A Quick Look at the Book of Revelation
A Mission Practicum lesson for students in Sunset International Bible Institute’s Adventures in Missions program
Dear Adventures in Missions student,
As you work among the people at your posting, you will occasionally encounter folks who base much of their doctrine on the book of Revelation. A good example is the popular series, Left Behind by Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim LaHaye. They say their work offers a realistic picture of a future “rapture” based on a “true” interpretation of the book of Revelation…They believe that Revelation, must be taken literally. Those who don’t believe this are destined to be “left behind” when the “rapture” occurs. This is one of the several forms of “dispensationalism,” found among evangelical denominations.
Revelation is the only book of prophecy in the New Testament. It is a wondrous book full of essential teaching for followers of Christ. No book, however, has been more abused and misused. It has been used to teach and justify all sorts of doctrines. It is the foundation of many varieties of dispensationalism. It is a favorite source of proof texts for the teachings of Christadelphians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-Day Adventists and others.
In order to counter most of the mistaken teaching based on it, one should study and know the book. However, to be aware of some basic facts up front will be helpful in countering erroneous claims.
Purpose of the Book
John received his revelation from Christ and wrote it down around 75 A.D. (95 or 96 A.D. according to some authorities). He was apparently in exile on the Isle of Patmos (1:9). He was given this message of encouragement for the disciples of Christ. It is a promise that the real victory is in Christ and His church. No matter how bad things may get, if you are in Christ you are already the winner.
It is designed to show that even a powerful bully as big as Rome can be whipped and doomed to destruction. In the end, God will triumph and His Christ will reign supreme. It calls upon its readers to be faithful unto death, even death as martyrs.
While intended to hearten those under the thumb of Rome, the Spirit’s message is also relevant today. Like the disciples living in John’s day, we are called upon to choose the eternal over the temporal; resist temptation, refuse compromise with pagan secularism and let our Christ-like consciences be our guide. We are urged to have confidence in the ultimate victory of the kingdom of God…not only in the reign of someone like the emperor Vespasian, but also in the midst of the chaos of any age.
Theme of the Book
“Be Faithful and We Win”
Perhaps this can best be expressed in words found in the first three chapters, “Be faithful unto death, and you shall receive the crown of eternal life.” Not, “do all the right things,” not “keep all the rules,” not “always be successful,” not “always win,” but be faithful!
The crown of life belongs to the faithful. No one can take it away. For the faithful, victory is assured. It will be hard and painful, but after it’s over we win!
General Interpretation of Prophecy
Since Revelation is a book of prophecy, the correct methods of interpreting prophecy should be employed.
- Prophecy has a primary and secondary purpose.
- The primary purpose is to provide a word from God for the people of the time. This may or may not include future fulfillment (1 Peter 1:10-12).
- The secondary purpose is fulfillment of some future event or circumstance. The prophecy of Revelation fits these conditions.
- Prophecy is not a matter of private interpretation (2 Peter 1:20-21). What the Holy Spirit reveals the Holy Spirit interprets. Meanings not revealed in the text can only be deducted from other similar prophetic passages where the meaning is known or obvious. Private interpretation is, at best, merely guesswork. When it comes to guesswork, your guess is as good as mine.
The language is primarily symbolic. There are colors, numbers, metals, jewels, beasts, bowls, scrolls, seals and scenes. It is bad exegesis to draw literal conclusions from symbolic passages or vice versa. For example:
- When God reminds Moses, “I bore you on eagle’s wings, and brought you to Myself (Exodus 19:4)…no one believes that actual eagle wings were employed.
- Jesus spoke of the temple and meant His body (John 2:20-22).
- When John referred to the religious leaders as “vipers,” he didn’t mean real ones! But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come (Matthew 3:7)?
One of the basic characteristics of those of the dispensationalist persuasion is their insistence upon literal interpretation. Right in the middle of a symbolic passage such as Revelation 20 with an abyss, chain, beast, earth with four corners, and Gog and Magog, the thousand years is made literal and becomes the basis for millennialism.
Revelation 1:1-3 — The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show to His bond-servants, the things which must soon take place; and He sent and communicated it by His angel to His bond-servant John, who testified to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw. Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of the prophecy, and heed the things which are written in it; for the time is near.
22:6 — And he said to me, “These words are faithful and true”; and the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, sent His angel to show to His bond-servants the things which must soon take place”
22:10 — And he said to me, “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near.”
While it is a book of prophecy, the fulfillments were to “shortly come to pass,” and “near.” (1:1-3; 22:10) In the Greek it reads, “…things which are taking place shortly.” This means speed, quickness or haste. Notice the emphatic “must…” Conclusion: the book of revelation cannot be applied to some undefined time two thousand years in the future and still make sense.
The Matter of Relevance
As with all books of prophecy, it was initially and primarily written to believers of its day. It was initially relevant to those under Roman rule. Otherwise it would be totally irrelevant in its own time. While the lessons of the book apply to every generation, we have no Holy Spirit application referring to people and times of the future.
To sum up, these are the characteristics of the book of Revelation which should keep it from being misused and abused:
1. Written to the people living during the time of the Roman emperor Vespasian. It will find its primary relevance to those of that era – not over 2,000 years later.
2. Written in symbolic (apocalyptic) language using colors, numbers, animals, and other objects and scenes which should not be interpreted literally.
3. It is a book of prophecy and thus not open to “private interpretation.” Some meanings are explained in context; others are matters of opinion and, therefore, should not form the basis of doctrine.
4. The time frame in which the prophecy would be fulfilled is imminent at the time of its writing. It is “soon.” The time is “near.”