The book of Revelation or the Apocalypse has fascinated the Western world more than any other part of the Bible. Many familiar expressions come from this last New Testament book: The Four Horsemen, bottomless pit, mark of the beast, lake of fire, Millennium, Babylon the great. The word Apocalypse comes from the Greek apokalypsis. It means an uncovering, exposing or revealing of something hidden behind a curtain or cover. In the popular imagination, the Apocalypse stands for death, terror and destruction.
Revelation and Our Times
Before our time, Revelation's nightmarish visions of worldwide destruction and death seemed bizarre. That's hardly true today. We have the means to destroy life on planet earth in several ways. Reality is catching up to Revelation's images and taking on the form of its apocalyptic prophecies. Yet, most people have heard about Revelation only in passing. The book remains a mystery, especially to those who haven't had an opportunity to study the Bible. Those interested in Revelation often say: "There's no sense reading it. You can't understand what it means." One commentary says: "The last book of the Bible is, for most Christians, one of the least read and most difficult.... For the most part modern readers find the book unintelligible." The reason for this, the commentary continues, is that Revelation is full of symbols "of a type that we do not use and to which we no longer possess the key" (New Bible Dictionary, "Book of Revelation," page 1027). This brochure introduces the reader to those symbols found in the book of Revelation. It points out several important keys that unlock the book's meaning. The following pages also explain those themes that help us understand how Revelation's contents apply to our own lifetime. One important key to the book of Revelation is its time frame. The book is written in a way that propels the reader — in whatever age he or she may live — into a yet future "end time." Revelation tells us that mankind will then be suffering through a worldwide holocaust.
The Writer of the Book
Let's begin our journey through Revelation by looking at the book's author. He calls himself, simply, John. Early traditions unanimously declared that Revelation was written by the apostle John. The Apocalypse was probably written during the latter part of the Roman Emperor Domitian's reign (A.D. 81-96). John was a prisoner on the Greek island of Patmos (Revelation, from now on abbreviated as Rev., 1:9). Patmos is a rocky, 16-square-mile island in the southeast Aegean Sea. It is 30 miles (about 50 kilometers) west of Asia Minor, modern Turkey. Patmos was a Roman penal colony to which authorities sent political offenders. While imprisoned, John was transported in vision to a specific future time. He said, "I was in the Spirit on the Lord's day" (Rev. 1:10, New King James Version throughout unless otherwise noted). What was this "Lord's day"? There are dozens of prophetic visions in various books of the Hebrew Bible, called the Old Testament in the Christian world. These describe incredible events to occur during this "day of the Lord" or "Lord's day." The book of Isaiah, for example, tells us, "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" (Isaiah 13:9). It is a time of frightening atmospheric and celestial disturbances. "For the stars of heaven and their constellations will not give their light; the sun will be darkened in its going forth, and the moon will not cause its light to shine" (verse 10). The Lord's day is the time when God intervenes in the affairs of mankind. The Messiah's dramatic arrival on earth is the central event of this period. Thus, the day of the Lord (or the Lord's day) refers to what is called the end time or last days of human — directed civilization. John uses the expression the Lord's day to refer to this future time. He did not have some day of the week in mind, such as Sunday. The purpose of Revelation underscores this point. The book aims to put the reader on the scene, as it were. He or she is to become an observer of (and, in the mind's eye, a participant in) the coming world-shaking events of the day of the Lord. Revelation is like the script for a film about the future. John is the secretary writing down the details of the movie's script, which he receives in vision. Yet, he is not simply taking dictation. John is describing what he sees using his own references, experiences and feelings. Revelation is a book of visions imparted through the mind of a man chosen by God for this monumentally important task. The readers of Revelation, then, are to see themselves as part of the events unfolding in the book. They are vicariously living in the last days before the intervention of the Messiah. The message of the book is one of extreme urgency. John says the book contains "The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show His servants — things which must shortly take place" (Rev. 1:1).
The Apocalypse is like a series of scripts written for a film about future events to take place on this earth.
Again John urges, "Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written in it: for the time is near" (Rev. 1:3). The book of Revelation prods the reader to view the events described in its pages as imminent. John records the words of an angel who announces that the final events of the Lord's day should begin. "There should be delay no longer," the angel says (Rev. 10:6). The episodes described in Revelation are often written as though the reader is an eyewitness to what has already begun to happen. We are told "Babylon is fallen, is fallen" (Rev. 14:8); "Your wrath has come" (Rev. 11:18); "the devil has come down to you, having great wrath" (Rev. 12:12); "the hour of His judgement has come" (Rev. 14:7).
A Compelling Message
In the final chapter of Revelation, we have the urgent words of Jesus Christ, the one who will return as the Messiah. He is admonishing the reader to consider the events described in Revelation as looming ahead. The visions of Revelation are "the things which must shortly take place" (Rev. 22:6). The words of the book are not to be sealed from view, "for the time is at hand" (verse 10). Jesus is saying, "I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me" (verse 12). This statement is repeated for emphasis in the book's next to last verse: "Surely, I am coming quickly" (verse 20). A sense of moral urgency underscores the Apocalypse or book of Revelation. Time is fleeting. Events are rapidly moving to the crisis at the close when the Messiah puts down those who oppose him. Havoc and destruction are engulfing everyone. The only way to find safety in this life and salvation in the next, says Revelation, is through Jesus Christ (Rev. 3:10-11). As readers, we are to flow with the movement of Revelation's visions. This concept helps us understand an important verse that tells us where we are chronologically in the book's prophecies.
Revelation propels its readers — at whatever time they may be living — into a future "end time."
That crucial verse is found in this vision: "The angel said to me [John]...I will tell you the mystery of the woman and of the beast that carries her.... Here is the mind which has wisdom: The seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman sits. There are also seven kings. Five have fallen, one is, and the other has not yet come. And when he comes, he must continue a short time" (Rev. 17:7, 9-10, italics added). After that the Messiah returns in power to take over the reins of world government. The book of Revelation addresses a certain reader — the one who has wisdom and a mind to understand. Verse 10 gives such a person an important pivot point or reference to help him or her understand Bible prophecy. He or she is to imagine living: (l) After five kings have fallen; (2) During the current or passing existence of another king; (3) Before the last king who has not yet appeared. The book of Revelation allows readers to place themselves in the very midst of the closing years of this age. That is, the time just before the present age ends and the Messiah begins his rule. That is the intended statement of the three-verse introduction to the book of Revelation. The time is short. Terrible events are soon to occur on this earth. Those readers who want to place their trust in God for protection, Revelation admonishes, are to heed the book's insistent warning: "The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show His servants — things which must shortly take place.... Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written in it; for the time is near" (Rev. 1:1-3, italics added).
A Book of Symbols
Another important key to understanding Revelation is that it is a book of symbols. It presents events, moral concepts and symbols of the future through vivid allegories or images. For example, we see the victorious king, Jesus, riding on a horse (Rev. 19:11-16). He wields a sword with which he smites the nations. That is symbolic of an event. It describes the return of the Messiah in power to destroy the forces of evil. In some cases, we do not exactly know what each symbol represents or how certain symbolic events will take place. Their meaning may remain cloudy until the march of history itself makes them clear. For example, the destructive power of modern war machines has rendered understandable certain parts of Revelation which must have seemed obscure until this century. The book of Revelation has a unique approach. The rest of the New Testament is comprised of letters or books that detail the work of Jesus or the Church. They discuss and correct problems in the Church. The contents of these epistles are grounded in events that had already or were then taking place. Revelation is an "apocalyptic" writing. It is a book of symbols. The "vision" is a major explanatory instrument of Revelation. It describes events most of which have not yet taken place. That makes Revelation essentially a book about the future.
Contrasts in Revelation
Another helpful key for understanding Revelation is the book's use of comparison and contrast. Let us look at a few of these, in brief summary. Throughout the book, Satan's forces are pitted against the powers of God. Revelation describes two distinct ages of human existence. Satan, the remorseless adversary of God, dominates this present world. Jesus Christ will rule a 1,000-year-long future time of world peace and abundance, popularly known as the Millennium. Revelation portrays and compares two opposing ways of life. Two groups of people embody these conflicting life-styles. A harlot pictures the deceived group, deluded by what's called her "spiritual fornication." This refers to her illicit spiritual liaisons with political rulers. Another group of people follows the Lamb — a symbol for Jesus. These are collectively called the spiritually pure "Bride of Christ." An enormous metropolis — "Babylon the great" — stands for the corrupt system that seduces the whole world. Revelation contrasts this city, so full of wickedness, with the purity and perfection of the "new Jerusalem." This glorious city, the New Jerusalem, also stands for the future ruling headquarters of God's perfect government. Revelation has a story flow. This is another important key. The book strides through human history and leads us to a perilous age. We come face to face with "the last days" when the world is buffeted by an increasing outbreak of Satanic activity. The book's fulcrum is the final battle between the returning Messiah and Satan's system. Revelation is a book about bad news and good news. There is much bad news because of the sinful work of Satan and his system. The good news is that righteousness will triumph in the end. Let us take note of how descriptively one commentator summarized the book of Revelation. He wrote: "The Apocalypse is a broad canvas upon which the Seer paints without restrictions the ultimate triumph of God over evil. There is progress in the book, but it is more a progress that moves the reader to a fuller experience of the divine plan for final victory.... Like a mounting storm at sea each new crest of the wave moves history closer to its final destiny" (New International Commentary on the New Testament, "Revelation," Robert H. Mounce, page 46). That destiny is one in which the perfect government of God banishes evil from the human family. That is, in essence, the final message of Revelation. Let's now see how we are to understand the symbols, the message and meaning of the Apocalypse as we make our way through this fascinating book, chapter by chapter.