Of all the books in the New Testament, I suspect that none have generated the variety of interpretations that Revelation has. This book is filled with symbolism. Multi-headed dragons and other strange creatures. A lion that looks like a slain lamb, bowls of wrath, and an enormous golden city. Plus, many other scenes that seem to come from a very fertile imagination.
Many people read Revelation, find it confusing, and never return to it. Others adopt a popular perspective on the book and search it, looking for signs of the times. But I believe Revelation is not just a book about the end times. Instead, it was relevant for the time and culture in which it was originally written. And it is relevant for persecuted believers throughout history. This article will briefly explore this way of understanding this revelation of Jesus to his church.
Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
Table of contents
Revelation falls into the literary genre of apocalyptic literature. The dictionary defines apocalyptic as “describing or prophesying the complete destruction of the world.” This has led many to view Revelation as describing the world’s end as we know it. But apocalyptic has an entirely different meaning in the Scripture.
The first sentence in Revelation reads, “The revelation from Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place.” In this passage, the word translated ‘revelation’ is the Greek word apokalypsis. It is defined as “revelation, what is revealed, disclosure, to make information known with an implication that the information can be understood.“
The Scripture elsewhere translates apokalypsis as revealed. Matthew 11:27 is an example where we find Jesus saying, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed (apokalypsis) them to little children.“
So, the visions of Revelation are essentially pulling back the covers and helping John, and his readers, to see what would usually be hidden. It is a glimpse into what is happening from a heavenly perspective. The visions of Revelation are filled with symbolism and Old Testament references. And they can be confusing to the modern reader. But knowing the culture and audience Revelation was written to can help us understand its message.
Revelation is addressed as a letter from John, the author, to seven churches in the province of Asia. These seven churches are each mentioned by name in chapters two and three, along with a personalized message from Jesus. It is quite likely that there were more than seven churches at the time in what is today the country of Turkey. But seven is significant in Revelation: seven seals, seven plagues, seven bowls of wrath, seven-fold Spirit, seven candlesticks, and seven churches. So, it is likely that these seven were chosen as representative churches.
The province of Asia was a part of the Roman empire. And as such, there would have been a lot of pressure to conform to Roman culture, including emperor worship. There was also pressure from Jewish groups and temptations from other cults with some Christian window dressing. All in all, it was a challenging time for these seven churches.
The temptation to compromise with the culture around them was great. A couple of these churches had refused to do so and were suffering because of it. Others were struggling with compromise or infection from local cults. And for at least one, the struggle seemed to be over, having given in to the culture and becoming like them.
The purpose statement for Revelation is found in the first sentence quoted above. The intent of this revelation was “to show his servants what must soon take place.” It was to look into the near future. It must be admitted that our time scales do not always align with God’s. However, there does seem to be an expectation that what was revealed would be something they would see happening.
Given the condition of these seven churches as described in chapters two and three, a description of the distant end of the world would not be overly helpful. These churches were suffering because of their stand for Christ or were in danger of compromising with their culture to prevent that suffering. They needed a message that would enable them to remain faithful and resist the temptation to compromise to get along.
A Look Behind the Curtain
And that is what Revelation does for them. After their personalized messages, the scene shifts to heaven’s throne room. And we find out who is actually on the throne. And it is not Caesar and the imperial cult. God is on the real throne, attended by the hosts of heaven. And Jesus is introduced as the Lion, the root of David, and a lamb that was slain. He is the Lord that they are serving. And to him was given authority to rule.
As the visions unfold, we see a conflict between Satan, described as a dragon, and his followers, against the servants of the Lamb. This conflict parallels what these churches were experiencing in the physical realm. Revelation makes clear that, in the end, the Lamb is victorious over the Dragon. And those who have remained faithful to the Lamb will inherit a renewed creation.
This message would serve two purposes. It would encourage those who were faithfully suffering as believers to continue in the struggle. It would not be in vain. Their reward for faithfulness was sure and waiting for them.
On the other hand, those who had given in to compromise, or were tempted to do so, were in grave danger. When they aligned themselves with the imperial cult, or any of the other cults circulating that day, they aligned themselves against the Lamb. And nothing good awaited those who were not following the Lamb.
For the one, the future included a renewed heaven and earth and a part in the New Jerusalem. For the other, judgment and the Lake of Fire. This message is designed to encourage the one and cause the other to take stock and turn away from compromise and to faithfulness.
The Message for Believers Today
I believe that when we use Revelation as a tool to map out the end times, we have missed the point of this book that we are encouraged to read. In Revelation 1:3, Jesus tells us, “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.” In the Bible, prophecy is a message from God. Sometimes about the future. But more commonly addressing current events.
So, the message from Jesus to those seven churches in the first century is the same as it is for us today. Be faithful in the face of opposition to the gospel. Do not compromise with the culture. Babylon, our culture, will fall and be destroyed. So come out from her (Rev. 18:4) and be the distinct people God has called us to be. A people that will inherit the renewed creation.
The views expressed here are solely mine and do not necessarily reflect those of any other person, group, or organization. While I believe they reflect the teachings of the Bible, I am a fallible human and subject to misunderstanding. Please feel free to leave any comments or questions about this post in the comments section below. I am always interested in your feedback.
If you have found value in this post, please consider subscribing to A Clay Jar so that you don’t miss any other posts.