The mark of the beast. Armageddon. The Four Horsemen.
666. Babylon the great. The seven last plagues.
The bottomless pit. The lake of fire.
These images of terror and catastrophe from the book of Revelation have greatly influenced the popular psyche. Even the secular press uses images such as “armageddon” and “four horsemen of the apocalypse” to describe calamities in our world.
Despite almost 1,900 years of fascination with the book of Revelation – A.D. 96 is often suggested as a date for the book – John’s letter to the churches in his care continues to be misunderstood. And badly misinterpreted.
One popular misconception is that Revelation has nothing of importance to say to us. It’s considered to be merely a bizarre piece of first-century writing with no relevance for today. Another wrong idea is that Revelation is a codebook describing a specific outline of history written in advance. Countless interpreters have tried to “decode” the book as a handbook for predicting the end of the world.
This is not new. About the middle of the second century, a newly baptized Christian named Montanus claimed to have charismatic gifts. He taught that the church had entered the final age. Montanus and his followers predicted that the end of the world was near. The new Jerusalem was about to descend upon the nearby village of Pepuza, in what is now Turkey.
Montanus and his followers drew support for such ideas in large part from the book of Revelation. Montanus’ influence spread rapidly and widely among Christians throughout the Roman world. But the prophecy of Montanus failed. By misinterpreting Revelation, he tarnished the book’s reputation to the point that some Christians thought it shouldn’t be in the Bible.
The claims of Christian groups from Montanus to the present – that Revelation pinpoints the events, personalities and time period of “the end” – have all failed. This should be a caution for Christians against using the book of Revelation as a predictive handbook.
For the church
We miss a lot by not reading carefully the first chapter of this magnificent vision. It is a message from Jesus Christ to his apostle John to pass on to seven churches in Asia Minor, in what is today western Turkey: “On the Lord’s Day I was in the Spirit, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet, which said: ‘Write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches: to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea’” (Revelation 1:10-11).
Many people forget that Revelation is written by a church pastor to his churches – to Christians, to those who believe in and accept Jesus Christ and to those who are suffering because of their faith. John is their companion in suffering (verse 9). Revelation had life-and-death meaning for its first hearers because it was written specifically to them. It addressed John’s brothers and sisters about dire problems. Some were being persecuted, tortured and even beheaded, as clearly indicated in Revelation 20:4. These believers needed to be reminded that ultimate victory in this world belongs to those who pledge allegiance to Jesus Christ, not the emperor in Rome.
So Revelation is written to Christians who live in an often brutal world. In that sense, its message applies to all of us. Essentially, Revelation says we must overcome the world rather than allow it to overcome us (Revelation 3:21).
By using seven church congregations – the number seven often depicted completion to the ancients – John suggests that the spiritual problems and emergencies facing these churches were to be considered representative of Christians throughout the Roman Empire. And by extension, these problems can be seen as threats that Christians in all places and ages must confront.
An urgent appeal
The message to the churches was simple but urgent. Christians in Asia were being challenged to walk through life as witnesses to the truth, even to the point of death. The church members, though, were experiencing their own internal crises, as chapters 2 and 3 make clear. Internal problems besetting the seven churches paralleled the spiritual state of a world in the grip of evil.
John’s vision illustrates the consequences of the world’s spiritual failing, through judgments such as the seven last plagues. But Christians warned about these judgments as well (Revelation 18:4-5). Revelation tells the church how to escape God’s judgment on the world. The church must be in the world and deal with it, but it must not be of the world.
The message of Revelation is that the church must clean up its own spiritual house, do something about its weak spiritual state and take a stand against state persecution. The church must confront the evil in the world pictured by the beast and Babylon. When the church successfully resists the world’s evil allure (and the devil behind it), it witnesses to the truth that God exists and that he rules over all.
One of the earliest Christian confessions of faith was, “Jesus is Lord” (Romans 10:9). Revelation was written to bolster that conviction. It pointed in visionary and symbolic language to the “unseen hand” of God. It is God, the book insists, who decides the fate of nations and history. The beast and Babylon attain significance only as opponents of what Jesus Christ is doing. History revolves around him, not the woman who rides the scarlet-colored beast.
Jesus Christ rules
When John was inspired to depict the future judgment of the beast and the tormentors of the church, it was his way of saying: God is in charge. Jesus Christ is Lord and he will, ultimately, bring his presence to bear on the world. This world of politics and powers is only a stage for the acting out of God’s work of redemption.
Revelation’s symbolic portrayal of judgment on the world is meant to be a word to the wise as well as a tremendous encouragement. The daily struggles and setbacks of Christians, their battles with faith and temptations to despair – all of this must be understood in terms of the cosmic conflict being fought in the heavenly realm.
Calling all Christians
Revelation answers the question: Who is Lord? The churches John wrote to suffered under evil rulers (Revelation 2:12-13) and from their own human failings (Revelation 3:17). The wicked seemed to flourish. Why? Where was God and why hadn’t he rescued his people? Why be a Christian in such a world?
These are the uncertainties Revelation deals with. They are issues we wonder about as well. Revelation answers these questions for us today as it did for the church in the first century. The book insists that, despite appearances to the contrary, God rules. He will ultimately end the evil that seems to hold sway in our world. The church is to stay focused on the almighty God, who is the ruler of the universe, and to the Lamb, who has saved them.
The church may seem powerless on earth – and it is, of itself. But the slain Jesus was glorified, and is at the right hand of the Father, controlling the world’s destiny. This Christ is not only Lord of the world but also Lord and Savior of the church.
Faith in God’s sovereignty over all things – including evil – is the decisive theme and emphasis of Revelation. After 1,900 years, it is still ahead of its time.
Listen to the Music
By Paul Kroll & Neil Earle
Revelation has its roots sunk deep in the powerful rhythms of ancient Near Eastern language and life. R.H. Charles, in his two-volume work, Revelation, in the International Critical Commentary, enjoyed Revelation 1 on its own terms. He listened to the music. In so doing, he noted the important repetitive pattern of “threes,” a pattern that symbolizes, to the Hebrew mind, certainty and confirmation.
Charles knew that in the ancient Near East, literary form was almost as important as content. The form was a key to the meaning. Imaginative speech of the kind we inadequately label “poetry” in English, attractive rhyme schemes and repetition, and colorful symbolism – these features of Hebrew writing send us verbal cues about how we should read the book.
The creativity is obvious. For example, God uses “the tree of life” from Genesis 2 as the motif for Revelation 22:2. Also, the victorious saints in heaven sing “the song of Moses the servant of God and the song of the Lamb” (Revelation 15:3). This is why Hebrew thought structures pervade the book. The 404 verses in Revelation contain several hundred references to the Old Testament.
Patterns of threes
In Revelation, the patterns are set up starting in verse 1. The Revelation is 1) from God 2) through Christ 3) to his servants. Christ (1) in turn sent it by 2) an angel to 3) his servant John – a double pattern of threes.
Most modern translations, except the New International Version and the New English Bible, follow the King James Version in presenting a threefold rhythm in verse 2, referring to John’s witness to “the word of God, and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, and to all things that he saw.”
Blessed, John continues in verse 3, is
- the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and
- blessed are those who hear it and
- take to heart what is written in it.
In verse 4, John sends greetings
- from him who is, and who was, and who is to come (three!), and
- from the seven spirits before his throne, and
- from Jesus Christ, who is
- the faithful witness,
- the firstborn from the dead, and
- the ruler of the kings of the earth.
In verses 5 and 6, Jesus Christ is exalted because he
- loves us and
- has freed us from our sins by his blood, and
- has made us to be a kingdom and priests.
In verse 7, we encounter a form of Hebrew poetry whereby subsequent phrases fill out the meaning of the leading thought. For example, the point “Look, he is coming with the clouds” is amplified thus:
- and every eye will see him,
- even those who pierced him; and
- all the peoples of the earth will mourn because of him.
In verse 8, we again meet a triple declaration of Jesus Christ as the Alpha and the Omega. He is described as he “who is, and who was, and who is to come.”
John makes a threefold declaration in describing the “suffering and kingdom and patient endurance” that are ours in Jesus Christ (verse 9).
Observing these threefold repetitions in Revelation helps us to appreciate the music of the book as well as its message. It deepens our understanding of the force and power of the inspired Scripture. Revelation is not only authoritative and inspired; it is beautiful. Let’s enjoy it in all its rich dimensions.
This article was written by Paul Kroll in 1996 and updated in 2013. Copyright Grace Communion International. All rights reserved. If you’d like to learn more about the Bible, check out Grace Communion Seminary. It’s accredited, affordable, and all online. www.gcs.edu.
Author: Paul Kroll and Neil Earle