POST OVERVIEW. The third in a series of posts about ways to read the book of Revelation that make it less confusing and intimidating. This third post discusses the fact that Revelation introduces no significant new characters or events into end times prophecy. Everything significant has already been mentioned in the previous text of Scripture. (Also, see previous posts: #568 on the purposes of Revelation and #569 about the constraints that are on the book of Revelation.)
INTRODUCTION. Reading the book of Revelation is a challenging task for any disciple of Jesus. The visions the apostle John relates to us in Revelation are strange and spectacular, and trying to make sense of the visions and then put them into some coherent picture is difficult work. But, while acknowledging the difficulties involved, I believe the challenge of understanding the book of Revelation is eased considerably when we understand how to read the book. In these posts I hope to offer some principles for approaching Revelation that will make the book much less intimidating.
CONSIDER THE FICTION NOVEL
Imagine for a moment that you are reading a classic novel by a skilled author, perhaps Dostoyevsky or Victor Hugo. You have been fascinated as you have seen the author create the main characters in the book, the protagonist and the antagonist and their supporting casts. What initially appeared to be unrelated stories about random people and events were gradually woven into the plot as the movement of the novel steadily picked up steam. Then, at precisely the right moment, the drama reached its climax and the complexities and perplexities of the story were resolved as the hero emerged victorious and the villain was trounced into disgrace. The entire reading has been a satisfying journey into realistic adventure, and now you are turning the final pages to see how the tensions are resolved and the loose ends are tied up.
Then unexpectedly, out of nowhere, a mere fifteen pages from THE END, three new characters appear and a brand new context is introduced which seems disconnected with anything in the previous 500 pages. You were, figuratively speaking, expecting the wheels of the plane to settle softly onto the tarmac and suddenly the nose of the jet was wrenched upward. “Will this flight never end?” Where did this come from? Why are these characters being introduced now at the end of the book? The fact is that a well-written, classic novel does not introduce new characters or plot twists in the last chapter of the novel. The last chapter is where the action is concluded and the plot of the novel is summarized. The last chapter is for landing softly on the tarmac, pulling into the arrival gate, and maybe even picking up your luggage at Baggage Claim. It is not for introducing new characters and plot twists.
CONSIDER THE PURPOSE OF REVELATION
In the same way as the novel, the word of God, the Bible, has as its final book, its final “chapter,” the book of Revelation. As we have already said in the previous post (#568) on the purposes of Revelation, this final book serves as the instrument of conclusion and summary, as the book of the Bible that ties together the loose ends and reveals how our Hero, the Lord Jesus, ultimately triumphs over His adversary, the devil, as He simultaneously gathers all His glorified saints around the throne to worship Him forever. Revelation is written to resolve the mysteries which have been created in the previous sixty-five books, not introduce new characters and events never before encountered.
SIGNIFICANT BUT NOT NEW, OR NEW BUT NOT SIGNIFICANT
Since that is the case, it follows that the book of Revelation introduces no significant new characters or events into the biblical story. Both adjectives are important. Revelation may introduce new characters who play minor roles, but who do not influence the plot. These would be new characters but not significant characters. An example would be “another beast” of chapter 13:11ff (who is also the “false prophet” of 16:13, etc.). This other beast has not appeared before in other biblical prophecy, but he is not significant in the events of the end times. Another example would be “the beast,” who appears in 11:7 and then again in 13:1-10, etc. This is a significant character whom we have seen before in Scripture with different names. This is the little horn (Dan. 7:11, 25), the small horn (Dan. 8:9, 23-25), the prince who is to come (Dan. 9:26), the despicable person (Dan. 11:21-45), and the man of lawlessness (2 Thess. 2:3ff). He is the human embodiment of evil, often referred to as the antichrist. So, “the beast” is significant but not new.
Thus, Revelation may give new labels to old major characters, but it does not introduce major new characters. So, “the thousand years” is a new label, but not a new concept, “the beast” is not a new character, and Babylon” is not a new city. These are examples of things that have appeared before in the Scriptures but now are being brought to a conclusion in Revelation.
AN EXCEPTION – THE 42 MONTHS
One concept that could be an exception to the rule is the time period of the 42 months. Mentioned five times in Rev. 11-13 (11:2, 3; 12:6, 14; 13:5), this is a time of upheaval and dramatic activity that occurs immediately before the return of Jesus on the last day. The period of the 42 months has not been mentioned before in Scripture, so it is definitely new. The question is, “Is it ‘significant’?” I think the answer has to be ‘yes,’ for it is during this time that the fifth seal is opened (6:9-11), the trumpet warnings are sounded (8-9), the two witnesses appear (11:3-10), Satan is thrown to the earth (12:7-17), and the beast and the false prophet rise up to persecute the church (11:7; 13; 16:13f; 19:17f).
What I am saying in this post is that understanding most of Revelation does not depend on a vivid imagination but depends, instead, on a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures, and particularly of the Old Testament prophets. There is very little new in the text of Revelation. A careful reading will reveal that the book concludes God’s inspired Word by pulling from much of the Old Testament to draw the story of Scripture to a close. The better that the disciple of Jesus knows the whole word of God, the better they will understand the difficult passages in Revelation.
A second attribute is also required to grapple with the book of Revelation. Scriptural knowledge must be accompanied by an ability to see patterns and to recognize allusions to previous scriptural books.
So, approach Revelation as a review of the entire Bible and a book that draws things to a close, and you will enjoy the book much more.
SDG rmb 9/13/2022 #571