Challenge 5: What about the angels of the seven churches in Revelation?

wrote-book-revelation_e5084222746a34b7A few years ago, I wrote: Why we don’t have a senior pastor. In this post I explained why many Christians are committed to a leadership model of plural eldership. I showed how there is a consistent pattern throughout the New Testament of churches being pastored by a council of elders, with no elder distinguished from the rest as a “senior” or “lead” pastor/elder. I followed up this article with a series of posts addressing various challenges to this leadership model. A few days ago, a reader emailed me asking about the angels in Revelation 2-3. This question warrants being included in this series, so let’s take a look.

In Revelation chapters 2-3, John is instructed to write seven letters to seven specific churches. Each letter is entrusted to the “angel” of the intended church. Some see these angels as indicating the senior pastor of each church. Does this work?

We should make a couple of observations right at the outset. The commentaries are all over the place on who these angels are. Some don’t address the question at all; most others describe various possible interpretations, while maybe leaning toward one. The only consensus seems to be that there is insufficient basis here for being dogmatic about the identity of these angels.

I would also note this claim (that these angels = senior pastors) is very rarely used by scholars and pastors arguing for a normative senior pastor type role. In fact, many of those who support a senior pastor role have specifically rejected this interpretation of Revelation. Let’s see why.

First, let’s remember the first three rules of biblical interpretation: context, context, context. Where are these references? In the book of Revelation. What do we know about Revelation? Revelation is a kind of writing know as apocalyptic. Apocalyptic literature was always highly figurative, utilizing elaborate symbolism. Readers were to assume that elements were symbolic unless there was a clear reason to take them literally.

Do we see this in Revelation? Absolutely. Right from the first chapter, we have lampstands that aren’t literal lampstands, stars that aren’t literal stars, and a two-edged sword that isn’t a literal sword. Often the text doesn’t tell us what the various symbols symbolize, and so we discuss and debate what they mean. (What exactly do the two witnesses, the mark of the beast, the great prostitute, etc., represent?) Fortunately, we’re sometimes given the meaning of the symbols. So, for instance, we’re told that the seven lampstands represent seven churches, and the seven stars represent the angels (or messengers) of these seven churches.

While Revelation is filled with symbols that represent something real, what we don’t see are symbols of symbols. If the great dragon represents Satan, then that’s it. We don’t have to debate what Satan then represents. The Lamb who was slain is a symbol for Jesus, but Jesus is not a symbol for anything else. So the seven lampstands symbolize seven churches, which do not then symbolize anything else. And the seven stars represent the aggelos of each of these churches. We don’t have to figure out what these aggeloi (the plural form of aggelos) symbolize; we just need to make sure we understand what the word means.

blog11Each letter to one of the seven churches begins the same way: “Write this letter to the aggelos of the church in ____________ .” This Greek word is found over 170 times in the New Testament. It’s almost always translated “angel.” A few times it indicates a human “messenger.” So this now shows us the key interpretive question for these references: Are these aggeloi angels or human messengers? And this is where the scholars disagree.

Notice that—either way—the letters are not written to a single leader or messenger, but to the entire church of Ephesus, Smyrna, etc. (“Anyone with ears to hear must listen to the Spirit and understand what he is saying to the churches.”) Each church is either commended or confronted, not a sole leader. The “you” being addressed in the letters is plural. But to whom are these letters entrusted: angels or human messengers?

Could these be literal angels? This isn’t as odd as it sounds, and many scholars think this natural reading is the best one. Remember our context is within the book of Revelation. And Revelation states at the very beginning:

“He [Jesus Christ] sent an angel to present this revelation to his servant John”

If an angel was part of Christ conveying this revelation to John, why would it be odd for angels to be part of conveying the letters to the seven churches (which are included in the revelation)? The word aggelos is used over 60 times in the book of Revelation; every time (besides these chapters) it means “angel.” We also have the intriguing references in Daniel 10 that seem to indicate there are angels assigned to certain nations. Some also point to passages such as Matthew 18:10 and Acts 12:15 that hint at the idea of a guardian angel for each person. Is it such a stretch to think that each church would enjoy the protection and service of a specific angel?

But how would angels be involved with the delivery of these letters? Well, remember that Revelation is written in a highly stylized, dramatic form. It also depicts a heavenly, spiritual perspective of these events, not a primarily human one. Unless we want to assume that angels have no real part in human events, we shouldn’t too quickly reject the idea of angelic involvement in the revelation of these letters to these seven, specific churches.

Ok, but could these be human messengers? That’s certainly a plausible interpretation of these passages. Let’s assume these passages are, in fact, speaking of human messengers. What could these chapters tell us about these human messengers? Well, they would tell us there was one messenger designated for each church, and that each letter was written to the whole church but entrusted to a messenger. That’s it. There is nothing in these chapters indicating a leadership or pastoral role for these angels or messengers. Because there is one angel/messenger designated for each church, some have read back into this passage our traditional practice of having one main pastor for each church. But nothing in the text indicates such a role.

Are there any reasons we should not see these messengers as senior pastors? Well, first we observe that the word aggelos is never used anywhere else in the New Testament to indicate a church leadership role. Next, as we saw above, there is nothing in the context that would clearly and directly indicate a senior pastor role. (Actually, in the context of the New Testament church, if these were human messengers, they would more likely be exercising a prophetic role than a pastoral one. They may have simply been the people responsible for physically carrying the letters to the churches.) And this interpretation would be introducing a senior pastor role that isn’t even mentioned anywhere else in the New Testament, and one that would conflict with the consistent pattern we see throughout the New Testament of churches being pastored by groups of elders with no designated senior leader. (Notice that none of the New Testament epistles [letters to the churches] are addressed to the “pastor” of the church of Corinth or Philippi, etc.)

bible-magnifying-glassThere’s a principle of biblical interpretation that says: ‘Clear passages in Scripture help us understand the passages that aren’t so clear.’ It makes sense to take the clear and consistent pattern we see throughout the New Testament as the model we’re to follow. But it makes poor sense to take an ambiguous passage in a highly symbolic book, form a conclusion—not from the reading of the text, but based on pure speculation—then use this questionable assertion to challenge the clear, consistent pattern found elsewhere in Scripture. This would be circular reasoning—assuming the senior pastor role when interpreting the passage, and then using the passage to establish the senior pastor role!

Regardless of whether we understand the aggeloi in Revelation 1-3 as angels or human messengers, there is nothing in these passages that point to a senior pastor role in the churches.

“Pleased to meet you . . .” (Introducing the Antichrist)

“. . . Hope you guess my name.”  **
I can recall, as a child, listening to adults seriously considering whether Henry Kissinger might be the Antichrist. (Some will be amused by that, others shocked.) In some circles, ‘guessing the Antichrist’ seemed almost like an evangelical pastime. In the past few years, I’ve heard people wonder out loud whether either George W. Bush or Barack Obama might be the Antichrist (depending on their politics). It’s probably too much to ask for us not to speculate regarding who may or may not be this malevolent, prophetic figure. But just what exactly is this Antichrist about whom everyone is so curious?

Many non-Christians are also intrigued by this mysterious character. This interest is likely due to The Omen and similar films and books, references in punk and heavy metal lyrics, and just general interest in prophecy and the end of the world. Unfortunately, this has created a lot of misinformation about this key, last days figure, and even Christians sometimes fail to distinguish the biblical from the merely sensational. What do we know from Scripture about this guy?

A leader rising from obscurity
The Antichrist will rise suddenly from the masses. He will most likely be involved in the leadership of an international coalition that in some way incorporates elements of the ancient Roman Empire. This connection with Rome could be geographical, but will likely be a “revival” of its cultural, legal and political heritage. This coalition will be (or is symbolized by) a confederacy of ten powers (Daniel 2:26-48, 7:15-28; Revelation 13:1-2). At some point in the Antichrist’s rise to power, three of these powers are subdued in some way (Daniel 7:24).

Europe (and all of the Western World) still carries in its cultural DNA the enduring influences of the Roman Empire. At times, some leaders and nations have attempted to be intentional standard-bearers and preservers of the Roman legacy. Examples of this would include the Holy Roman Empire (of which my history prof was fond of saying it was neither holy, Roman, nor an empire) and even Germany’s Third Reich. Because of this historical connection of Europe with Rome—and because of the prophecies of a 10-nation coalition—the establishment of the European Common Market, and then expansion to 10 nations (gasp!), drew the attention of a lot of Christians.  Of course, this coalition continued to expand and develop into the current European Union, which has far more than 10 member states.

This doesn’t mean Europe is no longer of interest concerning these prophecies, but it does provide us with a valuable lesson. We shouldn’t be too quick to declare what current development does and does not fulfill specific end times prophecies. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of speculation now and then, but we must hold our speculations loosely. And we must never confuse our educated guesses with the clear teaching of Scripture.

Appearing as a great man of peace
Before this leader shows himself to be in opposition to Christ, he will present himself in place of Christ. Some believe it’s foretold in Scripture that he will arrange a treaty with Israel (and presumably her neighbors) that will allow the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem (Daniel 9:27). Is it a coincidence the very nations spoken of so prominently in end times prophecies are consistently at the heart of geopolitical conflict today? Imagine if a world leader was able to broker a seemingly real and lasting peace in the Middle East. Wouldn’t he be hailed as a hero . . . or more?

We’re told that Satan disguises himself as an angel of light (2 Corinthians 11:14), and it should come as no surprise his chosen servant will do the same thing. Rather than be viewed as a usurper of power who has evil intentions, this leader will be hailed as a great deliverer from war and oppression. Anyone who can remember the euphoric devotion felt by some toward Ronald Reagan in the 1980s or Barack Obama in 2008 can get a taste of the adoration people will have for this man. He’ll seem like John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr and Ghandi all rolled up into one (with maybe a touch of Elvis or Michael Jackson). He’ll be the most charismatic person anyone has ever seen.

Bringing the world together
Today we deal with division among world religions, which often serves to exacerbate cultural conflicts. It’s fascinating though that most of the world religions are each anticipating a great, final deliverer. Many Jews still look for the Messiah. Both Sunni and Shiite Muslims are awaiting the Mahdi or 12th Imam. The Mahdi is to come before the Day of Judgment to redeem the world from oppression and injustice. Those who embrace him will be shown to be true Muslims.

Many different schools of Buddhism are waiting for the bodhisattva Maitreya, a final Buddha who will come, manifest perfect enlightenment and teach the world the true Dharma or teaching. All denominations of Christianity (along with loosely associated faiths such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormonism) are anticipating the return of Jesus. Even many occult groups and “New Age” teachers are expecting some kind of Messianic figure with a “Christ-consciousness” to lead us into a new age of enlightenment.

When this incredible, captivating man of peace and enlightenment comes on the world scene, he’s going to be hailed as a savior. He’ll inspire complete loyalty, even devotion. He’ll be seen as the answer to the world’s problems—political, social and spiritual—the great Christ-figure for whom everyone has been waiting. It will seem there’s finally a way to bring all the different world cultures and religions together in a common harmony and devotion. For those who have been saying all religions are different paths to the same truth, this great leader will be the ultimate confirmation. People will be saying, “If there was ever a Christ, it’s this man!” For many—who have refused to embrace the truth of Jesus Christ—there will be no defense against this overpowering delusion.

Declaring himself to be God
At the midway point of this 7-year period, the Antichrist enters the temple of God and declares himself to be God. This is what the Bible refers to as “the abomination of desolation.” (Scholars disagree as to whether this will occur in a literally reconstructed Temple in Jerusalem or if this symbolizes something else, possibly having to do with the church, which is now the temple of God.)

For that day will not come until there is a great rebellion against God and the man of lawlessness is revealed—the one who brings destruction. He will exalt himself and defy everything that people call god and every object of worship. He will even sit in the temple of God, claiming that he himself is God.

2 Thessalonians 2:3-4 (compare with Matthew 24:15; Daniel 9:27)

Notice this man doesn’t just declare himself to be above the God of the Bible. “He will exalt himself and defy everything that people call god and every object of worship [emphasis added].” This means he sets himself above Yahweh, Allah, Brahman, Krishna, whatever. For some, this will be enough to shock them out of their reverie. For others, it will only ensnare them even more into this satanic lie.

A cheap imitation
We need to remember that Satan doesn’t just want to oppose and defeat God; he wants to be God. He wants to rule over all and be worshiped and adored. He has no creative power within himself, so all he can do is copy and twist and pervert who God is and what God does. To be like God, Satan will devise his own version of the Trinity. He will put himself in the place of the Father. The Antichrist is not an actual incarnation of Satan (Satan can’t really emulate God), but he will serve in place of his “son.” And Revelation describes a False Prophet who will fill the role of the (un)Holy Spirit and direct the people to worship the Antichrist (Revelation 13:11-15).

Not only will Satan manufacture this unholy trinity, but he’ll apparently attempt to reproduce the resurrection. Revelation 13:3 describes the Antichrist suffering a fatal wound that is subsequently healed. This miraculous sign will be so publicized it will become a catalyst for greater devotion and worship of the Antichrist and even of Satan himself.

Openly opposing God and killing God’s people
After the Antichrist declares himself to be God, his mask of humble peace-seeking will be discarded and he will become increasingly arrogant, power-hungry and blasphemous. The other people who have resisted God and refused to embrace the truth will look on with glee as this satanic leader exerts more and more control. Because he will be viewed as a savior who is bringing all peoples and faiths together, anyone who resists his vision will be seen as stubbornly obstructing world peace and harmony. To those people whose consciences are turned upside down, it will seem right to hunt down and dispose of these hateful enemies of humanity. Thus will begin the worst period of persecution the world has ever witnessed.

I also asked about the ten horns on the fourth beast’s head and the little horn that came up afterward and destroyed three of the other horns. This horn had seemed greater than the others, and it had human eyes and a mouth that was boasting arrogantly. As I watched, this horn was waging war against God’s holy people and was defeating them . . .

“Its ten horns are ten kings who will rule that empire. Then another king will arise, different from the other ten, who will subdue three of them. He will defy the Most High and oppress the holy people of the Most High. He will try to change their sacred festivals and laws, and they will be placed under his control for a time, times, and half a time.”

Daniel 7:20-25

Then you will be arrested, persecuted, and killed. You will be hated all over the world because you are my followers. . . . For there will be greater anguish than at any time since the world began. And it will never be so great again. In fact, unless that time of calamity is shortened, not a single person will survive. But it will be shortened for the sake of God’s chosen ones.

Matthew 24:9, 21-22

This man will come to do the work of Satan with counterfeit power and signs and miracles. He will use every kind of evil deception to fool those on their way to destruction, because they refuse to love and accept the truth that would save them.

2 Thessalonians 2:9-10

Then the beast was allowed to speak great blasphemies against God. And he was given authority to do whatever he wanted for 42 months. And he spoke terrible words of blasphemy against God, slandering his name and his dwelling—that is, those who dwell in heaven. And the beast was allowed to wage war against God’s holy people and to conquer them. . . . This means that God’s holy people must endure persecution patiently and remain faithful.

Revelation 13:5-10

Doomed to failure
Just as with the plagues of Egypt, it will become more and more obvious the plagues poured out during the tribulation are from the hand of God. Instead of causing the Antichrist and his followers to repent, this knowledge will drive them to be even more blatant in their hostility and rebellion against God. Ultimately this will lead to open, attempted war with God—what we know as Armageddon—which will be swiftly and thoroughly crushed.

As I watched, this horn was waging war against God’s holy people and was defeating them, until the Ancient One—the Most High—came and judged in favor of his people. Then the time arrived for the holy people to take over the kingdom. . . .

“He will defy the Most High and oppress the holy people of the Most High. . . . But then the court will pass judgment, and all his power will be taken away and completely destroyed. Then the sovereignty, power, and greatness of all the kingdoms under heaven will be given to the holy people of the Most High. His kingdom will last forever, and all rulers will serve and obey him.”

Daniel 7:21-27

Then the man of lawlessness will be revealed, but the Lord Jesus will kill him with the breath of his mouth and destroy him by the splendor of his coming.

2 Thessalonians 2:8

And the demonic spirits gathered all the rulers and their armies to a place with the Hebrew name Armageddon.

Revelation 16:16

Then I saw heaven opened, and a white horse was standing there. Its rider was named Faithful and True, for he judges fairly and wages a righteous war. His eyes were like flames of fire, and on his head were many crowns. A name was written on him that no one understood except himself. He wore a robe dipped in blood, and his title was the Word of God. The armies of heaven, dressed in the finest of pure white linen, followed him on white horses. From his mouth came a sharp sword to strike down the nations. He will rule them with an iron rod. He will release the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty, like juice flowing from a winepress. On his robe at his thigh was written this title: King of all kings and Lord of all lords. . . .

Then I saw the beast and the kings of the world and their armies gathered together to fight against the one sitting on the horse and his army. And the beast was captured, and with him the false prophet who did mighty miracles on behalf of the beast—miracles that deceived all who had accepted the mark of the beast and who worshiped his statue. Both the beast and his false prophet were thrown alive into the fiery lake of burning sulphur. Their entire army was killed by the sharp sword that came from the mouth of the one riding the white horse.

Revelation 19:11-21

Then the devil, who had deceived them, was thrown into the fiery lake of burning sulphur, joining the beast and the false prophet. There they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.

Revelation 20:10

But what about the mark of the beast? What is that? And what exactly is Babylon supposed to represent in Revelation? I’m going to wrap up this series next week by looking at some of these remaining questions.

**  [This song (Sympathy for the Devil) is not specifically about the Antichrist. But it does describe how Satan has been behind horrible acts of evil in history, and that certainly applies in this case.]

The return of Christ series:

The return of Christ: Keeping the main thing the main thing

Millennial match-up

More on the millennium

Rapture 101

Examining the pretrib rapture: Israel and the church

Examining the pretrib rapture: Removed or protected?

Examining the pretrib rapture: Is the rapture imminent?

Examining the pretrib rapture: Assorted claims

The posttrib rapture

Locusts and dragons and beasts, oh my! (Or the great tribulation)

“Pleased to meet you . . .” (Introducing the Antichrist) [see above]

The return of Christ: Odds and ends

Locusts and dragons and beasts, oh my! (Or the great tribulation)

The past few weeks, we’ve been exploring the return of Christ, particularly examining the views on the millennium and rapture that have sometimes divided Christians. In the next three weeks, we’ll wrap up this series by looking at some of the other end times elements that often pique our curiosity.


The tribulation

Especially in the books of Daniel and Revelation, we see emphasized a period of 7 years, which we usually refer to as “the tribulation.” This tribulational period immediately precedes Jesus’ return to earth.

If you’ve read many books or materials from pretrib teachers, you’ve probably seen very precise interpretations of what the vivid elements in the book of Revelation are supposed to describe. But, as we saw in our previous study Revelation: The story comes full circle, it’s a mistake to assume that the descriptions in Revelation should be taken literally, and it’s typically pretrib teachers who interpret Revelation in an overly literal manner. This explains why the people who try to date the return of Christ or tell us how the latest altercation in Iran or Iraq fits precisely into end times prophecy (and then have to later retract their claims!) are invariably pretrib teachers. Now, the best pretrib teachers don’t indulge in this kind of speculation, but—unfortunately—there are many more of their fellow pretribbers who over-compensate for these teachers’ restraint.

Apocalyptic = symbolism
As we saw in our previous study on Revelation, this book is an apocalyptic form of literature, which means we should expect it to be highly symbolic. And it doesn’t take us long to see this is just what we find in Revelation. We have lampstands that aren’t literal lampstands, and dragons that aren’t literal dragons, and stars that aren’t literal stars, and a seven-headed, ten-horned beast rising up out of the sea. Usually in our study of Scripture we assume the text is literal unless something indicates otherwise, but in Revelation we must assume these descriptions symbolize something else unless we see something in the text that convinces us we must take it literally.

This apocalyptic, symbolic nature of Revelation is the reason why most posttrib teachers are hesitant to take literally such things as the 144,000 (search out the immediate problem with the list of tribes in Rev. 7:4-8), the description of the bizarre locusts in Rev. 9:3-11, or even the two witnesses in Rev. 11:1-14. Of course I realize this isn’t nearly as fun as thinking we can figure out ahead of time exactly how each of these events will take place and what they’ll look like! And because of this caution we don’t have a flood of posttrib books the way we do pretrib materials. But I would argue this is a much more biblically sound and balanced approach, and it avoids the embarrassing, outlandish claims we’ve all too often witnessed.

What will happen during the tribulation?
It’s not uncommon for people (even non-Christians) to think of this 7-year tribulational period as a virtual hell on earth. But as we learned in the post on Revelation, this isn’t the case. Actually the first part of this time will be relatively peaceful for many, and the only possible indication we’re in this final period will be uniquely new developments in the Middle East. (More on this next week.)

There are a few things that we know will occur during the last part of this tribulation before Christ returns:

Great persecution will take place against both Jews and followers of Christ.

Then you will be arrested, persecuted, and killed. You will be hated all over the world because you are my followers.

Matthew 24:9

When the dragon realized that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. . . . And the dragon was angry at the woman and declared war against the rest of her children—all who keep God’s commandments and maintain their testimony for Jesus.

Revelation 12:13-17

This means that God’s holy people must endure persecution patiently, obeying his commands and maintaining their faith in Jesus.

Revelation 14:12

Large numbers of people who have claimed to be followers of Christ will turn away from the true faith.

And many will turn away from me and betray and hate each other. And many false prophets will appear and will deceive many people. Sin will be rampant everywhere, and the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.

Matthew 24:10-13

Now the Holy Spirit tells us clearly that in the last times some will turn away from the true faith; they will follow deceptive spirits and teachings that come from demons.

1 Timothy 4:1

All of the world will be reached with the gospel.

And the Good News about the Kingdom will be preached throughout the world, so that all nations will hear it; and then the end will come.

Matthew 24:14

After this I saw a vast crowd, too great to count, from every nation and tribe and people and language, standing in front of the throne and before the Lamb. They were clothed in white robes and held palm branches in their hands. And they were shouting with a great roar,

“Salvation comes from our God who sits on the throne
and from the Lamb!”

Revelation 7:9-10

God will pour out plagues on the earth.
Just as with the plagues God poured out on Egypt, at first these plagues will be mostly disruptions and inconveniences. But near the end of the tribulation, these plagues will begin to build in intensity as a woman experiencing the pains of childbirth. The stage is then set for the final, crashing crescendo of the return of Christ that occurs after the tribulation.

The first plagues are described as testing the inhabitants of the world. What Scripture refers to as “the wrath of God” against those who are openly rebelling against him only occurs at the very end. As we saw a few weeks ago (Removed or protected?), these plagues from God will not touch or harm those people who belong to him. As with the judgment of Egypt, because we place our faith in the sacrificial Lamb (Jesus), God will protect and pass over us.

We also find other details about the tribulation in biblical prophecy, with some passages referring to a rebellion against God led by someone most of us have heard of: the “Antichrist.” Who is this guy? What can we know about him? We’ll explore this next week.

Related post:

Revelation: The story comes full circle

The return of Christ series:

The return of Christ: Keeping the main thing the main thing

Millennial match-up

More on the millennium

Rapture 101

Examining the pretrib rapture: Israel and the church

Examining the pretrib rapture: Removed or protected?

Examining the pretrib rapture: Is the rapture imminent?

Examining the pretrib rapture: Assorted claims

The posttrib rapture

Locusts and dragons and beasts, oh my! (Or the great tribulation) [see above]

“Pleased to meet you . . .” (Introducing the Antichrist)

The return of Christ: Odds and ends

Revelation: The story comes full circle

We often refer to being ‘fed’ by God’s Word. You could even think of the various biblical genres as different kinds of food. To me, the letters to the churches are like a thick, juicy steak, something you can really sink your teeth into. (If you’re a vegetarian, maybe you could compare it to a savory veggie lasagna.) Some of the psalms are almost the equivalent of a sweet, creamy ice cream sundae. On the other hand, the genealogies or chapters of laws and regulations are often more like lima beans or brussels sprouts; we know they serve a purpose and are good for us, but they’re not the most enjoyable thing to eat!

I compare studying the book of Revelation to eating a crab (or maybe an artichoke). Imagine going out with friends to a seafood restaurant that specializes in crab—but you’ve never eaten crab before. The smell is different but somehow appealing, and people seem to be enjoying eating it . . . but how in the world are you supposed to get into this thing and find the meat?! This is the kind of challenge we often experience with Revelation. The book is strongly compelling to many believers, even to brand new Christians. But it also creates a lot of confusion. Just how are we supposed to crack this book open?

Adding to our desire to get a handle on this book is a potential blessing described right in the book:

God blesses the one who reads the words of this prophecy to the church, and he blesses all who listen to its message and obey what it says, for the time is near.

Revelation 1:3

This sounds like a book we want to understand, doesn’t it? Thankfully, there are some basic facts about this book that help us sort out what it’s all about.

Apocalyptic
If you’ve been with us through the rest of this series on studying the Bible, you’ve seen different kinds of biblical literature that are probably familiar to you. We still have letters today, and also history, legal codes, poetry and even proverbs. We can relate to these scriptural genres. But the book of Revelation is a kind of literature called apocalyptic, and this is not as familiar to us. We no longer have apocalyptic literature being written today, but it was fairly common in the 1st century. So what exactly is it?

Apocalyptic writings claimed to reveal the secrets of what would occur at the end of time. The biblical book of Revelation is not only apocalyptic, but also prophetic. These weren’t just some strange visions that John somehow got a glimpse of, they were given to him by God for the purpose of communicating them to God’s people. But there is a common characteristic of apocalyptic writing that we have to be very aware of when we begin to read and study the book of Revelation:

Symbolic
Apocalyptic writing was always highly symbolic. Very little was written clearly and literally, but symbolism was used throughout these writings to communicate their message. That’s the nature of this kind of literature, and this is what we should expect when we read Revelation. Is this what we find?

In the first chapter of Revelation, we’re introduced to seven gold lampstands, which we discover represent seven churches. Seven stars represent the angels of these seven churches. It doesn’t take us long to see that this book is filled with symbols that represent something important, but we need to recognize that most of what we read in Revelation was not intended for us to understand literally. These vivid, colorful descriptions represent things that are very real, but the descriptions are meant to be symbolic.

If you search through Christian art from the Middle Ages, you can find paintings depicting Christ returning with a sword protruding from his mouth. But all biblical scholars recognize that this sword (Revelation 19:15) is not to be understood as a literal sword, but as a symbol or representation of the Word of God. If we aren’t trying to interpret everything in this book literally, we’ll avoid a lot of confusion. For example, some of you may have heard attempts to understand, as literal, the scorpion-like locusts in Revelation 9:1-12 with gold crowns on their heads, faces like humans, hair like women and teeth like a lion. If we try to hard to interpret something literally that is meant to be symbolic, the results can be pretty silly—and we can miss the whole point of the elements in the prophecy.

This is challenging for many of us, because we’re accustomed to understanding the Bible literally. While the Bible includes metaphors and colorfully poetic expressions (as do most writings), everything indicates that the events recorded in Scripture are to be understood as actual, literal events. As a rule of thumb, we assume what we read in the Bible is literal unless something in the text indicates otherwise. In other words, it means what it says (just as we do today). With apocalyptic writing such as the book of Revelation (and parts of the Old Testament prophetic books such as Daniel), we have to turn this rule completely around: In Revelation we must assume that what we read is symbolic unless something in the text indicates otherwise.

Tied to the Old Testament
John (the author) makes specific references to the Old Testament over 200 times in the book of Revelation. The imagery he uses is almost always drawn directly from the Old Testament. This means the more familiar we are with the Old Testament, the easier it will be for us to understand the book of Revelation.

Not written in chronological order
You may have noticed there are many series of seven in the book of Revelation. In the first three chapters, we see seven churches. In the rest of the book, we find seven seals, seven trumpets, seven bowls, etc. If you’ve ever tried to fit all of these into chronological order, you may have become very confused. Here’s an example of why this is a problem. If you read in Revelation 6:12-17, you’ll see a description of what happens when the sixth seal is broken:

I watched as the Lamb broke the sixth seal, and there was a great earthquake. The sun became as dark as black cloth, and the moon became as red as blood. Then the stars of the sky fell to the earth like green figs falling from a tree shaken by a strong wind. The sky rolled up like a scroll, and all of the mountains and islands were moved from their places.

Then everyone—the kings of the earth, the rulers, the generals, the wealthy, the powerful, and every slave and free person—all hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains. And they cried to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of the one who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb. For the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to survive?”

What is this describing? It certainly sounds like the very end, doesn’t it? But if we’re trying to fit Revelation into chronological order, we have a real problem because we still have seven trumpets and seven bowls to go. If you read the end of the series of seven trumpets (Revelation 11:15-19) and the series of seven bowls (16:17-21), they also sound like the very end. How do we make sense of this?

If you’re familiar with the Old Testament, this actually shouldn’t be so confusing. We often see in Scripture what the scholars call “recapitulation.” For instance, do you realize we have three accounts of creation in the first part of Genesis? What does the first sentence of the Bible say? “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” That’s one complete (albeit very brief) account of creation. The rest of chapter one tells us the story again, this time describing in greater detail how God created and focusing primarily on the story from the perspective of the earth. Chapter two “recapitulates” the story, this time zooming in on the Garden of Eden and Adam and Eve.

The book of Revelation is doing something similar. When we study the seven seals, there is very little that ties these descriptions to the end of time until we get to the sixth seal. The seven trumpets seem to zoom in much closer to events of the very last days. They also grow in intensity, from the seals affecting one-fourth of the earth to the trumpets affecting one-third.  The seven bowls not only zoom in even closer to the time of the end, but there are amazing parallels between the trumpets and the bowls: how they affect the earth, seas, water, living things, the sun, bringing darkness, ushering in a great final battle, etc. And the bowls intensify from affecting one-third to everyone and everything.

This is just a brief taste of the parallels and patterns you’ll find in the book of Revelation. But if you don’t try to fit everything into some chronological order, you’ll avoid a lot of confusion and unnecessary exegetical gymnastics (that is, trying to fit square pegs into round holes to make everything fit).

The scope of the book
Throughout much of the history of the church, Bible scholars have debated the intended range and focus of this book. Some have felt that Revelation gives us only a very broad, generally encouraging theme of struggle and suffering, but ultimately of God triumphing. Others have protested that there seems to be much more rich detail in this book than would be required for a general, encouraging message of “God wins.” Some have thought what is described in Revelation is prophecy regarding events that have already occurred, while others see Revelation as being entirely fulfilled in our future.

More and more, students of Scripture are seeing Revelation as being, in a sense, all of the above. It is undeniably a figurative depiction of the struggle and suffering of God’s people and the ultimate judgment and triumph of God. And we can see where certain sections may very well point to things that have already occurred in history. But it seems just as clear that much of the prophecy in this book awaits fulfillment and, as we learned last week, prophecy often has a partial, immediate fulfillment and a final, complete, ultimate fulfillment.

Full circle
One of the most important things for us to do when reading Revelation is to see it from a ‘big picture’ perspective, in light of God’s master plan as revealed in Scripture. When we see Revelation in the context of the rest of the Bible, we find more wonderful parallels.

Genesis begins with creation. Revelation ends with new creation, a new heaven and a new earth. The first chapter of Genesis shows God systematically bringing order into chaos. In Revelation, we first see God removing his order and maintenance from his creation and allowing the encroaching chaos free reign (in essence, undoing much of Genesis 1), and then reestablishing his perfect and beautiful order. We go from the Tree of Life restricted from humanity in the Garden, to the Tree of Life freely given in the new Jerusalem.

Most importantly, we go from separation from God in Genesis—with the corresponding curse, decay and death—to complete restoration and reconciliation in Revelation. Heaven and earth as one (Revelation 21:3-5):

I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.”

And the one sitting on the throne said,

“Look,
I am making everything new!”

How to study the Bible series:

Which Bible version should I use?

The first three rules of Bible study

Why do we have to “study” the Bible?

Where are we?: Getting a feel for the bigger story

You’ve got mail: Opening the letters to the churches

Building bridges: Cultural differences in the letters to the churches

Following the story: God and his people, part 1

The heart of the story: Jesus

Following the story: God and his people, part 2

Acting on Acts: How do we apply Acts to the church today?

Should Christians obey the Ten Commandments?: Christians and the Old Testament law

The psalms: Prayers to God that speak to us

Walking with the wise: Learning from the Bible’s poetic wisdom

The prophets: God’s messengers, calling his people back

Revelation: The story comes full circle [see above]