The relevance of Revelation for today is lost if we ignore its historical context and read it with incorrect presuppositions.
The Book of Revelation provides a sweeping picture of the church age that explains the real “wars” being waged behind the scenes of history, “battles” that manifest in the daily struggles of Christians and churches. Its visions show the saints how God works through the “Lamb” to implement His final victory, and to bring His servants into the “New Jerusalem.” But it begins in the first century with the “seven churches of Asia.”
Certainly, the visions of Revelation can be difficult to understand, and often include bizarre images and unexpected twists. However, there are several common mistakes and assumptions we make when interpreting them, including:
- The insistence on “literal” interpretation.
- The failure to recognize how the book interprets and reapplies Old Testament passages.
- The assumption, it is only concerned with history’s “final generation.”
- The assumption that Revelation is focused on national Israel.
- Assuming the book is laid out in neat chronological order.
In its very first verse, the book states how it discloses information – through visionary symbolism. Jesus “signified” his “revelation” to “his servants,” a rendering of the Greek verb sémainō, which is related to the noun for “sign.” It means “to signify, to show by a sign” – (Strong’s – #G4591). This sense becomes apparent in the very first vision. John was told the “seven golden lampstands” represented “seven churches,” and the “seven stars” symbolized “seven angels.” This is symbolic, not literal interpretation. Other examples demonstrate the same method. For example:
- (4:5) – “And before the throne seven torches of fire, which are the seven spirits of God.”
- (5:6) – “I saw a Lamb standing… with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God.”
- (11:4) – “The two witnesses are the two olive trees and the two lampstands which stand before the Lord of the earth.”
- (17:9) – “This calls for a mind with wisdom: the seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman is seated.”
Jesus is not a “lamb with seven eyes and seven horns.” The “seven horns and eyes” represent the “seven spirits of God.” Similarly, the “two witnesses” are not two actual individuals. They are identified as the “two lampstands.” And if the book’s symbolism is consistent, then they, being “lampstands,” represent churches – (Revelation 1:20).
The book includes more verbal links to the Old Testament than any other New Testament book. Careful attention must be paid to how it applies them, and very often, how, and why, it does so in unexpected ways. For example, the original summons to Israel to become a “kingdom of priests” is reapplied to the “churches of Asia.” Language from Zechariah that formerly applied to the “tribes” of Israel is universalized to become “all the tribes of the earth” – (Revelation 1:6, 5:10, 20:6, Exodus 19:6, Zechariah 12:10).
Revelation applies the prophecy of “Gog and Magog” to the “nations from the four corners of the earth” gathered to destroy the “saints.” That force ascends over the entire “breadth of the earth,” not just the tiny territory of Palestine. Once again, language that applied to Israel is universalized and reapplied – (Revelation 19:17-21, 20:7-10, Ezekiel 38:1-6).
The book does not simply cite verses from the Hebrew Bible; it interprets and reapplies them. Failure to recognize this can lead to erroneous interpretations. For example, the very first verse alludes to the passage from Daniel when the prophet told Nebuchadnezzar that God had revealed to him “what things must come to pass in later days.” Revelation quotes the statement word-for-word from the Greek Septuagint version of Daniel. However, it changes the last term from “later days” to “SOON.” What for Daniel was in a remote future becomes imminent for John and the “churches of Asia.”
The assumption that the book is focused on history’s final period ignores its historical setting. In its entirety, the book is addressed to seven churches that were in the Roman province of Asia. Its contents are about “things that must soon come to pass,” and “soon” means from the perspective of the original recipients of the book – (Revelation 1:1-4, 1:11, 4:1-3, 22:10).
While the significance of its visions may not end with the “seven churches,” those congregations are included, and therefore, they must have relevance for their situations. But the “seven churches” also constitute a representative group. They may not exhaust the meaning of the visions, but the visions certainly begin with them. Any interpretation that makes Revelation irrelevant to the “seven churches” does not take seriously the book’s historical context.
In its entirety, the book is addressed to the “seven churches of Asia,” and not to national Israel. Its exhortations and promises are for those who “follow the Lamb wherever he goes.” The group labeled the “saints” consists of men and women redeemed by Jesus “from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation” – (Revelation 5:9, 7:9-14).
Are the chapters laid out in neat chronological order? There are three major battle scenes in the book, each borrows language from Ezekiel’s vision of “Gog and Magog,” and each describes the “gathering together” of hostile forces to “the war,” singular – (Revelation 16:12-16, 19:17-21, 20:8-10).
Are there three separate final attacks by “Gog and Magog” that are separated by hundreds of years, or is the one final assault against described from three different perspectives? Is this satanic force defeated by the “Lamb,” only to reappear multiple times to attack the “saints” over and over again?
The Book of Revelation is about future events, but not exclusively so. Its visions are anchored in the past Death and Resurrection of Jesus. The book begins in the past and culminates in the New Creation. This means it is not primarily or exclusively about history’s final years, but instead, about the entire period during which the church exists.
Finally, the book is as much exhortation as it is predictive prophecy. It is a summons to all churches for faithfulness in tribulation, for the church to be the church as it lives and bears witness in a hostile world.