John had these visions about 60 years after Jesus’ ascension to heaven, their messages are not only shared with us by Jesus, they are about Jesus. That’s the point so often forgotten in the fascination with the weird, and in the scramble for interpretation of the minutiae. In these visions Jesus reveals challenges to His authority, the action He will take, and appeals to us to ally with Him and enjoy the outcome.
John tells us that there is a blessing for anyone who reads the account of his visions and anyone who listens and takes notice.
Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near (1:3).
To me, reading the Apocalypse is like looking through six windows, in turn.7 Care to join me?
- Scriptures are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids, MI: The Zondervan Corporation, 1985).
- Consider this note on Revelation 1:1 in the New Living Translation’s Life Application Study Bible: “Through graphic pictures we learn that . . .” [Emphasis mine] This point is also made by Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart in chapter 13, “The Revelation: Images of Judgment and Hope” of their How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1993): “One must see the visions as wholes and not allegorically press all the details. … Thus the details of the sun turning black like sackcloth and the stars fall ing like late figs do not ‘mean’ anything. They make the whole vision of the earthquake [Revelation 6:12-17] more impressive.” (page 237) “I watched as he opened the sixth seal. There was a great earthquake. The sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red, and the stars in the sky fell to earth, as late figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind. The sky receded like a scroll, rolling up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and every slave and every free man hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. They called to the mountains and the rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?'”
- The Expositor’s Bible Commentary on this verse carefully explains that, here, “soonness” means that events foretold by God in the Christian Age are “possible any day, impossible no day.”
- from my Preface
- Fee, Gordon D. and Douglas Stuart, op. cit., 235
- See Seventh-day Adventist Bible Dictionary, art. “Revelation.”
- Through these windows:
- 1st window: Revelation 1
- 2nd window: Revelation 2, 3
- 3rd window: Revelation 4:1 – 8:1
- 4th window: Revelation 8:2 – 11:19
- 5th window: Revelation 12:1 – 22:5
- 6th window: Revelation 22:6-21
Photo: Chateau de Chillon, Montreux, Switzerland (© 2010, Angus McPhee)
© 2010, Angus McPhee