Here we are at the end of the Bible – the Book of Revelation. Probably (at least I think so!) the most confusing piece of scripture there is; with the possible exception of Ecclesiastes. (Again, my opinion, anyway…)
Revelation was written by John – possibly the same John who was an apostle of Jesus who was with Him at the Transfiguration and the Cross. Possibly it’s another John – but quite likely him. He’s the same person who wrote the three letters attributed to John the Elder – or at least closely associated with him. Tradition tells us that John lived to be very old and died on Patmos, and we know that persecution in the Roman Empire didn’t heat up until towards the end of Nero’s reign in the mid-60s and then again in the 90s. If John had lived to the 90s he would have been very old; certainly possible especially since we think that John was a very young disciple with Jesus. And of course, anything is possible with God.
So I think it was John the Apostle who wrote Revelation. I also think that it was written with an amanuensis just like Paul does – and I don’t think this particular amanuensis was terribly well educated. The Greek of Revelation is difficult not because it is complicated or highly literary (like Luke or Paul or Hebrews) but rather because its not very good. The grammar is bad – and therefore it’s difficult to translate into another language.
Also, it’s difficult to translate because it is just so confusing. So many random numbers that aren’t random and so many repeats…so many of the 7 this and the 7 that and the first trumpet and the 6th bowl…and one third of the people dying, but then another third, and how many was that again? The imagery is difficult to wrap our heads around too – dragons and beasts and “living creatures” and elders and thrones and seas of crystal…
The Greek word we translate “revelation” means something like “unveiling a mystery.” It doesn’t mean the End Times or anything like it. It is just a long letter to the Christian people during a difficult time when they were scared and wanting to know what was happening. Several people have commented on the pastoral nature of Revelation, and I agree – it is a book that says ultimately “Everything seems horrible now, I know – and it’s probably going to get worse. But then it’s going to get better – wonderful, in fact!”
I think that’s the best way to read the Book of Revelation. I do think that there are codes encased within it; I do think that there is a great deal of symbolism that might have been of great meaning to the audience that it was written to. I think that when it was first written it was circulated secretly and John purposefully wrote what he had seen in terms that the Christian audience would understand and that the Roman authorities probably wouldn’t.
I don’t think that Revelation is the key to prophesying the End Times and if we could just figure out exactly what John meant we would know when Jesus is coming back. I’m less than sure (although, again, I could be wrong!) that it is a road map for the what is going to happen in the years before Christ’s return in any specific way that we could possibly understand and really interpret. When God says through John that the Adversary is going to be locked up for a thousand years and then be released for a time….well, I’m not so sure what that means to us. Does it mean that Satan is locked up now? Does it mean that he’s not? I’m not sure.
Honestly, I’m a bit hesitant about writing about Revelation at all; it’s so hard to interpret. I do think that John wrote to a wide and scattered community of Christians who thought that they were going to die at the hands of a Roman Government and the Jewish synagogues who were angry at them and called them atheists and blamed all sorts of things on them. I do think that the codes and secret messages were to those people – as always, the words are for all of us throughout time, but they were TO them and that’s how we need to try to interpret them. I do think that John is writing about the Day of the Lord, but I think it is entirely possible that he wasn’t talking all the time about the End Times Day of the Lord, if that makes sense. If we look to the Old Testament, many of the prophets seem to be talking about the Day of the Lord and be referring (even within the space of a couple of verses) to different times and epochs – like Joel appears to be referring to a specific invasion by the Assyrians or the Babylonians and then a couple of verses later seems to be referring to something entirely different. I think that in all probability John does the same thing, where he refers to the destruction of Rome (which happened in 410AD) and possibly the Dark Ages in Europe (?) or some other disasters that have already happened to the east (remember, he’s in Patmos, an island in the Med and speaking to the eastern churches) but also refers to other End Times things in other verses. So I think it’s VERY hard to figure out historically what he might be referring to – especially since he’s writing in a sort of code so the authorities won’t figure it out – for example when he refers to Babylon he almost certainly is really talking about Rome. There is some agreement amongst scholars that the “number of the beast” refers to Nero the Roman Emperor.
The long and short of it is that I don’t think that I understand Revelation. At least not the way I understand a great deal of the rest of the Bible – and maybe that’s as it should be. The book is to all people – and the end of all things is coming and we certainly will never completely comprehend how that is really going to work. Maybe the mystery of the Plan of God is meant to be confusing. At the same time I think that main pastoral message of Revelation is exactly spot 0n – especially considering the times we live in, when Ebola is killing people, and ISIS is killing more, and the Western Church is paralyzed by our own disagreements with each other…the message of John needs to be proclaimed again. “I know that everything seems horrible. And it’s probably going to get worse. But after that – someday – God is going to make it right. Not just right – wonderful!” Amen. Come quickly, Lord Jesus.