The book of Revelation is among the most complex and even bewildering books of the Bible. It’s mixture of practical Christian admonitions and bizarre imagery has led to many different interpretations throughout the history of the church. Some interpret the book as referring only to events in the first century. Others read it is a description of events unfolding from the first century to today. Still others read it as a description of the end times. Another view does not try to link the details of the book to any particular historical period or periods, but reads Revelation as a graphic description of timeless spiritual truths.
Anyone reading Revelation must first understand that the images used in the book are certainly not meant to be understood as literal descriptions. The images are highly symbolic, which is exactly what one might expect from apocalyptic literature. The word “apocalyptic” has overtones in our day that may mislead many readers. In the ancient world, apocalyptic literature was a way of describing some great historical transition by using language of cosmic upheaval or strange creatures. A rough analogy in our world might be the fall of communism. This even marked the transition in Russia and Eastern Europe from the “communist era” to a “capitalist era.” One could describe this major transition in language of cosmic upheavals like “earth shattering.”
If this is kept in mind, reading Revelation will become less of a puzzle and more of a large word picture intended to leave us with graphic images that speak to our imaginations more than our logic. It also helps to know that the images used were common in the ancient world, including the Old Testament. Locusts, for example, are signs of God’s judgment in the book of Joel as they are here in chapter 9. To ask whether this describes a specific historical event with literal locusts (or helicopters described as locusts, as some think), is the wrong question to ask. These are images meant to convey a message.
Keeping in mind the wide opinions on the book, the central message of Revelation seems to be the ultimate sovereignty of God despite contrary appearances in every day life. Revelation—as it’s name implies—reveals to the church that the persecution of the church and the apparently chaotic forces behind it are not the true picture. Revelation gives a glimpse behind the scenes to see what is truly the case: God rules human affairs and will right every wrong. God’s way of bringing this to pass is through the slain lamb, who now sits upon the throne, Jesus Christ.
Armed with this knowledge, that things are not truly as they appear to be, the church is exhorted to live their lives accordingly—in obedience to the lamb who sits on the throne, even if all around them is collapsing into chaos. God will not allow that scenario to continue forever. He will bring judgment to the world powers, defeat evil once and for all, and replace the old creation with a new creation.
The book ends with description of this new heaven and new earth. The imagery here is detailed, but a key image is found in 22:1-5. In this new creation we find a river with a tree of life on either side. Of course, this is an allusion to the tree of life in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2-3). But now there are two because, in the new earth, God’s people receive a double portion of the blessing that was withheld from them in the Garden. The curse of Adam is reversed. The Christian Bible ends where it began, in a garden paradise. Indeed, the entire Christian story is one of God making a way back to the Garden that was once forfeited. The way is through the slain and triumphant lamb of God, Jesus Christ.
What Revelation leaves us with is strong, emotive images of God’s ultimate purpose for the world. Such a message escapes powers of logical description and must yield to more imaginative means. Reading Revelation well means allowing those images to tweak our own imaginations. Reading Revelation as if it were a historical account or theological essay will obscure it images and therefore the meaning of the book itself.
– Peter Enns