Revelation brings Holy Scripture to an end with a bang. The only prophetic book in the NT, it uses a series of theological images and numbers (3 – God; 4 – the world; 7 – completeness; 12 – the people of God; 1000 – large numbers) to describe the final purpose of God in human history – judgment on evil but salvation for God’s holy people. One good way of reading this intricate and involved book is to hear the big themes and not get lost in the details. Wild interpretations abound, but the book’s main message fits with the OT prophets: God will come in judgment and in justice. Prepare with holy living and faithful believing.
But in case you need more than that…
Most of Revelation is John relating four visions that he is shown after he is caught up in the Spirit four times (1.10; 4.2; 17.3; 21.10). In the first vision the risen Jesus walks among the seven lampstands – his churches. The letters to the churches lay bare their trials and tribulations, successes and failures and promise his rewards to the holy and faithful.
The second vision (chapters 4-16) is the longest and most complex, filling nearly half the book. After the vision of the heavenly throne room (chapters 4&5) there follow four sets of seven judgments (seals, trumpets – unnarrated thunders (10.1-7) and bowls). These are an accelerating and intensifying series of judgments roughly based on the idea of the plagues of Egypt in Exodus – warnings meant to lead people to repentance, but actually revealing their stubborn godlessness. Interwoven are reassurances that, despite God’s judgment, the saints will be kept safe for salvation even if they lose their lives (chapters 7&11). Chapters 12-13 are a kind of retrospective: God’s victory in the Messiah Jesus and his heavenly rule has left Satan with only the church left to pick on – this is why the church’s struggles are so intense.
The final two visions (chapters 17-18 and 21-22) parallel to each other. Each describes a woman – a harlot and a bride. Each is a city – Babylon and the new Jerusalem, one is impure, the other pure, one destined for judgment the other for glory. These are not hell and heaven but rather the final judgment of this world at the end of this age and final glory of church in the age to come. We are to flee from one as from a burning building and long for the other as a bride does her wedding. Between these two final visions Jesus comes in glory, rules on earth and the dead are judged (19.11-20.15).
Revelation is a hard book, chiefly because it focusses squarely on the ‘not yet’ rather than the ‘now’ of God’s purposes. The book’s view of the present age is nearly entirely negative. But because of this it is a book of intense hope. It has always resonated most powerfully with believers in the most desperate of situations who are most ready to cry ‘your kingdom come’ from the bottom of their hearts.