Book of Revelations Overview

From Peter Kreeft’s You Can Understand the Bible:

The Book of Revelation, or the Apocalypse, the only prophetic book in the New Testament, is surely the strangest and hardest to interpret of all the books of the Bible.

It is a visionary, highly poetical, even mystical book. It seems to most ordinary Catholics a closed book, even a dangerous book.

I think we can understand this book only when the poetic, intuitive, unconscious, imaginative part of our brain (the “right brain”) is used, not only the clear, rational, conscious, controlled part (the “left brain”).

It is full of mysterious symbols with multiple layers of meaning.

Just as it is harder to specify the meaning of a painting than a novel, it is harder to be sure what we are supposed to get out of this book than the rest of the Bible.

Its Main Point

The correct title is crucial because it tells us the main, central point of the whole book. The original title of this book (being the first word for each book of the Bible) is “The Revelation of Jesus Christ.”

The centre of this book – and the centre of all world history – is Christ, the same Christ we know from the Gospels. The only difference between this book and the Gospels is that it presents Christ in His Second Coming.

Revelation fulfills the 3rd part of our Christian faith about history, which we proclaim each Sunday: “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

Just because the Book of Revelation has been abused, abusus non tollit usus – the abuse of a thing does not take away its proper use. We need to recapture the historic hope it expresses.

Its Unity

At first this book seems to be two books, not one. The first 3 chapters feature 7 letters to 7 Christian churches in Asia. The 7 letters address the problems of the different churches and give each church a kind of report card.

But then the book suddenly takes off like a rocket ship into the heavens.

The author wants to show the members of those 7 local churches (and us too) that their little local problems are part of a great cosmic battle that is being fought even now. What we do in our parishes and homes contributes to what Christ is doing: preparing the Second Coming.

Its Author

If a single author can write in two styles as different as those of Revelation 1 to 3 and 4 to 19, there is no reason to think it’s impossible that the same John who wrote the fourth Gospel wrote this book too, however different the style. Early Church Fathers have ascribed this book to John the Evangelist.

Its Purpose

The book is written because Jesus Christ revealed Himself to John and commanded John to write down the vision.

If we forget its primary Author (Jesus Christ), we read it in the wrong spirit – the spirit of curiosity and scholarship rather than the spirit of wonder and worship.

The most important key to reading this book is profound, interior silence.

The Symbols in Revelation

If we don’t “get” the symbols, we don’t “get” most of the book.

1. How are we to know whether we are supposed to interpret any given passage in the Bible literally or symbolically?

– If the writer claims he has perceived the event he narrates with his physical eyes, in the physical world, or that someone else has done so, then the passage is to be interpreted literally.

– But if the narrator or his sources do not claim that they or anyone else were eyewitnesses, then it might be possible to interpret the passage symbolically.

2. Second principle of interpretation – we must never interpret a book in light of our own beliefs. We must interpret the book in the light of its author’s beliefs. Then we evaluate it according to our own beliefs.

Eisegesis – reading into the books what’s already in your own mind.

Exegesis – reading out of the book what’s in the author’s mind.

The Book of Revelation claims to be a spiritual vision, not a material one, seen by the inner eye, not the outer one.

3. 3rd principle – interpreting a passage symbolically does not necessarily mean not interpreting it historically.

– Most people think that there are only 2 ways to interpret any passage: either literally or historically, or symbolically and non-historically. But there is a 3rd possibility: symbolically and historically, as one should interpret Revelation.

4. 4th Principle – do not confuse symbolism with allegory. In allegory, each ingredient has one and only one fully definable correct meaning. In symbolism, there may be many correct meanings, and they may or may not be exactly definable.

5th Principle in interpreting scriptural symbolism is to compare Scripture with Scripture, to interpret Scripture by Scripture. For example, we interpret the Lamb in Revelation in light of John the Baptist’s words about Jesus (Jn 1:29, 36) and the liturgical offering in Leviticus and also vice versa.

The symbols in Revelation can be divided into six groups:

1. Some symbols are explicitly explained in the same passage in which they are given.

2. Some symbols are explained elsewhere in Scripture.

3. Some are plain and obvious.

4. Some suggest to the reader a hidden meaning, for example, the number 666, the mark of the Beast (Antichrist) (13:18). The text says, “this calls for wisdom.” We are invited to solve the puzzle. The probable solution is that the letters of the blasphemous divine title that the Roman Emperor Domitian (AD 81-96) took for himself translate into the number 666 by using standard ancient number code (a=1, b=2, etc). Domitian began the first virulent persecution of Christians while John was writing this book.

5. Some symbols are intuited with the instinctive poetic imagination.

6. Some are not clear from any of the above sources, for example, the number of horsemen (9:16).

Put all the symbols together = they all teach spiritual warfare! Revelation describes a cosmic battle.

Every important good has a parallel evil symbol in Revelation. The point is that evil is only an imitation of good, a parasite on good.

Most common mistake in interpreting the symbolism in Revelation is to attempt a strict chronology of events, to try to use it to figure out when the end of the world will come. For 5 reasons: [1] Events are not in chronological order. [2] The numbers in Revelation are symbolic not literal. [3] Christ Himself said He did not know when the end of the world would come. [4] every single predictor of the end of the world has been wrong so far. [5] most importantly, it’s the wrong focus, the point of the book is not when but who. 


Christ the King in Revelation

We find Christ on every page of Revelation. Revelation is no less Christocentric than the Gospels. The only difference is that here He wears not a cross but a crown.

Glory added to suffering, crown added to cross, Second Coming added to first coming, return added to ascension.

The final goal is Christ’s marriage to His Church. The world exists for the Church. If we belong to Christ, we should read Revelation with a lump in our throat and a leap in our heart, for we are His Bride. Revelation culminates in our wedding night.

Both God and the visible Church have as their primary work on earth the invitation to come to Christ’s wedding feast (22:20).


The Second Coming in Revelation

Revelation is about the last act of our play, the end of history, of time itself.

Christ does not come again because it is the end of time. It is the end of time because He comes gain. Christ is not relative to time; time is relative to Christ.

Real time is measured not by clocks but by meanings, not by matter moving across space but by spirit moving across purposes. Real time is qualitative, not quantitative; personal, not impersonal.

Revelation preaches the same Gospel in symbols that Jesus preached in deeds and Paul in words: salvation by God’s grace, not man’s greatness.

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