Revelation: The Most Confusing Book in the Bible?
Winston Churchill famously described Russia as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”. But his words don’t just apply to Russia. They pretty much sum up the feeling most people have about the book of Revelation. Who could possibly make sense of all the beasts, dragons, and angels that jostle around in John’s vision? For many people, it’s little more than nonsense.
And yet, as Christians, we know that it’s in our Bibles for a reason. So we assume it must be important. We just don’t know why.
We listen to self-professed ‘prophecy experts’ and YouTube scholars, hoping they might clear up the confusion. And they do. Or at least, it seems like they do. If nothing else, they have some explanation. And it can seem reasonable…at times. But in the back of our minds, we wonder…is this really the way it’s supposed to be?
Was John’s revelation supposed to be so confusing?
What is a ‘revelation’?
John opens this most mysterious of books up with the phrase, ‘The Revelation of Jesus Christ’. Think about that for a moment. The Revelation of Jesus Christ.
What is a revelation? It is, quite literally, something that has been revealed.
Since I have a one-year-old, I can’t help but think of the game, peek-a-boo. We cover our faces with our hands. And we disappear. The baby can’t see us. But then, we remove the covering – a revelation! We exist once again. There’s been an unveiling! And that which was in darkness is now light – that which was hidden is now revealed.
But reading the book of Revelation doesn’t feel like a revelation at all. It feels more like playing peek-a-boo while blinded. We hear the sound: “Peek-a-boo!” But we don’t see anything.
John says, “It’s a revelation of Jesus Christ!” But all we come away with is a confusing story about hail and eternal flames and cities falling from the sky.
But ‘revelation’ – in both Greek and English – implies something clear, not confusing.
In fact, the word translated ‘revelation’ in most English Bibles was used in the ancient world to refer to the “manifestation of deity”¹. Something divine is now evident. This fact becomes even clearer when we dig into the use of this word both in scripture and other literature written at the time.
‘Revelation’ in ancient writings
As we’ve already seen, the Greek word ἀποκαλύπτω (apokalupto – ‘revelation’) is used to refer to something that has been uncovered – either literally or figuratively. For example, Herodotus, the Greek historian, used this word to refer to uncovering a severed head hidden in a basket. Meanwhile, Lucianus of Samosata used the same word when talking about certain ‘shameful things’ being made known. And Plato used the word in a phrase which is translated, “to come forth publicly with one’s view”¹.
We can easily see from all three of these uses (as well as other examples I could give) that ‘revelation’ is something made clear, not confusing. And its use in scripture bears this out.
‘Revelation’ in the New Testament
The New Testament authors use the word ‘revelation’ 18 times.
Three times it refers to the Gospel (Luke 2:32, Rom. 16:25-26, Gal. 1:12). Seven times it refers to something newly understood (1 Cor. 14:6, 1 Cor. 14:26, 2 Cor. 12:1, 2 Cor. 12:7, Eph. 1:17, Eph. 3:3, Gal. 2:2). Seven times it refers to Jesus’ second coming (Rom. 2:5, Rom. 8:19, 1 Cor. 1:7, 2 Thess. 1:7, 1 Peter 1:7, 1 Peter 1:13, 1 Peter 4:13). And the final time it is used as the title of the last book of the Bible: “The Revelation of Jesus Christ”.
I would invite you to examine all of the above verses to get a clearer picture of what this word really means. But since we have limited time, we’ll look at one instance in particular.
‘Revelation’ in 1 Corinthians 14:6
“But now, brethren, if I come to you speaking in tongues, what will I profit you unless I speak to you either by way of revelation or of knowledge or of prophecy or of teaching?” (1 Corinthians 14:6).
In this chapter of his letter to the Corinthians, Paul deals with the issue of speaking in ‘tongues’. In particular, he warns against meaningless chatter in the congregation. His reasoning is simple. Everything that is done in the congregation should build up the congregation in Christlikeness. Speaking in unknown tongues edifies no one but the speaker (see 1 Cor. 14:17). In verse 6, he tells the congregation in Corinth that real profit does not come about through the mystery of unknown languages but rather through four avenues: revelation, knowledge, prophecy, and teaching.
Knowledge dispels ignorance. Prophecy makes God’s will evident. Teaching clears up confusion. And revelation reveals hidden things.
So, according to Paul here, revelation is something clear rather than confusing. And if you examine all of the other examples that I gave above, you’ll find that this is consistent throughout the New Testament. Revelations were meant to be understood.
But that isn’t all. Revelation has a particular connotation in the New Testament that we ought to examine as well.
‘Revelation’ and the end times
A number of scholars have argued that Jesus himself and the New Testament generally grew out of apocalyptic soil. In fact, one scholar goes so far as to write, “apocalyptic had a strong influence on Christianity from the very outset, and to a very large extent furnished it with its basic concepts. This is important for an understanding of revelation. It means that the meaning of the words in the NT has its true locus in eschatology”¹.
What is this scholar saying in everyday language? The message of the New Testament is a message that constantly looks forward to the end – judgment day – the Day of the Lord. Jesus explicitly preached in these terms (see Matthew 24-25 and Mark 13). Paul comforted and warned believers in the same way (see 1 Thessalonians 5). And the entire book of Revelation expresses the Gospel and its effects in apocalyptic language.
The idea of God unveiling his plans for the future through Christ is everywhere in the New Testament. It’s so clear that the New Testament authors view themselves as already living in the last days (see Peter’s sermon at Pentecost in Acts 2).
So revelation isn’t just something that’s been made known. In particular, it’s something that God has revealed concerning his final plans for earth.
And who is at the center of those plans?
‘Revelation’ and Jesus
As we’ve already noted, the book of Revelation begins with these words: “The Revelation of Jesus Christ”. From the very start John wants us to understand that the main character of this story is Jesus. It isn’t the antichrist or the church. And it isn’t history or the end times. It’s Jesus.
If Revelation were a movie and had a promotional poster, Jesus would feature front and center. He is the focus of this book.
With regard to this thought, one scholar writes, “this is not to be a revelation or revelations of St. John the Divine, as if it is a word or prophecy from God through a prophet of old, but a revealing of Jesus himself. This beginning statement sets the course for the whole of the book. Gerhard Ebeling puts it this way: ‘We do not by any means merely interpret Jesus in light of the apocalyptic, but also and above all, interpret apocalyptic in light of Jesus.’ John truly believes that in the face of confusion and chaos, the only thing that will bring sense and meaning to the raging events taking place is a glimpse of the Messiah in history”².
This first verse of Revelation is so vital because it is the keystone of the whole book.
If we miss this verse, we’ll misread the entire thing.
I’ll end this section with one final quote: “Jesus is the source of the revelation that God gave to him, but the revelation is also about Jesus. The Apocalypse is the last of our gospels that tells the story in vivid pictures of Jesus and his testimony. It is good news, not bad news, hopeful, not despairing”³.
What have we learned so far?
By now several things should be clear.
- Revelation is not a book of mysteries but a book of things that God is making clear.
- It must be read in light of the New Testament understanding of the ‘end times’ or ‘Day of the Lord’.
- It is all about Jesus.
These are just a handful of things to consider when reading the book of Revelation. As I mentioned earlier, the fact that this is “the Revelation of Jesus Christ” should play a huge role in how we read the rest of the book.
At this point, some of you may be thinking, “Okay, I understand that you think it should be clear. But it isn’t. Just saying that it isn’t a book of mysteries doesn’t make it any less mysterious”. And you’d be right. But we need to lay this foundation so we can read the book rightly. As long as we believe it is a book of mysteries, we’ll spend all of our time looking for ‘keys’ that might unlock its meaning.
But the only real key we need is context. And that’s what we’ll be looking to get a grasp on in upcoming posts.
A Final Challenge
If you’re like most people, you’ve probably approached Revelation in the past with an eye to what it might tell you about the future (or the past). I’d like to challenge you to take a different approach.
Sit down and read through this book with one thought in mind: what is this revealing about Jesus?
It is, after all, “the Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show to His bond-servants”.
¹ Oepke, A. (1964–). καλύπτω, κάλυμμα, ἀνακαλύπτω, κατακαλύπτω, ἀποκαλύπτω, ἀποκάλυψις. G. Kittel, G. W. Bromiley, & G. Friedrich (Eds.), Theological dictionary of the New Testament (electronic ed., Vol. 3, p. 564). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
² Eckley, R. K. (2006). Revelation: a commentary for Bible students (pp. 57–58). Indianapolis, IN: Wesleyan Publishing House.
³ Resseguie, J. L. (2009). The Revelation of John: a narrative commentary. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.