book of Revelation has puzzled Christians for centuries. Many today believe it
holds the key to climactic events in the near future leading up to the second
coming of Christ. However, the true key to reading Revelation is to ask how the
original recipients of John’s letter would have read it. John wrote his letter
to Christians in the last decade of the first century, specifically to seven
churches in Asia Minor (modern-day
Those who interpret Revelation as a codebook for the second coming of Christ overlook the book’s focus on the atoning work of Christ at his first coming. Describing events thousands of years in the future would provide little comfort to John’s original audience in the midst of persecution. These readers, however, would share the same hope that Christians of all times have in the victory over sin and death that Jesus’ blood provides. We do not look to the future for this ultimate achievement, as it has already been accomplished and is securely ours.
When we study Revelation, we should keep certain interpretation guidelines in mind:
· We need to understand the book in its historical context. Revelation was probably written 90-95 AD during the reign of the Roman emperor Domitian. The purpose of the letter was to provide comfort, strength, and hope to those who faced the threat of death if they did not worship the emperor. If the book were describing events thousands of years in the future, it would not provide comfort to those in John's day. We must first decipher what John’s message meant to its original readers.
· Revelation is a form of writing called apocalyptic literature, which depicts a cosmic drama using fantastic, bizarre imagery. Symbols may not correspond directly to historical events, as this is primarily spiritual warfare. Even numbers are used symbolically (such as the frequent repetition of 7) and should not be read as a means to calculate years and dates. Jesus said he would come as a thief in the night, without warning or signs.
· Similar to Aesop's fables, the apocalyptic lesson emerges from the overall story. Don’t get caught up in all the details (what color was the tortoise? how long did the hare sleep? these are fruitless questions). Each symbol may not have a specific meaning, but serves to paint a broad, colorful picture of spiritual realities. Sometimes John explains what a symbol means, but otherwise we may not always know.
· It helps to get a sense of the dramatic structure of the book, which records parallel, overlapping visions. These visions should not be read as a sequence of future events, but rather they describe the same themes in different ways. Look for parallels from one vision to another.
The following notes give an overview of the book and not a verse-by-verse interpretation.
Notes on the First Vision (ch 1-3)
begins with a series of letters from the risen Jesus to seven churches in Asia
· The first verse indicates that the events described in symbols will “soon” take place, that is, in the time of the original readers. In v. 3 John says “the time is near.”
· (1:3) gives the first of seven blessings in the book.
· (1:7) paraphrases Dan. 7:13 and Zech. 12:10.
· John’s first vision begins in 1:10 where he sees seven lampstands which represent seven churches (1:19-20). It is important to notice when the book explains its own symbols, and to avoid speculation when it doesn’t.
· The vivid, somewhat bizarre imagery of Christ is typical of apocalyptic style, obviously not meant to be read literally. Jesus does not have a sword coming out of his mouth; this image comes from passages such as Isa. 49:2 and Heb. 4:12.
The first letter
goes to the church at
The letters to
· In 2:5 and 3:3, Jesus warns these churches that he will come to them, not at his return, but coming in judgment in a spiritual way. When Revelation speaks of Jesus’ coming, it does not necessarily refer to his Second Coming at the end of time, as so many people today assume.
· These letters to the churches may seem out of place with the rest of the book’s dramatic symbolism, but each letter foreshadows themes mentioned at the end of the book, tying the parts together in a literary unit:
o 2:7 refers to the tree of life mentioned again in 22:2.
o 2:11 mentions the second death, referred to in 20:6.
o 2:17 describes the new name that Christians wear, also in 3:12, 14:1, and 22:4 (cf. Isa. 62:2).
o 2:26 refers to those who overcome receiving authority over the nations; 3:21 says they will sit on thrones. 20:4 speaks of the reign of the martyrs with Christ.
o 2:28 mentions the morning star, which describes Christ in 22:16.
o 3:5 describes the book of life, also in 20:12.
o 3:10 warns of great suffering and tribulation. This time of trial would occur in their lifetimes, not at the end of time, as God tells the churches he will “keep you from the hour of trial.” The idea of divine protection during persecution resembles the sealing of the 144,000 in ch. 7.
o 3:12 describes the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven, foreshadowing ch. 21.
(2:13) The throne of Satan may refer to the
Notes on the Second Vision (ch 4-11)
begins with a prelude in heaven. We see a throne where God in his glory sits with
a scroll in his hand, sealed with seven seals. He is surrounded by 24 elders,
who possibly represent the 12 tribes of
The question is
raised, "Who is worthy to open the seven seals?" Only the Lamb, who
was slain, who purchased men with his blood. The Lion of the tribe of
· Then the seven seals are opened one at a time (ch. 6). Each seal represents trials which are common to earthly life and will occur throughout history. These calamities are similar to Jesus' general warnings in Matt 24, which he called false signs, as they do not signify the end of the world. In this life there will always be war, famine, poverty and death.
o The white horse stands for conquest.
o The red horse stands for war and bloodshed.
o The black horse means famine and poverty.
o The pale horse symbolizes death.
· The fifth seal: in the midst of suffering, the Christian martyrs plead for justice from God (6:10). They will receive their answer in 16:6-7.
The sixth seal
reveals warning signs of God's judgment: the sun darkens, the moon turns to
blood, the stars fall. These are symbols, not literal events, similar to many
OT prophecies of the Day of the Lord. This Day doesn't specifically refer to
the Final Judgment but to any judgment that God inflicts on wicked nations such
In ch. 7 John
inserts an interlude, a break in the action of the drama. God places his seal
of protection on the 144,000, his chosen people. As the book makes clear, he
does not protect them from all suffering but from his wrath on his enemies,
described in the next section. This number is not literal but represents the
· After this interlude, the seventh seal opens and begins a vision of seven trumpets.
trumpets symbolize punishment of the wicked in
this life, each describing partial not total destruction, limited not final
judgment. As much as it sounds like it, this is not the end of the world.
History shows how the
o One third of the earth is destroyed.
o One third of the sea is destroyed.
o One third of the rivers are destroyed.
o One third of the heavens are destroyed.
o An invading army of locusts/scorpions torment those who are living.
o An angelic army of 200 million kill one third of mankind. These two describe human loss of life. But notice that even after these punishments, the wicked do not repent of their sins (9:20-21).
· In a second interlude before the seventh trumpet sounds, an angel tells John to measure the temple, indicating God’s property or ownership (imagery taken from Ezek. 40-3, and Zech. 2). This measuring parallels the sealing of the 144,000, representing God's protection of his people from eternal wrath.
· The martyrdom of the two witnesses (in Greek the word for witness and martyr is the same) acts as a brief summary of the entire book of Revelation: the people of God will suffer because of their testimony, but in the end they will be vindicated for their faithfulness. The witnesses are patterned after Moses and Elijah (11:6).
· In 10:7, the angel says that the mystery of God will be accomplished at the seventh trumpet. In his letters Paul uses the term "mystery" to refer to the gospel of the cross, the secret plan of God’s salvation through Christ, hidden in the past but now revealed (Rom 16:25-6, Eph 1:9-11, Col 1:26-7), not some mysterious future event. When Allied forces died in the battle on D-Day, they had no idea whether or not their efforts were in vain. But Christian martyrs know that they are already on the winning side. Victory is assured because of the cross.
· The seventh trumpet sounds. The key to understanding the book of Revelation lies in 11:15: "The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ." This final trumpet celebrates Christ's victory on the cross, something already accomplished, not a victory after some future battle with an antichrist. Revelation focuses not on the second coming, but on the victory which Christ won at his first coming. Rather than at some point in the future, Jesus’ reign began after his resurrection (Acts 2:30-1).
Notes on the Third Vision (ch 12-20)
The third vision
tells of the eventual punishment to fall on the
· These events are a specific application of the punishments that fall on the wicked in general as seen in the second vision. Once again, we see terrible events which will occur within human history, not at the End.
· This vision has two parts: the Dragon and the Beast, and the Great Harlot, both of which represent the fate of the church’s Roman persecutors, as the text clearly identifies (17:9).
Part One: The Dragon and the Beast
The woman in ch.
12 represents the people of God. In the early stages, she is
· Michael's war in heaven with the dragon does not describe some prehistoric event of Satan as an angel being banished from heaven, as told in John Milton's epic Paradise Lost. Instead, this angelic battle is a symbol for the spiritual victory which was won on the cross through the blood of the Lamb (12:11). Satan was defeated at Christ's first coming, as Jesus himself notes (Luke 10:18, John 12:31). “Now have the come salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ” (10). John assures his readers that the victory has already been won.
Satan now finds
an ally in the Beast with seven heads, identified in 17:9 as seven hills.
· Many people today identify the Beast with the "Antichrist" but this term does not appear anywhere in Revelation, only in John's epistles (1 John 2:18, 22; 4:3; 2 John 7). In those letters John says there are many antichrists present in his day, for an antichrist is anyone who denies that Christ has come in the flesh. In John's letters, antichrist is not an eschatological figure. The Bible does not teach that there will be a superhuman Antichrist at the end of time.
beast, also called the false prophet, which causes people to worship the first
beast is probably the official state religion of
· The number 666 has been interpreted in many ways, but we should probably admit that it was a code John's readers understood, but we cannot (see one example). The number could be purely symbolic, 6 being less than the perfect number 7, thus representing a trinity of inferior beings.
In ch. 14,
Christ stands against the evil threesome. First, those who wear the name of
Jesus are protected from the coming wrath which will fall on
· In 16:7 the martyrs under the altar of God (6:10) proclaim that God is just and has avenged their deaths.
seventh bowl can be poured, the enemies of God gather their forces at
· 14:13 gives the second of seven blessings in the book. 16:15 gives the third.
Part Two: The Great Harlot
In the next
scene, an angel shows John a replay of the judgment on
· The number of kings (7) is possibly symbolic. John isn’t trying to identify the present emperor (his readers would already know that) but what he represents, the power of the Beast.
the plagues that fall on
John next sees a
vision of Christ the conqueror (ch. 19). This rider on a white horse differs
from the one in ch. 6; the type of crown he wears is a different word in Greek.
Christ rules with an iron scepter (2:27, 12:5). The rider wears robes dipped in
blood, again emphasizing the victory on the cross which has already occurred.
This is not a depiction of Christ’s second coming, but his coming in judgment
upon Rome; notice the treading of the winepress (19:15) as a symbol of God’s
wrath on Rome, mentioned earlier in 14:19-20, 16:19. In Lamentations 1:15, the
image of God trampling the grapes into wine describes punishment on
within human history in an act of judgment on certain people is similar to
Christ’s warning to the churches at
· Once again, parallel to the previous reference to Armageddon, "the beast and the kings of the earth and their armies gathered together to make war against the rider on the horse and his army." But they are defeated without a battle. The literary parallelism indicates this is the same defeat as shown in ch. 16, not another battle sometime later. Apocalyptic imagery of this time period does not usually follow a strict chronology.
· The glorious wedding feast of the Lamb (19:7) stands in stark contrast to the gruesome feast of flesh in vs. 17-18 (image taken from Ezek. 39:17).
· 19:9 gives the fourth blessing in the book.
Part three: the binding of Satan
· Finally, after the Beast and the enemies of God are defeated, John sees the binding of Satan himself (ch. 20). Satan's power was limited by the initial work of Christ. Jesus said, "Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out” (Jn 12:31). Jesus told a parable about binding a strong man which refers to Satan (Mt 12:29). He also says he saw Satan fall from heaven, which in context refers to Jesus’ time on earth (Lk 10:18).
· However, Satan has not completely been destroyed. He is bound but on a long leash, like a vicious dog on a chain. We can still be hurt by him if we allow ourselves within his reach. (The imagery of binding demonic forces is also seen outside the Bible in contemporary Jewish/Christian literature: 1 Enoch 10:4-12, 54, 56, 88.)
· In another analogy, Christ's victory on the cross over Satan can be compared to the battle on D-day. After the Allies' victory, the defeat of Hitler was almost a certainty, but the war lingered on for many months with many further casualties. Likewise, we continue to struggle against the powers of sin, but know that the ultimate victory is assured.
· To give hope to those in the midst of the struggle, John describes Christ reigning with the martyrs as their reward (20:4-6). The doctrine of Premillennialism teaches that this 1000 year reign will occur after Christ’s second coming, but several NT texts refer to Christians reigning with Christ now: Rev 2:26, 3:21, 1 Cor. 15:23-6, Eph. 2:6-7, 2 Tim. 2:12. Jesus’ reign on David’s throne began with his resurrection (Acts 2:30-3) and will last until Death is defeated (1 Cor 15:24-8). His reign is a present reality, not some future event.
resurrection (20:5) refers to Christ's resurrection (
· All Christians reign with Christ in one sense, but this text refers specifically to martyrs killed by the beast (addressing their cry for justice back in 6:9-11), implying they participate in Christ's victory even in death. Their faith has turned apparent defeat into eternal victory.
· Thus the 1000 years represents with a symbolic number the extent of present human history during which Christ reigns, not some future time after Christ returns. No other text in scripture mentions this 1000 years, nor do we find it in any other Jewish writings of the time. Too much speculation has been built on this one passage.
· At the end of the vision, Satan is released to gather his armies for one last effort (parallel to 16:16, 19:19) but again they are defeated without a battle. Revelation never depicts an actual battle at Armageddon; fire from heaven simply devours the enemy.
· The enemies of God are represented by Gog and Magog, symbols from Ezek. 38-9.
Notes on the Fourth Vision (ch 21-22)
· These final chapters are the only part of the book which takes place in our future, describing the vision of the New Jerusalem and the New Eden.
· John sees a vision of "a new heaven and a new earth," quoting Isaiah 65:17, 66:22, and also mentioned in 2 Pet 3:13. According to the Bible, the life to come will not take place in a heaven somewhere "out there" up in the clouds or outer space, but on a recreated earth, made perfect by God. (This new creation is also mentioned outside the Bible: Jubilees 1:28, Enoch 92:17, 4 Ezra 7:75)
· Presently, creation is groaning, awaiting its liberation (Rom 8:19-23) which will occur when we receive our new bodies at the resurrection. After melting this present earth by fire (2 Pet 3:10-13), God will bring forth a new world. Jesus speaks of the “regeneration of all things” when the Son of Man is seated on the throne (Mt 19:28).
· What this new earth will be like, we don't know any more than we can know the nature of our new bodies. Paul compares it to the difference in the seed and the plant which springs from the ground (1 Cor 15:35-37). But in this new world God will be immediately and always present (Rev 21).
· The city walls are made of gems similar to those on the high priest’s breastplate (Ex 28).
Ch. 22 depicts
the new earth as
· 22:6 again emphasizes that the visions John has seen will take place “soon.”
· The book ends with the sixth (22:7) and seventh (22:14) blessings.
· Jesus is coming “soon,” not at his physical second coming, but in a spiritual victory over his enemies, those who persecute his people.
Notes by Larry Brown (2007)