Interpreting Revelation: Suggested Keys To Build A Framework

1) Revelation Involves A Prophecy Which Would Soon Take Place From When It Was Written.

Revelation 1:1, 3; 22:7, 10, 18 Repeatedly and very clearly, John tells us this is a prophecy which would be fulfilled soon. But what about the idea that: with the Lord, a day is a like a thousand years and a thousand years are like a day? 2 Peter 3:8 While this is true, Jesus was trying to reveal a message to the seven churches which they would understand. This prophecy was directed toward them for their understanding; this is not written for God. As such, it needs to communicate in a frame of reference people understand, not God’s framework!

When John wrote the message, the events were already unfolding. In fact, five of the seven heads (kings) of the first beast had already died. Revelation 17:9-10

2) Revelation Is Written In A Style That Shares Many Methods And Characteristics Of Apocalyptic Literature.

Just as “once upon a time” is a literary key about the framework which should be used for interpreting a story, so too, by writing in a style that shares many characteristics of apocalyptic literature, John has provided us with a general starting perspective for interpretation. Some of the qualities of this style of writing include: symbolic imagery and use of numbers, borrowing images from known sources, visions, and a strong dualism between good and evil. A few of the symbols in Revelation which are explained can be found 1:20; 5:8; 12:9.

3) Apocalyptic Works Were Written During Times Of Distress To Provide Encouragement.

Encouragement can be provided by a “behind the scenes” explanation of what is going on and where the current situation will lead. Already some from among the recipients of Revelation had died for the cause of Christ and others would still face persecution. Rev. 2:13, 10 The theme of Christ’s community being persecuted and how long this would continue dominates the book. Rev. 1:9; 6:10-11; 7:14; 13:15; 14:13; 17:6; 18:24; 19:2; 20:4 Encouragement is provided to the seven churches in knowing that God’s judgment would bring an end to the forces of persecution.

4) From Its Very Beginning, Revelation Reveals It Is Built Upon A Strong Familiarity Of Old Testament Language and Imagery.

Compare: Revelation 1:8,17 with Isaiah 44:6; Revelation 1:13-17 with Daniel 10:5-9, and so forth.

Noteworthy is how the Old Testament depicted God’s judgment on political powers: Against Egypt “the Lord rides on a cloud and is coming to Egypt” (Is. 19:1); against Babylon it was described as “the day of the Lord is coming” when “the rising sun will be darkened” (Is. 13:7,10) against Edom “the sky rolled up like a scroll” (Is. 34:4,5); and when against Samaria the people “will say to the mountains, ‘Cover us.'” (Hos. 10:8). Furthermore, although specific nations are being judged, the completeness and thoroughness of God’s judgment is described through the superlative language of being upon the whole world. Is. 13:11; 34:2

This language suggests that both the statements about Jesus’ coming (Rev. 1:7; 3:11, 22:7, 12, 20) as well as Revelation 6:12-17 could refer to divine judgment against a political nation and its downfall. Accordingly, this language would not demand that we understand the cosmic imagery as describing the end of the world. The catastrophic language in Revelation parallels that in the Old Testament for the fall of nations.
5) Revelation Reveals The Identity Of The Dragon.

The dragon is Satan. Rev. 12:9; 20:2 The dragon tries to devour a pregnant woman’s male child who will rule the nations with an iron scepter. Rev. 12:4,5 The dragon pursues the child who is snatched up to God. A war ensues in heaven resulting in the dragon being defeated and cast down to the earth where he then pursues the woman. Since she is protected, he turns against her offspring. Rev. 12:17 Here is a portrayal of Satan’s failed attempts to destroy the Messiah and God’s plan and so the dragon turns his wrath against Jesus’ disciples.

6) Revelation Identifies The Two Beasts.

The sea beast is similar to the dragon (compare Rev. 12:3 with Rev. 13:1) and is empowered by the dragon to rule. Revelation 13:2. It is a composite of the four beasts from Daniel 7 which were all representatives of political powers. Daniel 7:17 Thus John is describing a political power. This beast from the sea persecutes Christians and rules over other nations. Rev. 13:7

In Revelation 17:9-12 its seven heads are described as representing seven kings and also seven hills. With Rome being built on seven hills, first-century Christians would have identified this political power as the Roman empire that ruled over other nations and persecuted Christians.

The land beast described in Revelation 13:11-17 speaks like a dragon, exercised all the authority of the sea beast on the sea beast’s behalf and made the earth worship the sea beast. Those refusing to worship the sea beast he has the power to kill them.

If the sea beast is the civil authority of Rome, then the land beast promotes emperor worship. Emperor worship was especially strong in the Empire during the reign of Domitian (81-96 A.D.) and affected Asia Minor where the seven churches were located. The two beasts rise together and fall together, so the land beast is not some religious power coming years after the sea beast.

7) Revelation Identifies The Harlot and Babylon.

Both are great cities. Rev. 17:18; 18:10 Both commit fornication with kings. Rev. 17:2; 18:3 Both are adorned with luxury. Rev. 17:4; 18:16 Both have shed the blood of the saints. Rev. 17:6; 18:24 As Revelation 17:5 reveals, both of these symbols are representative of the same great city. Since the harlot rides on the beast, which has already been seen to be the Roman Empire, this great city which rules over the kings of the earth and which rides on the Roman Empire must refer to the glory of Rome. Rev. 17:18

8) Revelation Reveals That The Kingdom Serving God Already Exists.

Since John and other disciples are already in the kingdom, this book is not describing the establishment of God’s kingdom in the future. Rev. 1:6,10 In agreement with the teachings in the New Testament, Revelation 12:10 proclaims that after the male child who will rule the nations with an iron scepter is taken to heaven (i.e. Christ’s resurrection), “now comes the salvation and the power and the kingdom of of our God, and the authority of Christ.” Not only did Christ have all authority after his resurrection (Mt. 29:18), and salvation had come, etc. but also, the kingdom had begun. Colossians 1:12 John wrote from the perspective of being in the kingdom, not announcing the arrival of the kingdom.

Summary Thoughts

If we respect the book’s own claims, the natural methods for interpreting apocalyptic style works, the known symbols and language from the Old Testament and what John reveals about his message, a very brief overview of Revelation’s message would suggest the following. Here is a prophecy revealed by Christ to some beleaguered Christians. After a brief message to each congregation that the Lord knows their specific congregational situation and encourages them to overcome, the reader is ushered into beholding the throne room of God. God is in control. The risen Lord is the only one found worthy to reveal God’s message. Partial judgments by God are announced. A cry is raised by the martyrs, “how long” until the persecutor is judged? Rev. 5:9-10

Although some had already died for Christ, tribulation would continue a little longer. Rev. 5:11 God’s people are encouraged that relief will appear soon, as Christ would come to judge the persecuting forces of evil empowered by the devil. Those disciples who would remain faithful to the point of death would be victorious and would receive the crown of life. Repeated scenes capture every facet of God’s coming judgment upon the power that had slain God’s people. God’s judgment against those who have killed the ones belonging to the Lamb is shown to be just. There is great reward for those who are faithful.

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Barry Newton

Married to his wonderful wife Sofia and a former missionary in Brazil, Barry enjoys trying to express old truths in fresh ways. They are the parents of two young men.

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2 thoughts on “Interpreting Revelation: Suggested Keys To Build A Framework

  1. I agree with most of this article except for the last sentence. If we are going to remain consistent with this interpretation then the last few chapters cannot jump ahead 1,000’s of years to the judgment scene. It is still describing the kingdom on earth; “the bride of Christ,” “the temple of God,” etc. The “new heaven and earth” is simply a phrase describing a new situation for the church after Roman persecution is brought to an end. There would be no “death” or “tears” from Roman persecution. We need to keep in mind that we are told four times that these prophecies were “at hand” and must “shortly take place” (Rev. 1:1, 3; 22:6, 10).

  2. In interpreting any literary work, where should we seek our consistency: in forcing the whole of the message into a framework the author initiated or to be consistent in following the author’s leading … wherever that message may take us?

    5/13/15 – Updating comment: Upon greater reflection I’ve deleted the last sentence.

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