Understanding Revelation (Lesson 1)
When I was a young boy growing up I used to send my friends letters in code. We dreamed up elaborate encryptions for disguising our messages back and forth so that nobody but us could understand our communications. There were plenty of spy kits kids could get with the same thing in differing variations. I can still remember my secret decoder ring, ordered from a coupon off a box of breakfast cereal, it was used to translate coded messages into something understandable. Nobody else but us was allowed to know the real meanings of those top secret communications. I remember fondly the times when entire legions of imaginary troops would be dispersed in life and death struggles based on those communications with civilization as we know it hanging by a thread. Those were fun times to be sure. But what we need to take away from this is that first, my friends on the other end had the key to understanding my messages to them and vice versa. We knew how to de-code the encrypted language. And second, the coding of the message was for the purpose of concealing our messages from certain people. Those who did not know how to understand the messages would be utterly baffled as to the meaning and we could carry out our escapades of adventure and conquest right under their noses without them knowing anything about what was going on.
If we are going to have any hope whatsoever of unraveling the mystery of the Revelation, we are going to have to understand that it was written to an audience that would know what the message was and understand it the same as they did. God would no more write a letter to His children they could not understand than we would to our secret spy buddies in the spy games of our youth. The conditions surrounding the first readers of the Revelation were far more serious than any of those around which we as up and coming 007 spies had to contend with in the days of our youth growing up.
The first readers of John’s Revelation were engaged in a life and death struggle against the forces of evil who were committed to their annihilation. Backing up and looking at this great book from a distance reveals that it is obviously a book of encouragement, perseverance and hope to an oppressed people. the general theme of the book is the bad guys lose and the good guys win. The book paints very vivid and horrific pictures of the fate that awaits the bad guys while likewise portrays the joy and happiness that rewards the good guys. Time and again, we are taken on a rollercoaster ride through the book with numerous scenes of God’s wrath on His enemies and then His blessings and vengeful protection of his faithful children who are assured time and again that they will be victorious in the end and their enemies will suffer His eternal wrath.
The type of language used to write the Revelation is called “Apocalyptic”. This word comes from the Greek word apokalupto (ap-ok-al-oop’-to), and simply means a “revealing” or to “reveal”. This is where we get the word “Revelation”. The book of Revelation is certainly not the only time God used this kind of language. The books of Daniel, Zechariah and others are instances where God used this kind of language in order to “reveal” what He wished to communicate. The words used in this kind of language have a symbolic meaning in the minds of the readers of the letter. For instance the word “Horn” is used in both Revelation and Daniel. To the Jews, the horn was an emblem of power (1 Kings 22:11). Samuel wrote, “and he shall give strength unto his king, and exalt the horn of his anointed” (1 Samuel 2:10). David wrote, “But my horn shalt thou exalt like the horn of an unicorn” (Psalms 92:10). The Jewish Christians who had converted from Judaism would be familiar with this and when they heard the word “horn” they would associate it with “strength and power” in their minds. So we see that the many words used as symbols in the Revelation have significant meanings to the people who would first read the letter. The symbolic meaning of the word “horn” would not be easily known to anybody who was not familiar with the Old Testament scriptures so those reading the letter would not be able to understand what it meant to the first readers of the letter. To you and I, a horn simply means the horn on some kind of animal like a rhinoceros or a water buffalo. So if we are to understand the Revelation, we must learn what the symbolic language contained therein meant to a particular group of the people who read the letter in the first century.
Why was Revelation written the way it was?
Language is symbolized in order to conceal it’s meaning to all but to whom it is intended. The Christians at the time Revelation was written were undergoing severe persecution from their enemies. Just about everybody that was not a Christian was their enemy. Their enemies were viciously brutal and their lives hung in the balance on a daily basis. It was a crime against the laws of the government under which they lived to even be a Christian and the penalty for transgressing this law was often death.
In the book of Revelation, the Christians are told they will be victorious in the end and their enemies will be crushed in defeat. They are also told by God not to give in to their enemies and worship who they want them to worship, but to worship God and only God. The persecuting powers under which the Christians were living wanted them to give up the one true and living God and worship their false god. Along comes a letter from one of the most beloved leaders of the Christians telling them just the opposite and in addition to this, it spells out in detail the downfall, destruction and ultimate fate of their enemies. One must ask, what would have been the consequences faced by the Christians if this letter fell into the hands of the authorities and they could understand it? The persecution of the Christians would have become worse and all copies of the letter would have been denied to them. The authorities who were oppressing the Christians don’t want them to have any hope. They wanted them to give in and worship who they wanted them to worship. John’s message of hope, perseverance and victory would have been rounded up and destroyed before it was copied and distributed all across the known world. One could only imagine how horrible it would have been for a Christian to be found in possession of such a letter.
The Revelation had to be copied and distributed freely across the known world in order for it to be effective. In order for this to happen, it’s meaning could not be easily understood by the oppressing authorities of the time. So with that in mind, the message of Revelation was “symbolized” or “signified” as we see it in the very first verse of the book so that its true message was revealed in such a way that it could only be understood by those to whom it was intended. How did God do this? By using language that meant things only a Christian with knowledge of and access to the rest of scripture could possibly know.
Someone who was not a Christian, who had never studied the scriptures, whether old or new, would never understand the message of Revelation. To them it would be a meaningless mass of nonsensical writing that only confirmed in their minds that the Christians were a bunch of loony fanatics who followed after a mystical and hard to understand God that posed no real threat to them and their way of life. The Christians were given a message of hope, perseverance and ultimate victory over their enemies that only they could understand and that would not bring any added persecution to them because of it.
How effective was it?
The message of Revelation exists today. It was copied and distributed throughout the known world as directed by God. While many Christians were slaughtered for their faithfulness, Christianity as a whole survived and flourished and is still alive and vibrant today and will, as we are taught in scripture, continue to the end of time. History teaches us that persecution of Christians was no by no means limited to the first century. For thousands of years, Christians have been slain for their faithfulness by those who would force their way of life on others. Even today in some of the Muslim countries a proclamation of faith in the one true and living God is the equivalent of a death sentence.
Many denominations today have their own understanding of Revelation and it becomes painfully obvious rather quickly that they do not all agree. The real meaning of the Revelation was purposefully symbolic and hard to understand when it was written and it’s obviously hard today in view of all the many interpretations of it from numerous writers of all times, especially in modern times where we see the emergence of the millennial beliefs and teachings.
What we need to take away from this study is that the Revelation was a message of hope, perseverance and triumph, written to a specific group of people at a specific time in history. The Revelation, being intended for them, was successfully understood by them. It was written in such a way that Jewish Christians of the first century familiar with the Old and New Testament scriptures would be able to understand its meaning.
So with that said, we are going to look at the Revelation through the eyes of the first readers. We are going to examine their lives and the conditions under which they lived. We are going to discover and learn what all the figurative language meant to them through a thorough study of the rest of scripture both Old Testament and New. We are, to the best of our ability, going to learn how to look at John’s Apocalypse through their eyes and understand it how they did. If we are to understand it correctly today, we must realize that what it meant to them at the time it was written is what it must mean to us today.