Even without ever having read Revelation, you would probably guess that it is about the end of the world. Pop-culture, fiction novels, and movies have all contributed to the reputation that the book of Revelation currently holds in popular Evangelical teachings and the Western world at large. The belief system that puts Revelation’s events at the end of time, a doom-and-gloom future where everyone dies, is a recent invention stemming from a perversion in the church. Revelation isn’t so much about the future as it is about the past.
The book of the Bible called Revelation was originally a letter written in the first century by a man named John while living in exile on the island of Patmos to seven churches in the Roman province of Asia (Revelation 1:4). Ancient and modern interpreters have typically dated Revelation’s writing to the reigns of Nero (AD 54–68) or Domitian (AD 81–96). Throughout its text, it claims that the events it describes are about to happen in the present, meaning that if it is true and not false, all it describes has already taken place in the first century.
How can this be? Isn’t Revelation about the Rapture, the Mark of the Beast, the Anti-Christ, and the Great Tribulation? Well, yes and no. Those are topics for another article, but they all help contribute to the modern Evangelical misunderstanding of Revelation. While Revelation is about the past, it can still teach us something vitally important about the present, and lead us into a bright future.
Many readers struggle with or misinterpret Revelation because they misunderstand its literary genre. The initial verses indicate that this work belongs to three kinds of ancient literature: apocalypse, prophecy, and letter, each of which is important for considering the sort of book Revelation is and how we should interpret it. Revelation was a letter written to seven different churches in the 1st century that was meant to be read aloud. It partially functioned as prophecy, but in Biblical tradition, this means it is not exclusively or even primarily about predictions about the future. Rather, as we see in Revelation, Biblical prophecy is about speaking words of comfort and challenge to God’s people based on their contextual historical situation.1 Last but certainly not least, Revelation is an apocalypse.
Apocalypse doesn’t mean “the end of the world,” as it is now defined in English. The name “Revelation” comes from the Greek word “apokálypsis,” which means “to make fully known, or reveal.”2 This is why the letter starts with the phrase, “the revelation of Jesus Christ” (Revelation 1:1 ESV). Apocalypse in Revelation doesn’t mean “the end of the world,” it means “to make Jesus Christ fully known.” Much of the letter is written in the style of “apocalyptic literature,” which was popular in post-Exilic Jewish culture. Apocalyptic literature was a preexisting literary genre and was already quite popular in the 1st century when Revelation was written. Apocalypses feature revelatory visions within a narrative framework; they utilize symbolic, figurative, and metaphoric language; and interpret present, earthly circumstances in light of supernatural, heavenly realities. The English word “apocalypse,” which originally didn’t mean “end of the world,” comes from this ancient writing style. New Testament scholar, Michael J. Gorman, explains the function of apocalyptic literature was always “to sustain the people of God, especially in times of crisis, particularly evil and oppression. Apocalyptic literature both expresses and creates hope by offering scathing critique of the oppressors, passionate exhortations to defiance (and sometimes even preparation for confrontation), and unfailing confidence in God’s ultimate defeat of the present evil.”3
Ultimately, by using wild and creative symbolic language, Revelation is about how Jesus is revealed to be the lamb who reigns on the throne, how empire and it’s systems of power are evil, the dangers of the idolatry of patriotism, a call to covenant faithfulness and resistance, encouragement to maintain a faithful witness to the way of Jesus, and how judgment is coming against the evil powers of darkness in the spiritual realm. Revelation often uses violent imagery, as was customary of the literary genre of apocalypse. Still, as we will see, in this case, it is used to subvert commonly held assumptions about how God deals with his enemies.
In Revelation, numbers play a large role in symbolically communicating. Things are counted more than 75 times in the letter. (best viewed on desktop)
|1/3, 1/2||Limited scope or time||silence (Revelation 8:1); destruction (Revelation 8:7-12; 9:15, 18; 12:4)|
|3|| A distinct group
Divinity or false divinity
|angels (Revelation 8:13), plagues (Revelation 9:18), parts of the city (Revelation 16:19) the one who was, is, is to come (Revelation 1:4); triune source of grace (Revelation 1:4-5) dragon + two beasts (Revelation 12–13); foul spirits emanating from them (Revelation 16:13)|
|3 1/2||Limited time (half of fullness = 7)||3 1/2 years = 42 months = 1,260 days, the time for: the trampling of the holy city and the two witnesses’ prophesying (11:2–3); days between witnesses’ death and resurrection (Revelation 11:9, 11); years of woman’s nourishment in wilderness (Revelation 12:6, 14) and of the beast’s blasphemy (Revelation 13:5)|
|4||Universality, especially within creation||living creatures in heaven (Revelation 4:6–8; 5:6, 8, 14; 6:1, 6–7; 7:11; 14:3; 15:7; 19:4); horses (Revelation 6:1–8); angels, corners of earth, and winds (Revelation 7:1-2; 9:15; 20:8)|
|6||Imperfection, false divinity (lack of fullness = 7)||number of beast = 666 (Revelation 13:18)|
|7||Fullness, perfection||spirits of God (Revelation 3:1; 4:5; 5:6); stars in Son of Man’s hand = churches’ angels (Revelation 1:16; 2:1; 3:1); churches/lampstands (Revelation 1:4, 11-12, 20; 2:1); seals, angels and trumpets, and bowls of judgment (Revelation 5:1, 5; 6:1; 8:2, 6; 15:1, 6-8; 16:1; 17:1; 21:9); Lamb’s horns and eyes (Revelation 5:6); thunders (Revelation 10:3-4); dragon’s heads and diadems (Revelation 12:3); beast’s heads (Revelation 13:1; 17:3, 7); heads = mountains, kings (Revelation 17:9)|
|12 (and its multiples 24, 144)||(fullness of) God’s people, God’s chosen tribes and/or apostles, God’s presence; cosmic fullness||12: woman’s crown of stars (Revelation 12:1); gates of pearl, angels, inscriptions of tribes, foundations, and names of apostles in new Jerusalem (Revelation 21:12, 14, 21); kinds of fruit on tree of life (Revelation 22:2) 24: heavenly thrones and elders (Revelation 4:4, 10; 5:8; 11:16; 19:4) 144: 144,000 who are sealed (Revelation 7:14) and the faithful with the Lamb (Revelation 14:1, 3)|
|1,000 and its multiples||Large number with enhanced symbolism in multiples||thousands of heavenly angels (Revelation 5:11); the 144,000 who are sealed (Revelation 7:4), with 12,000 from each of the 12 tribes (Revelation 7:5-8); 7,000 killed in earthquake (Revelation 11:13); 144,000 faithful with the Lamb (Revelation 14:1, 3); dragon bound for 1,000 years while Christ reigns with the faithful (Revelation 20:2–7)|
Revelation was written to real historical Church communities living near the end of the first century and had applicable purpose and meaning for their lives. John starts his letter stating that the revelation was to show God’s servants “what must soon take place” and to “take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near“ (Revelation 1:1-3). Notice that John doesn’t say, “what must take place 2,000 years from now,” or “the time is far off into the future.” Through the genre of apocalyptic literature, John was describing what was about to happen soon—in the first century. John’s letter was eventually decided on by a council to be included in the New Testament canon, but before that, it was just a Spirit-inspired letter written to seven churches in Asia.
The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place.
This letter had an intended audience, and it wasn’t you. This letter was written in the first century. John is explicit throughout his letter that there is an urgency to his message. It is said eight times that the events described will happen soon (Revelation 1:1, 2:16, 3:11, 11:14, 22:6, 22:7, 22:12, 22:20). The word “soon” used in the first century very likely meant that the events described would happen in the first century.4
The word “soon” isn’t the only indicator that the letter was describing contemporary events. The author also uses phrases like “the time is near,” “without delay,” and “about to” (Revelation 1:3, 2:10, 3:2, 3:16, 10:6, 22:10). We cannot ignore the time-frame that John had in mind that God communicated to him. Why would we assume that 2,000 years later can be meant by saying that it is about to happen, soon, a time that is near, and without delay? 2,000 years seems like a pretty long delay.
While Revelation’s symbolic imagery represents the spiritual battle that took place in the first century, the reminders and warnings that John wrote are still applicable today. Multi-headed beasts, thousand-year periods, and pale-green horses were never actually seen in the first century, and won’t be seen today, because we shouldn’t take the symbolism literally. Revelation uses symbolic imagery, but that doesn’t make the realities to which they point any less real.
The Old Testament’s prophets were called by God, often in the context of a visionary experience, using poetic or symbolic language, to pronounce judgment and/or salvation. Prophesy in Biblical tradition isn’t primarily about making predictions about the future; rather, it is about speaking words of challenge and comfort to God’s people in their specific historical situation (Isaiah 6, Ezekiel 1). John’s letter follows in this tradition of bringing words of challenge to any in the seven churches who are succumbing to the idolatrous ways of empire, by bringing comfort to those suffering under the state’s violent ways, and finally, reminding followers of the Lamb that God is bringing an end to empire’s unholy reign.
Revelation is “resistance literature” written by a political prisoner. The letter’s primary purpose was to remind the church not to give in to the patriotism, nationalism, and cultural ways of the world’s largest and most powerful empire. Revelation is a reminder that God already judges these pagan nations, and the time of their destruction is near. Revelation is a call for faithfulness to the Lamb and his ways of nonviolent peacemaking amidst the temptation of violent justice. In these ways, John’s prophetic, apocalyptic words are still applicable to us today—especially any follower of the Lamb who happens to live in today’s largest and most powerful empire.5
New Heaven and New Earth
Since the author’s point of view is from the heavenly throne room, the fantastic visions described are from a spiritual perspective (Revelation 4:2). This spiritual perspective allows modern readers to understand much of the symbolism and decern what contemporary events and circumstances are being referenced. Remember, everything that was written about is concerning events happening soon and without delay (Revelation 1:1, 3; 2:10, 16; 3:2, 16, 11; 10:6; 11:14, 22:6, 7, 10, 12, 20). We can see this happening specifically with something like the Mark of the Beast, which nearly all scholars believe happened in the first century. But some parts of Revelation, like chapters 21-22, seem to describe events that haven’t happened yet, even in the 21st century.
After several chapters that describe the downfall of “Babylon,” a symbolic representation of Rome and all-powerful empires throughout history, the final two chapters look to the aftermath. Gone are systems of human government and violent power; now the Lamb’s bride reigns—the New Jerusalem. Yes, the New Jerusalem is God’s people, those who remained faithful to the true King (Revelation 21:1-10, 22:3-4). Instead of a temple made of stone and gold, the temple is now God and the Lamb (Revelation 21:22). Even the size of New Jerusalem is meant to crush the Babylon of the first century, being approximately equal to the Roman empire’s entire landmass (Revelation 21:10, 15-16).6 But Revelation goes even further by describing the New Jerusalem as a cube, giving it another dimension further than Babylon and because the Holy of Holies was a cube (1 Kings 6:20), and the followers of the Lamb are its royal priests (Revelation 1:6, 5:10, 20:6). These are all highly intentional symbolic references, true, but not literal. Revelation describes God’s Kingdom, his people, as the antithesis to empire. In this way, Revelation continues to be relevant today for former citizens of the empire of America.
God’s promise of New Creation, first mentioned in Isaiah, is found to become a reality with the victory of Christ on the cross (Isaiah 65:17-19, 54:11-14, 66:22-23; Revelation 21:1-5). The “new heaven and new earth” does not describe the destruction or the replacement of our planet or the spiritual realm; rather it is a description of the renewal of creation. As Gorman puts it, “the culture of the beast has been replaced by the culture of the Lamb; a culture of death by a culture of life; a culture of insecurity and fear by a culture of peace and trust. The new heaven, new earth, and new city are not, therefore, some kind of ethereal mist, but very real. This eschatological reality is not an escape from the materiality of existence but the very fulfillment of material existence.”7 Just as Babylon was a symbol for Rome, New Jerusalem was a symbol for the Church. Revelation describes the ongoing supernatural clash of the two opposing forces.
The Ongoing War
Just as the eventual fate of World War 2 was decided on D-day, the eventual fate of the ongoing cosmic war was decided with the crucifixion of Jesus. The war has been won. More and more people are leaving Babylon for the New Jerusalem—the Kingdom of God (Revelation 18:4). The Kingdom is God’s alternative to the way humans structure government. Jesus alone is king, which means that Caesar is not. Babylon, standing in for Rome and every empire before or since, is the great harlot and the beast. Babylon is infested with demons, it is drunken, idolatrous, and murderous. It achieves its ends by means of violence, control, coercion, torture, and murder. Its culture is death. The Kingdom, the New Jerusalem, is the bride of the Lamb and has the presence of God. It achieves its ends by means of peace, healing, compassion, nonviolence, and love. It is a culture of life. These truths are just as true today as they were in the first century.
We look for the continued fulfillment of Revelation 21-22 today, but we must remember that it already has been fulfilled, in-part. The ongoing destruction and judgment of Babylon, the coming of the New Heaven and the New Earth, the coming of the New Jerusalem, and God’s promise to dwell with his people were all events that John said were happening soon in the first century (Revelation 1:1, 3; 2:10, 16; 3:2, 16, 11; 10:6; 11:14, 22:6, 7, 10, 12, 20). Still, the destruction of empires like America and the fulfillment of God’s promise of renewed creation are still happening today. God’s promises have not failed us, so the world is indeed getting better.
Revelation isn’t about the end of the world. Revelation is a book of hope, invitation, and promise. Revelation is the promise of empire’s destruction and God’s presence among his people in our world (Revelation 22:7, 12, 20). Revelation is the invitation for all to come out of empire, participate in God’s gift of life, and enter into new creation (Revelation 22:17). This invitation and promise isn’t a private spiritual experience like most of Evangelical Christianity makes it out to be; it is a call to shed our former allegiances and patriotism and claim that Jesus alone is King. This invitation and promise is a loud declaration that Caesar has no right to rule and that loving allegiance to Jesus is the only path to the New Jerusalem. Revelation reveals to us, here and now, just as it did in the first century, that God was victorious on the cross and that the Kingdom of God is here. All are welcome.
Explore more about how Jesus remains totally nonviolent in Revelation, or how the last book of the Bible condemns America more than anything else:
- Leon Morris, Revelation: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 20, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1987), 53.
- William Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 112.
- Gorman, Michael J.. Reading Revelation Responsibly: Uncivil Worship and Witness: Following the Lamb into the New Creation. Cascade Books, an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers.
- Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997), 41.
- “Revelation is not primarily a book to be dissected but to be lived; that is the nature of resistance literature. Christian resistance, like warfare, is not passive but active. It consists of the formation of communities and individuals who pledge allegiance to God alone; live in nonviolent love toward friends and enemies alike; leave vengeance to God but bear witness to God’s coming judgment and salvation; create, by God’s Spirit, mini-cultures of life as alternatives to Empire’s culture of death; and invite all who desire life with God to repent and worship God and the Lamb. The will of God is for all to follow the Lamb and participate in the present and coming life of God-with-us forever.” – Gorman. Reading Revelation Responsibly.
- Kraybill, Apocalypse and Allegiance, 177, 212.
- Gorman. Reading Revelation Responsibly.