INDUCTIVE STUDIES ON REVELATION
Introduction to Revelation
FROM A WESTERN PERSPECTIVE THE BOOK OF REVELATION IS A MESS
For the longest time Western society has valued order and organization. We like everything neatly laid out and spelled out for us. Well, whatever else Revelation is, it is NOT neatly laid out and spelled out for us. Most people either avoid studying Revelation because of it messy-ness, or attempt to study it and walk away totally confused. Since we don't want either option, we need to look at what makes for this confusion.
The Symbolic Nature of Revelation
Revelation can be very confusing because it is highly symbolical. In fact at the very beginning of Revelation John says that he is going to communicate what he has to say through symbols: ""He sent and communicated it by signs by his bondservant John" (Rev. 1:2). The words "by signs" are not found in the English translations; however, that is what the Greek word translated "communicated" actually means, communication by means of signs or symbols. Why John used symbols and signs we shall see later; however, for our present purpose we just need to acknowledge that not only does John communicate by means of symbols but that these symbols lead to confusion.
Now why would John write this Revelation using symbols which confuse? Many claim that John is couching Revelation in symbols in order to "hide" his message. He is writing at a time when Roman authorities are persecuting the Christian church. John himself has been exiled to the isle of Patmos (off the coast of Turkey) where he is writing Revelation. The message of Revelation is so incendiary (the fall of the evil empire persecuting God's people) that if John had just come straight out and said that the Roman emperor and Roman empire were going to be destroyed by the God of Christianity, the Romans would have intensified their persecution of the Christian church. John writes in symbols to "hide" his message from the Roman authorities; however, he uses symbols which his Christian readers would understand and which then would "reveal" to his readers the message he wants to communicate to them. Our problem is that we live 1900 years after John wrote these symbols. Although his readers probably understood perfectly what John was saying, we cannot make that claim ourselves.
There is probably a second reason though why John uses symbols or pictures in describing the terrible events of the last days. Simply put, he is an artist at heart. Revelation is not the only book in the NT which bears his stamp. The Gospel of John and the 3 letters of John come from his hand or were written under his leadership. At least 2 of these books are highly imaginative. In the first 11 chapters of the Gospel of John, John uses symbols and images to expand our understanding of who Jesus is:
I have come to believe that Revelation is better painted or sung than analyzed and torn down to its simplest elements. The Hallelujah Chorus gives a much better sense of the victory proclaimed by Revelation than any sermon or teaching could do. The company where my wife works represents a lady who has actually drawn a huge mural depicting the characters and scenes in Revelation. When I first heard of this, I rolled my eyes in disbelief, until I actually saw the DVD myself. By viewing this DVD, I was reminded once more of the awesome majesty and sweep of the book of Revelation.
Another reason John uses symbols is that symbols are the best way to describe what is going on in the Book of Revelation. When I was just 21, I read the book The Late Great Planet Earth by Hal Lindsey. It was the rage among conservative Christians. He claimed that many of the strange creatures featured in Revelation were John's way of describing the terrible weaponry of the 20th century. The fire coming out of the mouths of horses was actually fire shooting out of modern Russian tanks.
Maybe Lindsey was right; however, after studying fantasy, I have come to realize that fantastic images are the best way to describe what is going on in other realms of existence. For example, we say that God's hand has touched us; however, no one believes God has a hand. In the same way John in describing what is going on in the spiritual realm behind the human scene uses fantastic images to describe the characters and events in the spiritual realm. An example of this are the 3 frogs which spring from the mouths of the dragon, the beast, and the false prophet to gather together the kings of the world for the great day of God the Almighty. John knows that 3 frogs are not springing forth from the mouths of dragons, etc. He says that they represent the demons which are sent forth from Satan (the dragon), the Antichrist (the Beast), and the False Prophet. Such an approach will limit our being able to claim specifically what each symbol means; however, it really plants us into the realm where so many of the events of Revelation do take place, in the spiritual realm.
The Influence of the Orient on John
There is confusion in studying Revelation because John writes the way an oriental would write, not like a westerner. When we study 1 John we see that John writes cyclically. He will introduce topic A, go on to another topic, then return to topic A, go to another topic, and then return to topic A for a third time! It really can get confusing for us westerners. (It actually is an effective way of communicating; we're just not used to it.)
Although John does not write cyclically in Revelation, he does do some strange things for most of us. First, John uses interludes in Revelation in order to give us comfort. If John had just started at the tribulation and worked his way through all 7 years straight through, we would all be despairing by the end of the book. John uses interludes to break up the horror and to encourage us to keep faithful to Christ. There are several such interludes in Revelation.
How have the interludes led to confusion? By treating them as if they were placed chronologically in Revelation, many have misunderstood what is going on in the interludes. For example, in Rev. 7:7-16 we hear about the saints who have come "out of the tribulation" and whom Christ as the Good Shepherd leads to springs of living water. Because of its location, some Christians claim that these saints are those Christians who were raptured BEFORE the tribulation. If John were treating this passage chronologically, that might be true; however, John is using it as an interlude in order to encourage Christians to keep faithful to the Lord. (The fact that John says they came "out" of the tribulation should let you know that they actually were "in" the tribulation and not raptured before it. You can't come out of something you were never in.)
Another method John uses is that of speaking about a series of great events which are taking place and then go back to zero in on one of those events in that series. It is like he is backtracking (the best example being chapter 18-19:6). When you know what John is doing, you aren't quite so confused, but if you don't know what he is doing, your head is going to start spinning.
Now maybe you don't think there is that much confusion in Revelation. I would advise you then to go read it before we start studying it and find out how confusing it can be. This way you can compare your reading of Revelation AFTER the study with your reading BEFORE the study. I think you will find Revelation more understandable after the study.
THE WAY WE WILL STUDY REVELATION
We are NOT going to study it in the order in which John wrote it. Why? Because of the confusion we spoke about above. Rather we are going to re-arrange and re-organize Revelation in a more logical format, one which we westerners will be able to relate to better. It won't change the meaning of Revelation; it will just make it more understandable.
The order in which we study Revelation will be as follows:
REVELATION IN RELATION TO OTHER WRITINGS ON THE SECOND COMING
One of the major problems in studying Revelation is that many people separate it from other biblical passages on the second coming. They will come up with an interpretation of Revelation and then try to force that interpretation upon these other passages. First. a study on Revelation should not be independent of studies on other NT passages regarding the second coming. Second, we shouldn't force any interpretation of Revelation upon any other biblical passage. We need to let each passage speak for itself and THEN see how the different passages fit together.
Below is a list of passages which will factor into our study of Revelation: