To begin a study of a book like Revelation, we must address some fundamental questions. In this case, the most fundamental of questions is whether or not it is intended to be understood literally. If we decide it should be understood literally, then we must next decide whether or not it is intended to be chronological in nature. If we determine that it is both literal and chronological, then we will have a story, a narrative about something. Since the internal structure of the book is set forth by Revelation 1:19, there are two elements in play: What is now, and will come later:
Write, therefore, what you have seen, what is now and what will take place later.
In chapters 2-3, Jesus dictates letters to seven churches that existed at the time of John that he would have been familiar with; these chapters would seem to be the “now”. So then, chapters 4-22 must be the “later” and since “later” ends with the New Jerusalem, and it is literal and chronological, then 4-22 must tell a narrative of how the world ends. Yep, that’s where that idea comes from. If you wish to take the literal approach, then you will find that Revelation is a very difficult book, because in these visions, there are some bizarre things. Take chapters 12-13 for instance. In chapter 12 there is a woman and a dragon. Literally, a woman is a female human being, and a dragon is dragon; literally speaking, they are what they are. So let’s take a look at 12:3-4:
Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads. Its tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born.
How exactly are you planning on handling this one literally: An enormous dragon with seven heads and seven horns with seven crowns? It is so big that it seeps stars out of the sky with its tail: Literally. And you wonder why the atheists ridicule us! Shall we begin with the obvious? There is no such thing as a dragon. This dragon is so big that it has a tail many light years long and it can sweep stars out of the sky? OK, I had astronomy in college; even I’m laughing now.
But wait! What about verse 1?
A great sign appeared in heaven (12:1a)
This story isn’t a literal event at all; it’s a sign. If we keep on reading, the dragon becomes a serpent that becomes the Devil. Those stars are representing fallen angels and there’s a war going on in heaven. Those beasts in the next chapter are part of the sign. None of this is literal!
Revelation has literally dozens of examples like this, as you will see in this study, and there is very little in the book that can accurately be understood using the literal method of interpretation, because it does not provide for “cherry picking” what is literal and what is not. If the text is not literal, then it also can’t be chronological, and it isn’t quite telling the same story that many presuppose. Yet it reveals a great deal that applies to us every single day!
The name for this type of writing is “Apocalyptic” for it reveals things through the use of figurative language that cannot be revealed any other way. (Thus the name of the book, by the way)
To be fair to commentators who advocate a literal approach, they don’t really use the literal method in Revelation (or the OT prophets for that matter). If you read their writings, you will see that “this” is representing “that” all day long. Yet the approach is claimed in order to impose the context of the text’s being both literal and chronological, for then it must of necessity be about the end of the world. In other words, the premise (end of the world) requires the claim of the method; if the premise turns out to be false, the whole thing will crash and burn.
Needless to say, as we go forward, I will approach the text with the assumption that it is intended to be understood figuratively. Next time, a brief description of “Apocalyptic” writing, see you then!