The Agora
Bible Articles and Lessons: R

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Rev, you can do it!

Consider this imaginary conversation between a teenage Sunday School student and her teacher:

Student: How do you go about understanding the Book of Revelation -- it's got all those symbols and stuff?

Teacher: Well... how have we gone about understanding any of the other Bible books?

Student: By reading them, I guess.

Teacher: Good start.

Student: But what if you don't understand what you're reading? Or what's going on? For example, what are the weird-looking "living creatures"? And what do the colored horses mean? Who are the "souls under the altar" and the dragon and the beast and the woman, etc.? It's all very confusing...

Teacher: You're right -- it can be confusing. But you have a couple of things going for you. First of all, since you have a Bible with cross references, you can look up the Old Testament and New Testament source passages and determine what the symbol or event or phrase meant originally.

S: But that would take forever! Besides, I don't know what the Old Testament passages are about either!

T: Well, there's no real shortcut to understanding Scripture. It takes a lot of hard mental work, and it may take many years to appreciate the richness of God's Book. As you know, the Revelation alludes to most if not all of the previous 65 books and letters. If you don't have a working knowledge of the earlier information, comprehending the last book of the Bible is virtually impossible.

S: That's what I thought -- it's impossible to make sense of Revelation!

T: No, that's not what I meant! Revelation is not incomprehensible -- it's just very difficult to come to a correct understanding unless you have a solid background in the rest of Scripture. In any case, would God go to the trouble of having Revelation written only to leave it impossible to comprehend? Of course not! The book is a disclosure, an unveiling, a revealing of God's mind and purpose -- that's what the Greek title "Apocalypse" means! God meant it to be understood!

S: Then why did He make it so difficult?

T: Perhaps because the very best way to reveal His message is to require effort on our part. We're told that "It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out" (Prov 25:2). So the difficulty is deliberate, to challenge us, to draw out and demand our best effort.

On the other hand, some of the difficulty is our own making. Three things get in the way: ignorance, laziness, and a false notion. Ignorance of Scripture is a fundamental problem, but can be overcome by daily reading and patient study. Mental laziness is another real problem. You not only have to read the text but also think about what it means. Finally, there's the false notion that only Bible scholars and prophetic students will be able to figure out what the Apocalypse, or Revelation, means. That's nonsense! God never intended any Scripture to be the exclusive privilege of intellectuals. God has given you a mind and a spirit equal to the task. Understanding the Apocalypse at some level is well within the capability of every person who prayerfully seeks to comprehend its meaning and to obey its teaching.

S: You said earlier that I had a couple of things going for me. The first was a Bible with cross references. What's the second?

T: Thanks for reminding me. We older folks sometimes lose our train of thought. Actually, I've just told you. Your God-given mind is a wonderful gift. Use it. Combined with the right attitude, it's just a matter of time before you discover the meanings and applications of the Revelation message.

S: I know you said there were no shortcuts... but is there any way to make the study easier? After all, you're the teacher. Aren't you supposed to at least give me some guidelines, tips, outlines, etc.?

T: You're right. It's part of my job to pass on what I know, just like my teachers shared what they knew. Over the years, I've been exposed to a wide variety of interpretations of Revelation. Some of the viewpoints are radically different and some flatly contradict others. How can you determine which is correct? Here are three guidelines that have worked for me:

Guideline #1: The interpretation must be Bible-based. That is, it must derive its fundamental teaching and source material from Scripture. To rely on uninspired writings such as those by a notable church leader, respected theologian or authoritative historian is to rely on the wrong source. By all means consult other writings and books, but don't depend on them. Make up your own mind about what makes the most sense, remembering that any interpretation must be in harmony with the "first principles" of Bible teaching.

Guideline #2: Look for an explanation in the text itself. In many cases, the meaning of a symbol or term is provided in the next few verses. For example, the significance of the dragon (Rev 12:3,4,9) goes right back to "that ancient serpent" (Gen 3:1). Sometimes the meaning will not become clear until the events and details of another chapter are described. For example, the beast that makes war on and kills the witnesses (11:7) is not fully introduced until chapter 13.

Clues are also found in the repetition of numbers and settings. For example, the number 7 is obviously important. The time periods of 42 months, 3 1/2 years and 1,260 days are arithmetically equivalent and might point to the same time period. The areas hurt during the blowing of the first four trumpets are similar to the areas hurt when the first four bowls are poured out. These patterns and parallels should be taken into consideration.

Guideline #3: Visualize the contents and happenings of the book. It was very helpful for me to have an artist friend sketch her impressions of what the Apocalyptic people and things looked like, and what they were doing in the given setting. For example, when you see the pictures, the relationship of the dragon, beast and false prophet become clearer: The dragon empowers the beast, who in turn empowers the false prophet (Rev 13:1,2,11,12). Their eventual destruction follows the same hierarchy (Rev 19:20; 20:2,10). Another example: Revelation 12 opens by describing a "pure" woman who ends up fleeing into the wilderness, while Revelation 17 opens by describing a "bad" woman who just happens to be in the (same?) wilderness. This suggests a connection or comparison between the two women.

S: Okay, I get the picture(!). But what else can you tell me or show me -- something to get a good head start on the reading and study?

T: If you have trouble following the 1611 English of the King James (Authorized) Version, get a more modern translation of the Bible for your study. Make sure it's a widely-accepted translation, and not a paraphrase. I have found the Revised Standard Version (1946-1952) to be much more readable, and therefore much more comprehensible. The New International Version (1973) is said to be a good choice as well.

If you want to read what someone else has written on Revelation -- just to give you some ideas -- and if you want to consider a reasonable spectrum of Bible-based thinking, here are three books to try:

* Eureka (1861) by John Thomas,
* Revelation -- A Biblical Approach (1973) by Harry Whittaker, and
* Apocalypse for Everyman (1982) by Alfred Norris.

That last title is especially interesting, for it implies -- rightly -- that the book of Revelation is meant to be read and understood and personally applied by every disciple of Jesus Christ.

But don't postpone your own reading and study. Don't wait until you digest someone else's writing. Go right to the source and do your best. There are two good reasons for doing so: the blessing, and the urgency. For here's what Rev 1:3 says:
"Blessed is he who reads the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written therein; for the time is near."
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