The Book of Revelation opens with a prologue (Revelation 1:1-8), builds within the main body (Revelation 1:9-22), and concludes with an epilogue (Revelation 22:6-21). The prologue and epilogue are linked by an angel sent to show the servants of the Lord “what must soon take place” (Revelation 1:1; 22:6, 16). Additionally, Revelation gives blessings on those who read and keep the prophecy (Revelation 1:3; 22:7, 9), provides John’s self-identification (Revelation 1:1-4; 22:8), and the designation of God as Alpha and Omega (Revelation 1:8; 22:13). The body of the Book of Revelation contains four series of seven messages or visions: letters to churches (Revelation 2-3), seals on a scroll (Revelation 4:1-8:1), trumpets (Revelation 8:2-11:19), and bowls of wrath (Revelation 15-16).
Revelation moves from “things that are”—the seven churches (chapters 2-3), to “things that are to take place after this”, peaking in the enemies of God being destroyed and the Church finally being presented as the Lamb’s Bride in a New Heaven and New Earth (Revelation 1:19; 4:1). In Revelation 12:1-6, John portrays the dragon’s defeat in its desire to destroy the child of the heavenly woman (Revelation 12:1-5), followed by her flight for safety into the wilderness (Revelation 12:6). Revelation 12:7-17 describes the dragon’s defeat in its desire to accuse Christians (Revelation 12:7-12), followed by the heavenly woman’s flight for safety into the wilderness (Revelation 12:13-17).
Earlier visions sometimes portray later events, and later visions describe earlier conditions. Revelation 6:12-17 show the shaking of the earth and sky so that the stars are cast to earth by a great wind. In Revelation 7:1-8, John explains that the angels are restraining the winds of woe until the people of God are sealed. Later, John sees the sun, moon, and stars in the sky, partially darkened (Revelation 8:12). The principle of repetition or recapitulation is given to elaborate on God’s purposes and confirm their certainty as seen in Scripture (Genesis 1:1-2:25; 37:5-11; 41:1-32; Daniel 2:1-45; Acts 10:10-16). In Revelation, recapitulation means that the order in which John received visions does not necessarily indicate the order of the events they symbolize.
Some Keys to Reading Revelation Rightly
When we examine the Book of Revelation, we can recognize that it is one of the hardest books of the Bible to read and interpret. The key to reading Revelation is to have a consistent understanding and application of hermeneutics. Hermeneutics is the art and science of biblical interpretation.
A normal hermeneutic means that, unless the Bible passage under consideration—indicative of the use of figurative language—it should be interpreted normally. In other words, Bible readers are not to look for other (secret) meanings beyond that of the natural meaning of each word (or phrase), nor are they to spiritualize Scripture to assign meanings that aren’t there. The clarity of Scripture teaches us that all Scripture is given by God and therefore is sufficient and authoritative for His people. When applied to our hermeneutic, this means that the meaning of the biblical text is to be understood as it is written normally.
Revelation is full of colorful descriptions of visions, which proclaim the last day before the return of Christ and the ushering in of the New Heavens and New Earth. The Book of Revelation is full of prophecies that find their fulfillment about the end times rooted in the Old Testament. The mention of the Antichrist mentioned in Daniel 9:27 is developed fully in Revelation. Other examples of this include Daniel 7-12, Isaiah 24-27, Ezekiel 37-41, and Zechariah 9-14, which contain prophecies that find their fulfillment in Revelation.
John uses the technique of symbolism from the start of his letter, all the way to the end of Revelation. Instead of portraying characters and events directly, John describes them indirectly, utilizing symbols. Jesus is described as a Lamb, and churches are represented as lamps on lampstands, and Satan is pictured as a dragon with seven heads and ten horns. The symbols are sometimes familiar and sometimes unique and strange. Whenever a work of literature presents many symbols instead of realistic details, readers should recognize the technique of symbolic reality, meaning that, as they enter the work in their minds, information is presented primarily through symbols. The Book of Revelation is one of the most sustained examples of symbolic reality in existence.
The main interpretative question is, “What do these symbols refer to?” In many cases, historical background studies can help modern readers understand how such symbols were meant to be understood by John’s audience. One cannot go wrong by relating the strange symbolic details to familiar New Testament images of the end times, including the following:
- Moral degeneration.
- Cataclysmic natural and military disasters.
- Tribulation, including the persecution of Christians.
- The Second Coming of Jesus.
- The Millennium.
- The intermediate and final judgments.
- The final dissolution of the earth.
- The glorification of Christians in heaven.
Interpretation Revelation Rightly
In John Bunyan’s book, The Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian stops at the Interpreter’s House to be shown a number of visions designed to teach important spiritual lessons. First was a picture of a man looking to heaven, holding a book, wearing a crown, and pleading with men to listen. The meaning was that Christians should listen only to faithful and holy Bible teachers. Second, he was shown a large parlor filled with dust. A man came to sweep, but the dust merely flew around the room. Then a girl came and sprinkled the room with water, after which the room was easily swept clean. This vision illustrated how the broom of the law cannot clean the heart until it has been sprinkled with the water of the gospel.
Further visions illustrated a variety of spiritual lessons important to the Christian life. The reader of The Pilgrim’s Progress realizes that Bunyan is presenting allegories because of the way in which he names his characters. The man who witnesses the gospel is called Evangelist, the pilgrim is Christian, he is nearly led astray by Pliable and Obstinate, and he receives his visions in the house of a man named Interpreter.
Revelation is not an allegory like The Pilgrim’s Progress, but a book of apocalyptic visions. Still, like Bunyan’s masterpiece, Revelation functions in a way that cues how we should read it. From the very beginning, Revelation employs symbols to depict redemptive-historical realities. In chapter 1, Jesus appears amid golden candlesticks that represent the churches (Revelation 1:12), holding stars in His hand that symbolize angels (Revelation 1:16, 20), and with a two-edged sword coming from his mouth that depicts the sharpness of His message (Revelation 1:16). We are clearly to interpret these images symbolically. The same is true of John’s use of numbers, including “seven” to depict the completeness of the Holy Spirit (Revelation 1:4).
In interpreting the detailed visions of Revelation found in chapters 11, 12, and 13, we must remember the kind of literature we are reading. Some Christians assert that we must interpret these passages literally, as giving a more or less straightforward description of historical events, either past or future. The nature of Revelation urges Bible readers to interpret these visions symbolically, just as the nature of The Pilgrim’s Progress compels readers to interpret John Bunyan allegorically.
The Book of Revelation unveils the spiritual war in which the Church of Jesus is engaged—that cosmic conflict between Christ and Satan, along with his evil allies (demonic and human). In this conflict, the Lamb of God—Jesus—has already won the decisive victory through His finished and sufficient work. The Church continues today to be assaulted by Satan, the dragon (in its death-throes), through persecution, false teaching, and the allure of material affluence and cultural approval. John reveals the spiritual realities lying behind the Church’s trials and temptations during the time between Christ’s first and second comings. He also affirms the certainty of the triumph of Christ in the New Heavens and New Earth—those visions which both warn the Church, and fortify it to endure suffering, and to purify it from the defiling enticements of the present world order.
In 1685, the French king, Louis XIV, revoked the Edict of Nantes, which had guaranteed religious freedom to the French Protestants, known as the Huguenots. Thousands of Christians were slaughtered in barbaric ways, and in some parts of France, the Reformed Church was eradicated. Louis had ordered this persecution to force the Protestants into returning their allegiance to Roman Catholicism, bringing peace to the kingdom. However, the ruthless persecution embittered the Protestant nations around him, into which thousands of Huguenots fled. Louis spent the rest of his life mired in warfare and died, bitter and worn out, in 1715. Before that century was over, Louis’ kingdom would be bloodily savaged by the French Revolution.
During that same century, the nation of England, which had harbored many Huguenots, experienced a flowering of the gospel in the ministries of John Wesley and George Whitefield. The monarchies of those nations that rejected the gospel have disappeared. Meanwhile, blessed by the gospel they cherished, and the persecuted church they succored, Britain and Holland’s royal houses remain to this day.
This record from Church history reflects the vision of Revelation 11, which is widely regarded as one of the most difficult passages in this challenging book. However, this difficulty is largely removed if we remember that Revelation is a visionary picture book rather than a literal narrative of future events. Revelation 11 gives a stirring depiction of the Church bearing testimony during the tumultuous age of the gospel through its biblical symbols. The vision provides one of the most potent descriptions of the Church’s mightiness in its witness and the violence of the world’s warfare against the gospel. It concludes by depicting the witness of a resurrected Christ by the power of God, to the great consternation and despair of the opposing world.
Revelation and the End of All History
Revelation contains a compelling message of faithfulness to Christ amid the spiritual war against Satan and sin, as the people of God wait for the Second Coming of Christ. The death and resurrection of Jesus changed the course of the history of the world. The return of Jesus will bring about an even more dramatic of a change in the history of man. When Jesus returns, He will destroy all His enemies with a word from His mouth, then will establish His Kingdom with the New Jerusalem. History is not moving about willy-nilly in the hands of God. History is moving forward to the glorious conclusion of Christ’s returning and the establishment of His Kingdom forever and always. Revelation tells the glorious story of the return of Christ and is vital for Christians to read and study, so they grow in their understanding of the person and work of Christ and the end of history.
Dave Jenkins is happily married to his wife, Sarah. He is a writer, editor, and speaker living in beautiful Southern Oregon. Dave is a lover of Christ, His people, the Church, and sound theology. He serves as the Executive Director of Servants of Grace Ministries, the Executive Editor of Theology for Life Magazine, the Host and Producer of Equipping You in Grace Podcast, and is a contributor to and producer of Contending for the Word. He is the author of The Word Explored: The Problem of Biblical Illiteracy and What To Do About It (House to House, 2021), The Word Matters: Defending Biblical Authority Against the Spirit of the Age (G3 Press, 2022), and Contentment: The Journey of a Lifetime (Theology for Life, 2024). You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Youtube, or read his newsletter. Dave loves to spend time with his wife, going to movies, eating at a nice restaurant, or going out for a round of golf with a good friend. He is also a voracious reader, in particular of Reformed theology, and the Puritans. You will often find him when he’s not busy with ministry reading a pile of the latest books from a wide variety of Christian publishers. Dave received his M.A.R. and M.Div through Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary.