THE MESSAGE OF REVELATION
By Wayne S. Walker
It has been my experience through the years that the book of Revelation, or the Apocalypse, is one of the most studied portions of Scripture among many in the denominational world and one of the least studied among us. If you watch the most popular televangelists, a lot of them quote frequently and copiously from the book to explain the “signs of the times” and promote their belief that Jesus must be coming soon. However, I have worked with churches where the practice of the Sunday morning adult Bible class has been to start in Matthew, get through Jude, and then skip back to Matthew, omitting Revelation altogether. A failure to study and understand the book of Revelation opens the door for all kinds of false doctrine to be introduced and also robs us of one of the most comforting messages of God’s word, especially in our day of increasingly anti-Christian secularism.
The Interpretation of Revelation
The purpose of this section is to take a look at the general methods of interpreting the Apocalypse. There have been five major positions taken on the meaning of the book.
The first is that the message of Revelation is completely past. This is called the preterist view. Preterists believe that the book was written only for the people of John’s day and was fulfilled in that time period; that is to say, that the signs and symbols referred only to the events of the era in which it was written. The logical conclusion of this view is that the book has no more than a literary interest and at most a secondary lesson, if indeed it possesses any value at all, for us. It does not allow for any spiritual application to posterity.
The second view is that John wrote the book only for succeeding generations. This position is known as the continuous or historical interpretation. It presents the book as a forecast of the church, postulating an outline in symbolic form of the entire course of history of God’s people on earth from Pentecost when the church began to the second coming. However, this position affords absolutely no meaning to the Christians to whom it was written, and any interpretation which ignores this point is useless.
Another interpretation propounds that the Apocalypse deals only with the future. This view is known as the futurist position and is held by dispensationalists and millennialists. These expositors teach that the letter was not for John’s day nor for the two-thousand years that have passed since then. Rather, it is a prophecy of the so-called “end time” or “last days” immediately preceding and including the second coming of Jesus. But this explanation again overlooks the needs of the first-century Christian, and completely disregards John’s statement that these were “things which must shortly come to pass” (1:1).
Fourthly, there is the position that Revelation is neither past, present, nor future, but allegorical in its nature. Such a position is referred to as the philosophical, spiritualistic, or idealist view. It states that the book has no reference to actual events or persons in any time, but is only the presentation of great principles or forces in which the spiritual forces are victorious. These principles are illustrated in symbolic visions, almost like a spiritual fantasy, and are supposedly intended to guide and encourage the followers of Christ in all ages. But as understanding the book in this fashion makes it totally subjective, this view, in fact, offers no real, objective meaning.
The final view of Revelation is what I choose to call the revelational viewpoint and believe to be the correct one. Simply stated, the book was written for past, present, and future. Homer Hailey noted that the book was “written for the people of that day, fulfilled in the events of the first two centuries (some extend it longer), but in this background is seen a message for all time.” Actually, this is the proper understanding of all God’s revelation. Divine revelation must be meaningful to Christians of every age.
Christ Among the Lampstands
The book of Revelation opens with a key to understanding it properly. It concerns “things which must shortly take place” and was “signified” by an angel to John (1:1). This tells us that the book is not written primarily to detail events that would transpire centuries or millennia after it was recorded but to give comfort to suffering Christians in the first century. And it tells us that the book was written in highly symbolic or figurative language. Keeping this key in mind will help to avoid speculations which result from misunderstanding the time frame and nature of the book.
After extending his greetings, John is then given a vision of “One like the Son of Man” (1:13). This picture, with language drawn from the Old Testament which would be familiar to believers, is designed to present Christ in all His glory as greater than even the mighty forces persecuting the church. He stands in the midst of seven candlesticks or lampstands, which represent seven churches in the Roman province of Asia (1:20). Since the seven cities named did exist, we understand that these churches did indeed exist. It is likely that these churches were chosen because their conditions represent the conditions of all the other churches of that age and, for that matter, of all times.
Separate letters to each of these seven churches are found in chapters 2 and 3. Ephesus was a church that was sound doctrinally but had left its first love. Smyrna was a poor church physically which was rich spiritually. Pergamos was a church which was steadfast in the faith but had allowed compromise with false doctrine and immorality. Thyatira was a working church which had been corrupted by similar false doctrine and immorality. Sardis was a church with a living name or reputation but was in fact dead, yet still had a few who were not defiled. Philadelphia was a suffering church which had persevered. And Laodicea was a wealthy but lukewarm church which made the Lord sick.
Chapter 4 contains a vision of God upon His throne in heaven. Around the throne are 24 elders, probably representing God’s chosen people from all ages (the 12 Jewish patriarchs or sons of Jacob who became the tribes of Israel from the Old Testament, and the 12 apostles from the New). And with them are four beasts or living creatures, which likely represent special angelic messengers of God as examples of the kind of servants that God wants His people to be. The chapter ends with an outburst of praise. What encouragement it must have been to those persecuted saints to receive a message from God that He was still on the throne. What comfort that fact can be to us in our trials and tribulations.
In chapter 5, John sees in the right hand of Him who sits on the throne a book or scroll sealed with seven seals. The evidence seems to indicate that this represents God’s eternal purpose for man’s salvation which in ages past had not been made known. At first, no one was found worthy to open the seals, but then as Lamb, who is also called the Lion of the tribe of Judah and the Root of David, steps forward to open the seals. This obviously represents Jesus Christ. When this occurs, there is another outburst of praise in which the hosts sing, “Worthy is the Lamb.” The drama is about to begin.
Seven Seals and Seven Trumpets
Moving on to chapter 6, after the Lamb steps forward to loose the seals of the book, the first four seals are broken, and the result is what is sometimes called the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The first is a white horse, whose rider goes out conquering and to conquer. There follow a red horse, whose rider takes peace when people kill one another; a black horse, whose rider has scales to indicate scarcity; and a pale horse, whose rider is named Death and is followed by Hades. The rider of the white horse seems to be Christ, leading the others which appear to represent various judgments that He brings upon the persecutors.
At the opening of the fifth seal, the souls of the martyrs under the altar call out for avenging but are told to wait a while longer. When the sixth seal is opened, there are a great earthquake, stars falling from heaven, and the sky receding as a scroll, giving assurance to the saints that God will bring on the evildoers punishment which is symbolized by these cosmic disturbances. As a result, the people of this world are pictured as trying to hide themselves from the wrath of God.
In chapter 7 there is an interlude in which the saints are sealed to protect them from these punishments. The number of those sealed is 144,000. In a book of signs and symbols, we cannot understand this to be the literal number of those going to heaven, but a figurative description of those redeemed, perhaps specifically indicating those saints who were suffering for their faith at that time. These are then joined by a great multitude who are described as all those who have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb.
Coming to chapters 8 and 9, the seventh seal is a prelude to the sounding of seven trumpets, which represent even further judgments on the persecuting powers. We may not know the specific things which these symbols represent, but we can see the general picture of God executing His wrath upon His enemies. At the sounding of the first four trumpets, the vegetation, the seas, the fresh waters, and the heavens are struck. The fifth trumpet brings locusts from the bottomless pit, and the sixth trumpet calls the four angels from the Euphrates with their massive armies of horsemen. Yet, those who were not killed in these judgments refused to repent.
Chapters 10 and 11 form another interlude in which a mighty angel with a little book, setting forth only one aspect of God’s eternal purpose, comes with seven thunders. After the angel takes an oath, John is commanded to eat the little book and then to measure the temple, which probably here represents the church. Next, there is the record of the two witnesses, suggesting the work of preaching the gospel. They are killed in the sense that many of saints were put to death, but they are then resurrected, denoting the fact that their cause did not die but was raised up again. Finally, the seventh trumpet sounds to announce that God and His people have triumphed. We have now reached the end of the first half of the book.
The Deeper Spiritual Background
It is the belief of many Bible students, including this writer, that the events symbolized in the second half of the book of Revelation cover the same basic ground as those in the first, except that instead of looking at it primarily from its effect on the people of this earth, they provide a deeper spiritual background. In chapter 12 we are introduced to three personages. First, there is a woman who seems to represent God’s chosen people at any given time. As the faithful, Old Testament Israel, she gives birth to the second personage, a manchild who is obviously Jesus Christ. Third, a great red dragon, identified as Satan, tries to devour the manchild but fails. So he persecutes the woman, now as the faithful of the New Testament church, but again fails as she flies for safety into the wilderness. So he is reduced to making war against her offspring, that is, simply trying to destroy individual Christians.
In his attempt to destroy the church in its infancy, Satan enlists the help of two forces, symbolize by two beasts in chapter 13. The beast from the sea appears to represent the Roman government generally, and the beast from the land appears to represent Roman religion and specifically emperor worship. Again, we may not be able to decide every sign, but all the language about the mark of the beast and the number 666 must be kept in the context of the book, stated in the very first verse, of things which must shortly come to pass in that day. However, in contrast to these beasts, chapter 14 presents the Lamb with the 144,000 on Mt. Zion, along with the angels, who will reap the earth’s harvest by bringing God’s vengeance on the persecuting Romans.
Chapters 15 and 16 bring the pouring out of seven vials or bowls of wrath containing the seven last plagues. These represent even more intense judgments of God against the persecuting powers. But while the judgments of the seals and the trumpets were intended to warn and bring to repentance, the judgments of the plagues indicate that an end must come. This is not necessarily a prediction of the final judgment at the end of time but of God’s ultimate destruction of the persecuting powers. So chapter 17 pictures a scarlet woman with the name Babylon, representing the decadent society of Rome, sitting on a scarlet beast, very likely the sea beast of chapter 13, since Roman society was upheld by the Roman government.
Chapter 18 then chronicles the fall of this entity described as Babylon, a prediction of the fall of Rome. An angel announces the fall. All the leaders of the earth would mourn because all aspects of life, especially the cultural and economic, would be sorely affected. However, in chapter 19, the saints are pictured as rejoicing because with the fall of Babylon (Rome), the church is now saved from extinction and can be presented to Christ, who is identified as a victorious warrior and is able to defeat the beasts which supported and assisted Rome, that He might bring about their punishment. The last three chapters of the book continue to describe this conflict with the punishment of its underlying source, Satan, and then bring it down to the eternal victory of the saints.
The Final Victory
Satan attempted to stamp out the church in its infancy by using the power of the Roman Empire, but he failed. In Revelation chapter 20, an angel comes to bind Satan in the bottomless pit for a thousand years, representing the gospel sage, so that he can no longer act against the church as he did in those early days. Yet Satan is still loosed in that he goes about as a roaring lion seeking individuals whom he may devour. Now that Satan is bound in this manner, the saints live and reign with Christ for the thousand years because of the first resurrection. The cause for which the earlier saints had been martyred did not die completely but has been raised.
However, while Satan has been defeated, he is not dead either. He is still loosed. He can no longer wage the kind of war against the church that he did in early days, but he can still deceive the nations as long as this earth stands by his temptations and false teachings. Yet the saints of all ages can take great comfort from the fact that someday Satan himself will be destroyed and cast into the lake which burns with fire and brimstone. This will occur at the end of the thousand years when the earth and all the works that are in it will be burned up and the final judgment takes place.
At this time, the Lord will sit on His throne and all the dead will stand before Him. This group will also include those alive at Christ’s coming who will be changed and caught up together with the risen dead. All people will be judged out of the things which are written in the books, or the Scriptures, based upon the works which they have done. The result of this judgment will be that those whose names are not found written in the Lamb’s book of life will also, with Satan, be cast into the lake of fire, which is the second death or eternal separation from God.
However, for the righteous, there will be a great reward. In chapters 21 and 22, a new heaven and new earth, that is, a completely new order of things, identified as the holy city, the New Jerusalem, has been prepared for God’s people. It is described as coming down out of heaven in that it was a vision which was shown for John to see. In this place, God will wipe away all tears and there will be no more death nor sorrow nor crying. There follows a depiction of this city four-square in highly symbolic language to denote its beauty and preciousness—pearls, gold, jasper, etc. The pure river of water of life flows there, the tree of life grows there, and there will be no more night. God’s people shall serve Him and reign with Him forever and ever.
The book then concludes with a divine witness to its genuineness, various warnings and admonitions, a great invitation for all to receive its blessings, and a prayer for the Lord to fulfill His promise. There are those who believe that these last few chapters do not refer to the final judgment and heaven but to the glory of the church now following her victory over Rome. However, it seems reasonable to conclude that the defeat of Satan and his Roman allies was so complete that it led John into a discussion of the ultimate judgment and the eternal destiny of the righteous. And the comfort offered to those suffering saints, and God’s people of all ages, would not be complete without a glimpse into the blessed eternal hope, the final victory.
—taken from Faith and Facts; July, 2012; Vol 40, No. 3; pp. 93-102