With the broad keys to interpretation firmly in hand, we come now to examine some of the finer details of interpretation.
The book is one vision divided into seven visions.
1. Christ in the midst of the seven churches 1:1-3:22
2. The Lamb and the seven scrolls 4:1-8:1
3. The seven angels and the seven trumpets 8:2-11:19
4. The woman and the dragon 12:1-15:4
5. The seven angels and the seven bowls of wrath 15:5-18:24
6. The wedding feast of the Lamb 19:1-21
7. The thousand years and the new Jerusalem 20:1 – end
These seven visions are each a revelation of the Lord Jesus Christ. They each begin with the glorious good news of His finished work, before they then reveal what this good news means for His people still living in a fallen world. After this, they each then close with the promise of His return.
This pattern is repeated seven times. Start with the good news of His finished work. Reveal what this means for His people still living in a fallen world. End with the promise of His return. Seven times this pattern is repeated. However, though each vision follows the same pattern, each vision emphasizes a different aspect of that pattern.
For example, in the first vision we find Christ in the midst of the seven churches. This could not be unless Christ had first completed His work. That is, unless He had first incarnated, redeemed His people by dying for their sins, rose again for their justification, and then ascended, then He could not be standing in the midst of His churches. It is only because He has completed His work that He can now stand in the midst of the churches. This first vision, therefore, assumes the first part of the pattern. That is, it assumes the good news of His finished work. It also assumes the promise of His return. Rather than revealing something to us about His finished work and about His return, it assumes these two truths and instead reveals something to us about what His gospel means for His people who are still living in a fallen world. And what it reveals to us about His people who are still living in a fallen world is that He is standing in their midst instructing them, correcting them, training them, encouraging them, warning them.
Each of the seven visions emphasizes something different. Taken altogether, these seven visions also form one cohesive vision that follows the same pattern. Simply reading straight through the book from chapter 1 through to the end reveals the same pattern that each of the seven visions follow. That is, the book begins with a revelation about Christ’s finished work, before it then moves on to a revelation of what this means for His people still living in a fallen world, until it finally concludes with the promise of His return. So we have one large vision divided by seven smaller visions that each follow the pattern of the larger vision.
It is within this context that we must remain careful to resist the temptation to speculate. One way we can do this is by keeping in mind the fact that John uses God’s word to communicate the revelation to us (see Part 1 of this essay). One of the chief tools the Old Testament uses to communicate God’s word to us is hyperbole. A hyperbole is a deliberate exaggeration used for the purpose of emphasis or effect. I’m so hungry I could eat a horse. I’m so mad I could explode. These are examples of hyperbole.
In the case of the Old Testament, the prophets are rife with hyperbole. Joel, for instance, tells us that in the last day the sun will be darkened, the moon will turn to blood and the stars will fall from the sky. Peter tells us in Acts 2 that this very prophecy was speaking to the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was given. Joel was simply using hyperbole to communicate how drastically this day was going to change the world. Up until that time, the world had only ever known the Spirit to speak to a few men, certain men called prophets. Now, however, starting at the day of Pentecost, the Spirit would speak to all His people. No longer would any of His people need someone to tell them “know the Lord”, for they would all know Him. This was a mighty cataclysmic shift within the religious sphere that could only be understood as equivalent to the sun being darkened and the moon turning to blood.
In similar manner, the book of the Revelation is also rife with hyperbole. We get images of stars falling from the sky, smoke from a furnace rising so thick into earth’s sky that it chokes out light from the sun, an enormous angel orbiting the earth, broiling seas spewing forth multi-headed dragons, angels pouring out bowls of wrath, flashes of lightning, peals of thunder, and on and on. We must not take these images as literal. They are all hyperbole. They are deliberate exaggerations being used for the purpose of effect in order to communicate to us great, world altering spiritual truths.
Therefore, as we come to each vision, we must resist the temptation to get bogged down into the vision’s details. So, for instance, when we find ourselves encountering living creatures each with four different faces we must resist the temptation to seek a meaning to each of those faces. Instead, we should be immediately reminded of Ezekiel’s vision. Whatever those creatures indicate in Ezekiel’s vision, that is what they indicate here too. What we are supposed to get is the overall picture rather than the minute details. We limit the temptation to speculate by simply sticking to the overall picture. I don’t know what each of those faces mean. I don’t think any of us are supposed to know, because they are besides the point.
At the other end of the spectrum, however, lies the temptation to spiritualize everything. If the dispensational view is guilty of taking every vision literally, then the hyper preterist view is guilty of turning everything into an analogy. Not every vision in this book is hyperbole. Some of it is indeed literal. The seven churches in the first vision, for instance, were seven real, identifiable churches that existed on the mainland of Asia Minor. More than this, each of these seven churches were strategically located in a particular area of the mainland that made it easier for them to pass this book along once they finished reading and making copies of it to churches located further in the mainland. So not only do we have to take care to avoid speculating by turning everything literal, but we also have to avoid speculating by turning everything analogical. We do this by having a firm grasp of the other sixty-five books of the Bible.