In the book of Revelation, God draws aside the curtains on the stage of history. Through the captivating power of drama and imagery, Jesus shows us what’s really going on here on Earth, and where human history is heading. Revelation gathers up the key themes that run through the Bible and weaves them into the glorious climax of God’s redemptive plan for us and for this world.
This post is the first of a series that will take you through this final book of the Bible. We’ll explore it’s key themes, its storyline, its symbolism and imagery. And we’ll see what God is saying to us believers through this book as we follow Jesus day by day.
This series of posts is an edited version of seven talks given at a local church. For each of these talks, a brief illustrated introduction and a longer illustrated study were handed out to the participants. These will also be uploaded onto the website as downloadable PDFs.
The Revelation of Jesus Christ
The year is probably around 90-95AD. The emperor Domitian rules the Roman Empire. That mighty empire is almost at its greatest power and extent, ruling from Spain and Portugal to the Middle East, from Britain to North Africa.
At this moment in history, Almighty God speaks―not to the leaders of that proud empire―but to an old man in exile on a little Mediterranean island. That man is John the Apostle. He’s probably in his 80s, and almost certainly the only one of Jesus’s 12 disciples still alive. John writes, “I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” (1:9).
John continues: “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet saying, ‘Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea.’” (1:10-11).
And what John writes to these seven churches―the book of Revelation―has come to you by special guaranteed delivery from the Lord God Almighty in Heaven. God gave it to Jesus Christ. Jesus, in turn, sent His angel, who made it known to John (1:1). John wrote it, and a courier carried his manuscript to each of seven churches in the Roman province of Asia. That manuscript was copied and recopied, gathered with other God-breathed manuscripts into the Bible, and has now―in translated and printed form―found its way into your home and hand. You now read what John wrote over 19 centuries ago.
John begins: “The revelation of Jesus Christ, . . . .” (1:1). The Greek word for ”revelation” is apocalupsis. Our word ‘apocalyptic’ comes from that word. We use ‘apocalyptic’ to mean something that’s catastrophic, an overwhelming disaster. But the Greek word means something rather different. It means ‘an uncovering’, ‘an unveiling’. In the book of Revelation, Jesus is unveiling things to us.
Earthrise from Wikipedia, image by NASA
Earthrise: a photograph taken by Apollo 8 crewmember Bill Anders on December 24, 1968.
There’s a famous photograph entitled ‘Earthrise’. It was taken on the Apollo 8 mission to the Moon in 1968. The astronauts on this mission were the very first humans who saw Earth as viewed from the Moon. It gave them―and us―a completely new perspective on our planet. Likewise, in Revelation, God gives us a new perspective on this world, and all that’s going on in it. He’s giving us His heavenly perspective.
Things that must soon take place
Revelation is “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place.” (1:1). The book reveals what’s happening in the final period of human history, and where history is heading.
The Bible calls this final period of history the “last days”. When are these last days? The book of Hebrews tells us. It begins: “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, . . . .” (Hebrews 1:1-2). The last days began with the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. We’re now in the last days! In fact, John wrote, “Children, it is the last hour” (1 John 2:18). We’re living in the last hour! John wrote these words in the first century AD. This last hour began many centuries ago!
These last days will end when Jesus returns. Jesus Himself tells us: “He who testifies to these things says, ’Surely I am coming soon.’” (22:20). John responds with eager anticipation: “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (22:20). We all echo that cry: Come Lord Jesus!
An enigmatic book
In Revelation, there are many things that seem rather puzzling. For example:
►Who or what are the four horsemen of the apocalypse (6:1-8)?
►What’s “the mark of the beast” (for example, 16:2, 19:20)?
►Where and when is the battle of Armageddon (16:16)?
►When are the “thousand years” (20:2-7), also called the Millennium?
►Revelation is full of numbers―especially the number seven. For example, there’s the famous number “666” (13:18). What do all these numbers mean?
Firstly, we need to keep in mind that Revelation wasn’t written to theologians. It was written to ordinary men and women, many of whom had little or no education. Our Lord didn’t write the book to mystify us. He wrote it so we could understand it!
Seeing the wood from the trees
So how do we interpret these things? We need to start with the big picture, not the details.
What’s the most famous painting in the world? I think most people would agree that it’s the Mona Lisa, by Leonardo Da Vinci. It’s a portrait of an Italian noblewoman called Lisa del Giocondo.
Image from Wikipedia.
Mona Lisa: a portrait of Mona Lisa del Giocondo by Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519).
Imagine you’re visiting the Louvre Museum. You’ve never seen the Mona Lisa before. You go to the room where it’s displayed. And there it is! The most famous painting in the world!
As you look at this painting, you’ll see that the background to the portrait is a landscape. In that landscape there’s a bridge over a river. It’s just to the right of the lady’s shoulder.
Suppose you focus on this bridge. You think to yourself, “Why did Leonardo include that bridge?”, “Why did he place it in that position?”, “Does this bridge symbolise something?”, “And, if so, what does it symbolise?”
But if you get preoccupied about details like this, you’ll miss the big picture. You’ll fail to really appreciate the main thing―the portrait of the noblewoman, and the remarkable way that Leonardo portrays her.
And that’s how it is with Revelation. If we start by puzzling over the details, we’ll be in danger of missing its key messages. For example, in 13:1-2 we read about a frightening beast which has “ten horns and seven heads” . If we begin by trying to work out why it’s got ten horns (and not, say, five) and seven heads (and not, say, four) then we’ll be in danger of missing the main thing this beast is showing us.
But if we begin just by reading through Revelation and getting engrossed in the story, then the details will begin to become clear. For example, we’ll begin to see what this beast really represents. Then we’ll be better able to explore what the ten horns and seven heads mean.
God’s cosmic drama
Reading Revelation is like watching a play at a theatre. The curtain rises. We see angels and living beings full of eyes. Catastrophes and judgments sweep the Earth. Menacing monsters appear before us. We read of a great final battle at a place called Armageddon. A drunken prostitute parades before us, riding a many-headed scarlet beast. And at the end, there’s a city like an enormous cube―a city that is, in fact, a bride!
And as each scene is played out on the stage, we find ourselves absorbed in all that’s going on. We’re awestruck by the glory and majesty of God on His throne, and of Jesus the Lamb. We’re thrilled when we see the saints rejoicing and triumphant in glory. We’re shaken by the great judgments that sweep the earth. We’re shocked and appalled by the sight of the dragon and the beast.
But we’re not merely spectators in the audience, watching the drama on the stage. We’re actually on the stage! We’re actors, each playing our God-appointed role.
God’s picture book
Revelation is full of imagery and symbolism. But Revelation isn’t the only place in the Bible where we find this. For example: David tells God, ”in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge” (Psalm 57:1). Jesus used lots of imagery in His teaching. He tells us that He is “the bread of life” (John 6:35, 48), “the light of the world” (John 8:12, 9:5), “the good shepherd” (John 10:11,14), “the true vine” (John 15:1).
Why does the Bible use imagery?
►Firstly, as the saying goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words”. Each image and symbol in the Bible contains a wealth of meaning. You couldn’t fully explain all this truth in just words―only images can fully convey all the truth God wants to teach us.
►Secondly, imagery seizes our attention, stirs our imagination and rouses our emotions. It drives truth home to us in a way that we don’t easily forget.
So how can we understand and interpret all the imagery and symbolism in Revelation? One key is this: more than any other New Testament book, we need to read Revelation with our Old Testament open beside us.
Revelation constantly alludes back to the Old Testament. In its 405 verses there are (according to one estimate) “something like 676 allusions” . The books most frequently alluded to are Isaiah, Psalms, Ezekiel, Daniel and Exodus. So the better we know the Old Testament, the better we’ll be able to understand Revelation.
Here’s an example. In chapters 13 and 17, a terrifying beast appears. In 13:1-2―as we mentioned earlier―we see a frightening beast which has “ten horns and seven heads”. The beast of chapter 17 is doubtless the same beast. We read this: “And I saw a beast rising out of the sea, with ten horns and seven heads, with ten diadems on its horns and blasphemous names on its heads. And the beast that I saw was like a leopard; its feet were like a bear’s, and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth. And to it the dragon gave his power and his throne and great authority.”
Where in the Old Testament do we read about beasts like this? They remind us of beasts that the prophet Daniel saw. In Daniel 3:3-7 we read, “four great beasts came up out of the sea, . . . . The first was like a lion and had eagles’ wings. . . . . And behold, another beast, a second one, like a bear. . . . . I looked, and behold, another, like a leopard, with four wings of a bird on its back. And the beast had four heads, . . . . After this I saw in the night visions, and behold, a fourth beast, terrifying and dreadful and exceedingly strong. It had great iron teeth; it devoured and broke in pieces and stamped what was left with its feet. It was different from all the beasts that were before it, and it had ten horns.” These four beasts represent four world empires―probably the Babylonian, Persian, Greek and Roman empires.
In Revelation, John sees these four beasts combined into one horrific monster. The Book of Daniel helps us to identify what this beast represents. It pictures a combination of different world empires. In fact, it seems to picture all the world empires that have been dominated by Satan―in other words, every godless power that has strutted the stage of world history.
Revelation isn’t organised systematically. It isn’t a college textbook. It’s not a timetable of the last days. As we said earlier, it’s like a drama.
►Revelation isn’t arranged in a strict chronological sequence. Sometimes we skip forward in time and then back again. We’re probably familiar with this kind of thing in movies. These may include ‘flashbacks’―scenes that interrupt the chronological flow of the movie because they portray events occurring earlier in time. Revelation does the same kind of thing. We see flashbacks―scenes that take us back in time to earlier events. But we also see ’flashforwards’―scenes that take us forward to events in the future.
►Revelation alternates between scenes of what’s happening on Earth and scenes of what’s happening in heaven.
In the next part, we’ll try to answer these questions: What is Revelation basically all about? What’s it’s main storyline?
FOOTNOTES  Adapted from Blessed: Experiencing the Promise of the Book of Revelation, by Nancy Guthrie, page 12. Published by Crossway, Wheaton, Illinois, in 2022.  The figure is quoted in Revelation (Tyndale New Testament Commentary), by Ian Paul, page 39. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois, and Inter-Varsity Press, London, England, in 2018.
CREDITS ► Text copyright © 2023 Robert Gordon Betts ► All Scripture citations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, published by HarperCollins Publishers © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.