Unlocking Revelation

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Without any question, the Book of Revelation has produced more confusion within the church than any other biblical text. Frankly, it probably isn’t close. Many books have seen their original meaning butchered over time, but Revelation stands on its own pedestal in this regard.

Its rich imagery and blend of literal and metaphorical teachings has led many readers to wild—and often heretical—conclusions. As I have often seen, some are willing to cast aside all other biblical texts and much clearer passages in their quest to hold certain cherished views: views that are typically based on a literal reading of a metaphorical passage.

Add to the mix Revelation’s questionable date of writing and authorship, and it’s not surprising that the book was barely included in the canons of the early church and onward.

But let me be clear: I am not criticizing Revelation or questioning its inclusion in the biblical canon. Moreover, I fully believe that God inspired the book and that it serves as the rightful conclusion to the Bible.

(For those who are interested in how the Bible was put together, please see this blog and my new book, Simply Scripture.)

With this said, my point here is that we all need to use caution when reading Revelation and employ certain interpretive tools in studying it. In other words, the problem with Revelation is not the text itself, but is the way we have been taught (or not taught) to interpret it.

Hopefully, this blog can help to clear up some of the confusion.

Why is Revelation so confusing?

There are several reasons for this. However, the primary reason is that Revelation is not—and never was—intended to convey a chronological account of how history will unfold. We cannot read chapters 1-22 as a continuous series of events. In fact, Revelation is a blended drink of past, present, and future events that are interspersed throughout the text.

For example, the “seals” of Revelation 6 are typically interpreted as describing the events surrounding the last days. However, flip to Revelation 12 and you are dealing with the distant past, wherein Satan is cast out of heaven and begins to pursue God’s people. Head to the very next chapter (13) and you’re back at end time events again (supposedly) involving the two great “beasts” and the Antichrist.

This can be seen throughout Revelation; the only pattern is that there is no pattern!

Second, Revelation is confusing because it also mixes literal and metaphorical teachings from beginning to end. This can be seen in the enigmatic “Mark of the Beast” (discussed in the next section), but it’s also evident throughout. Most scholars see the message to the Seven Churches (cc. 2-3) as being sent to churches that literally existed in that day. The same reality applies to the creation of the new heavens and earth (ch. 21), being that it is echoed in other parts of Scripture (Is. 65:17-25, 2 Pet. 3:13). Other examples include the final judgment, the destruction of Satan, and the return of Christ (22:12).

All are typically viewed as literal descriptions of either the past, present or future.

On the other hand, most—and I do mean most—of Revelation has a very symbolic flavor. That simple statement will sit uneasy with many readers, but it’s undeniable. Moreover, it’s exactly what the author (and God) intended!

Should we really believe that a great beast will one day emerge from the sea (13:2-8), or might that be an allusion to a Satanic empire? Does it make sense that angels will literally pour “bowls of wrath” out onto the earth (ch. 16), or might that be illustrating the calamities that will befall the world? Do we really think that locust/horse/scorpion creatures with human faces will be unleashed to torture the unbelieving world, or is that also an illustration that severe wrath will come upon the godless?

If we are being honest, we know that these images are not intended to be taken literally but symbolically. Revelation is replete with similar examples.

Indeed, when the chronological and symbolic issues are combined, Revelation can make for a fascinating but difficult read.

Keys to Interpretation

While there is no exact recipe to properly understanding every aspect of Revelation, there are certainly some keys that can help us.

The first key is understanding the historical context of Revelation. Contrary to what many would like to believe, the book was not written exclusively to those who will be living in the last several years of human history. Like any other biblical text, Revelation has a message for all generations of believers. Imagine if everyone who has read (or heard) this incredible text for the last two thousand years believed that it had no bearing on their lives: that only the last generation of believers could apply its teachings to themselves?

Well, that is apparently what many have come to believe. But let’s be clear: Revelation has not been holding most of its meaning for the final days. Like Matthew 24, 2 Thessalonians 2, and other passages, Revelation does have some end time application, to be sure. However, this is a relatively small amount of its overall content.

Most of Revelation had bearing on people’s lives throughout history. This is especially true given that its central purpose is to affirm God has the final victory, and that the world will one day be set right.

The second key is connected to the first, and it’s that John (presuming he was the author) drew heavily upon OT concepts and teachings. One simply cannot understand Revelation without appreciating this fact. Let me provide a couple examples to consider.

Revelation 12 discusses the “Great Harlot.” I have made the case that I believe this figure saw its initial (or historical) fulfilment in Jerusalem. The reason is that Revelation’s description of the Harlot almost perfectly echoes Ezekiel 16’s portrayal of Jerusalem as the adulterous wife. Both readings are rather long, but looking at them side-by-side plainly reveals that John was pulling from Ezekiel’s words.

On twelve separate occasions within Ezekiel 16 alone, God calls Jerusalem a harlot (zanah). This is sometimes translated instead as “prostitute,” as is the term used for harlot (porné) in Revelation 17. Clearly, it’s the same idea being expressed; Jerusalem—encompassing God’s people, here—had continuously betrayed her Husband by fornicating with many other lovers.

Another example of Revelation’s OT connection is, believe it or not, seen in the “Mark of the Beast” in chapter 13. While this is almost always viewed exclusively as a physical identifier that will be placed on either the right hand or the forehead—and in the final years of human history, no less—the reality is that this is much more of a symbolic identifier.

On at least five occasions in the OT, the Jewish people were commanded to place God’s laws on their hands and on their heads.[1] This was the most sacred duty—contained within the Shema—for those who worshipped Yahweh. They were instructed to instill God’s laws in their lives:

“Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads” (Dt. 6:8).

This was not intended to be taken literally, though many Jewish leaders did so (Mt. 23:5). Instead, this was a symbolic gesture of one’s allegiance to God. Binding the laws to the forehead meant ingraining them into the mind. What about the right hand, though? In Scripture, the right hand symbolizes honor and power. For example, notice that Christ ascended to the “right hand” of God (Mk. 16:19). However, it can also represent the actions we undertake.

When Revelation talks about the “right hand,” it is talking about carrying out the actions of our will: acting upon what is in our hearts and minds.

Clearly, Revelation was drawing upon the OT Shema, meaning that there is at least a strong symbolic meaning to the “Mark of the Beast.” For more on this, see this blog.

Cracking the Code

With the previous section in mind, let’s finish with a practical view of Revelation and how best to interpret it.

It’s imperative that we understand that Revelation’s content is a blend of time periods, as well as literal and symbolic teachings. If you put the past, present and future into a blender—adding copious amounts of literal and allegorical teachings to the mix—what would come out is the Book of Revelation.

It is a terrible mistake to interpret every bit of the book literally or to see it as an explanation of how history will or has unfolded from front to back. We need to be extremely cognizant of which time period each passage is addressing, understanding that Revelation often deals with things that are now in our past.

Further, we must also remember that Revelation is steeped in Old Testament symbolism and teachings. We must ask what the author had in mind and what text/s he was drawing from. What OT parallels should we be considering? How should those parallels inform our interpretation of a given section of Revelation? These are both serious and critical considerations.

I have saved perhaps the most important suggestion for last. The simple reality is that Revelation must be viewed in light of the rest of Scripture.

I cannot stress this one enough.

The biggest problem I see with how many people interpret Revelation is that they start there and then interpret the rest of the Bible based on their understanding of Revelation. This, dear friends, is completely backwards. Given Revelation’s undeniable mystery and interpretive difficulties—which I have previously discussed—it makes no sense to use it as the foundation for our entire eschatological worldview.

In fact, it’s a recipe for disaster.

I’ll give you a powerful example. If you studied all of Scripture concerning Christ’s return, you would find that he returns only once and that the righteous and wicked are separated at that time.[2] What you will find nowhere else in the Bible is an allusion to a 1,000-year Millennial Reign that is sandwiched between Christ’s return and the ultimate destruction of evil.

Such a view is contrary to every other biblical passage, particularly those passages that require much less interpretation. See Matthew 24, Luke 17:20-37, John 5:28-29, and 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 for some examples.

So, is Revelation wrong? Of course not! As I said in the beginning, it is our interpretation that is wrong. The “thousand years” of Revelation makes much better sense as a symbolic period wherein Christ reigns over the church from heaven after the Resurrection. In other words, the thousand years has been occurring since that time!

This is consistent with how “a thousand years” is used throughout most of the Bible, as illustrated in Psalm 50:10, 91:7, 90:4, and 2 Peter 3:8, to name only a few. I explain this interpretation in much greater detail here.

All this speaks to our interpretive lens. If we remember that much of Revelation is symbolic, that it does not follow in chronological order and, most importantly, that Revelation must be evaluated in light of the rest of Scripture—especially passages that are much more clearly stated—then Revelation need not be so confusing.

In fact, Revelation can be one of the most impactful and enlightening books in all of Scripture.


[1] See Exodus 13:9 and Dt. 6:8-9, and 11:18.

[2] See Dan. 12:1-2, Mt. 13:24-42, and Rev. 22:12.

Author: Brian M. Rossiter

I am a Christian teacher, author, and lecturer. Most importantly, I am a truth-seeker. My research has led me to both believe in and defend the veracity of the Bible, evaluating my own personal views in light of its teachings along the way. In addition to my blogs, I have written several books: "The Death Myth," "God Made the Aliens," "Spiritual Things," and most recently, "Missing Verses: 15 Beliefs the Bible Doesn't Teach." My hope in these endeavors is to give skeptics reasons to believe, to strengthen the faith of those who already do, and to challenge each of us to truly evaluate our own worldviews.

3 thoughts on “Unlocking Revelation”

    1. Thank you Dale. On my view, Satan has been “bound” since the death and resurrection of Christ. That is, his power has been limited. He is said the be unleashed at the end, and I personally think that has been in progress over the last several years beginning with the Lie that is the Covid delusion. So the binding and loosing of Satan is symbolic just as the thousand years is. Both speak to reality but not literally.

      Like

      1. I do know 2018 was a transformation year, i was expecting something big and it happen, thats why i liked your study and would have to study more to decide taking that action, thank you

        Liked by 1 person

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