Have you ever felt frustrated by the symbols in the Book of Revelation? If so, you’re not alone. Read a random dozen out of the thousands of books that have been written about Revelation and you will find a dozen wildly different opinions.
Most people start reading with a lot of enthusiastic anticipation, hoping that Revelation is going to show them what will happen in the future. But after a few pages, many readers come away scratching their heads and wondering, “what was that all about?”
Why is Revelation so hard to understand? A big part of the problem is the reference material that people use. Most readers start out struggling to understand on their own and then turn to a book or video about Revelation. But the writers of these books generally start by researching other books. They often compare Revelation with ancient documents that were written around the same time as Revelation. They see what the “church fathers” or famous commentators had to say. They compare Revelation with other “apocalyptic” literature that didn’t make it into the Bible.
Many of the commentators assume in advance that Revelation must be a symbolic commentary on the political and social conditions of the time, so they apply it to the history of the ancient Roman empire. Other writers assume that Revelation must be relevant to our day, so they try to plug in the current headline news.
But considering how the Book of Revelation came into existence, we will need to take a different approach in order to understand it. John, the writer of Revelation, gives us direction in the first two verses.
“The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave…to His servant John: who bore witness to the word of God, and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, and to all things that he saw” (Revelation 1:1,2).
Here we see that there were three sources that John used to write Revelation.
First of all, John bore witness to “the word of God.” In John’s time this was the Old Testament, and Revelation is packed with references to verses, themes, and stories from the Old Testament. It’s like hypertext; a word or phrase in Revelation links to an Old Testament theme or story that unpacks the meaning of the reference in Revelation.
In order to understand Revelation, we will need to dig deep into the Old Testament scriptures, and this may feel unnatural at first if we are from a faith tradition that considers the Old Testament to be fairly irrelevant.
Secondly, John bore witness to “the testimony of Jesus Christ” We don’t have to guess what this means, because an angel told John, “I am your fellow servant, and of your brethren who have the testimony of Jesus. For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy” (Revelation 19:10).
The prophets, including John and his fellow apostles, were filled with the Holy Spirit. The Spirit spoke to them in various ways, and they were able to know with certainty that they were hearing messages from God. For us to understand the book of Revelation, we too need to be filled with the Holy Spirit. As important as a background in theology or biblical languages may be, without the Spirit’s guidance Revelation will simply be a confusing jumble of seemingly unrelated and incomprehensible symbols. It is vitally important that you do not take my word or any other commentator’s word for what Revelation means. Before you study, pray that the Holy Spirit will give you understanding.
Finally, John bore witness “to all things that he saw” Revelation is filled with images and symbols. It is often said that a picture is worth a thousand words. Symbols convey rich, multifaceted messages that touch both the intellect and the emotions. But if the symbols are not interpreted correctly, the entire meaning is off. It is tempting to use logic, imagination, and the preconceived ideas of our own prophetic tradition.
In order to get the symbolism right, we must let the Bible interpret its own symbols.
Let’s look at some examples so you can see how Revelation works. Firstly, let’s look at how Revelation itself helps us interpret the symbol.
In Revelation 17 John saw a harlot sitting on a scarlet beast with seven heads and ten horns. In verse one an angel said to John, “Come, I will show you the judgment of the great harlot who sits on many waters” (Revelation 17:1).
In later videos, we will study what the great harlot represents, but for now, what are the many waters? In this case we don’t have to guess; in verse 15 the angel gives the interpretation: “The waters which you saw, where the harlot sits, are peoples, and multitudes, and nations, and tongues” (Revelation 17:15). This definition will help us understand the identity of the harlot because the “peoples, multitudes, nations and tongues” are mentioned 7 times in the book of Revelation and we can study these references to find out about the powers that support the harlot and the scarlet beast.
We can learn more about the water by looking at the Old Testament. In Jeremiah chapter 51 the prophet announces the destruction of Babylon, an ancient empire that oppressed God’s people. He says, “Babylon, O you who dwell by many waters” (Jeremiah 51:12-13) So when the angels says that the “harlot sits on many waters” we know that this is a reference to Babylon. This means that we will need to study the old testament passages that talk about ancient Babylon in order to fully understand the harlot sitting on the scarlet beast. But as we study about Babylon we will want to keep in mind that, unlike ancient Babylon which was a single empire, the harlot is associated with many “peoples, multitudes, and nations, and tongues” (Revelation 17:15).
What we learn by studying about the link between water and nations and Babylon will also help us when we study chapter 12. John saw a “great, fiery red dragon having seven heads and ten horns” (Revelation 12:2). Immediately we see a similarity with Revelation 17 where the harlot was sitting on “a scarlet beast… with seven heads and ten horns” (Revelation 17:3). But the dragon is actually identified as “that serpent of old, called the Devil and Satan” (Revelation 12:9). And in chapter 12 there is also a woman, but instead of an immoral harlot who sits on the beast, this is a pure “woman clothed with the sun” who is being persecuted by the fiery red dragon.
The story progresses with the woman fleeing to the wilderness, but the dragon “spewed water out of his mouth like a flood after the woman, that he might cause her to be carried away by the flood” (Revelation 12:15)
There are a lot of symbols that we will need to unpack to fully understand this passage, but our previous study in chapter 17 will help us. When we read that the dragon spewed water after the woman, we know from chapter 17 that water symbolizes “Peoples, multitudes, and nations, and tongues” (Revelation 17:15). Our interpretation of this chapter will need to explain how Satan uses multitudes of people from many nations to persecute the woman clothed with the sun, whoever she turns out to be.
And there’s more. The passage goes on to say, “The earth helped the woman, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed up the flood which the dragon had spewed out of his mouth” (Revelation 12:16). What is the earth that swallowed up the water? It will help us a lot to know that this is a flood of “peoples, multitudes, and nations, and tongues” (Revelation 17:15) that are swallowed up. And figuring out what the earth symbolizes is vital because in Revelation 13 “[John] saw another beast coming up out of the earth” (Revelation 13:12). It is this beast that creates the mark of the beast and the death decree against those who refuse to worship the image of the beast.
The point of all this is that the more symbols you identify, the more it helps to interpret other parts of revelation until the puzzle picture begins to come into focus. But it is essential to get the symbols right by letting the Bible itself interpret them. Those of you who play sudoku know that when you get stuck, it is tempting to guess, but when you do, you can end up on a total dead end. The same with Revelation: guessing or speculating doesn’t work. As the Apostle Paul said, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching” (2 Timothy 3:16)
Let’s look at a more challenging example. Revelation chapter 4 introduces “The Seven Seals.” This is one of the more difficult sections to understand, but getting it right is crucial for understanding the whole first half of Revelation.
“[John] looked, and behold, a door was open in heaven” (Revelation 4:1).
Looking through the door he saw a throne with God sitting on it, surrounded by a rainbow. There were twenty-four elders sitting on thrones, seven lamps of fire, a sea of glass, and four living creatures. He saw a slaughtered lamb with a book with seven seals that was so important that John couldn’t quit crying at the thought that it couldn’t be opened. As the Lamb opened the seals the “four horsemen of the Apocalypse” came riding out. John saw martyrs under the altar, the time of trouble, the 144,000, and the great multitude.
That’s a lot of symbols, which can make this seem very confusing. If you have read books or watched videos about Revelation you no doubt have heard interpretations of the Seven Seals that included plagues, wars, or disasters at some point in history or in the future. But In order to make sense of the Seven Seals, we will need to analyze all of the symbols, using the Bible as our guide. We will do that in our series on the Seven Seals, but for now, let’s just look at a couple of the important symbols that will give us some initial direction.
John saw God on His throne. “And around the throne, were four living creatures…The first living creature was like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature had a face like a man, and the fourth living creature was like a flying eagle” (Revelation 4:6,7).
What strange creatures these are! You might wonder why they would be in heaven around God’s throne. First of all, we should keep In mind that these are symbols. If we went to heaven we probably wouldn’t see a race of creatures that looked like these. When I use pictures for these videos, it’s not because I think that is what heaven looks like. God showed John something which he described as best he could, and the artist did his best to portray it. But we can’t imagine what heaven really looks like.
It would be even more difficult to guess what these strange creatures are, but fortunately, we don’t have to. We find these same four living creatures in the Old Testament book of Ezekiel. Ezekiel was a prophet at a time when God’s chosen representative nation had turned away from Him and were worshiping the gods of other nations. This idol worship involved violence, immorality, and even sacrificing their own children.
Ezekiel saw a vision of “a whirlwind…and from within it came four living creatures…each had the face of a man; each of the four had the face of a lion, each had the face of an ox, and each had the face of an eagle…over their heads was a throne…with the appearance of a man high above it” (Ezekiel 1:4-10).
It is obvious that when Jesus showed John the four living creatures around the throne of God, He wanted us to remember Ezekiel’s vision. Ezekiel tells us that the living creatures were Cherubim, which are a type of angel. The cherubim went with God as witnesses as He took Ezekiel on a tour of Jerusalem to see the corruption of the spiritual leaders. God said to Ezekiel, “Do you see what they are doing, the great abominations? For they say, ‘the Lord does not see us…they have filled the land with violence” (Ezekiel 8:4-18).
God showed Ezekiel that His chosen representatives had rejected His leadership and in doing so had forfeited His protection from the powerful enemies around them. Those enemies were symbolized by “six men…each with his battle-ax in his hand.” They intended to “go through the city and kill…utterly slay old and young men, maidens and little children and women” (Ezekiel 9:2,6).
But God wanted to save whoever he could from this destruction. He commanded an angel to “Put a mark on the foreheads of the men who sigh and cry over all the abominations that are done within it” The destroyers were not allowed to kill those who faithfully rejected violence and idolatry: “Do not come near anyone on whom is the mark” (Ezekiel 9:4,6).
We see in Ezekiel that the four living creatures were present at the judgment of those who claimed to be followers of God. God’s followers were surrounded by enemies who wanted to destroy them. God wanted Ezekiel to see for himself that many of the religious leaders should not be protected from destruction. But those who were faithful would be protected; they were marked on their foreheads and the enemies could not harm them.
Coming back to Revelation 4, when we see the four living creatures surrounding the throne of God, we would suspect from what we learned in Ezekiel that the Seven Seals are also a description of the judgment of people who have claimed to be followers of God. And this search uncovered another parallel that strengthens our hypothesis. In the sixth seal we see angels “sealing the servants of God on their foreheads” (Revelation 7:3). just like we did in Ezekiel. When this is finished all hell breaks loose with the Seven trumpets, during which God’s enemies carry out the greatest slaughter of humanity in all of human history. But they can only harm “those people who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads” (Revelation 9:4).
We will study this in a lot more detail in the series on the seven seals, but do you see how the symbol in revelation directed us to the Old Testament passage that opened up the meaning? The next step will be to look carefully for other links that confirm that the Seven Seals have to do with the judgment. Let’s look for that in our final example.
“Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels around the throne, the living creatures, and the elders; and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands” (Revelation 5:11).
Notice the number of the angels surrounding the throne: “ten thousand times ten thousand and thousands of thousands.” This is a very specific number that is found in only one other place in the bible: Daniel chapter 7: “I watched till thrones were put in place, and the Ancient of Days [God] was seated…A thousand thousands ministered to Him; Ten thousand times ten thousand stood before Him. The judgement was set, and the books were opened” (Daniel 7:9,10).
We already suspected from the presence of the four living creatures that this section has to do with the judgment, and now the very specific number of angels that were also present when “The judgment was set, and the books were opened” in Daniel 7 supports our hypothesis that the Seven Seals are not just an interesting view of heaven followed by some plagues on earth; This is actually a courtroom scene.
The passage in Daniel 7 also confirms what we will see over and over in the Book of Revelation: that everything that God does is ultimately good news. Read what Daniel says next: “[God’s enemies] were waging war against the holy people and defeating them, until The Ancient of Days came and pronounced judgment in favor of the holy people of the Most High, and the time came when they possessed the kingdom” (Daniel 7:21,22).
Judgment is God’s way of showing the myriads of angels who His true followers are. They will watch over them until the time comes when they will inherit the kingdom of God for eternity.
We will have a lot more to say about the Seven Seals, but the takeaway from this video is that the Book of Revelation is not so hard to understand if we let the Bible explain itself.
The symbols of Revelation are linked to other scriptures in the Bible, and these links help us unpack the meaning of Revelation. The Book of Revelation is a gift from God, and He did not give it to us in order to confuse or frustrate us. The Holy Spirit can teach us through the scriptures He has already inspired.
We are just getting started on an epic journey through the book of Revelation. I would encourage you to read the whole book several times so you will be familiar with where the passages we study fit within the larger context of the book. And you will find it helpful to look up for yourself the Bible verses that we reference in each video.
If you enjoyed this video please like it, share it, subscribe to this channel, and click on the bell so that you will be notified of future videos.
To see all the videos in this series check out the Revelation of Jesus playlist. These videos are based on the book “A Revelation of Jesus” by David Lackey; you can order a copy of the book on Amazon or other on-line bookstores, or read it online at RevelationofJesus.net