The Book of Revelation stumps people. You can read it over and over again and still walk away wondering, “Lampstands, bowls, trumpets, trees … what?” At least that’s what I’d end up asking myself. But I’ve found at least three tools that help me understand Revelation
First, start with the Old Testament since much of the imagery in Revelation is found in Old Testament writings. Consider the four living creatures singing “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come.” (Revelation 4:8.) They’re much like the angels Isaiah saw calling to one another “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” (Isaiah 6:3.)
A commentary like Darrell Johnson’s Discipleship on the Edge: An Expository Journey Through the Book of Revelation is helpful too. For instance, when Jesus dictated the letter to the church in Pergamum and told them they lived “where Satan has his throne” (Revelation 2:13), Johnson points out that the cliffs above the city were used for idol worship and the temple there sat as a throne above the city. The people throughout the region would know what “Satan has his throne” referred to.
There’s yet a third tool, and it’s one you probably already possess. Go to the author of the book himself, because John’s Revelation and John’s Gospel go hand in hand.
- Word means Word
Toward the end of Revelation we read:
I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and wages war. His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. (Revelation 19:11-13.)
It’s not hard to see that this is a heavenly warrior, since he is called “Faithful and True.” But is this necessarily God? After all, the book of Revelation is full of angels who are doing mighty things. It’s that last phrase in the passage that gives us a clue who this is, because it reminds us of something John wrote elsewhere:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. … The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:1, 14.)
There’s only one person who is the Word of God and that’s Jesus, who is God himself.
- The Day the Sun Went Out
Another passage some find odd – or at least one no one on earth has ever personally experienced – says that there will be no need for the light of the sun in the new creation. Now I was taught in science class that the sun is the source of life; nothing can exist, let alone grow, if it weren’t for the sun’s light and warmth. Yet John wrote of the new creation:
The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. (Revelation 21:23.)
This would not have seemed odd, though, to those who had read John’s earlier writings.
In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. (John 1:4.)
When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12.)
Jesus is light and life, and will physically be present with his people in the new creation.
- When Lamb is King
In one of the more memorable visions John recorded, he said:
Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders. …
Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. In a loud voice they were saying: “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!” (Revelation 5:6, 11-12.)
Why is a slain lamb on the throne? Again, we go back to the opening of John’s gospel.
The next day John [the Baptist] saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29.)
John the Baptist’s listeners were familiar with the sacrificial lambs used for temple sacrifices. Jesus is announced as the Lamb who takes away not just the sins of the one person sacrificing a lamb, but will be a sacrifice sufficient to take away the sins of the world. And that is the Lamb on the throne in Revelation: Jesus who has been slain and is worthy of all praise, because he is God who took away “the sin of the world.”
I’m sure you can find more parallels between John’s gospel and Revelation, but you see how this works. The meaning of John’s visions in Revelation become clearer as you study John’s gospel of the life of Jesus.
In fact, they are both a gospel of Jesus; it’s just that one records events before his death and resurrection and the other after. Read them together and you’ll get a better understanding of what the book of Revelation truly means.