What Does Revelation

Mean to Us?

Mark Roberts

“The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show His servants; things which must shortly take place. And He sent and signified it by His angel to His servant John” (Revelation 1:1).  So begins one of the most fascinating, puzzling, frustrating and edifying books in scripture.  What do all of those signs and symbols mean?  Why is Revelation so hard to understand?  Of what value is such a symbolic book to us?  The answers to these questions are important if the last book in the New Testament is to have any power in our lives.

A friend of mine often says the book of Revelation is about the devil and the Lord getting into a fight, and the Lord wins.  That is indeed a fair summary of the book.  But why then doesn’t it just come out and say that?  Why all the monsters, beasts and blood?  The answer to those kinds of questions is found in understanding apocalyptic literature.  Revelation is particularly difficult for us to understand because we simply don’t read or write apocalyptic today.  Yet apocalyptic was very popular in intertestamental times and on into the first century ad.  Attempting to read Revelation without a basic understanding of its style of writing usually leads to confusion and difficulty.  Allow me to illustrate this point.  Can you imagine trying to explain a Roadrunner-Coyote cartoon to someone who has never seen cartoons?  Think of the questions they would ask: “What do you mean he never catches the Roadrunner?  Why doesn’t he give up?  How can the Coyote still be alive after falling off that cliff or being blown up in that explosion?”  Do you see all the things that go on in a cartoon that we do not question or worry about — because we understand that it is “just a cartoon.”  So it is with apocalyptic literature.  Much goes on in this kind of writing that is peculiar to this style of writing.  Asking the wrong questions or looking for certain kinds of information can lead to just as much confusion as disputing whether any coyote could really set such elaborate traps for a roadrunner!

Let us examine some of the basic elements of apocalyptic literature.  First, apocalyptic majors in visions and signs.  These signs and symbols serve to make the message interesting and exciting.  Saying “Jesus will ultimately triumph so stay faithful” is true and perhaps even helpful.  However, seeing Jesus slaughter His enemies until the earth runs with their blood, then turn and take on the giant dragon that is the devil and overpower him while the disciples of Christ are vindicated and given glory and honor and crowns . . . that is much more interesting, isn’t it?  Second, apocalyptic always presents a dual nature to this world.  Something more is going on than just what we see here on this earth.  What happens here is not the whole story, but actually just the playing out of a spiritual battle in heavenly places. Apocalyptic attempts to pierce the veil and explain events here in light of what is happening there (see Revelation 12:7-10).  Third, apocalyptic writing is big picture writing.  Apocalyptic writers use big, bold brush strokes as they paint a vivid scene of battle, warfare and victory. To over analyze the picture ruins it.  Many brethren seem convinced that there is some hidden code, or meaning, to every claw on every paw in this book.  It just isn’t so.  No one asks why the coyote in the roadrunner cartoons orders every gimmick from ACME, or who ACME is, or where they are, or how they can make all that stuff.  To ask those questions destroys the cartoon. Similarly, to dissect Revelation destroys it.  The beast of chapter 13 represents evil and false prophecy (obviously, see 13:6ff).  But to try and decide what his ten toes mean is folly.  Unless the apocalyptic writer clearly sets forth explicit meaning in details (see 4:5) then let the big pictures stand as they are and speak for themselves.  Finally, apocalyptic is crisis writing.  This kind of writing comes about in times when it is difficult to serve God and remain righteous.  Usually, apocalyptic is written when the faithful are powerless. This is not the literature of King David’s time.  If an enemy threatened Israel he took his mighty army out and defeated them. This was not possible for the Jews trod down under ruthless Syrian rulers in the time before Christ, or the Christians who were persecuted by Jews and Romans during the first century.  Apocalyptic is a response of faith to a crisis of faith.  It asks and answers the question “If there is a good God who controls everything why doesn’t He do something about those who persecute His people?”  The answer in apocalyptic is always the same: He will soon, so don’t give up!

Do you notice that nothing was said of dates and calendars?  Yet the number one misuse of Revelation is to try to use its message to plot out when the worlds will end.  Such is utterly vain and useless.  Apocalyptic was not written to be a date book or prophetic calendar.  In most apocalyptic the time frame of the end and vindication is soon.  The message is always “hang on just a little longer and God will straighten everything out.”  To try to turn that kind of teaching into a timetable by which we can read our newspaper and watch cnn is to fundamentally miss the message and meaning of the book.

What does Revelation mean to us?  Perhaps in some ways its message is lost on a people who have never been persecuted, or known the kind of crises of faith that produce apocalyptic.  But if your heart is troubled by our deteriorating society, if you struggle to maintain fidelity to Jesus, if you know hardship because you wear the name “Christian” then read this book.  Read its vivid scenes and imagery and be inspired: Christ will win so we must, no matter what, remain steadfast.  That is the meaning and value of Christ’s apocalypse we call Revelation.

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