One of the ironies of the Bible is that its most difficult book is called ‘Revelation’.”
Making sense of the book of Revelation requires:
1. We treat Revelation like all other prophetic literature in Scripture which operates according to the principles of symbolism, original audience relevance, unconventional fulfillment, and recapitulation.
(Rev 1:1 “communicated” [Grk., saymainoe]) = To indicate the reality of something through signs or symbols; symbolism). Scholars believe Jesus’ use of this Greek word is a direct allusion to Daniel 2 where he is told to interpret the various pieces of Nebuchadnezzar’s great statue dream as symbolism – or symbolic of the various kingdoms that would exist in the future (Dan 2:30 “interpretation” = saymainoe [LXX]). Jesus is therefore communicating that like Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, John’s visions (chs 1 and 4-22) are not to be interpreted literally, but through the lens of signs and symbols. This principle is true not only with respect to Daniel’s prophecy but all OT prophetic literature. We are to interpret its visions as symbolism (signs/symbols pointing to reality rather than the reality itself). What also proves true is that the book of Revelation shares many of the same signs and symbols found in those Old Testament prophetic books. Knowing this helps us to avoid using our imaginations in the interpretive process (e.g., Rev 1:7-8 w/Isa 19:1).
Examples of imagination from John MacArthur’s interpretations of Revelation:
1.1.1. (Rev 6:12-13), “moon became blood. Accompanying the earthquake will be numerous volcanic eruptions; large amounts of ash and debris will be blown into the earth’s atmosphere, blackening the sun and giving the moon a blood-red hue. Stars of heaven fell. The best explanation is a massive asteroid or meteor shower.”
Understanding these verses based on prior OT use (Isa 13:1-22; Eze 32:1-11) = Prophetic language indicating God’s judgment against one pagan nation through their destruction by another pagan nation– which also meant the defeat of their false gods/idols. Isaiah 13 = The fall of the Babylonian kingdom to the Medo-Persians in 539 BC. Ezekiel 32 = The fall of the Egyptian kingdom to the Babylonians in 605 BC. In respect to false gods/idolatry = Both the Babylonians and the Egyptians worshipped gods derived from the “sun”, “moon” and “stars”.
What then is being communicated by these symbols in Revelation 6:12-13? Israel’s rejection of their Messiah (Jesus) means that they too have become a nation guilty of idolatry (of worshipping a false god) and will likewise
suffer God’s destruction at the hands of a pagan nation. In this case, the Romans (Jewish War 67-70 AD).
1.2.1. (Rev 8:8), “Like a great mountain. Probably a huge meteor or asteroid surrounding by gases that will ignite as it enters earth’s atmosphere. Its impact will create a tidal wave, destroying one-third of the world’s ships. sea became blood. This may refer to an event known as red tides, caused by billions of dead micro-organisms poisoning the water—in this case the result of the meteor’s collision.”
Understanding these verses based on prior OT use (Jer 51:24-25, 42 [w/Rev 17:1-6 which is the same city mentioned in Rev 11:8; See also Rev 18:20-21] = Prophetic language indicating the destruction/conquering of a great city by a massive enemy army. Jeremiah 51 = The conquering of the great city of Babylon by the massive armies of the Persian king, Cyrus).
What then is being communicated by these symbols in Revelation 8:8? The great city of Jerusalem (and her Temple) will be overrun nd destroyed by the massive army of the Roman Empire.
1.2. Original Audience Relevance
The majority of what the biblical prophets write has relevance to its original audience (e.g., Isaiah = 71% or 47 of its 66 chapters). As such, before we attempt discern universal principles – or what portions of prophecy may be related to us, we must first attempt to understand the importance of the prophecy to those to whom it was first spoken or written (1:4-6, 9-11) = The majority of what John receives as prophetic visions in the book of Revelation is directly relevant to seven 1st century churches existing in Asia Minor. The majority of what is revealed will be fulfilled in their time (1-3). Similar time-markers are provided in Jesus’ prophetic, “Olivet Discourse” (e.g., Mat 24:15-34). Scholars agree that Jesus’ Olivet Discourse is a direct corollary to John’s Revelation. Of interest, is the fact that John’s gospel is the only of the four gospels not containing this famous prophecy. As such, some have called Revelation, “John’s Olivet Discourse.”
Examples from OT prophecy supporting the principle of historical or first relevance to the original audience (Isa 7:10-16 w/8:1-8 w/Mat 1:23; Jer 1:11-16 w/7:1-13 w/Mat 21:13).
Applying this principle to the book Revelation (examples):
1.2.1. The mountain thrown into the sea in Rev 8:8 as the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple: 1) Jesus made this connection w/His disciples before His death (Mat 21:18-21), 2) According to Dr. William Telford (Dept. of Biblical Studies, Sheffield University), “mountain” was the standard expression among the Jews for the Temple Mount.
1.2.2. The Beast who kills Christians for 42 months and possesses the number, 666 (Rev 13:1-7, 18) = The 1st century Roman king, Nero Caesar: 1) his name according to Hebrew numerical value equals six hundred and sixty-six, 2) many in the 1st century referred to him as a “wild beast” or “the beast” due to his bloody tirades and public displays of animalistic sexual indulgence, 3) As a means to escaping national revolt, Nero blamed his burning of Rome on the Christians (an idea provided by the Jewish leaders via his Jew-favoring wife, Poppaea Sabina) leading to 42 months (Rev 13:5) of the most bloody and violent persecution of Christians in the history of the world (A.D. July of A.D. 64 until Nero’s death in January of 68).
1.3. Unconventional Fulfillment
Most prophecy in Scripture experiences multiple fulfillments (e.g., Isa 7:10-16 w/Mat 1:23). Each however is almost always partial – or related to only a portion of the entire prophecy. Rarely is a particular prophecy fulfilled in its entirety in the same event (e.g., contra Isa 53). Instead, each successive fulfillment tends to be concerned with different portions while at the same time, reapplying the previous portion already fulfilled to a completely new or different context.
Example from Isaiah (Isa 9:1-7):
1.3.1. Sans verses 6b-7a = Hezekiah (Isa 36-39 -esp., Isa 37:32).
1.3.2. Sans verses 4 and 5 = Jesus (Mat 4:15-16; Luk 1:32-33, 79).
Such unconventional forms of fulfillment can also include change to the original intent or meaning (e.g., Isa 65:1-2 w/Rom 10:20-21).
Example from Revelation: Isaiah’s prophecy regarding the destruction of Babylon by the Persians is later used to communicate the destruction of Jerusalem (the new Babylon) by the Romans (Isa 21:9 w/Rev 14:8).
Recapitulation is the repeating of previously mentioned events for the purpose of not only reinforcing formerly established truths, but to introduce additional details and different perspectives that also help the reader’s understanding and appreciation of those events. Revelation 12 through 18 (the seven bowls of wrath) are a recapitulation of Revelation 6 through 11 (the seven seals culminating in seven trumpets). Recapitulation is an important literary tool employed throughout the Bible.
1.4.1. The historical books of the Bible: 1) Genesis (Gen 1 w/Gen 2), 2) history of the kings and prophets ([1Sa 31 and 2Sa, 1 Ki and 2Ki] w/1Ch and 2Ch), 3) the Gospels (Matthew w/Mark w/Luke w/John).
1.4.2. The OT prophetic books (e.g., Isa 42:1-9, 49:1-13, 50:4-9, 52:13-53:12, 61:1-3 = The Servant of the Lord).
1.4.3. Theological truths (e.g., Isa 65-66 w/Rev 21-22 = The new heavens and the new earth/Reboot).
CLOSING CONTEMPLATION: Was Revelation written in the 60s or the 90s? Based on what we learned today, how do we know?