Several years ago I undertook a study in the book of Revelation. I warned those who were studying with me that this was unexplored territory; I might get to the end of the study with more questions than answers. As a matter of fact, that is how it turned out. I still can’t tell you what 666 means or who the antichrist is. But in the process I came to love this book. For the first time, the book of Revelation did not look weird to me. I thought that I saw (in a small way at least) what kind of book it was and what its message was.

I can’t explain everything in Revelation, but I am finally ready to study it. The next time I study Revelation, I will know where to start. In this article, I want to make a few observations about the nature of this fascinating and puzzling book, so that you will have some things to chew on the next time you study Revelation.

Jesus Christ is the author of these visions

Many consider the book of Revelation to be from a genre of literature called apocalyptic. Around the time Revelation was written, numbers of authors had written books in which they represented themselves as seeing revelatory visions. They didn’t actually have the visions; they wrote about fictitious visions in order to make some didactic point. The book of Revelation, it is said, is of that kind. The author of Revelation made up this story about visions in order to teach certain theological truths.

The fact that non-believing, skeptical scholars would make this argument is not surprising. The question is, however, whether we who believe in the authority of the Bible can accept this view of Revelation. Some have tried to argue that we can. John is not misleading anyone, they would say, because everyone knew the genre; he did not expect his claim to see visions from God to be taken seriously.

This argument makes no sense to me. The apostles took the idea of revelation from God very seriously. Whether things really happened the way the apostles said they did was crucially important to them. Paul constantly emphasized that Jesus Himself appeared to him and taught him the truths of the Gospel. Peter said that the apostles “did not follow cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty” (II Peter 1:16). John, the likely author of Revelation, started his first letter by appealing to “what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we beheld and our hands handled, concerning the word of life” (I John 1:1). Considering that the reality of the resurrection of Jesus is central to the gospel, it is highly unlikely that John would feel comfortable making up appearances of Jesus that never happened. No, if we take the truth claims of the Bible seriously, it seems to me that we must take the claims of Revelation on their own terms.

So what does Revelation claim for itself?

The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show to His bond-servants, the things which must shortly take place; and He sent and communicated it by His angel to His bond-servant John, who bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw. (Revelation 1:1-2)

The Father revealed to Jesus what the future holds; Jesus communicated what He knew through His angel (which means “messenger”); the angel showed these things to John, who wrote it down for his readers. This is the claim the book makes. John was not making up visions to support his theology; he was faithfully reporting a set of visions authored by Jesus Himself. Revelation is a huge visual allegory, the biggest story Jesus ever told.

Much of Revelation is not meant to be taken literally

When we talk about taking Revelation “literally,” we must be very clear what issue we are addressing. Christians often fight to maintain that the Bible should be taken “literally,” but that word doesn’t capture very well what they mean. Rather we should argue that everything the Bible asserts to be true is true. The Bible asserts that Jesus rose from the dead, and we should believe that. But when the Bible describes mountains clapping their hands, something very different is happening. A joyous time in the future is the reality behind the metaphor. I should believe the Bible’s assertion about the joyous future; I should not believe that mountains have hands, because the Bible is not asserting that they do. I would be foolish to take such a picture “literally.”

Revelation is filled with images which we must not take literally. Almost everything John sees has been constructed as a visual allegory, a picture to communicate symbolically. The first thing John sees is a picture of Jesus walking among lampstands. His head is white; His eyes are a flame of fire; a sword sticks out of His mouth. Is this what Jesus literally looks like? Of course not. Jesus has chosen these visual symbols to communicate something about His character and authority. The sword in His mouth, for instance, surely symbolizes the power and authority of everything He says. What literally comes out of Jesus’ mouth are words; but those words are symbolized by a sword.

Understanding the symbolic nature of the images in Revelation helps us to deal with its “strangeness.” When I first read the book, I was put off by it; it was just too weird. But I am not being asked to believe in a flaming Jesus; I am being asked to translate the symbols into the realities they represent.

Revelation gives me real information about the future, but it does so with symbols. This perspective should help us get our bearings in the book. For example, one author has argued that John was given a vision of Huey helicopters and thought they looked like giant locusts. This is very unlikely; John is not being given a window on the literal events of the future; he is being given symbols which represent that future. Locusts, multi-headed dragons, harlots–they all symbolize realities which don’t look anything like locusts, dragons, or harlots.

Television programs about Bible prophecy love to tell stories about supermarket scanners and implanted credit-card chips. Why? Because Revelation speaks of a mark on the right hand or forehead, a mark which a person must have in order to buy or sell. Why do we assume that a literal mark on the body is in view? Revelation pictures angels flying around marking the foreheads of believers; do we take this picture literally? The mark on the forehead seems to symbolize ownership. Those who belong to God He “marks” to receive His blessing; those who belong to “the beast” also are marked to receive his worldly, financial blessing. Revelation confronts us with this question: “Whose mark will you take?” In a book filled with symbolism, the mark doesn’t need to mean any more than that.

Revelation is filled with allusions to the Old Testament

One of the supreme challenges of studying Revelation is how much prior understanding it requires. Almost every line is filled with allusions to the Old Testament. In particular, the book of Revelation is built on the foundation of the prophets.

Take a very simple example: John’s opening greeting in the letter. In that greeting, he says:

Behold, He is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see Him, even those who pierced Him; and all the tribes of the earth will mourn over Him. Even so. Amen. (Revelation 1:7)

John is alluding to two prophetic passages. In the first, Daniel reports a vision of the Messiah:

I kept looking in the night visions, And behold, with the clouds of heaven One like a Son of Man was coming, And He came up to the Ancient of Days And was presented before Him. (Daniel 7:13)

In the other, Zechariah describes the future repentance of Israel:

And I will pour out on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the Spirit of grace and of supplication, so that they will look on Me whom they have pierced; and they will mourn for Him, as one mourns for an only son, and they will weep bitterly over Him, like the bitter weeping over a first-born… and the land will mourn, every tribe by itself… (Zechariah 12:10)

This conflation of two prophetic passages is not original with John; he first heard it from Jesus Himself:

But immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from the sky, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken, and then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory. (Matthew 24:29-30)

The rest of John’s introduction is the same; almost every phrase is informed by earlier passages from the Old Testament. This is only magnified when we get to the visions, the allegorical pictures Jesus communicated; He has woven together a symbolic tapestry with threads from the visions of the prophets. Any student of Revelation should plan to spend as much time in the Old Testament as in Revelation itself.

There is a blessing in reading it

Revelation begins by asserting, “Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of the prophecy, and heed the things which are written in it.” As a young Christian, I was skeptical about this promise. I had heard many arguments about the ten-horned dragon and all the other difficult images in the book. Who could claim to understand it enough to receive this “blessing”?

Today I feel very differently. The blessing to be found in Revelation seems apparent to me now. The key has been to stop thinking about Revelation as a road-map for the future and to start thinking about it as a book of theology. I don’t mean to suggest that Revelation has nothing to say about the future; it certainly does. But I do not need to resolve all the details about future events to profit from the book. We all need to step back now and then to get the big picture. Revelation is all about the big picture.

Think of the stirring refrain from the Hallelujah Chorus: “The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ; and He shall reign forever and ever.” We are stirred because of the music, of course, but believers are touched even more deeply by what it says. This is our great hope: that Christ will depose all the rulers of this world and establish God’s kingdom forever. Well, that refrain comes straight out of the book of Revelation (11:15). Nothing is cryptic or symbolic about it; it is a straightforward promise that God will prevail.

Revelation is filled with straightforward teaching about God, Jesus, the battle of faith, the destiny of God’s enemies, and the hope of eternal life. I don’t look down on efforts to understand the chronology of the book (if it has one!); I just believe that the promised blessing is not tied to particular details about the future. Rather, Revelation blesses us with the exhortations, promises, and warnings which form the major part of the book. At any rate, the next time I study Revelation, these are the ideas with which I will start. And I will study it again because Revelation has the power to encourage me as much as any other part of the Bible.