The Book of Revelation is one of the least understood books in the Bible. It is filled with mysterious language and symbolism, much of which is explained within the text, but some of which is not. This leaves interpreters guessing and debating what the unexplained symbolism means, often at the expense of failing to grasp the overall message. Fortunately, almost none of the unexplained symbolism is essential to understanding the underlying message that runs throughout the story. The Book of Revelation in its essence is a call to repentance and a warning of the disastrous consequences of refusing to live according to God’s ways. In this article I attempt to use clear language to explain the core message of the Book of Revelation and to show how this message is revealed throughout the succession of visions that comprise the book. This article can be read on its own or by following along in your own Bible as you read through it.
The Book of Revelation opens by identifying itself as a warning of impending disaster (1:1-3), an affirmation that Jesus is king over all the earth (1:4-6), and a promise that he is returning soon (1:7). The rest of the book is a series of visions revealed to John, often accompanied by explanations of what each vision means. I refer to each vision as a mystery, even though most of the mysteries are explained within the text. The text is stylistically similar to the teaching style of Jesus who would teach in parables and then explain the meaning of the parables to his followers. The book is primarily addressed to the seven churches mentioned in the first mystery, although it is pretty clearly intended for all audiences.
Mystery of the Seven Churches: seven stars and seven golden lampstands (1:12-20). It is explained in 1:20 that the seven lampstands are the seven churches and the seven stars are angels/messengers to the seven churches in Asia. Some churches have become arrogant, trusting in their wealth while lacking faith in God (3:17). Some have imperfect works (3:2-3). Some have been corrupted by false teachers (2:20). Some have become idolatrous and immoral (2:14-16). And some have strayed from the way of life in the Garden (2:4-7). The general idea is that several of the churches are displeasing to God and in need of repentance in various ways (3:19).
The book then transitions to a scene of animals praising and worshiping God at the throne of God alongside several elders (4:6-11). A slain lamb, later identified as Jesus (17:14), arises amidst the animals and elders that are worshiping God, and they sing praises to him (5:5-10). Then a vast number of angels and people, along with every animal in heaven and on earth and in the seas, join in the chorus of praise (5:11-14).
The lamb (Jesus) then unleashes a series of destructive events: conquering (6:2), wars (6:4), food shortage (6:6), death (6:7), martyrdom of saints (6:11), earthquakes (6:12), meteors falling to earth (6:13), and widespread fear (6:15-16). Then a great multitude of people from all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues come out of the tribulations (7:14) and humble themselves before God and praise him together (7:9-14). They trust in and serve God (7:15) and he takes care of them (7:16-17).
Then there is silence (8:1) followed by a series of more disasters: much of the earth’s vegetation is burned up (8:7), many sea creatures and ships are destroyed (8:9), a meteor falls to the earth, contaminating much of the earth’s water supply, causing people to die who drink it (8:10-11), large portions of the earth lose sunlight (8:12), heavy smoke darkens the skies (9:2), people are tormented by locusts (9:5), there is widespread misery, anguish, and wanting to die (9:6), millions go to war and kill, and altogether a third of mankind is killed (9:18). The survivors of these disasters do not repent and they continue in their idolatry, murder, sorcery, sexual immorality, and theft (9:20-21).
Then two prophetic witnesses rise to power (11:1-6), are killed (11:7), and people rejoice over their deaths (11:10). The witnesses are brought back to life by the breath of God, causing great fear among the people (11:11). An earthquake causes many people to die, but many who survive are afraid and give glory to God (11:13).
Then a voice from heaven declares that Christ reigns on earth (11:15) and the elders praise God, saying the time has come for God to destroy those who destroy the earth (11:16-18).
Mystery of the Dragon: a sign in heaven of a woman giving birth to a child while a dragon waits in anticipation to devour the child as soon as it is born, but the dragon fails as the child is taken up into heaven by God instead (12:1-6). The dragon is explained in 12:9 as being Satan and the “serpent of old” (from the garden), and the child is described in 12:5 as a godly ruler of all nations (likely Jesus). War breaks out in heaven between Michael and his angels versus the dragon and his angels. The dragon is cast out of heaven to the earth (12:7-9) where he fights against the woman and her offspring “who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus” (12:17). The general idea is that evil forces fight against God’s servants.
Mystery of the Beast: a beast rises up from the sea (13:1), is given authority by the dragon to rule the earth (13:2), and is worshiped by everyone in the world (13:4) except for the saints (13:8), and the beast blasphemes God (13:6) and makes war with the saints and he overcomes them (13:7). The general idea is that some nefarious power rises to prominence, blasphemes God, and gains power over the earth.
Mystery of the Beast’s Ally: another beast rises up from the earth (13:11), and becomes an ally of the first beast (13:12), requiring all to worship the image of the first beast (13:15). Only those who pledge their allegiance to the beast may buy or sell anything (13:17). The general idea is that these nefarious forces that rise to prominence require everyone to esteem them above God and they control the economy.
Then a lamb (Jesus) stands atop Mount Zion with thousands of his followers, and they sing praises to God. Three messengers (angels) of God preach the gospel (14:6), warning people to repent and glorify God (14:7) in order to avoid imminent disaster (14:8, 10). Many people die, with their blood extending many miles (14:20).
Seven angels (15:1) sing praises to God (15:3) and then unleash seven plagues on the unrepentant world: severe sores (16:2), death of all sea creatures (16:3), rivers and springs turn to blood (16:4), scorching heat (16:9), darkness and pain (16:10), water sources dry up (16:12), and there is a great earthquake (16:18) and hailstorm (16:21). On three separate occasions throughout the seven plagues it is mentioned that the people continue to blaspheme God and refuse to repent (16:9, 16:11, 16:21).
Mystery of the Great Harlot: A harlot sits on many waters (17:1) atop a scarlet beast (17:3), fornicates with the kings of the earth, and intoxicates the inhabitants of the earth with her wine (17:2). The woman is identified as “the great city which reigns over the kings of the earth” (17:18), the waters she sits on are “people, multitudes, nations, and tongues” (17:15), the wine is identified as pursuit of wealth or luxury (18:3) and the beast represents various kings (17:10-12) who fight against the Lamb (Jesus) and lose (17:14). The general idea is that several kings and many people of various nations, intoxicated by pursuit of wealth (19:2), attempt to defeat Jesus and fail.
The great city of wealth and merchants crumbles to nothing (18:2) in a very short period of time (18:10) after a warning to “come out of her, my people, lest you share in her sins, and lest you receive of her plagues” (18:4). Merchants who had turned the earth into a marketplace mourn over the collapse of the city (18:11) while a great multitude in heaven rejoice over it (19:1).
Jesus returns as a warrior, followed by many saints (19:11-16). The beast, the kings of the earth, and their military forces wage war against God and against Jesus (19:19). The beast and a false prophet who deceives many are captured and thrown into a lake of fire (19:20). Everyone else fighting against the Lamb is killed and their flesh eaten by birds (19:21). This is referred to as “the great supper of God” (19:17).
The dragon is bound for a period of time, rendering him temporarily unable to deceive the nations (20:2-3). During this time, martyrs and saints are brought back to life and they live with and rule alongside Jesus (20:4). After this period ends, the dragon and the false prophet rise again to deceive the nations (20:7-8), but when they surround the camp of the saints, fire comes down from heaven and they are cast into the lake of fire (20:9-10). Then the dead are judged according to their works (20:12). Death, the abode of the dead, and all who have refused to worship God or to live according to his ways are likewise cast into the lake of fire (20:14-15).
Mystery of the Marriage of the Lamb: Multitudes glorify God and rejoice that the marriage of the Lamb has come and that the bride, who is identified as the holy city New Jerusalem (21:2, 21:9), has made herself ready (19:7). She is “arrayed in fine linen”, which is explained as representing “the righteous acts of the saints” (19:8). Based on the description of the events that take place, the marriage symbolizes a reunion of God and his people where the people henceforth worship God and live according to his ways, reaping abundant blessings as result.
The rest of the book is a description of the restored world. There is “a new heaven and a new earth” and “no more sea” (21:1). God dwells with his people (21:3), who inherit all things as children of God (21:7). There is no more death, sorrow, or pain (21:4). There is no longer any need of a temple to represent God because God is present (21:22), nor is there a sun or moon because the Lamb is the light (21:23), and there is no night (21:25). The gates of the city are always open (21:25), though nothing enters the city that would defile it; only those who follow God’s ways are able to enter it (21:27). There are rivers flowing with waters of life (22:1) and abundant fruit year round from the tree of life, whose leaves are for the healing of the nations (22:2).
Multiple warnings are given to be careful not to worship anyone or anything other than God, including any angel, messenger, or prophet (19:10, 22:9) but instead to only worship God alone.
Over and over again throughout the text, God and his messengers warn the people to repent of their destructive ways and to turn back to God and to live according to his ways. Some do turn to God and he rewards them with blessings. Others do not and they either die or are tormented by further disasters. Much like the underlying theme in each of the prophetic books and in the gospels, God forewarns of the destructive consequences of refusing to live according to his ways. And the call is to repent, which means to turn back to God and live according to his ways. God does not delight in the destruction of his creation. Instead, as it says in 2 Peter 3:9, “He does not want anyone to be destroyed, but wants everyone to repent.”
Also several specific allusions are made to the Garden of Eden throughout the text. God’s first warning when addressing the seven churches is, “I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works,” and whoever does this “I will give to eat from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God” (2:4-7). References to paradise, the tree of life, the first works, and to the fall make it fairly clear that the message here is a call to return to the way of life in the Garden of Eden described in Genesis 1-2. It seems significant to me that this is the very first thing that God warns is in need of repentance, given that the underlying message of the entire book is one of repentance. It is also significant that he says it to a church immediately after praising everything else the church was doing (2:2-3). It’s reminiscent of the time when Jesus was asked “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17) and he responded by pointing out that there was one thing the person still lacked, beyond the many praiseworthy things they were already doing.
The Garden of Eden is again alluded to at the end of the book when God’s people return to God. It talks of God living amidst God’s people in paradise and amidst the tree of life (22:2), where there is a river flowing with the water of life (22:1). It also describes an undoing of the consequences God warned about just after the fall when it says, “And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying; and there shall be no more pain” (21:4). Also the symbolism of a marriage between the Lamb and the holy city representing the reunion of God and his people is an allusion to the marriage of the first man and woman as the crowning achievement of creation (Genesis 2:23), where man is no longer alone (Genesis 2:18) and the whole created world is complete and “very good” (Genesis 1:31). Given the fact that the book begins and ends with allusions to the Garden of Eden and is centrally concerned with repentance throughout, it seems clear to me that the kind of repentance God wants is a radical repentance that goes all the way back to his first instructions given to creation in Genesis 1-2.
Another significant point is the call to “come out of her, my people” (18:4) in reference to the city where merchants in pursuit of wealth had turned the earth into a marketplace and thereby “corrupted the earth” (19:2). The kings and merchants mourn over the collapse of the city (18:11) while those in heaven rejoice over it (19:1). This prophecy helps to elucidate a few important passages from the gospels. One is when Jesus passionately overturns the tables in the temple court and exclaims, “Stop turning my Father’s house into a marketplace!” (John 2:16). Another is when Jesus says, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and material wealth” (Luke 16:13). Also when Jesus says, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:25). All of these passages suggest a simple way of life on earth where there is no more commerce, no amassing of personal wealth, and no prioritizing profit over piety toward God. A marketplace is not what God wants the world to be. Instead he wants us all to live by faith (Habakkuk 2:4, Romans 1:17), to share a sense of love for one another (John 13:34, Leviticus 19:18), and to cultivate and maintain the garden world (Genesis 2:5, 2:15) while enjoying and appreciating the abundance God gives us (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).
Repent and do the first works.