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How to read the book of Revelation

Guidelines for reading the book of Revelation

·      Revelation is revelation! However it is not just about a revealing of the future. It does do that. But it does much more. It is about a revealing of the reality behind the present. It draws back the curtain so that we can see what is really going on. It is a bit like watching a Punch and Judy show. A child, who is completely wrapped up in what she is seeing, will think that that is all that there is. But we know that if someone pulls away the curtain below the stage, we would see what is really going on.
Now I am not saying that we are simply puppets being manipulated by some celestial puppeteer. But I am saying that behind this current reality there is a greater reality.

So, for instance, the Christians of John’s time were a tiny minority people in a very hostile world. They lived in a state that demanded your ultimate allegiance, and an emperor who claimed to be divine. They were part of a community that was being crushed by her oppressors, and they themselves were being imprisoned, tortured, fed to the lions and used as human torches – to entertain others.
But through John, God pulls the curtain away and shows them a bigger picture: of a world that is beyond time and space, where God and the Lamb reign, where thousands upon thousands worship, where a battle has been fought and won – ‘by the lamb who was slain’, but that – for a short time – the earth has become the scene of this celestial battle. And he shows how their prayers matter; and he shows that there is a meaning to the sufferings, and there will be an end to the sufferings, and that God’s justice and mercy and kingdom will triumph.

·      Revelation tells us one story from many different perspectives. We get several series of sevens through the book of Revelation: seven churches, seven seals, trumpets, thunders, bowls and angels with seven plagues - the seven bowls of God’s wrath. And people ask, 'are we meant to read the events of those different sevens as subsequent to each other? Are there first the disasters of the seven seals, and then the seven trumpets and so on?'

But John does not say, ‘after this, came that’, but ‘and then I looked’. In other words, ‘I looked at it from this angle, and then I looked at it from that angle’. And so I am persuaded by those who argue that we are not talking about subsequent events, but rather about the same events from a different perspective.

And so I would currently argue that chapters 2-3 of Revelation are speaking of the same experience within time that chapters 4-16 are speaking. But they present it in very different ways. And each of the three series of sevens looks at the same reality from a different perspective. So the seven seals present that reality from the perspective of the saints; the seven trumpets from the perspective of the proclamation of the gospel; the seven bowls from the perspective of the final judgement on the beast and his followers.

Chapters 17-19 are different. I suspect that they are speaking of the very end, and of the coming of the beast (the anti-Christ), 'who once was, now is not and will come' (Revelation 16:8), and his acolyte (we've been introduced to the beast and his acolyte in Revelation 13). He will reign for a short while. But then, in chapter 19, the beast and his armies are defeated by the one who is Faithful and True. Chapter 20 (in my understanding) speaks of the same events, but looks at them from a different perspective: once again, at the end of time, just before Christ returns, there will be a dreadful battle before he triumphs.

·     Revelation uses apocalyptic language. That is a particular style of language which transcends any specific time or culture.  

The danger is that it makes Revelation both hard to understand, and also a fertile playground for those who would come up with loopy and sometimes even dangerous interpretations. 
One man who used to come on and off to my previous parish was totally obsessed with the meaning of all the numbers in Revelation (gematria), and used to argue for some of the oddest things. We are specifically warned about interpreting the obscure by the even more obscure, and about 'speculations' which do not produce faith or love (1 Timothy 1:3f). 

      But there are many controls.
First, we need to test our interpretation of Revelation over against what we are told elsewhere in the bible. So, for instance, Jesus speaks of the end of time and space as we know it, and he says that nobody knows when it will be, and that it will be sudden and unexpected. And Paul, Peter and John speak of ‘the last days’, of how the spirit of anti-christ is present in the world, and that we will see many speak and in the act in the spirit of the anti-christ, but that towards the end there will be the great Anti-Christ, and a time of suffering for the people of God. And they speak of how Christ will then return and establish his Kingdom. 

Second, John himself tells us the meaning of particular symbols (in Revelation 1, he explains the 7 stars and the 7 lamp stands).  But, for instance, we need to know that 7 is the number of completeness, the divine number, and that 6 is therefore the human number (Revelation 13:18). So the significance of the number of the beast, 666 – as, one of my tutors said – is that it is God’s way of blowing a raspberry at the devil. It is the purely human number. It is not 777!

Or if we take the number 12: it is the number of the church (12 tribes, 12 apostles). 144000 is 12000 x 12000, the numerical number of the church (Revelation 21:12-21)

Third, t
he Old Testament really helps. What of 3 1/2  - whether days, months, years? 3 ½ is half of 7. It is a way of saying ‘a significant time, but a short time’.  3 ½ lunar years is 42 months or 1260 days. But the imagery of 3½ has already been used. It is another way of saying, ‘a time, times and half a time’, which Daniel tells us is the length of time that the saints, the people of God will suffer at the hands of their persecutors (Daniel 7:25; 12:7).

Or to take another example. In our reading, we learn of a ‘red dragon’ who tries to devour the child: that is no more China than it is Montreal. ‘Red’, we have seen earlier, (Rev 6:4) is the colour of the one who would strip peace from this world. And the dragon? It is the same word that the Greek version of the Old Testament, which John would have used, used for ‘serpent’ (Genesis 3:1) or ‘Leviathan’ (Isaiah 27:1). The dragon is satan (cf Revelation 20:2). And in chapter 13 we read how the dragon summons the beast and his assistant, and the beast exercises the authority of the dragon. But notice in Revelation 13:11 how one of the beasts is described: ‘It had two horns like a lamb and it spoke like a dragon’. In other words, the dragon and his beasts try to imitate God and the Lamb. But when the beast speaks, then you will know him.

      Christians throughout the ages have tried to identify the beast. He has been identified with Nero, certain popes, Oliver Cromwell, Mao, Stalin or the spirit which says that it is all about money. Well, maybe, but the fact that the end has not come suggests to me that they were not the beast, even if some of them spoke or acted in the spirit of the beast (which is the spirit of the anti-Christ). And we do need to be aware. I heard that spirit speak last week: when I was at a meeting and ethical investment was mentioned. Someone said, and knowing them I’m sure they didn’t fully mean it, ‘investment is too important today for us to worry about ethics’. But the spirit of the beast is the same as the spirit of the anti-Christ – it speaks against God and against Jesus Christ, and it denies that Jesus Christ is the son of God or that he came as a human being (1 John 2:18-23; 2 John 7). And maybe we will see many mini-beasts in our world, before the last mega-beast appears.

Or another example. In chapter 12, we are introduced to a woman: ‘clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet’. We are, of course, not to take that language literally. Instead we think of other places in the bible where that sort of language is used. And so we remember Joseph saying how, in one of his dreams, ‘Behold the sun, the moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me’, meaning his father, mother and eleven brothers (Genesis 37:9). It is the first time that the people of God, for that is what the family of Jacob was, are described as sun, moon and stars. Or we think of the lover saying to the beloved, ‘Who is this who looks down like the dawn, beautiful as the moon, bright as the sun’ (Song of Solomon 6:10). The early Christians quickly connected the lover with Christ, and the beloved with the beloved of Christ, the bride of Christ, the church – the people of God.  So the woman is the church, the people of God. There are, of course, fascinating connections between the woman and Mary, and you may wish to do your own study by looking at how John uses the word ‘mother’ of Mary in John’s gospel (cf. John 2:1-5; John 19:26-27).

But that brings me specifically to chapter 12. The focus here is on the woman, the church, the people of God. She begins the chapter (vv1-6), and she ends the chapter (vv13-17).

And this woman gives birth to a child ‘who will rule all the nations with an iron sceptre’. That is language which comes from Ps 2:9, and it is language that is echoed again in Revelation 19:15, when John speaks of the one who is faithful and true, whose eyes are blazing fire, and who has on his head many crowns. It reminds us of the one we met in Revelation 1. It is language that is used of one 'like a son of man', the Lamb on the throne, who carries this name, ‘King of Kings and Lord of Lords’ (19:16)

In 12:17, it speaks of her other children (v17): ‘Then the dragon was enraged at the woman and went off to make war against the rest of her offspring – those who obey God’s commandments and hold to the testimony of Jesus’.

This woman is the church, the true and faithful Israel, the people of God. She is the community who gives birth to Jesus, the Christ. He was promised to the people of God in the Old Testament; he was born a descendant of the great king of Israel (the star of David); he was born of the people who were faithful to the promises of God. But since then, the woman has had more children, as people have become part of that community (Revelation 12:17). And this woman is later described as the new Jerusalem, the holy city, the bride of Christ (Revelation 21:2).

One of the big themes that we find in Revelation is that it challenges the idolatrous claims of this world.

The ancient world claimed that Roma, the city of the emperors, was the new queen of gods and mother of the world’s saviour. She is the new 'Egypt', 'Babylon', the seat of human power which has set itself up against God. And Roma is the city of the emperors, the city of power, the place where it all happens. She is described as ‘the woman clothed in purple and scarlet’ (Revelation 17:4; 18:16). But how does a woman clothed in purple and scarlet compete with a woman ‘clothed with the sun and with the moon under her feet and a crown of 12 stars on her head’

And what of the claims we make for our great civilisations today? What about these words?

“One hand in the air for the big city,
Street lights, big dreams all looking pretty,
no place in the World that can compare,
New York!!!!
Concrete jungle where dreams are made of,
There's nothing you can’t do, Now you're in New York!!!
These streets will make you feel brand new,
the lights will inspire you,
Let's hear it for New York, New York, New York

The challenge is simple. Where do you look to for the fulfilment of all your hopes and dreams: New York, London, Brussels or the new Jerusalem, the city of God?

The woman in chapter 12 is the church. Over against her stands the dragon, satan, who wishes to devour her child when he is born. There are echoes of King Herod and the slaughter of the innocents here. But the child is snatched up to God and to his throne. That is all this particular chapter tells us of the birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus! 
The woman then flees to the wilderness. She will be there for 1260 days. It means, as we have seen, ‘a short while’. She will be kept safe, but her children will suffer.

And the reason that the children of the woman will suffer? It is because the dragon, the serpent, satan has been thrown down to earth. He has no one to welcome him in heaven, but while there are people willing to receive him on earth, he leads the earth astray (v9); he is the accuser of the brethren (v10); he is filled with fury (v12); he wants to sweep the woman away (v15); he is enraged at the woman and makes war against her offspring (v17).

In many parts of the world believers suffer for their faith. That is usual. Jesus said that if they hated him, they will hate his followers (John 15:20); Paul wrote that all who wish to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted (2 Timothy 3:12). Our situation is unusual, and we should not be surprised if the situation here rapidly degenerates and faithful Christians find themselves in prison because they seek to obey God’s commandments and hold to the testimony of Jesus.

But while her children might suffer, the church as a whole will be kept safe. From one perspective she 'flees' to the wilderness (v6); from another perspective, the eagle lifts her and carries her to the place prepared for her. The Old Testament speaks of how God rescues his people from the ‘dragon’ of Egypt by bringing them out on eagle’s wings (Exodus 19:4; Deut 32:11). The wilderness was the place of God's guidance, provision, testing, purification and protection. And when the flood threatened to sweep them away, the earth itself intervened to rescue them. Perhaps there is some reference here to the crossing of the red sea; or to the fact that God’s creation groans and struggles against satan, and longs to be set free (Romans 8:20-21).

What we have in Revelation 12 is picture language for how God will preserve and protect his people. Not from evil. It seems, from my reading of Revelation, that at the physical, visible level, the situation will get worse and worse for believers. There will come a point when it seems that humanly speaking the church has been defeated. But even then God will have kept for himself two witnesses, and when it seems that even they have been crushed, God himself will intervene (Revelation 11:1-13).
But that is not the whole picture. If we remove the curtain, the we see God at work. God is protecting his church. Protecting her from faithlessness, from denying him, from giving way to evil. He will even use the time of suffering to purify his people. And when God does intervene, and time and space as we know it will come to an end, then the church – the people of God – who have been preserved both here on earth and in heaven, will be presented to Christ as a spotless bride.  

So what is Revelation saying to us?

1. Remember that we worship and serve God and the lamb. The book begins with a vision of Jesus Christ; chapters 4-5 give us a vision of the one on the throne and of the lamb, and chapter 20 give us a vision of the one who is 'King of kings and Lord of lords'.
2. Don’t be surprised when suffering because of your faith comes. We are told that it will, and it may get worse
3. This is a call to hold firm to the end, and to defeat the lies of Satan and of all who would speak for him by holding firm to the truth of Jesus and to the victory of the cross. As John writes, and these echo the words spoken to the faithful church in Smyrna, “They have conquered him by the blood of the lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death” (Revelation 12:11)
4. This is a call to look to the future: to the glorious vision of the day when heaven and earth are       joined together, when God will be present with his people, when he will wipe away every tear. Why tears? Because his people have been to hell and back. But they will be his people and he will be their God (Revelation 20-21).

Other notes (with significant guidance from John Sweet’s commentary on Revelation)

1. The wilderness: where God’s people were guided by cloud and fire, nourished for 42 years with manna, after escaping from dragon Egypt. The place of Israel’s first love for Yahweh (Jer 2:2 cf Rev 2:4). A place prepared: cf John 14:2

2. The war in heaven is not military but moral and legal.
It is a war in heaven over the fate of man. (cf Jude 9; Satan and Michael disputing over body of Moses).  Satan is the accuser. Satan has his place in heaven as a kind of ‘public prosecutor’ (Zech 3:1ff); in rabbinic thought he is the ‘attribute of justice’ in God over against the ‘attribute of mercy’. But he is also agent provocateur (1 Chron 21:1; Job 1,2). He ends up as personification of enmity to God and his people, leader of all powers of evil: deceiver, accuser and destroyer of men – instigator and punisher of sin.
But because he represents justice he cannot be removed by military force – there is conflict in heaven. While there are sinners to be accused, and while there are sinners who will welcome him, he has his place. [Is this why human beings may not blaspheme even the devil – Jude 9?]

3. Michael: Christ defeats Satan at the cross. Michael and the angels claim that victory. The saints have conquered ‘by the blood of the lamb and the word of their testimony’.
Michael was the most important figure in contemporary Judaism after God (Dan 10:13,21;12:1). For Christians, Christ replaced Michael

4. V10: ‘Now’ – pointing to the cross as the turning point of history. Christ is appointed to God’s right hand, but on earth the susurping authorities must still be fought.

5. Why does the victory in heaven bring woe on earth?  (v12 cf 11:14):
Because sin has consequences: its own inbuilt consequences and the wrath of God. For John it is also Satan’s wrath (v12). This wrath must run its course, and the brunt is borne by Christ’s brethren, by those who maintain his testimony (might this be what Colossians 1:24 is referring to?)
The earth-dwellers delight in the sufferings of the church (11:10), but it is – in reality – their deadliest plague. What will happen to this planet when you erase the name of God, the people of God, and the things of God?

Malcolm Rogers
St Mary’s and St Peter’s churches
14 December 2011


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