Welcome to Bible Bum where we are exploring the entire Bible in one year to better learn how to follow God’s instructions and discover the purpose for our lives. The BibleBum blog uses The One Year Chronological Bible, the New Living Translation version. At the end of each day’s reading, Rob, a cultural history aficionado and seminary graduate, answers questions from Leigh An, the blogger host, about the daily scripture. To start from the beginning, click on “Index” and select Day 1.
Since Revelation can be a complicated book and is like no other in the Bible, Rob offered up this introduction to Revelations. It helps get you in the right frame of mind before you dive into it. Enjoy!
Introduction to Revelation
by Rob Fields
Revelation is both the strangest and least understood book of the Bible. Some people say that Revelation is an exact blueprint for the future that merely needs to be interpreted, others say that it’s really about the past, and others find it merely to be an unfiltered glimpse into heaven and heavenly worship. The landscape of Revelation is dotted with numbers, images, creatures, visions, and the wrath of God. We could spend a year just looking at different aspects of the story, but for now, we will examine important aspects of the text that I believe will make it easier to understand. In this lesson, we are going to look at five important overview concepts for understanding Revelation.
Five things you should know about Revelation:
1) John (the author) is writing in a particular genre of literature: apocalyptic literature.
2) The more Old Testament you know, the more sense Revelation makes.
3) In general, images presented in Revelation should be interpreted symbolically, NOT literally.
4) Revelation predicts the future, but not in the way we really want it to.
5) The story of Revelation is really the story of Jesus, the one who is worthy.
1: Genre is everything
?) Imagine that the only kind of books you had ever read were romance novels. Now imagine that you picked up a mystery or detective story for the first time. What do you think your reaction would be?
Probably the most intimidating thing about Revelation is the language. The chapters of the book are full of great images: beasts covered with eyes worshipping God, brightly colored horses that bring death and famine, an army of warrior locusts, a great red dragon, beasts with seven heads and ten horns, and so on. The language can appear to make the meaning so cloudy that we just give up and don’t bother trying to understand the image that John is painting for us.
It is an important thing to recognize the style, or genre, that the author is writing in. This is the genre of the apocalypse. (Apocalypse is Greek for “the act of revealing” or “unveiling” — this is why Revelation is also known as the Apocalypse of John.) Apocalyptic literature was originally a Jewish writing style where circumstances had become so bad that God himself intervened on behalf of his people. We tend to think that Revelation is unique because it is the only book of the sort that we have read. But if we examine some other samples of this literature, I think we will move away from this overemphasis on the images in Revelation.
So I have a little test for you. At the end of this lesson, I have placed four samples of this kind of literature for you to examine. Read each of them, and see if you can find the one passage that comes from Revelation (they are labeled at the end).
2: Go old school
Revelation is fairly unique among NT books, in that it does not usually quote from the Old Testament. There are only a few quotations from the OT in Revelation, but the book is full of images from the OT, and we are going to sample some here.
1) Time, times, and half a time (Rev. 12:14).
2) Manna (Rev. 2:17)
3) Four horsemen (Rev 6) — color is important!
4) Four living creatures (Rev. 4)
5) Sound of rushing waters (Rev. 1:15)
6) The two witnesses: (Rev 11:6) witness #1 — no rain; witness #2 — water to blood.
7) Tree of life (Rev. 2:7 and Rev 22)
Using the concordance such as the keyword search on Biblegateway.com and your knowledge of the Old Testament, find a reference for each of these seven images. When you have a reference, see if you can infer what each of these images is being used to show.
As I believe you can see, the more OT you know, the easier it is to understand Revelation
3: Keep it Symbol
With Revelation, we as readers tend to overanalyze the imagery that is being described to us. The main danger of Revelation is that we will bring our own meaning, biases, and interpretations into our reading of the text. We must be very careful about doing this, for the reasons we have already talked about. We must also be careful about interpreting images too literally. Let’s look at an example:
In Revelation 5:6, the “lamb of God” has “seven horns and seven eyes.” A literal interpretation of this verse will give us an image such as:
That seems a bit ridiculous if you ask me. But, what if we examined each part of the verse separately? First, we have the number 7. What are some of the biblical associations with the number 7? Seven represents completeness, or wholeness. Now let’s examine the horn. We have lost the association with this, but in ancient societies, the horn — such as on a ram or bull — represented power. The eyes, like today, represent seeing or vision. So, if we combine the images, we get the following:
7 (completeness) + horn (power) + eye (seeing) = all powerful and all seeing.
The verse is shorthand for these things. This is one example, and much of Revelation is not that simple, but in general, we can watch for the following symbols:
Numbers: numbers are almost always significant, they include: 3, 3½ (half of seven), 4, 6, 7, 12, 144 (12×12), etc.
Objects: Eyes, horns, crowns, swords, scrolls, robes, etc.
Animals: Horses, lions, lambs, dragons, beasts, bulls, eagles, men,
Locations: Babylon (we’ll talk about this), Heaven, the earth, the sea, the stars, etc.
4: Ask the magic 8-Ball
?) What are some of the ways people try to predict the future? How do you think God feels about such efforts?
It is my belief that the Bible does predict the future, but not in such a way that we could make a profit from such efforts, or be able to blueprint the future.
Read Matthew 24: 36-44. What do these verses tell us? What should this tell us about Revelation?
The “future” that Revelation predicts is that God will be victorious in the end, because of what Jesus Christ has done for each of us. Revelation, then, tells us only how the story will end: with God and his followers victorious. What benefit does this have for us?
There is a legend of a general whose army was tired and outnumbered by the opposing force. The men needed to be rallied. The general gathered his army to him, and held up a coin. I’m going to flip this coin, he said, and if the eagle lands face up, we will win, but if the wolf lands up, we will lose this day. He flipped the coin, and the soldiers held their breath as the coin flew through the air. The eagle side landed up, and the soldiers let out a huge cheer. Reinvigorated by the general, the soldiers rallied and won the day. Only afterwards did the general reveal the secret: the eagle was on both sides of the coin. It was the knowledge that the victory was assured by the toss of the coin that led the soldiers to win the day.
Knowing that you are on the winning side is powerful, and should empower each of us to be better “soldiers” for God. This, I believe, is the true power of the Book of Revelation, for God’s people to have just a glimpse of the power that is on our side.
5: The One Who is Worthy
We have covered a lot of material tonight, and I don’t want to over saturate you with material. So instead of getting too deep with the text itself, we will begin our look at Revelation just by reading chapter 1 aloud. (We’ll return to it next week for some explanation). Note any details that seem important based upon what we have shared tonight. Read it again this week, with chapters 2 and 3. I think that you will see that the character of Jesus Christ is the center of this text, as the author intended.
Sample of Apocalyptic Literature:
4 Ezra is a Jewish writing from between the OT and NT, but not part of the Bible. The Apocalypse of Peter is a Christian writing from the era of the early church (circa 150 AD), but it is NOT part of the NT. Zechariah is part of the OT as we read, and the last passage is from Revelation itself. Note the patterns in the use of broad, symbolic language, and the use of color, rising and falling, animals, and visions.
And it came to pass on the second night I had a dream, and behold, there came up from the sea an eagle that had twelve wings. And I looked, and behold, he spread his wings over all the earth, and all the winds of heaven blew upon him, and the clouds were gathered about him. And I looked, and behold, the eagle flew with his wings, to reign over the earth and over those who dwell in it. And I saw how all things under heaven were subjected to him, and no one spoke against him, not even one of the creatures that was on the earth. And I looked, and behold, the eagle rose upon his talons, and uttered a cry to his wings, saying, “Do not all watch at the same time; let each sleep in his own place and watch in his turn.” – 4 Ezra 11:1-9
And the Lord showed me a very great country outside of this world, exceeding bright with light, and the air there lighted with the rays of the sun, and the earth itself blooming with unfading flowers and full of spices and plants, fair-flowering and incorruptible and bearing blessed fruit. And so great was the perfume that it was reached even to us. And the dwellers in that place were clad in the linen of shining angels and their clothes were like unto their country; and angels hovered about them there. And the glory of the dwellers there was equal, and with one voice they sang praises alternately to the Lord God, rejoicing in that place. The Lord said to us: This is the place of your high-priests, the righteous men. — Apocalypse of Peter 15-19
I looked up again—and there before me were four chariots coming out from between two mountains—mountains of bronze! The first chariot had red horses, the second black, the third white, and the fourth pail—all of them powerful. I asked the angel who was speaking to me, “What are these, my lord?” The angel answered me, “These are the four spirits of heaven, going out from standing in the presence of the Lord of the whole world. The one with the black horses is going toward the north country, the one with the white horses toward the west, and the one with the dappled horses toward the south.” When the powerful horses went out, they were straining to go throughout the earth. And he said, “Go throughout the earth!” So they went throughout the earth. – Zechariah 6:1-7
I was given a reed like a measuring rod and was told, “Go and measure the temple of God and the altar, and count the worshipers there. But exclude the outer court; do not measure it, because it has been given to the Gentiles. They will trample on the holy city for 42 months. And I will give power to my two witnesses, and they will prophesy for 1,260 days, clothed in sackcloth.” These are the two olive trees and the two lampstands that stand before the Lord of the earth. If anyone tries to harm them, fire comes from their mouths and devours their enemies. This is how anyone who wants to harm them must die. These men have power to shut up the sky so that it will not rain during the time they are prophesying; and they have power to turn the waters into blood and to strike the earth with every kind of plague as often as they want. — Revelation 11:1-6