Our study in the Book of Revelation begins in Peter. Peter preaching at Pentecost, quoted Joel explaining the new tongues phenomena as a sign of the last days of the Jewish age, and the association with this outpouring of the Holy Spirit with the “day of the Lord,” a term commonly associated with the judgment of God on Israel.
…but this is what was spoken of through the prophet Joel: ‘And it shall be in the last days,’ God says, ‘That I will pour forth of My Spirit on all mankind; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on My bondslaves, both men and women, I will in those days pour forth of My Spirit And they shall prophesy. ‘And I will grant wonders in the sky above and signs on the earth [land] below, blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke. ‘The sun will be turned into darkness and the moon into blood, before the great and glorious day of the Lord shall come. (Acts 2:16-20)
Revelation 1:1 - Pt 2
and signs on the earth [land] below, blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke. ‘The sun will be turned into darkness and the moon into blood, before the great and glorious day of the Lord shall come. (Acts 2:16-20)
Notice how these verses in Acts 2 give us a succinct summation of the Book of Revelation, which will bring this age to a close.
Paul speaks to the early church at Rome with a sense of urgency; they are running out of time; something is going to happen soon.
Do this, knowing the time, that it is already the hour for you to awaken from sleep; for now salvation is nearer to us than when we believed. The night is almost gone, and the day is near. Therefore let us lay aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. (Romans 13:11-12)
The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus be with you. (Romans 16:20)
Again Paul addressed another church, Corinth, with the same message of distress, a shortness of time, and a warning of the passing away of the former world of Judaism.
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I think then that this is good in view of the present distress, that it is good for a man to remain as he is. (I Corinthians 7:26)
But this I say, brethren, the time has been shortened, so that from now on those who have wives should be as though they had none…. (I Corinthians 7:29)
…and those who use the world, as though they did not make full use of it; for the form of this world is passing away. (I Corinthians 7:31)
James says, “…the coming [parousia] of the Lord is near" (James 5:8). So near in fact that he goes on to say, “…behold, the Judge is standing right at the door" (James 5:9). Peter boldly says, "The end of all things is near…" (I Peter 4:7). The writer of Hebrews makes a similar point saying, "For yet in a very little while, He who is coming will come, and will not delay" (Hebrews 10:37). Revelation therefore fits perfectly into the tone of the rest of the New Testament, which has as a significant theme, the nearness of events that would soon change the world. “Language is simply meaningless if it is to be so manipulated by every successive commentator as to make the words ‘speedily’ and ‘near’ imply any number of centuries of delay.”
In the light of John’s use of Daniel and the overwhelming agreement of the New Testament, we must agree with Beale that “John’s book is a prophetic work which concerns the imminent and inaugurated fulfillment of OT prophecies about the kingdom in Jesus Christ….”
The word communicated (1:1) is the Greek word “signified” (samaivnw), the meaning of which is sometimes explained by breaking the English word apart this way: sign-i-fied. Signs and symbols were common and important tools used by God to communicate with His people, and it is of supreme importance that the reader understands this method of teaching used by God in the Book of Revelation. “This term evidently meant a kind of communication that is neither plain statement nor an attempt at concealment. It is figurative, symbolic, or imaginative, and is intended to convey truth by picture rather than by definition.” In properly understanding this word, “signified,” you have in your hand a major key to understanding the Book of Revelation.
A sign is not the real thing; the thing pointed to by the sign is the real thing and this is the distinction that is often missed, resulting in serious errors of interpretation when the sign is seen as the real thing. Some students of the Book of Revelation call themselves “literalists” and boast in their faithfulness in literally taking the Word of God at face value. Their position is that in the Book of Revelation everything should first be interpreted literally, if possible, and only if this proves to be impossible should it be interpreted figuratively. While this may seem to make sense up front, in poetic and apocalyptic literature it is not a good idea to interpret a passage literally. Actually, such literature must be interpreted in keeping with the genre of the literature of which it is a class. Words used in poetic genres such as Psalms or the Song of Solomon have less rigid meanings, whereas words used in a theological discourse such as Romans need to be understood and used with greater precision. To confuse these practices leaves the student open to erroneous views which, as discussed above, was far from the intent of the Apostle John in the Book of Revelation.
To take a poetic phrase from the Psalms like, “But You, O LORD, are a shield about me….” (Psalm 3:3) and interpret it literally, would be a serious error. As a metaphor it conveys tender meaning. As a literal statement it is simply wrong; God is not “literally” a shield made of metal. Would we understand the Twenty-third Psalm properly if we were to take it “literally”? Does God really cause us to “lie down in green pastures?” Or is He not instead promising to meet our need for food and security? Does God literally “anoint my head with oil?” Does my real cup literally “overflow?” Educated people simply do not think this way.
And interestingly, literalists in prophecy are not literalists in common life where literalism would have a far greater likelihood of having a valid application. When the literalist is told to “stop and smell the roses,” does he literally stop what he is doing and proceed to find literal and real roses to smell? It is certainly literally possible to stop and smell roses. But no, he understands that this is figurative language meaning to slow down and enjoy life. So, that being the case, where is the “literal if possible and figurative only if impossible” rule? It does not exist in life and it does not exist in any of the poetic and prophetic sections of the Bible. A better rule in this type of literature would be “first look for the figure and only if it cannot be found should the passage be interpreted literally.”
Like the Psalms, the Book of Revelation must be interpreted with the literary tools with which it was created. In the Book of Revelation many truths are pointed at with word picture signs. Fortunately, Revelation itself is very helpful here in demonstrating how it and its signs should be understood.
In several places in the Book of Revelation, John demonstrates how the Revelation is to be interpreted; they are 1:20; 4:5; 5:6; 5:8; 12:9; 17:9; 17:12: 17:15; and 17:18. Here we are given a demonstration in the art of interpreting the Book of Revelation. One cannot emphasize enough the importance of learning straight from John himself just how he meant for this book to be interpreted. Let us read with great care John’s own illustrations on how he interprets this book. We read,
As for the mystery of the seven stars which you saw in My right hand, and the seven golden lampstands: the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches. (Revelation 1:20)
Do we have literal stars here? No, the seven stars are not actually stars but symbols for the angels of the seven churches. The seven golden lampstands are not literally lampstands but the seven churches of Asia.
Out from the throne come flashes of lightning and sounds and peals of thunder. And there were seven lamps of fire burning before the throne, which are the seven Spirits of God…. (Revelation 4:5)
Are the “seven lamps” literally seven lamps? No, that is a figurative representation. In giving us the reality behind the figure John tells us that the figure of the “seven lamps” is to be understood as the “seven Spirits of God.”
And I saw between the throne (with the four living creatures) and the elders a Lamb standing, as if slain, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits of God, sent out into all the earth. (Revelation 5:6)