Overview of Revelation
The book of Revelation has evoked more controversy and colorful imagery than any other piece of scripture. While in exile on the island of Patmos, John received a vision from God. In this vision, he met Jesus in His glorified state and received instructions. In the instructions that Jesus gave to John, in v. 1:19, we can find a convenient outline for the content of the book. Jesus said, “Write, therefore, what you have seen, what is now, and what will take place later.” Thus, we can divide the book into these three parts:
What he has seen ch. 1 — Jesus in all His glory standing among the 7 lamp stands.
In this section we learn three important points
- Jesus is alive and is the supreme power of the universe.
- There is a “decoder ring” to the metaphorical imagery of the book. Jesus explains to John that the seven lamp stands in his vision aren’t literally seven lamp stands, but represent the seven churches in Asia Minor to whom Jesus wants John to send this letter. Therefore, we can be safe to interpret all the other colorful imagery in the rest of the vision as cosmic metaphors for practical, human realities (i.e. the beast crawling out of the sea isn’t really a creature, but probably a human ruler; the scorpion/locusts aren’t really supernatural bugs, but probably represent some kind of human army, etc.)
- Revelation is actually an epistle. In John’s day there were very popular books that had been written during the 200 years before Jesus that were called apocalyptic books. They were cosmic tales that depicted God coming in all His glory to overthrow the kingdoms of the world and establish the Kingdom of Israel on earth once again. These books were typically attributed to some great Old Testament characters such as Enoch or Moses. The Revelation is often considered to be an apocalyptic book. While it has many striking similarities, it would be better to think of Revelation as more of prophetic/pastoral epistle. Remember that the prophets of the Old Testament were preachers of God’s truth, who used colorful metaphors to proclaim judgment on the nation of Israel and to bring the people back to repentance. Revelation was not a detached, cosmic tale attributed to an Old Testament character. It was a real letter written by a compassionate pastor to real people in real churches who were undergoing some very real and severe persecution. When John met his old friend and his Lord Jesus on Patmos, and was given the gift of this vision, he wrote it down and sent it to the churches in order to teach them some very important lessons. We will speak to the lessons of Revelation in a moment.
What is now ch.2-3 — Jesus dictates seven letters to seven churches in the region of Asia Minor.
In these two chapters Jesus dictates to John a letter to each of the seven churches in the region of Asia Minor. John knew these churches intimately. The study of these letters will reveal great insight into how God views the church and what he expects from His people.
What will take place later ch. 4-22 — Cosmic images of heaven, Earth, war, justice, and a final, eternal peace.
It is this bulk of the Revelation that sparks the real controversy among scholars. It is fairly easy to map out what the letter SAYS. It is an entirely different thing to articulate exactly what it MEANS. In light of this difficult interpretation, it is even more difficult to determine HOW it should be applied to our lives today. One’s interpretation of Revelation really depends upon one’s presupposition regarding its intent. There are four basic schools of interpretation that have been espoused during the two thousand years since the writing of this letter.
Preterist — In this view, the images and metaphors of John’s vision all refer to events and political figures of John’s day. The beast and Babylon represent the Empire of Rome and the war and tribulation represent the present suffering of God’s people under the cruelty of this empire. The purpose of the vision was to demonstrate to the people that Rome would eventually fall and that the Kingdom of God, which was the peace found in Jesus Christ would eventually bring justice to all men. In this view all the events of Revelation lie in our past. The images of heaven are representations of the rule of Christ in the church which is fully realized in Jesus Himself.
Historicist — Throughout the history of the church many scholars have seen the sequence of events laid out in Revelation as pertaining to epochs in world history, inevitably culminating in their present day, proclaiming the evil ruler (for Luther it was the Pope himself) as the Beast. Not many people hold to this view currently.
Idealist — In this view, there is no direct correlation between the images of the vision and any specific people, countries, or events located in human history, past, present, or future. The images represent evil itself as manifested in all forms of human government. The Revelation is describing the inevitable persecution of all followers of God’s Kingdom that will be suffered at the hands of corrupt human institutions which are inspired by Satan himself. The message of Revelation is that, despite all the corruptions and suffering, God’s Kingdom will, in the end, prevail.
Futurist — the futurist believes (a la “Left Behind”) that the images of Revelation all pertain to specific human people, places, and events, and that all of these events lie in our future. Many futurists enjoy linking the 70 weeks of Daniel to John’s Revelation and speak of the 70th week being the “Great Tribulation” in which the Beast (a world power) will spend 3 1/2 years ruling in supposed peace and then 3 1/2 years of wretched persecution of the church. Within this view there are two hotly debated topics. First is whether the “rapture” (when the church will be caught up in the air with Christ e.g. 1 Thessalonians, will happen before the Tribulation, in the middle of it, or after it and simultaneous with Jesus’ second coming. These are called Pre-trib, mid-trib, and post-trib rapture positions. The second issue has to due with the 1000 year (or Millennial) Kingdom in ch. 20. Will Jesus’ second coming happen prior to the Millennial Kingdom in which He will physically establish a 1000 year reign on the earth prior to the end of all things. Or, will Jesus’ return happen at the end of the 1000 year reign, bringing the end of all things. In this view the 1000 years is symbolic for the church age and the church is responsible to bring about Jesus’ second coming by evangelizing the world. Finally, some interpreters question whether the 1000 years has any bearing on a specific time table, but simply represents the reign of Christ over all things.
As you can see there are many views to choose from. Many of these views are prefaced with a “pre”, “mid”, “post”, or “a.” This site adopts a “pan” view. No one really knows for sure how to interpret it correctly and we believe that it will all “pan” out in the end.
Seriously, there is a danger in getting distracted by the controversy over Revelation. Many people get caught up in attending prophecy conferences and watching current events to match them up with Biblical prophecy and “scare” everyone into not being “left behind.” James told us that there would be many antichrists who would come. Jesus told us that not even He knew the hour of His return. There are only two things that we need to know for sure and the rest we can, in good measure, enjoy the process of studying in loving community. The first is that Jesus promised that He would return for us. Yeah! The second is that, no matter what happens around us, our marching orders are always the same. Whether we are in prosperity or enduring the Great Tribulation, we live in the Kingdom of God, we are not of this world, and we are to love God and love others. Enough said.
These two videos, produced by The Bible Project, provide an excellent overview of this complex book:
The Watershed Community has produced a wonderful, free, 10-week study called Rescuing Revelation. I highly recommend it.