It is not news that the Revelation of Jesus Christ is the only prophetic book in the New Testament. Nor is it news that it continues to be listed as the most difficult Biblical book to understand. Thousands of articles, hundreds of volumes and dozens of master and doctoral theses have been written offering explanations, suggesting various answers to the passages and prophesies. What is news, is that with its singular and distinctive style, it has spawned so wide a collection of questions and multiple interpretations. The bad news for us is they cannot all be correct or useful. Some good books have been written and some excellent studies detailed; and some others have muddied the waters with outlandish theories and things that simply do not show up in the reading. It is my hope that you will find some value here and nothing unusual or unsubstantiated. As others have, I suggest that the book of Revelation ought to be viewed as a complete part of the whole Word of God and as it was first seen through the eyes of its original audience. It is easy to overlook its message for believers of that time over those now and for the rest to come.
For these notes, I relied primarily on three English translations: the King James Version (KJV), New King James Version (NKJV), and the English Standard Version (ESV), along with the interlinear versions of each). I have listed the resources used for historical information, concepts, definitions, and background at the close.
The greatest hindrance in any examination of Revelation is the wide field of possible or suggested interpretations of the various signs and visions. You can get lost in too much or in next to nothing, or somewhere in between, as there are dozens of choices. Clarity may be lost in some ideas which have no basis in the text and others that have nothing to do with the immediate context. Contrary notions to the time and tenor of the early days in the churches, or by things which have been cherry picked or cobbled together in support of a modern composition do little for our learning. Like others, I have tried to avoid any obvious pitfalls, and like some, I probably fell for a few. With this noted, it is my strong opinion, that all the things which obscure the deciphering of the book are self-induced. The collective “we” of scholars, teachers, preachers, Christians, readers and students alike are mostly to blame for the noise that has deadened our hearing to the notion that God’s word is simple and easy to understand. The collective “we” made it difficult. So, all theories should be closed and put on the shelf until the reader has opened the text a sufficient number of times to have a basic grasp of its purpose and direction. It would not hurt anyone interested in these studies to read the entire New Testament, or better yet, the entire Bible (a few times through), before taking on the Revelation of Jesus.
I chose to begin these notes with a historical section moving from the writing of the book of Daniel; and that is followed with a brief history of the emperors of Rome from Caesar to Constantine. Beyond that is information on the principal date theories, and then the notes and comments on the major signs in the text. This has been assembled and edited over several years. It is my hope, as this plays out, you may find that I have held strictly to possibilities offered within the text. I have tried to exclude things that are not found in Revelation or within the rest of the Scriptures; and I did not try to come up with an answer for every detail, leaving those things to others. I went only for the main points and signs. We ought not to stand at odds with what is clearly stated and defined, leaning first on the Bible, on what we see, read and clearly identify.
The book of Revelation is God’s final message to mankind. There is no need to set out for some ruin or to search dusty shelves for new versions, a lost chapter twenty-three or volume two. Nothing needs to be added. The angel who spoke to John had him write that into the text. The Apostle listed the things he saw and heard in order. It was then sent to seven identified assemblies as the original recipients, and to general Christian populations since. That means it, as with the rest, is in God’s book with an eternal petition to warrant its inclusion. God and Christ both kept the Word exactly as they intended and as originally composed. It is understandable and complete. We need to read and study it while keeping that in mind.
It has also been said (as is true with the rest of the Bible), that it was not written to us, but for us. Yet, my view is this is often lost under the weight and appeal of various descriptions and interpretations. We already noted that God has said that His Word is simple, and understandable; and there is no private interpretation. Along with that comes the notion that there is no reason to think that the interpretation is not clearly authored. If anything, we forget to look at it all through the eyes of those commoners, and add layers filled with our ideas, lower or higher views and a seemingly boundless knowledge.
We are removed by nearly two millennia from the publication of the Revelation, so the immediate impact is long gone. Some of the swirling and mysterious theories thought to arise out of its pages have further served to obscure its purpose to generations of readers and students today. To gain a basic understanding, the Revelation should not be viewed as if it is some mysterious and continuing oracle, or an all-seeing-eye gazing into far distant times and places; and it should not become some excuse to train our sights on some corner of someone else’s notion or dreams. It ought to be tended to instead, exactly as it was composed: to note “…things that must shortly come to pass.” Without that understood at the outset, we dismiss and dispose of the immediacy and pertinence it had to the original audiences; and if it could not have been understood and used by them, it would end up dead-on-arrival to everyone since. To track that notion, I will hold that the early history of the Roman Empire is invaluable to its understanding. I incorporated some fundamental information and an abbreviated chronicle of the emperors of Rome from Julius Caesar and into the fourth century, with that in mind. The long form for the background information (and a good deal more), can be found in such works as Charles Rollin’s, Ancient History (2 volumes) and Edward Gibbon’s, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (6 volumes), and in dozens of other works. I read many other available writings from several outside sources and several commentaries. Without hesitation, it is my view, that Rome held the center of many of the signs.
The Revelation’s label as a difficult study arises from our unfamiliarity with the shrouded prophetic language found in the visions. These varying parts must be attended to either as valuable and important, or they ought to be eliminated as not understandable to us now – and if we choose the second — we are back to the dead-on-arrival consideration and should rethink our position. Yet despite the concern just mentioned, I found that for me, it was not useful to be overly concerned with finding an expression for every single detail in every single sign. The better task is to try and identify the big picture – the overall scheme.
Finally, a careful reading and knowledge of some of the Old Testament prophets is useful – Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and (with a considered focus), Daniel, then Joel and Micah, which should help to further identify language and details that may seem obscured. The English reader should find the wording understandable if it is attended to carefully. You should be able to identify many of the major signs readily, agreeably and without the aid of a shelf full of lexicons and commentaries and without referring to the work of a school of academicians. So, the most important point, as with the entire Bible, is to read the book and to prayerfully and carefully study it. Perhaps to pray some more and read it again (and again, for as long as may be necessary); and then to read some of the other prophetic books and prophesies until we clear some of the mists of time and the clutter of theories and equations out of our minds. With this noted, the Revelation of Jesus will remain the object of many differing notions about God’s Word and his judgments just as it has since its first distribution. It will continue to maintain its high place as the most requested study and the most misquoted book within the scriptures. These notes will not change those things, nor likely will any others. My hope is to identify a few incorrect notions and overlooked applications while exploring a few ignored or obscured yet identifiable ones.
There is nothing to lose, as no one is in any danger from learning too much.