UNDERSTANDING THE BOOK OF REVELATION
An Honest Look at the Text
By Gary Ray Branscome
The Book of Revelation opens by telling us that it was given by God to reveal things for which the time was “at hand” and which would “shortly come to pass” (Revelation 1:1, 3). Those words not only tell us that this book is a book of prophecy, but also that it speaks of things in the past, things that have already taken place, as well as things in the future.
That being said, one of the biggest disagreements between those who interpret this book has to do with whether the words of the text are literal or figurative. However, I am convinced that both sides in that disagreement miss the point. It is not the words which are figurative, but the dream or vision which those words describe. Let me explain:
Genesis 41:1-7 describes a dream which Pharaoh had. And, that dream was highly figurative. However, that does not mean that the words that tell us about that dream are figurative. On the contrary, the Bible tells us in plain literal words that Pharaoh saw seven thin cows eat seven fat cows. There is nothing figurative about the words of the text. It was the dream that was figurative, not the words used to describe it. And, the same holds true for the Book of Revelation. It is the dream/vision that is figurative, not the words that describe it.
Having said that, I need to make it clear that the “literal” meaning of the text is the natural, grammatical meaning of the words – the same meaning that the words would have in everyday conversation – not some artificial meaning that excludes any figure of speech. As Dr. Robert Preus put it:
“The literal sense of Scripture is the meaning, or tenor, that the words directly and obviously convey. For instance, in John 3:16 the literal sense is immediately clear. But there is also a literal sense to those passages that are tropical and figurative. Such passages we do not read superficially according to the surface tenor of the words, as when Herod is called a fox or when we are to cut off a hand that offends us — such an interpretation would be absurd. In figurative statements of this kind, not only the words according to their native sense but also the thing or point (res) that the words express according to their quondam imagery must be considered. The literal sense, then, is the sense intended by the writer, whatever trope or genre is used. Figures of speech, words, and even ideas all have their literal sense. And the literal sense (meaning, intention) of a pericope is drawn from all these ingredients. Glassius makes it quite clear that the literal sense of a Scripture passage or pericope is not necessarily identical with the surface meaning of the words, but the genre of the text or the tropes therein must also be ascertained, when necessary, to determine the literal sense of a text.” [TTOPRL, pages 321-322.]
understood, as we read the text we need to distinguish between the words, which
give us a literal description of what John saw, and the dream/vision which is
highly figurative. For example: In chapter twelve the Bible tells us, in plain
literal language, that John saw a woman, clothed in the sun, who was giving
birth to Christ (verses 1-5). Now, it should be obvious that even though those
verses are describing Christ’s birth, they are not describing literal earthy
events that actually took place in
An Overview of the Book
Although the Book of Revelation contains many different scenes which some might view as separate visions, because many of those visions relate to one another and seem to fit together, I believe that there are three primary visions. Those are; 1) The vision of Christ and the seven churches, 2) The vision of the heavenly throne, the seven seals, and the seven trumpets, and 3) The vision of the dragon, the beast and the false prophet. I realize that those visions contain much more than just what I mentioned, but as I go through them one by one I will explain how the various parts relate to one another and why I think they should be grouped that way.
I also need to point out that visions given by God often have two aspects to them; 1) what is seen, and 2) what is said. For example: The dream that God gave to Pharaoh consisted only of what he saw. However, the first time an angel spoke to Joseph in a dream, he not only saw an angel, but he received a message from the angel, saying, “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife etc. (Matthew ). The point I want to make is that the Book of Revelation is no different. It not only records the things that John saw, but also records things that were said. And, those words sometimes give us a clue as to the meaning of the vision.
For example: I mentioned previously that chapter twelve begins with a vision of a woman clothed in the sun, who was giving birth to Christ (verses 1-5). Of course Catholics assume that the woman is Mary. But, what does the Bible say? Well, when we look for statements that might give us a clue, we find that the last verse of chapter twelve says, “the dragon was angry with the woman, and went to make war against the rest of her children, who keep God’s commandments, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ”.
As you read that
statement, notice that the woman is the mother
of those who have the testimony of Jesus Christ. On the surface that seems like
an odd statement. However, the words of Galatians , “The Jerusalem which is above is free, and
she is the mother of us all,” then tell
us that the woman is the heavenly
Two key things to remember are, 1) the distinction between the words of the text (which are literal) and the images John saw (which are figurative), and 2) The fact that the vision consists of both what was seen and what was heard. Also, as you read the Book of Revelation do not fail to notice the many doctrinal statements that are often overlooked. For example: “To him who loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood,” (Rev. 1:5 and 5:9). Or, “I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, says the Lord, who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty” (Rev. 1:8).
In the next section we will examine the vision of Christ and his message to the seven churches.