How to Read the Book of Revelation

The Revelation of St. John

he Nuclear devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had ended World War 2 when a war correspondent went on the radio from one of those cities, introducing himself with these word: “I am standing on the end off the world began.”

Everyone is curious and concerned about the future. Where is our world heading? Nuclear holocaust? Global warming? Scarcity of resources? A new world order under a worldwide government? A utopian paradise created by humanistic technology? Some people turn to astrology, psychic prediction, or self-proclaimed prophets in their attempts to know the future.

In these alarming times, the Bible assures us the future belongs to God, and it is glorious beyond words. The most prophetic book in the Bible is the Book of Revelation. The word revelation (Greek, apokalupsis) means “to uncover, to openly disclose, or to make known that which was previously hidden.” We get apocalypse from this word. This Revelation, this book, is an index to God’s fantastic future.

Now the Revelation doesn’t reveal everything that will be in the future. When considering the future, we need to remember the counsel of Moses: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law” (Deut. 29:29).

Unfortunately, some scholars and teachers have erred in their attempts to read too much into apocalyptic symbolism in a futile effort to know it all. While we must honestly admit that no one knows everything about the future, the Revelation certainly pulls back the curtain to show us things to come.

Sorting Out the Symbols

Without a doubt, the Revelation makes the greatest use of apocalyptic symbolism found anywhere in the Bible. J. Daryl Charles points out:

The force of symbolic language lies in its ability to supersede human categories. . . . The theology of John is visual theology; seeing is understanding. The audience will experience earthquakes, storms, fire, pain, joy, worship, agony and delirium . . . to encourage Christians to an active, not passive, participation in history.

Several points need to be made about the symbolism and numerology in order to really grasp the message of the Revelation.

• First, the symbolism and numerology are rooted in the Old Testament, and in particular the apocalyptic writings of the Pentateuch and the Prophets. This means the symbols and numbers remain consistent throughout Scripture. Bear in mind that the numbers employe-such as 7, 10, 12, and so forth—seldom, if ever, represent numerical values. Instead, they represent spiritual concepts or principles.

Seven stands for perfection or completeness. Twelve is the number of divine government and the people of God, as typified in the 12 tribes of Israel and the 12 apostles of Christ. This includes multiples of 12, such as 24 and 144,000. The number of man, who is less than perfect or divine, is 666. It obviously represents a man in rebellion to God.

Forty is the number of divine testing of the Israelites. It is the number of years Israel spent in the wilderness. It represents preparation in the case of Moses being in the mountain for 40 days. It represents both testing and preparation in the number of days Jesus underwent testing in His temptation.

Three is the number of the Trinity. Four is the number that represents all creation. Examples are the references to the four winds of heaven and the four corners of the earth (see Rev. 7:1).

• Second, be consistent when interpreting the symbols from scene to scene as the drama unfolds. This means if the number 7 is considered symbolic in chapter 1, then it needs to be considered symbolic in later chapters as well. Great confusion and misunderstanding occur when the symbols are interpreted inconsistently and the meanings shift back and forth from literal to symbolic.

• Third, the meaning of each symbol must be taken as a whole. Avoid picking the symbols apart by trying to give specific meaning to each detail. Each symbol, then, such as the throne of God or the seven seals, is intended to paint a mental picture of a spiritual or historical reality.

Every intricate detail of the symbols is not designed to carry a specific meaning. One can easily infer more from these symbolic visions than is warranted or intended. Great error has occurred over the years

by futile efforts to unlock secrets about future events, such as the identity of the Antichrist, the designation of the nations in his empire, or even the timing of Jesus’ second coming.

• Fourth, two types of symbols are used: those representing specific historical events and those representing spiritual truths. Sometimes a symbol carries a double meaning, as in the case of the seven churches in Asia Minor to whom the book was originally sent (1:10-11). While these churches actually existed (the remains of most can still be visited today in Turkey), they also represent the complete church down through the ages.

• Fifth, seven is the most frequently used number in the Revelation. The number seven means completion, fulfillment, or perfection. It is used 54 times to represent God’s completion of His redemptive plan for humanity. This is the plan He works out in history.

The various series of seven—such as the seals, trumpets, bowls, lampstands, churches, and so forth—provide descriptions of principles of human conduct and divine government currently at work in the world. The Revelation, then, deals simultaneously with the present and the future.

• Sixth, the most frequently used symbol in the Revelation is the throne of God. John speaks of the throne 45 times to represent the sovereignty of God. The throne underscores the main purpose of the Revelation—namely, to encourage believers to recognize that God rules over all.

I want to state emphatically that the Revelation is no way intended to provide futuristic clues for the curious. On the contrary, the visions enable us to evaluate world events from the vantage point of the sovereign God who is seated on His heavenly throne.

Whatever trials, tribulations, or persecution we may face, the message of the Revelation affirms Romans 8:37: “In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”

• Seventh, always adopt the meaning of the symbols which is most obviously consistent with the remainder of Scripture. Avoid looking for more secretive, hidden meanings. Remember, the purpose of the Revelation is to make known what God is doing in the world, not to hide it.

You don’t have to look for hidden meanings; they aren’t there. The message is openly revealed and easy to understand if you don’t try to read more into the symbolism than God intended.

Conceptual or Chronological?

Now that we have a handle on the symbolism, we need to deal with another important feature of the Revelation: namely, that the visions do not form a continuous line of chronological history.

Confusion results when one tries to impose on the book a strict timeline from chapter 1 through chapter 22. Instead of a pure chronology, John plays the same themes over and over, each time using greater detail and intensity, much like a musical score for an opera.

Scenes of judgment and wrath are often repeated, as well as scenes of victory and reward. For example, the new heaven and new earth are introduced first in chapter 7, but fully revealed in chapter 21. It is the same way with the Battle of Armageddon:

• It is first mentioned when the sixth seal is opened (6:12-17).

• This battle is cited again in the sounding of the sixth trumpet judgment (9:13-16; 14:14-20).

• Armageddon is next mentioned in the account of the sixth bowl of wrath (16:16).

• Finally, we read of the Battle of Armageddon at the return of Christ (19:11-21).

Here’s the point. A general chronology of the future exists in the Revelation invol ing apocalyptic signs such as the Great Tribulation period, the second coming of Christ, the final judgment, and eternity with God. But the series of visions are intended to show us the unfolding drama of church history, not to give us a strict chronology of everything that will happen in the future.

Now for the Main Event

While the Old Testament contains 300 prophecies concerning the first coming of the Messiah, the New Testament has 318 prophecies of His return. In fact, one out of every 25 verses in the New Testament assures us that Jesus will come to earth again.

Sense and Sensibility

The Book of Revelation itself sets forth the imminency of His return in an opening phrase, “the time is near” (1:3). It closes with the personal promise of Christ, “Behold, I am coming soon!” (22:12). The expectation of the Church is embodied in the words of John in response to Christ’s promise of His return, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus” (v. 20).

This means no prophecies have to be fulfilled before Christ returns for His church. The doctrine of imminency calls people to a constant state of “ready alert.” Jesus cautioned, “No one knows about that day or hour. . . . Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come” (Matt. 24:36, 42).

A travesty to biblical prophecy occurs when people try to predict the timing of Christ’s return.

Why predict what Christ has already promised? If you trust the promise of His return, you won’t be tempted to chase such predictions. So, don’t get caught up in the sensationalism of the day. Keep your sense and sensibility as you look forward to His return.



* All scriptures are from the New International Version.

David C. Cooper is lead pastor of the Mount Paran Church of God in Atlanta.