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03 February 2019

Some Common Errors in Interpreting Revelation

SYNOPSISThe book of Revelation is a sweeping picture of the church age intended to explain the real “battles” that are waged behind the scenes of history, ones that play out in the daily lives and struggles of Christians.

Photo by Samantha Lam on Unsplash
Photo by Samantha Lam on Unsplash
There are several errors commonly made when interpreting the visions of Revelation. Five of them especially stand out, specifically:
1. The insistence on “literal” interpretation.
2. The failure to recognize how Revelation interprets Old Testament passages.
3. The assumption that the book is about history’s final years.
4. The assumption that Revelation is about national Israel.
5. The assumption that Revelation is laid out in chronological order.
In its first verse, Revelation states that it discloses information through visionary symbolism. It declares that Jesus “signified” his revelation, which translates the Greek verb sémainō from the noun for “sign.” It means “to signify, to show by a sign.”
This method becomes apparent in the book’s first vision where John is told that “lampstands” represent churches and “stars” symbolize “messengers” or angels (1:19-20). This is symbolic, not literal interpretation. Other examples demonstrate the same methodology:
(4:5) – “And before the throne seven torches of fire, which are the seven spirits of God.”
(5:6) – “I saw a Lamb standing…with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God.”
(7:14) – “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation.”
(11:4) – “The two witnesses are the two olive trees and the two lampstands which stand before the Lord of the earth.”
(17:9) – “This calls for a mind with wisdom: the seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman is seated.”
Jesus is not a lamb with seven eyes and seven horns, any more than Satan is an actual giant Red Dragon. Again, this is a symbolical, not literal language. The horns and eyes represent the “seven spirits of God.” Likewise, the Two Witnesses are not “literal” individuals but two lampstands. If Revelation’s symbolism is consistent then lampstands represent churches (Revelation 1:20).
Revelation includes more allusions and verbal links to Old Testament passages than any other New Testament book. Careful attention must be paid to how Revelation interprets and reapplies said passages, often in unexpected and creative ways.

For example, the calling for Israel to become a “kingdom of priests” is applied to the churches of Asia. Language from Zechariah 12:10 that originally applied to the “tribes” of Israel is reapplied to “all the tribes of the earth” (Revelation 1:6, 5:10, 20:6, Exodus 19:6).
Revelation applies the prophecy of an invasion of Israel by “Gog and Magog” to Satan’s forces from “the four corners of the earth” that invade “the breadth of the earth” in order to annihilate the “saints.” This force consists of all nations united against the Lamb and his saints (Revelation 19:17-21; 20:7-10; Ezekiel 38:1-6).
In Revelation 22:2, the leaves of the tree are for the “healing of the nations,” a passage that originally promised to heal for Israel (Ezekiel 47:8-12).
The woman “clothed with the sun” gave birth to “a son, a male, who was to shepherd all the nations with a scepter of iron.” The last half of the verse is a messianic prophecy, here applied to Jesus (Psalm 2:9-10, Revelation 12:5).
The redundant clause, “a son, a male,” and the picture of a woman in labor are drawn from Isaiah 66:7-8, a prophecy that originally concerned a future restoration of Jerusalem, yet Revelation applies it to Jesus (“Before she travails she brought forth, before her pains come to her she has given birth to a male…As soon as she travails Zion has also given birth to her sons”).
Revelation does not simply cite Old Testament passages; it interprets and reapplies them. Failure to recognize how and when it does so can lead to erroneous interpretations. For example, the book’s first verse alludes to a passage from Daniel 2:28 where Daniel told Nebuchadnezzar that God had shown him “what things must come to pass in later days.” Revelation quotes this word-for-word from the Greek Septuagint version but changes the chronological reference, as follows: “what things must come to pass SOON.”
What was for Daniel in a remote future is now imminent for John and his audience.

The assumption that Revelation is about history’s final period before the return of Jesus ignores its historical setting and self-presentation. Revelation in its entirety was addressed to seven churches located in the proconsular province of Asia in what is today western Turkey. Its contents are about “things that must shortly come to pass” from their perspective (Revelation 1:1-4, 1:11, 4:1-3, 22:10).
While Revelation’s visions may not end with these seven churches, they include them and begin in their day. The seven churches are a representative group. They may not exhaust the meaning of the book’s visions but are included in them. Any interpretation that makes Revelation irrelevant to them does not take seriously the book’s self-presentation as a message to the churches of Asia.
John describes himself as a “fellow participant with you in the tribulation and kingdom and endurance in Jesus.” That declaration is problematic to any interpretation that insists the book is only or primarily about a final seven-year Tribulation two thousand years in his future (Revelation 1:9).
Several of Revelation’s visions portray events in the past, especially the death, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus. In Revelation 5:5-6, the Lamb’s sudden appearance in heaven and subsequent enthronement portray Christ’s exaltation to rule as a result of his self-sacrificial death, not some yet future event. The declaration that “now has come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Christ” looks back to the victory achieved in the past by Christ’s death (Revelation 12:7-11, 1:5-6).
In its entirety, the book of Revelation is addressed to the seven churches of Asia, not to Israel or the Jewish people. Its exhortations and promises are for the churches, for those who “follow the Lamb wherever he goes.” The people of God in the book consist of men and women redeemed by Christ’s death “from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation” (Revelation 5:9, 7:9-14).
The victims of the Beast’s persecuting activities are followers of the Lamb, not members of national Israel. The Beast ascends out of the Abyss to wage war against the “two witnesses” or “lampstands,” which represent churches. The Dragon made war with the “woman’s seed, those who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus.” The Beast wages war against “the saints,” identified as “they who keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus.” The term “saints” consistently refers to men and women who follow the Lamb (Revelation 8:3-4, 11:4-18, 12:17, 13:7, 14:12, 16:6, 17:6, 18:24, 19:1; 20:7-10).
Are Revelation’s chapters in neat chronological order? There are three major battle scenes that each borrow language from Ezekiel’s vision of an invasion by “Gog and Magog.” Each describes a “gathering together” of hostile forces to “the war,” singular (Revelation 16:12-16, 19:17-21, 20:8-10).
So, are there three final attacks by “Gog and Magog” that occur over several years, or is one final assault against God’s people described in three different aspects? Are “Gog and Magog” defeated by God and the Lamb, only to rise repeatedly to attack the saints? Considering the common usage of language from Ezekiel chapters 38-39 and the repeated reference to “THE war,” the same final battle must be in view in all three passages.
The book of Revelation is a record of a series of visions John received on the Isle of Patmos near the end of the first century. It communicates via visionary symbolism; its symbols are not to be taken “literally.” It was originally addressed in its entirety to seven churches located in Asia. It was concerned with their situations and intended to be relevant to them.
Revelation is about future events but not exclusively so. Its visions are anchored in the death and resurrection of Jesus; his victory and present right to rule are based on his past self-sacrificial death. The book begins in the past but does culminate in the future consummation of God’s kingdom in the New Creation. This means it is not primarily or exclusively about history’s final years.
The book of Revelation is a sweeping picture of the church age intended to explain the real “battles” that are waged behind the scenes of history, ones that play out in the daily lives and struggles of Christians and churches. Its visions show God’s servants how He is implementing His final victory and working to bring His people victoriously into New Jerusalem.
In doing so, Revelation is as much exhortation as it is predictive prophecy. It is a call to faithful endurance and witness; that is, for the church to be the church.

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