I don’t know about you, but I have not heard a lot of teaching on Revelation. In my experience, churches tend to either avoid it entirely, or succeed in freaking people out about the “end times.” (I’m sure there are churches out there who do a solid job of interpreting Revelation, but this is just my experience). As I studied Revelation, two things really stood out to me. First, there are probably more theories on the interpretation of this book than there are theories on the meaning of any other book in the Bible. Do I know which theory is right? No, but I have come to an understanding that makes the most sense to me. Second, this book is meant to COMFORT BELIEVERS. No matter what theory you adopt as you look at this book, the primary theme of this book is that JESUS WINS AND SO DO WE (we being believers)! This is not meant to be a frightening book, it is meant to comfort those who await the coming of Jesus – believers.
Below, I have come up with a few thoughts and a few guidelines for those who have read or want to read Revelation. I recognize that not everyone will agree with these thoughts and ideas, but whatever you believe about the end times, please remember that the primary message of Revelation is comfort for those who know Jesus. If you’re reading the Bible along with me, the next books I’ll be looking at are Genesis and Exodus. These are biggies – they’ll take about 3 to 3-1/2 hours each, so allot yourself about seven hours over the next few weeks for these books. Half an hour a day for two weeks should get you through it!
1. As you read Revelation, don’t alter the gospel in an effort to make all the pieces fit together! I believe (and most scholars believe) that the author of Revelation is the author of the Gospel of John (John the apostle). He is not suggesting anything different from what he writes in his gospel. Your interpretation of Revelation should not mean that you have to “change” the gospel in any way. We use the gospel to interpret Revelation, not the other way around.
2. Many people would say differently, but I would humbly suggest that the events listed in this book are types of events, not specific events in history. I would also suggest that the events in this book are happening simultaneously, not chronologically. If this book were chronological and literal in nature, Jesus would be coming back multiple times. I would also suggest that many of the events in this book are not future events, but events that have happened, are happening, and continue to happen. Earthquakes, inflation, and disease (often referred to in the first four seals and trumpets), have been happening for thousands of years. This does not reduce their significance – they are warnings for unbelievers to repent, and these warnings have been going on for a long time. There is the temptation to think of all of these events as future events, especially because in the last years, there has been little persecution in the North American church. As a result of this time of relative peace, the idea of tribulation as a “future event” has emerged. This is an extremely new idea, developed by people who have grown accustomed to the comfort we have experienced in the last century or so; this is the idea that tribulation won’t happen until after believers have been raptured so that we won’t have to have any part in it. I would suggest that believers have been experiencing “tribulation” since Jesus died on the cross. Just because we don’t experience much of it in North America today doesn’t mean that believers in other areas of the world aren’t experiencing it daily, and it doesn’t mean that we will never experience it, whether Jesus comes back in our life time or not.
3. Despite my belief that we are already in an age of tribulation, I strongly believe that above all else, Revelation is a message of comfort. This does not mean we will not experience persecution, but it means that we will not be subjected to the judgement that leads to the second death. A lot of people worry and focus on the “mark of the beast,” but if you read Revelation thoroughly, you will notice more is said of the mark of God on believers than the mark of the beast on non-believers. Believers are sealed with the mark of God and are to be comforted by the fact that Jesus is coming back, and that we get to live with Him, worshiping Him for eternity.
4. Keep the big picture in mind. Don’t get caught up in the details. People have been trying to understand the details of this book for centuries, and all have come up with different ideas. This doesn’t mean that the details aren’t important, but when you get confused, go back to the main message of this book. Whatever interpretation you believe, it should fit in the framework of the main theme – Jesus wins, and so do believers. This is a message of comfort. It is not meant to instill fear in believers!
5. Numbers are symbolic – they refer to something other than their numeric value. The Original Readers would be familiar with the meaning of these numbers. A lot of theories point to the “thousand years” of tribulation as a specific number of years in which trials will come, but as I stated before, I think we are already in this period of a “thousand years,” and that the thousand years are not literal, but simply refer to a long period of time (ever told someone you waited for the bus for “a million years?” This is the same idea). As some guidelines for the meaning of numbers, “three” is thought of as a divine number, “four” is thought to refer to created things, “six” is thought of as the evil number because it is one number short of “seven,” which is thought of as complete and perfect. “Twelve” and multiples thereof, especially “twenty-four,” are thought to refer to the people of God – believers. Remember that this book is filled with symbolism in general – much of it comes from the Old Testament, and much of it would be understood by the original reader in a way that we do not fully grasp today.
6. Speaking of the Original Reader (OR), your interpretation should ALWAYS be relevant to the OR as well as to us today. This was written for seven physical, literal churches in Asia, but it still has value today. The OR wouldn’t have understood helicopters and barcodes. If your interpretation includes something that wouldn’t have made sense to someone living in the first century, I would challenge you to read through the book again, through the eyes of the Original Reader.
7. When will Jesus come back? NOBODY KNOWS. Jesus is very clear on this point. If you think that the second coming is slow in coming, realize that every day that Jesus does not return is an opportunity for non-believers to come to know Him. Every day that Jesus does not come back is an opportunity for you to tell someone about Him, and help them to see that they need Jesus. Believers should look forward to Christ’s return, but recognize every day He doesn’t return as a “day of grace” for those who do not yet know Him.
In short, stick with the Word of God. Let the gospel inform your understanding of Revelation, not the other way round. Be ready for Christ to return at any time, whether that is tomorrow or thousands of years from now. And when it comes to interpreting this book, don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know!”