The Key to Reading Revelation

Updated: Jan 11, 2021

Quick Facts About Revelation:

  • Contains over 400 Old Testament allusions

  • References images from extra-Biblical writings

  • The only book John Calvin didn’t write a commentary on

  • Concludes every theme in the Bible

  • Written during intense persecution

  • Revelation 21-22 mirrors Genesis 1-2

  • Named after Αποκάλυψις (Apocalypse), meaning to unveil

  • Written in a unique genre called “apocalyptic”

  • Wasn’t universally accepted as part of the canon until the 4th century

The church didn’t agree that Revelation was inspired by God until A.D. 397 when they added it to the Bible—since then the church hasn’t agreed on much else about it.

Confused And Misunderstood

“Jesus is coming back on the Feast of Trumpets during the blood moon,” was the buzz in 2010 as many eagerly awaited the rapture to initiate the 7-year tribulation.

Some churches made DVDs explaining why all the Christians vanished, then taped them on their front doors for those left behind.

The date approached. It came. Then it passed.

It wasn’t the first (or 100th!) time the church was mistaken about Revelation.

“Jesus is coming back May, 21st, 2011”, said Harold Camping.

“88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988”, was written by Whisenant Edgar.

Next year he released, “The Final Shout Rapture Report: 1989”.

He was wrong, but he made a lot of money.

Isaac Newton obsessively tried to predict Jesus’ return.

“The pope of Rome…is that Antichrist”, says the Westminster Confession.

In the '70s, Americans thought the Soviet Union was the Beast.

Numerous presidents have been called the Antichrist: JFK, Obama, Trump, and Biden.

1666 was supposed to be the last year on earth, then 1999 because it’s “666” upside down. So was 1000, 1184, 1186, 1228, 1345, 1524, 1899, 1993, 1994, 2000, and 2001.

The end of the world has been a preoccupation since the beginning of the world in every religion and culture.

Then there’s Revelation: a cryptic book that has clearly been misunderstood.

Let’s look at that.

The primary approaches to Revelation:

Idealist: sees it as entirely metaphorical, communicating timeless truths for all ages with no chronological references.

Historicist: sees it as a detailed map of history until Jesus’ return—popular in the nineteenth century.

Preterist: sees it as describing first-century events with only the last few chapters as predictive, if any.

Futurist: mainly sees predictions about the end of the world—the most popular view since the conception of Dispensationalism in the 1850s.

All these can miss the point because there’s a necessary key to interpreting Revelation.

Unveiling the Apocalypse

What if you read The New York Times like a novel? Or Lord of the Rings like the news? You’d think 9/11 was a psychological thriller and Frodo was a historical hero.

You’d make conclusions the author never intended.

That’s why you don’t read a math book to learn history or study a history book to learn physics. If you did, you’d walk away with little of what the author tried to communicate.

My point?

Genre matters.

Revelation is a special type of genre. It’s not simply a letter, or a story, or a prophecy, or a poem, or a proverb, or a gospel—though it contains these. It’s something else.

It’s apocalyptic. So it must be read differently—not like a personalized map written to Americans in 2020, but like an apocalyptic work written to Jews two millennia ago.

We have to get off of conspiracy websites and put on first-century goggles, otherwise, it will be misunderstood. As G.K. Chesterton said: “Though St. John saw many strange monsters in his vision, he saw no creature so wild as one of his own commentators.”

Now about this foreign genre.

Examples of apocalyptic texts:

  • Zechariah 1-6

  • Ezekiel 1-3

  • Daniel 7-12

  • 1 Enoch

  • 4 Ezra

  • Jubilees

  • Apocalypse of Abraham

  • Apocalypse of Ezra

  • 2 Baruch

  • Testament of Abraham

From studying these we can learn how first-century Christians understood Revelation.

Here’s what these texts teach about apocalyptic literature:

  • A popular revelatory genre

  • Written in a narrative framework

  • Similar to, but not the same as, the prophetic genre

  • Widely used from 250 B.C. to 250 A.D.

  • Characterized by visions and symbolisms

  • Addressed their contemporary political-religious crises

  • Mediated by an otherworldly being (as an angel)

  • Revealed how God is working through history

  • Pointed to eschatological deliverance for the righteous but destruction of the wicked

In other words, apocalyptic books addressed scary issues of the day when everyone was asking, “Where is God in all of this?”

Their answer points to the hope of how God is fulfilling his hidden purposes, so in the end, God’s reign will conquer and his followers will enjoy paradise.

Strange Language!

The most notable feature of this genre is the unusual way it communicates.

Some peculiarities of apocalyptic language:

  • Speaks from a supernatural “heavenly” angle

  • Combines poetic and narrative speech

  • Is highly structured

  • Uses vivid, visual images

  • Mixes images together

  • Combines images from known sources

  • Symbolically conveys something real

Here’s an example:

During the Babylonian exile, Daniel gave hope through his apocalypse that God's kingdom would come after four nations had reigned. He described four beasts coming out of the sea, each made up of different animals, like “a lion with eagle’s wings” (Dan. 7:3).

Nobody read that and thought, “Let’s go to the ocean because if my calculations are correct, a flying lion should come out any minute.”

No. These are “four kings” (Dan. 7:17).

The images symbolically reference features of actual nations, as the leopard-like beast refers to how quickly the third kingdom advanced, based on the fast speed of leopards.

This is how apocalyptic literature works:

  1. Visions of familiar images ➡

  2. Images composed of symbols➡

  3. Symbols communicating features➡

  4. Features with a real-life meaning

But if we don’t know where the images come from, we’ll impose our own meaning on them.

Take one example.

The Garden-City

John sees “the holy city, the new Jerusalem” coming down from heaven (Rev. 21:2), which he describes in a collage of images.

The images he uses (chapters 21-22):

  • The city’s adorned with gems and gold

  • Nothing unclean is allowed inside

  • It has twelve gates

  • It’s a cube with equal dimensions

  • There’s no sun or lamps

  • There’s a river flowing from it

  • It has the Tree of Life

  • And God’s throne

What does it mean?!

The answers are found in the origins of the images and what they meant to the first audience (not the 21st-century audience).

They would have recognized temple imagery:

  • The temple was adorned with gems (1 Kings 7:9-10)

  • And gold (1 Kings 6:22)

  • As a cube with equal dimensions (1 Kings 6:20)

  • With lamps (1 Kings 7:49)

  • Inside the holy city with gates on each side (Ezek. 48:30)

  • Nothing unclean was allowed (Num. 35:34)

  • Because God’s throne dwells there (Isaiah 6:1; c.f., Ps. 132:7)

He’s also using imagery from the Garden of Eden, which was the first temple (more on that here).

  • Eden was also adorned with gems and gold (Gen. 2:12)

  • Hosted God’s presence (Gen. 3:8)

  • And a river flowed from it (Gen 2:10; and the temple in Ezekiel 47:5)

But when uncleanness entered, God and his presence retreated into the heavenly dimension (Gen. 3:22-24). This is called Paradise, which Jesus promised the thief on the cross (Luke 23:43).

That’s why the Tree of Life is in the temple-city.

That’s why the city is described with temple images—not that it’s literally a temple building (just like the temple of Jesus’ body or the church), but it functions as a temple.

Indeed, “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb” (Rev. 21:22, emphasis mine). The feature of the temple is what is meant.

What's the real-life effect? Since temples house God’s presence, this is about living with God.

This was the plan all along—a plan that was thwarted by human interference but is finally fulfilled.

The real-life effect is life in the presence of God in the new heavens and earth (Rev. 21:10).

As the high priest met with God in the temple, and as Adam walked with God in the temple-garden, so the saints will cohabitate with the Creator once again in paradise.

To be continued...