A Young Person's Guide to the Book of Revelation
by Michael Spencer, Campus Minister, Oneida Baptist Institute
Young people want to know about Revelation
One of the best things about working with young people in churches and in a Christian school, as I have for almost 28 years, is answering questions about the Bible. There is, however, one thing I have noticed about young people's Bible questions. Most of them are about the most difficult book of the Bible, the book of Revelation. And those questions are very hard to answer.
Young people are curious about the book of Revelation for many reasons. If they have read it, they are certainly curious about what they have read. It's full of mysterious things that are mostly unexplained. Revelation is also the subject of books and movies, such as the popular Left Behind series and "The Omega Code" movies. Preachers on tv and in churches have a lot to say about the book of Revelation, and much of what they say seems very certain about the meaning of the book. Naturally, young people are curious about the book when they hear that it predicts the future.
The book of Revelation has a reputation different from any other book in the Bible. It's been very rare that I have a student ask a question about the book of Romans or Acts. These books are assumed to be boring, and if a student reads them, the story and ideas seem to be all from "long ago." Revelation, on the other hand, seems to be about the immediate future. It seems to be talking about "things that must shortly come to pass." Any normal person is curious about the future, and the book of Revelation seems to scratch the "itch" of that curiosity.
What do we know about the book of Revelation?
Perhaps the most frustrating part of these questions is that it is almost impossible to explain everything a person needs to know about the book of Revelation in a few sentences. It is a very difficult book! In fact, when the New Testament was being put together, many Christian leaders felt the book should not be in the Bible because it would be too confusing. It has been a confusing book, but it certainly belongs in the Bible. We simply have to pay the price in extra study.
There are hundreds of books written about the book of Revelation. Most of them are far above the ability of the average young person to read and understand. Part of why I am writing this essay is to encourage young people to want to learn more, and hopefully find and read one of the easier books that will help them understand the book of Revelation.
The difficulty in understanding the book of Revelation doesn't come from what we know about the book. Bible scholars agree on most of the basics about this book.
It was written late in the first century after Jesus, perhaps around 95 a.d. The writer was "John," and most Christians believe it was the Apostle John, one of the twelve apostles chosen by Jesus and the author of the Gospel of John. There are other Christian leaders named John in the first century, but the writer of Revelation doesn't tell us very much about himself. In fact, he makes it clear that he is more of a secretary than anything else, writing down what he sees and hears.
The book was written to seven actual churches in what was then called Asia Minor, the modern nation of Turkey. These churches were all very different from one another in size, but all needed encouragement. Chapters two and three of Revelation have specific messages from Jesus to these seven churches, and those chapters are among the easiest to read and understand.
From those letters, we know that the churches that first read this book were going through some tough times. Some had been persecuted and even had members killed. There were false teachers in some of the churches. Some of the churches were wealthy and had grown cold in their commitment to Jesus. Others were poor and suffering churches, and they are usually commended for being faithful in suffering.
The book of Revelation was written during the time of the Roman Empire. The Romans ruled most of the known world in the first century, and the Roman emperors were very powerful. In fact, some of these emperors demanded to be worshiped as gods. In some cities that wanted to show they were big "fans" of the emperor, temples were set up and every "good" Roman citizen had to make an offering of incense and say "Caesar is Lord" or "The emperor is God."
This "pledge of allegiance" to the emperor was no problem for most people, but for the early Christians, it was a difficult choice. The believed that Jesus was Lord and God, and it would be wrong to go to a temple and "worship" the Roman emperor. Many Christians refused to do this, and as a result were singled out for persecution of various kinds. At the time the book of Revelation was written, the Roman emperor was Domitian (dough-me-shun), and he was very strict about worship at his temples. Cities built temples to him, had large statues for people to worship, and even employed priests to enforce the worship of Domitian.
This kind of situation is very hard for American Christians to understand. We have never lived under the power of an empire or an emperor. We've always ruled ourselves and had religious freedom. Christians sometimes are harassed or told they cannot do some things they might want to do, but few American Christians have been imprisoned or killed for being Christians.
But imagine: What has it been like for Christians in communist China? In the old Soviet Union? In places like Sudan or in hostile Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia? There, it was (and is) not uncommon for thousands and thousands of Christians to suffer and die because they will not "worship" the "gods" of that nation, but instead worship Jesus.
These suffering Christians would probably understand the book of Revelation much better than we do, because they understand what it is like to suffer, and to live with the choice of obedience or death.
The book of Revelation is a special message to Christians in the first century. It is a message that says "Jesus is Lord!" Caesar Domitian is NOT Lord! God is in control of everything that happens. The future will unfold according to God's plan, and it is going to fulfill all of God's purposes. No matter how rough or bad it gets along the way, Christians must be faithful, be willing to suffer, and wait on God to bring all things to an end in His kingdom.
Knowing that Revelation is a message to first century Christians doesn't mean it isn't for us today. Revelation is a message for all Christians in all times. Its message and its "story" belong to every generation and every Christian.
Why is it so hard to understand?
All this is really not very difficult to understand. Any average history student could easily learn that information and pass a quiz! What's not easy about the book of Revelation is the way it is written, especially after chapter 3. The book gets very strange. Let's talk about the way the book is written, and why it may be written that way.
The book of Revelation uses many symbols and pictures to tell its story. It is like watching a very, very strange animated movie. There are monsters, angels, weird events, mysterious characters, lots of numbers and riddles. Is all of this really what is going on?
For example, in chapter 12, does a dragon really want to eat a baby? Does he really have seven heads? Is the baby really caught up to heaven? Does a woman really hide in the dessert for over a thousand days? Does the dragon really spew out a river, and does the earth really open up and swallow it?
This is typical of the way Revelation "talks" to us, and if you have said to yourself, "That can't be real. It must be some kind of symbols or code," then you are right. This isn't "real" like videotape on the evening news. It's much more like a painting, full of characters and colors and numbers and events that have a secret meaning, which make sense to some people, but not to others.
Revelation is written in a kind of "code" much like modern political cartoons. If you are reading a political cartoon, and you see an elephant stomping a donkey into the road, you should know that isn't "really" what is happening. The elephant stands for the Republican party, and the donkey for the Democratic party. If we see "Uncle Sam," we know he is the United States, and a bear is Russia.
In Revelation, the dragon, the beast, the false prophet, the lamb, the great prostitute and other characters were easy to identify if you knew what they represented.
Numbers work the same way. Every NASCAR fan knows number "3." Every American knows what "9-11" represents. NBA fans know that "23" is Michael Jordan. In the same way, Revelation uses a number code to communicate with the reader. Revelation has a similar color code as well.
Is there an answer?
It would be great if Revelation gave us a key to all these codes! That would make things very easy. But it doesn't, or at least, not in the way we might want, with all the codes laid out at the end in easy-to-understand forms. No, Revelation's "codes" have to be understood by understanding two things.
First, Revelation has more than 400 references to the Old Testament. The better you know the Old Testament, the better you will understand Revelation. For example, Revelation frequently talks about "Babylon" as a symbol. If you know the Old Testament, you know that Babylon was an ancient empire and an enemy of God's people, it was a city where God's people were in captivity for 70 years, and it is a symbol for the power of evil in the world.
Another example is the temple. Revelation frequently uses the temple as a symbol. In the Old Testament there were two temples, and there is much information about what went on in the temple. Sacrifices, priests, music, altars, incense--it is all described in many different places in the Old Testament. One Old Testament book, Ezekiel, has a detailed description of a perfect, future temple. So when Revelation talks about a temple, we have some ideas about what it means.
In one place, Revelation refers to a certain false teacher as "Jezebel." Jezebel was an evil queen who promoted the worship of false gods and killed God's prophets and people. Without "naming names," Revelation says that someone is like Jezebel. This is the way Revelation uses Old Testament references.
Using Old Testament references was a way to communicate with people who know the Bible, but to hide that message from people who don't know the Bible well....like the Romans.
The second way to understand the codes of Revelation is to study other books like Revelation, written in the ancient world, in similar situations, and using similar language. The problem here is that there really isn't anything exactly like the book of Revelation elsewhere in the Bible. There is one book that is close enough that it can be helpful, though, and that is the book of Daniel.
This essay can't introduce you to the book of Daniel, but I can tell you how it is similar to Revelation. It was written when God's people were suffering. It also encourages them to be faithful and brave, like Daniel himself. It also uses many pictures and symbols, in dreams and visions, to communicate the message that no matter what happens in history, God is in control. It uses many of the same codes, and even some of the same creatures.
Comparing Daniel and Revelation can be helpful. What is even more helpful is reading ancient books that are NOT in our Bible, but that use a similar "code" to communicate. Here is where a Bible student has to trust the scholars who have written books for us. Most of us can't take the time to learn the original languages and go to libraries and study. But we can read what these scholars have discovered and passed on to us.
When we use these two codes, what do we find? We find that most of what is in the book of Revelation can be understood with very little work. I don't know anyone who claims to understand all of what the book of Revelation says, and many scholars disagree with one another. But an impressive majority of scholars studying Revelation agree on most of what the books says.
(By the way, the special code used in Revelation and Daniel is called "Apocalyptic" literature. The word "apocalyptic" is the Greek word for "unveiled" or "revealed" and is actually the first word in the first sentence of the book of Revelation.)
Why so much disagreement?
One of the frustrating things about trying to talk about Revelation is that there is no book that has so many different opinions and ideas tossed around by so may different people--all claiming to be right. This can be very discouraging to a young person who wants to understand Revelation.
For example, the popular Left Behind Books have sold over 40 million copies. They take one view of the message of the book of Revelation. I disagree with that view on almost everything, so I really don't like the Left Behind books, and usually discourage students from reading them. My views on Revelation are more similar to the views of preachers from long ago. Who is right?
A student of Revelation is going to have to accept the fact that he or she may have to learn several different options for understanding any part of the book, depending on what they are reading or who is talking and teaching. For example, in chapter seven, there are 144,000 people pictured. I think this is a symbol. Other teachers think it is a literal, actual group of 144,000, no more or less. I am influenced by the "number code" of the ancient world, where 12 was the number of God's people and any variation on 10 meant completeness. I think this is a symbol for "all God's people on earth." Other teachers say it is 144,000 Jews from the 12 tribes of Israel.
These disagreements are annoying, I know! But they are part of what it means to be a student of Revelation. The good news is that there are only four or five ways of looking at the book, and in most cases only two or three options for what something may mean, so if you become familiar with these "teams," the game isn't quite so confusing.
What are some "Frequently Asked Questions" about Revelation?
1. Is Revelation about the future?
Probably the #1 mistake most people make about Revelation is assuming it is all about the future. Reading Revelation will quickly show that it is about past, present and future. Certainly, much of Revelation comes around to the end of time and events at the end of history, but don't make the mistake of thinking it is all about the future only.
2. Does Revelation tell us- in detail- about events in the future?
This is one of those disagreements I warned you about! Some people look at Revelation as a kind of "road map" that predicts the future in detail. If you can read the map, they say, you can know what is going to happen. Others--like me-- believe Revelation only shows us the future in very, very general ways that could apply to any Christians, anytime, anywhere. I would caution you to remember that every generation of Christians has tended to think they understood events in Revelation clearly, and all have been proven wrong about much of what they said.
So be humble and teachable. Revelation is like a great mountain. Climbing it demands all different kinds of knowledge to avoid the hazards and traps, but once we have worked to get to the "good views," all that work is worth it.
3. Who or what is "the beast?"
There are two "beasts" in Revelation. One is from the sea, and one is from the earth. These beasts probably represented the Roman emperor and the "cult" of emperor worship, especially the priests who forced Christians to worship the emperor or die.
Some Revelation scholars believe these beasts predict a future anti-Christ who will rule the world and be the tool of Satan at the end of time. Others, like myself, believe that anyone who claims to be "God" and demands worship or death is an "anti-Christ." Evil men like Hitler, Stalin and Mao come to mind.
One of the biggest wastes of time that Christians engage in is trying to identify the "beast" as someone currently in the news. For two thousand years, Christians have been guessing wrong, claiming the Pope, Hitler, Ronald Reagan and others were the anti-Christ. If there is to be an anti-Christ at the end of time, he will be obvious by his actions, and Christ will destroy him.
Revelation's message is that we have nothing to fear from anyone, as long as we trust Jesus as Lord and bravely obey him.
4. Is the beast a computer, the Internet, bar codes, microchips or credit cards?
Another rather silly way to read Revelation is to try and find something in the book that matches up with current technology, such as computers or microchips. Any kind of technology can be used for good or evil. I would ask you to avoid any interpretation of something in Revelation that makes no sense in the first century world. Computers and bar codes might make sense to us, but they would be meaningless to first century Christians, and the book of Revelation is as much theirs as it is ours.
Hal Lindsey once interpreted the "locust monsters" in Revelation 9 as helicopters. I interpret these "monsters" as demons. Which interpretation would make sense to all Christians, and which one only makes sense to modern people? I think this is important, and will do a lot to keep us from chasing after "strange rabbits" in the book of Revelation.
5. Is the Pope the anti-Christ?
There have been times, such as the Reformation of the 16th century in Europe, when the Roman Catholic Church persecuted and killed many non-Catholic Christians. This is evil and shameful, and the Catholic Church has admitted its errors in using violence against those who disagreed with it. At those times, however, it seemed entirely logical to say that the Pope was the anti-Christ of Revelation. Today the Pope, while he represents a different branch of Christianity from our own, is clearly a friend of Christians around the world, and is not a candidate for an "anti-Christ."
6. What is the "Mark of the Beast?"
This is one of the most difficult and obscure parts of the book of Revelation. It occurs seven times in the book from chapter 13 to the end. Modern Christians have tended to see this as some kind of future identification that Christians should avoid, like giving a person a number on his forehead or a microchip on his body. By requiring Christians to be marked, this would allow them to be controlled.
The actual "mark" that is talked about is probably a tattoo that was given to anyone who participated in worship of the Roman emperor. This tattoo marked you as a loyal citizen of Rome, and allowed you to do business. Without the tattoo or mark, your loyalty to the emperor could be questioned. Refusal to be marked probably meant you were a Christian.
Obviously, Christians would be concerned about anything that is used to "mark" them for persecution. But credit cards, microchips with health and employee information, and the internet are not anything Christians should avoid for fear of "the mark."
Again, we should ask how the first readers of this book would look at this "mark," and then apply that to every other group of readers.
7. What is the "head wound" of the beast?
Again, a very, very difficult part of the book. Most scholars are ready to say "I don't know," and I am right there with them. It is a puzzle.
The best suggestion goes like this. Christians were first persecuted to death by the Roman emperor Nero, around 60 a.d.. Nero was killed by a head wound. When the Emperor Domitian began persecuting Christians 30 years later, some Christians felt like Nero had come back from the dead. This may be what is referred to, but really, no one knows.
Be very careful and humble with this part of Revelation. No one knows for certain what is going on!
8. Where is the rapture in the book of Revelation?
Some Christians believe that Christ will return twice. Once secretly to take the church out of the world before severe persecution (the rapture), and once to judge everyone at the end of time. I am convinced the Bible teaches that Jesus only returns once, and that Christians should prepare for persecution, and not expect a rapture out of the world before the real tough times begin. So I do not find the rapture in the book of Revelation.
Those who do believe in the rapture generally say it happens in chapter four when John is brought up to heaven. There are serious problems with this view, but this essay isn't about the rapture!
9. How long is the tribulation?
This is, again, one of those terms that is used in different ways by those who read and study Revelation. Many Christians believe the "tribulation" is a seven-year period of time when the anti-Christ rules the earth after Christians have been raptured out of the world. Others, like myself, believe that "tribulation" is a word used over 40 times in the New Testament, and it almost always refers to any kind of suffering or persecution for being a Christian, not just seven years.
I believe Revelation makes it clear in 7:14 that all of history is the "great tribulation" and that all Christians may live in it, depending on the time and place they live in. Many Christians are being persecuted today, all over the world. Other Christians believe this is a definite seven-year period of time. It seems to me a bit silly to say that the millions of suffering Christians in the world today are not in "tribulation," but that this will come sometime later. It seems even more bizarre to say that American Christians should pray for escape from their luxury, rather than pray for faithfulness in suffering, if that is what the future actually brings.
10. Isn't the book of Revelation scary?
I've had many students tell me the book of Revelation frightened them. Some have said reading assignments in the book gave them nightmares! This is too bad, because the book of Revelation is meant to be encouraging and comforting. It ends with a wonderful view of heaven that has given comfort to millions of Christians for thousands of years.
But some of the scenes in Revelation are frightening, and to young people who have seen many scary movies, some of these scenes can be upsetting. It especially frightens children to hear that the world may end, bad people will be left and terrible things will happen to Christians. Some parts of Revelation, read without all the book, can seem to say that Satan and demons are making everything happen.
Remember that Revelation is about God's doing away with all evil, pain, death, and demons, and bringing all His people home to a wonderful place in a new heaven and a new earth.