Reading Revelation as an Apocalypse

Updated: Jan 11

Quick facts:

  • A literal translation of “Revelation” is Apocalypse

  • Apocalypse means to unveil, or reveal

  • This inspired the title “Revelation”

  • Revelation repeats Biblical imagery more than any other book

  • Prominent images include the temple, exodus, & creation

  • Images from Ezekiel, Isaiah, Daniel, and Zechariah are the most prolific

  • Other Christian books of the day used similar images: 4 Ezra, 2 Baruch, and Testament of Levi

  • Has more allusions to the Old Testament than it has verses

  • Alludes to Pseudepigraphic books like 1 Enoch, and Joseph and Aseneth

  • Alludes to Apocryphal works as 2 Maccabees, Psalms of Solomon, and the Life of Adam and Eve

  • “Martyr” may have been coined by Revelation

In Case You Missed It

My previous article focused on the unique genre of Apocalyptic literature. If Revelation is approached outside of this genre, it will almost certainly be misunderstood.

Genre matters. There are other considerations of course, but genre is central.

So an apocalyptic, first-century lens is our key.

This is how apocalyptic literature communicates:

  1. By visions of known images

  2. The images are composed of symbols

  3. The symbols communicate effects

  4. The effects have a real-life meaning

We have to investigate the images of John’s day (not ours!) so we can decode what they meant to John’s original readers, otherwise, we will (unknowingly) impose our culture’s meaning on those images.

Let’s take a look at Revelation 1 through first-century glasses.

A King And Lampstands

"I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet saying, ‘Write what you see in a book

and send it to the seven churches.’ Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to

me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands

one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest.

The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of

fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the

roar of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp

two-edged sword and his face was like the sun shining in full strength” (Rev 1:10–16).

What John sees is a cluster of images used to describe the risen Messiah standing before him.

He sees:

  • Seven golden lampstands

  • One like a son of man

  • A long robe

  • A golden sash

  • Hair white as wool and snow

  • Eyes of fire

  • Feet of burnished bronze

  • A voice like many waters

  • Seven stars

  • A double-edged sword

  • Face shining like the sun

Each of these images has a sensible reference John’s audience would easily identify, and so can we if we look through their eyes.

First, the seven golden lampstands would have immediately sparked a picture of the menorah: the seven-bulbed lamp in the holy place inside the tabernacle (Ex. 25:37) and the temple (1 Kings 7:49).

What is the effect of the symbols? He's portraying Jesus inside the temple.

Temples were the houses of gods in the ancient world, and it was no different for Israel (1 Chr. 28:6). Yet Jesus came to embody the place where God lives, when “neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father…but in Spirit and truth” (Jn. 4:21, 23).

Jesus himself “tabernacled among us” (Jn. 1:14), which depicts Jesus as the living temple of God, so he calls it “the temple of his body” (Jn. 2:21).

This is the best part.

We get to join this temple-body. Like wives becoming one body with their husbands in the covenant of marriage, by faith we become one body with Jesus in the new covenant, making us the temple of the living God (1 Cor. 6:19), the house of “the Spirit and truth”.

What’s the real-life meaning of the vision?

Jesus is among his followers, even as he promised (Mt. 28:20).

There’s more temple imagery to see.

The high priest also wore a robe and a sash when he entered the temple (Ex. 28:4), which are the same words used by John about Jesus—and they’re even gold (Ex. 28:5).

The imagery couldn’t be clearer: Jesus is dressed in the holy clothes of the high priest while tending the inner temple.

Why? Because Jesus is the high priest of the temple, his church—us.

Now the detail that "The seven lampstands are the seven churches" makes sense (Rev. 1:20).

As the high priest, it is his job to make sure the temple is taken care of and guarded against impurities and dangers (Num. 18:7).

If these symbols point to Jesus acting as the high priest guarding his temple, what is the real-life meaning? As the priest, he’s making sure his holy temple (the church) isn’t defiled by unholy threats.

That’s why the next two chapters in Revelation focus on Jesus’ examination of the seven churches: he’s guarding and cleansing his temple.

The function of the image's symbol is the point—not the image or symbol itself.

Huge difference.

Jesus is ensuring the victory of his temple-church. The next image indicates what this victory looks like.

He's More

Another looming clue is the person in the temple is “one like a son of man”, which is an obvious quotation from Daniel 7:13. Here, Daniel saw “one like a son of man” coming on the clouds.

This is one of Jesus’ favorite titles for himself (click here for more on that).

Here’s what Daniel says about the son of man:

  • He is God’s chosen king

  • He will rule the nations

  • He comes to God who is “the Ancient of Days”

  • The Ancient of Days gives the son of man universal reign

What’s strange is how the Ancient of Days is described:

  • Clothed brightly “as white as snow”

  • White hair “like pure wool”

  • Sits on a throne of flames

Sound familiar?

By design, this is how John describes Jesus. He even uses seven of the exact words from Daniel 7:9-10: white, wool, snow, hair, head, flame, and fire. Jesus is portrayed as the Ancient of Days, otherwise known as God.

Jesus is mysteriously identified as the Ancient of Days and the Son of Man.

What is the effect? He is the human king appointed by God (son of man), and he shares his identity with God (Ancient of Days).

This is more than proof of Jesus’ divinity; it emphasizes his supreme authority as the risen Lord, as “firstborn of the dead and ruler of the kings on earth” (Rev. 1:5).

Jesus is more than the high priest of his church.

He’s the king of kings. The master of all creation, and as such he will ensure that his church will succeed in making disciples out of all nations and reversing the curse of sin on all creation (see Revelation 19-22).

He's More

After fasting and praying for Israel’s oppressed condition under foreign rule, Daniel sees a vision of something that looks human (Dan. 10:5-16).

This is how Daniel describes this being:

  • Body like beryl (a bright stone)

  • Face like lightning

  • Eyes like flaming torches

  • Arms and legs like burnished bronze

  • Voice “like the sound of a multitude”

The figure addressed Daniel’s prayers for Israel with details about a spiritual war over the governing forces of the nations (Dan. 10:13, 20), with the final hope that God’s kingdom will conquer all nations (Dan. 11-12).

Now Jesus is portrayed with similar images as this messenger.

Why? Jesus is bringing the same message--only better!

He’s bringing a message to his oppressed people

He’s bringing a message about spiritual warfare

He’s bringing a message with a final hope

He’s bringing a message that he will conquer Satan, all wickedness, all violence, all deceit, all sin, all oppression, and even death itself.

With first century, apocalyptic glasses on, we see that this multicolored collage paints Jesus as the SUPREME king, the HIGHEST priest, and a messenger with the GREATEST news.

This is the bottom line real-life meaning for us:

  • Jesus is with his church, ensuring its victory

  • Jesus is in charge of the entire course of history, guaranteeing his kingdom will come

  • Jesus is working through history to advance his will on earth as it is in heaven

This is the main theme of the book of Revelation. Now we are prepared to venture into the rest of what John saw.

Check back next week for the continuation of this series.