The book of Revelation begins with the words, “The Revelation of Jesus Christ” – “which God gave unto him [Christ]” – “to shew unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass…” (Rev. 1:1).
With these words, we know the purpose of the book of Revelation – it is to show God’s people “things which must shortly come to pass” (cf. Rev. 1:3,19; 4:1, 22:10).
There is a blessing attached to those who give their attention to the “things which must shortly come to pass” – “Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written therein: for the time is at hand” (Rev. 1:3). The reader is reminded of the purpose and the blessings at the end of the book:
And he saith unto me, These saying are faithful and true: and the Lord God of the holy prophets sent his angel to shew unto his servants the things which must shortly be done. Behold, I come quickly: blessed is he that keepeth the sayings of this book. Rev. 22:6,7.
The blessings at the beginning of the book include blessings on those who “read,” on those who “hear” and on those who “keep.” The blessings at the end of the book, only mentions those who “keep.” This is because, when we have reached the end of the book we have already “read” and we have already “heard,” it only remains to “keep.” But we can only “keep” if we have understood. And we can only understand if we learn how to interpret the book correctly.
Previously, we have looked at some of the major issues that affect the interpretation of Revelation, such as the spiritual/literal debate, biblical principles of interpretation, the science of salvation etc. It is now time to begin with the book of Revelation directly. However, before we begin it is helpful to point out that this analysis of Revelation will not be a verse-by-verse procedure. This study of Revelation takes a thematic approach.
As previously stated, the Bible is constructed like a musical symphony. This kind of construction is composed of several main themes. These themes are then woven together to create the crescendo at the end of the symphony. The book of Revelation is the crescendo at the end of the Bible. It is in Revelation where we find that all the themes relevant to the science of salvation are intertwined and the “salvation symphony” is brought to its conclusion. It is for this reason, that this study, takes a thematic approach to Revelation. It is therefore useful from the outset to once again identify and review these major themes.
Daniel and Revelation
The book of Revelation is sometimes called the “Apocalypse.” This is because the Greek word for Revelation is apokalupsis and it means an “uncovering” or “unveiling” [in this technological age we can call this “unzipping”]. In this book Jesus is going to “lift the veil” and “uncover” the future for His servants. The Revelation is not a sealed book. John was told to, “Seal not the sayings of the prophecy of this book: for the time is at hand” (Rev. 22:10). By contrast the book of Daniel was a sealed book. Daniel was told by the angel Gabriel that the visions he had been shown would be sealed until “the time of the end.” Gabriel explained that at the time of the end, “many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased” (Dan. 12:4,9). Therefore, much of the book of Daniel was “sealed” until “the time of the end.” It was at this time that many would “run to and fro” in the book of Daniel and knowledge about the end of the world, and the second coming of Christ would be increased.
From these observations we can determine that the book of Revelation is to reveal, to God’s people, things that take place, from the time of John onwards – it is not sealed for some future consumption. It was available to be understood by John’s generation and all future generations. “Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written therein: for the time is at hand” (Rev. 1:3).
Now is the time [since the time of John] to understand the book of Revelation. But as time goes by the importance and relevance of the book of Revelation becomes exponential – it becomes increasingly relevant and important to each generation as the scroll of time unrolls. This is because at “the time of the end” the connection between Daniel’s book and the Revelation would become more and more apparent and obvious. Ellen White’s comments on this connection include the following:
A wonderful connection is seen between the universe of heaven and this world. The things revealed to Daniel were afterward complemented by the revelation made to John on the Isle of Patmos. These two books should be carefully studied… It was the Lion of the tribe of Judah who unsealed the book (Daniel) and gave to John the revelation of what should be in the last days… The book of Daniel is unsealed in the revelation to John, and carries us forward to the last scenes of this world’s history… Read Revelation in connection with Daniel. Teach these things. TM 114,115.
Therefore, any interpretation of the book of Revelation must consider two things:
- The book of Daniel was sealed. However, the time would come when it would be opened. We have already noted that the Book of Revelation is largely made up of Scripture, events and imagery drawn from the Old Testament. This is particularly true with regard to the book of Daniel. Daniel is a prophecy, and Revelation is the revelation of that prophecy. Therefore, as Daniel is unsealed and understood, we should expect to find a corresponding and corroborating prophetic picture in Revelation. In other words, we should see the book of Daniel repeated and enlarged upon in the book of Revelation.
- Because the Book of Revelation has not been sealed and because it is specifically stated several times that John was to be shown events soon to take place, any interpretation of Revelation must follow a basic and discernible, chronological pattern, from John’s time, until the end of time.
Ears to Hear
Even though the book of Revelation is declared not to be sealed, it is still sealed to many. Just as Jesus constantly advised His listeners to “have ears to hear” when He spoke, He also constantly advises the readers of Revelation to do the same.
The Revelation is given by God “to shew unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass” (Rev. 1:1). After John writes what he sees, he is instructed to send this revelation to the seven churches (see Rev. 1:11). In other words, he is instructed to send it to the servants of God so that they can “hear the words of this prophecy” – so that they can, “keep [do] those things that are written therein” and receive the promised blessing (see Rev. 1:3).
Only the servants of God are able to understand the book of Revelation. Daniel was told, “none of the wicked shall understand; but the wise shall understand” (Dan. 12:10 cf. 12:3). Jesus said to His servants, “it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them [those without ears to hear] it is not given” (Matt. 13:11).
In the age of the information super-highway we have discovered that “information is power.” The same applies in God’s kingdom. Information is only shared with the members of the kingdom. If the wicked were able to understand the “mysteries” they would misuse it – they would even use it against God’s kingdom. This is why the Book of Revelation is often dismissed as either a closed book or it is considered irrelevant, by those who cannot understand it – it is only open to the true servants of God.
Preparing for the Second Coming
One of the main themes of Revelation is the second coming of Christ. We do not have to proceed very far before we read, “Behold he cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see him. And they also which pierced him: and all kindreds of the earth shall wail because of him. Even so Amen” (Rev. 1:7). And John concludes the book of Revelation as he began it with the certainty of the second coming: “He which testifieth these things saith, Surely I come quickly. Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen” (Rev. 22:20,21).
However, Revelation is not just about the second coming of Christ. When dealing with the subject of the second coming its main focus is on preparing God’s people for the second coming of Christ.
The messages to the seven churches are all given to encourage God’s people to “overcome.” The seven trumpets are blown to exhort God’s people to repentance. The seven seals contain the description of those who have succeeded in overcoming. Revelation is not just a blow-by-blow account, of the major events that occur in the history of the world, from the time of John until the end of time. It is about the completion of the church – the perfecting of the church. Christ showed the seeds, the Holy Spirit watered them, and the Book of Revelation is about the Church of God reaching maturity – growing up and ready for the harvest. The authors of the SDA Bible Commentary recognize that Revelation is about Jesus Christ at work in His church, with a specific purpose in mind:
The book is a revelation of Jesus Christ at work perfecting a people on earth so that they may reflect His flawless character, and guiding His church through the vicissitudes of history toward the accomplishment of His eternal purpose. SDA Bible Commentary, vol. 7, p.724.
And in her account of the growth and spiritual development of God’s kingdom down through the ages, Ellen White writes that there is a purpose and a goal to be reached before Christ returns:
When the character of Christ shall be perfectly reproduced in His people, then, He will come to claim them as His own. COL. 69.
Ellen White is only repeating and enlarging on the words of John when he wrote:
Beloved, now we are the sons God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him: for we shall see him as he is. And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure. 1 Jn. 3:2, 3.
The book of Revelation is about how God’s people reach this goal, what happens to God’s people on the journey, and what happens after the goal has been obtained. Revelation does not countenance the least possibility of failure, on the part of God’s people, in the pursuit of this goal. There are casualties – but Revelation reveals God’s church triumphant.
The Advent Movement
Because Jesus is perfecting His people, His people will be commandment keepers. Therefore, there will be an emphasis on the law of God and the seventh day Sabbath. God’s people will also be proclaiming the judgment and the second coming, because these will be the last events to occur before the opportunity for salvation is finished forever. Therefore, there must be a Movement that rises up from among God’s people that preaches these things. There must be a last warning and a last invitation and exhortation, to repentance and salvation, for the people of the world. This task has been given to the Advent Movement. Therefore, we should expect to find the Advent Movement center stage in the Book of Revelation. And this is indeed the case, the history of the Advent Movement is prominently displayed in Revelation, as is its mission, and its tribulations.
The Book of Revelation is about judgment – in all its different phases. Broadly speaking, the judgment, as presented in Revelation can be divided into several parts. There is a warning phase with calls to repent and overcoming. There is the investigation phase where God’s people are judged. There is the close of probation when the investigative phase is finished. Followed by the execution of the judgment on those that are declared guilty [they are remanded in the prison house of death]. Then there is the sentencing of the guilty carried out in heaven. Finally, there is the execution of the sentencing at the second resurrection.
The book of Genesis is about the loss of paradise. The Book of Revelation is about paradise restored. As paradise is being restored, Revelation assures us that it will never be lost again. It is stated that “there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain” (Rev. 21:4). In addition, it is stated: “And there shall be no more curse” (Rev. 22:3). In order for this to happen, all questions about God’s love, His mercy and His justice have to be investigated, decided upon and administered, to the satisfaction of His created universe. This is the purpose of the Judgment and is the reason it occupies such a prominent place in the last day events outlined in Revelation.
The Roman Power
Just as John saw the history and progress of God’s Kingdom, he also saw the history and progress of Satan’s Kingdom. The power that predominates in Satan’s kingdom is the Roman power. It was Daniel who saw this power arrive in the prophetic picture, and it continues and predominates until the end of time.
The fact that the Roman power exists until the end is consistently taught, beginning with its first presentation in Daniel. The iron, which represents Rome, extends from the legs through the feet to the toes. Even though the iron is mingled with clay in the feet and the toes, it still represents the presence of Roman power [in a metamorphosed form]. And it is this iron [now mingled with the clay] that is struck by the stone [symbolizing the second coming of Christ]. Therefore, the Roman power exists until the end of time. The book of Daniel repeats and enlarges upon the judgment and destruction of the Roman power, repeating again that it continues until the end of time:
But the judgment shall be set [by the court of the Most High], and they shall take away his dominion to consume it [gradually] and to destroy it [suddenly] in the end. Dan. 7:26. The Amplified Bible.
Just as there are different names for Jesus and different names to describe God’s people, different names are also applied to the Roman power. In Daniel it is known as “the beast with iron teeth and ten horns” as “the little horn” and also as “the King of the North.” In Revelation it is known as “the beast with seven heads and ten horns” and also as “Babylon the Great.” In all cases this Roman power in all its myriad forms is described as being either active until the end of time or destroyed at the end of time (see Dan. 2:34; 11:45; Rev.16:19; 18:8,10,17).
Church and State
Jesus was crucified by the power of church and state. It was the Romans who crucified Jesus, but they did it reluctantly. It was the Jewish religious power that prevailed over the Roman temporal power, which crucified Christ. This is the pattern that has been followed in the past and it will continue to prevail in the future. The followers of Christ will not be treated any different from their Master. Jesus said, “If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (Jn. 15:20).
This is the message that begins with the mingling of the iron and the clay in the figure that Daniel saw (see Dan. 2:31-45). The iron represents the state power the clay represents the religious power. Both remain mingled together until the second coming of Christ. The stone does not strike the head of the figure it strikes the feet. This indicates that the time period during which the iron and clay are mingled continues until the second coming.
The book of Revelation repeats and enlarges on this church state phenomenon in the messages to the seven churches. And again, with the introduction of two beasts that work together in the latter half of the book. They are responsible for organizing the whole world to “make war with the Lamb” (Rev. 17:14).
The Revelation About Jesus Christ
The book of Revelation is described as: “The revelation of Jesus Christ” (Rev. 1:1). This can be understood two ways. 1. The Revelation from Jesus. 2. The Revelation about Jesus. Both are correct. The Revelation from Jesus is self-explanatory. But the revelation about Jesus needs some explanation.
When Jesus sought to prove that He was the Messiah, He always referred to the Scriptures. He would say of the Scriptures: “they are they which testify of me” (Jn. 5:39; see also Lu. 24:13-27). And John tells us that he wrote his gospel so that: “ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God” (Jn. 19:31). Indeed, the whole purpose of Scripture is to reveal Jesus Christ, and the Book of Revelation is no exception.
It would not be incorrect to say that the Old Testament is dealing with preparing the world for the first coming of the Messiah. And the New Testament is about proving that the Messiah was Jesus [plus the issues surrounding His advent] – this is the main focus of the New Testament. For example, there are only two New Testament books that deal with what Jesus is doing now; Hebrews and Revelation. And of these two books only Revelation reveals what Jesus will be doing in the future. Most of Scripture focuses on what Christ has done in the past (and issues arising there from). But, Revelation focuses on what Jesus is doing now, and what He will be doing in the future.
The Sevens Cycle
Almost all the events described in Revelation occur in groups of seven. There are four major cycles of seven: seven churches, seven seals, seven trumpets and seven last plagues. The first two begin in John’s time, the third soon after and the last does not begin until after the close of probation. Each cycle repeats and enlarges upon the cycle that preceded it.
The number seven is used because seven represents perfection and completeness. Revelation is about the fall of God’s people, and about their restoration. It is about the persecution of the kingdom and about its victory. It is about the perfecting and the completion of God’s people, therefore seven is consistently used. Revelation is also about the completion of this world’s history and the fate of those who reject God’s kingdom therefore the number seven is again consistently used. The number seven is used because in each sequence, history is completed. [Or in the case of the seven last plagues judgment is completed].
These combinations of seven are also meant to be compared and contrasted. For example, the seven churches are meant to be compared and contrasted with the seven heads of the beast. Both are introduced as mysteries. One has seven candlesticks and seven stars the other has seven mountains and seven kings. One contains the history of God’s kingdom the other contains the history of Satan’s kingdom.
The seven trumpets are meant to be compared and contrasted with the seven last plagues. Both are judgments. The first are judgments on a “third part” of the earth with a limited application. The second are more comprehensive [but not universal] judgments that bring the history of the world to an end.
There are also cycles of sevens to be found in the Old Testament. These are also meant to be compared and contrasted with those found in Revelation. For example, the seven trumpets have a direct correspondence with the trumpets that were blown in the Old Testament seven-month festival cycle.
Within each cycle of seven another pattern of four and three needs to be noted. For example, four horsemen introduce the first four of the seven seals, whereas the last three seals are not. The last three of the seven trumpets are called “woes” but the first four are not. The seven churches and the seven last plagues are also divided into a pattern of four and three but they are not so obvious. Recognizing this pattern is a vital part to understanding the book of Revelation.
The Sanctuary and the Investigative Judgment
The seven churches, the seven seals and the seven trumpets; are all introduced by Jesus in the heavenly control room – the holy place. Not the most holy place. This is indicated by the fact that, each cycle of seven is associated with one of the three items of furniture found in the holy place.
In the introduction to the seven churches, John turns to see who is speaking to him, and he sees Jesus walking among the seven candlesticks. In the introduction to the seven seals, John sees the Lamb ministering from the table of shewbread. In the introduction to the seven trumpets, John sees Jesus still mediating before the golden alter of incense. All of these furniture items were found in the holy place of the earthly sanctuary and they indicate that John has not yet been shown the beginning of the investigative judgment.
However, as the scroll unrolls, the ark of the covenant is finally revealed under the seventh trumpet. John is told that when the seventh trumpet begins to sound, “the mystery of God should be finished” (Rev. 10:7). It is at this point that the investigative judgment begins. The “things which must shortly come to pass” that occur under the seventh trumpet are repeated and enlarged upon in the second half of the Revelation – they function like an introduction to the rest of the book.
The last reference to the sanctuary is found in the introduction to the seven last plagues. This is because the antitypical Day of Atonement is now over. The end of probation has come. Jesus takes off His high priestly robes, and puts on His royal robes and is about to return to earth as KING of kings and LORD of lords. The sanctuary service has fulfilled its function and it is no longer required. When John was shown the New Jerusalem descending from heaven, he said, “And I saw no temple therein: for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are the temple of it” (Rev. 21:22). The Clear Word renders this same verse in this insightful manner:
I didn’t see any temple in the New Jerusalem. Actually, there was no need of one, since God and the Lamb were personally there. The Temple I had expected to see was now located outside the City as a memorial of what God had done for His people.
Chronological or Sequential?
Because prophesy, including the Book of Revelation is based on the principle of repeat and enlarge, it is not possible to understand it as being arranged in a strict chronological order. Nevertheless, there is an orderly pattern, and within that pattern there is chronological order. The Book of Revelation can be understood chronologically, but it is a chronology that moves forward by going backwards first, and then moving forward again.
Ellen White confirms that there is order in the way Revelation is presented: “The solemn messages that have been given in their order in the Revelation are to occupy the first place in the minds of God’s people. Nothing else is to be allowed to engross our attention” (8T 302). This orderly pattern is based on the cycles of seven.
Each cycle begins with events belonging to John’s time and progresses until the end of time. Within each cycle there is chronological order. But each cycle goes back in time and repeating and enlarging on what has gone before, it again progresses to the end. However, because the whole purpose is to move towards the climax of the ages [the end of history], each cycle enlarges the end, and includes more information about what happens at the end.
For example, the seven churches deal with the history of the church. But apart from the promises that Christ makes about his return, there is actually very little included about what happens at the end. Nevertheless, the end predominates over the beginning. The first three churches are quickly covered in 17 verses. It takes 34 verses to cover the remaining four churches. And the last two churches on their own take up 22 of those verses. In other words, the end is covered in more detail than the beginning.
In the seven seals this pattern is repeated, but prophetically we progress just a little further than the seven churches. The first four seals are rapidly covered in just 8 verses. The fifth seal is covered in 4 verses and the sixth seal in 23 verses. The fifth and sixth verses are dealing with events that take place at the end of the world. But the sixth seal also includes the unveiling of God’s people at the end of time in 17 verses. Once again, the events at the end are being emphasized. The seventh seal finishes with an enigmatic statement that progresses the prophetic picture just beyond the second coming of Christ.
The seven trumpets follow the same pattern. Once again, the latter trumpets are much more detailed than the early ones. The emphasis is clearly on the end again. And again, the very last trumpet, the seventh, propels us even further into the future than before. The seventh trumpet enlarges the prophetic picture all the way to the New Jerusalem and the inheritance of the saints. It functions as an introduction to the second half of the book – where it is repeated and expanded upon.
Because the seven last plagues are dealing with the judgments on the wicked after probation has closed, it would initially appear that the plagues do not go back in time at all – but in fact they do. As with the other seven cycles the last plagues of the seven plagues are dealt with in more detail than the others. The seventh and last plague actually occupies the next two chapters. The subject of Babylon is introduced under the seventh plague and the judgments on Babylon are repeated and enlarged upon in the next two chapters. It is during these judgments on Babylon that John is once again taken back in time before going forward again.
Revelation is therefore both sequential and chronological. The cycles of seven follow one another in sequence, complimenting and building upon each other. However, within each cycle there is chronological order, each historical period following the one before it.