The book of Revelation is the last book in the Bible and completes the New Testament canon. It is Jesus Christ’s final word to His church. This easily overlooked fact suggests that Revelation is one of the most practical and important of the New Testament epistles. Likely written near the end of the first century, Revelation comes in the form of a circular letter addressed to seven churches in Asia Minor. But it is much more than a mere letter. This book is prophetic in content (describing the course of human history in highly symbolic terms) and apocalyptic in style. Typical of Jewish apocalyptic literature, Revelation is filled with images of mysterious creatures and dramatic symbols, and it uses numbers to make important theological points. There is no other book quite like it in all the Bible.
Because Revelation is symbolic in nature and contains apocalyptic themes and images, many have been tempted to use this remarkable book as a springboard for all kinds of fanciful interpretations. Sadly, although John cautions his readers that he is writing to the seven churches mentioned in Revelation 1:4 to reveal that which God “gave [to John] to show to his servants the things that must soon take place” (v. 1) and then immediately states that the “time is near” for these events (v. 3), Christians often overlook these vital statements establishing the context of the letter.
Throughout the history of the church, it has been common for Christians to assume that John wrote this letter to reveal the hidden meaning of those wars and tragedies that, in the providence of God, occur throughout the course of history. This sincere but misguided approach to reading this book has led many to approach Revelation through the lens of current events rather than seeing it as a divinely given commentary on themes left open-ended in the Old Testament and interpreted by Jesus and the Apostles. Revelation is not a handy guide to explain the evening news; rather, it is a commentary on the Old Testament in light of the person and work of Jesus Christ, Revelation’s central figure. We know this to be true because the symbols and numbers used throughout Revelation are taken from the Old Testament and set out by John against the backdrop of circumstances facing the seven churches in the first century.
Many of our contemporaries believe that Revelation primarily speaks to those living at the time of the end, and they interpret the book as essentially prophetic. For these interpreters, Revelation supposedly predicts the rise of modern military technologies that first-century folk could not conceive of (for example, the locusts mentioned in Revelation 9 are prophetic images of helicopters); describes a revival of the Roman Empire (Nicolea Carpathia of the Left Behind novels); foresees specific earthquakes, tsunamis, and famines; and reveals the rise of various dictators and empires. This is why the book of Revelation has acquired a reputation for being esoteric and difficult to interpret and understand. Only those skilled in tying the apocalyptic images found throughout the book to current events are thought to understand it properly.
But John himself tells us that this is not the case. This remarkable vision was given to the seven churches of Asia Minor at some point before the end of the first century. It was sent to Christians in seven historical churches. These were believers facing horrible persecution and even death from the Roman authorities because they honored Jesus as Lord and refused to ascribe the same title to the caesars. They worshipped the true and living God who revealed Himself in Jesus Christ, not the false gods worshipped in the temples found in virtually every city throughout the first-century Mediterranean world. This book was written to give hope and comfort to a suffering and persecuted people.
Yet, like Paul’s letters to the first century churches in Rome or Corinth, the book of Revelation also speaks to God’s people throughout the period between Christ’s first advent and His second coming. The issues facing the seven churches of Asia Minor are ones that God’s people must face until Jesus Christ comes again. While the book has prophetic elements and uses apocalyptic imagery, it is not a book that predicts the future with the kind of specificity people mistakenly seek. Revelation tells us that God’s people will face the Dragon, the Beast, and the False Prophet—a mock Trinity composed of the satanically empowered state and its self-deified leader. Yet despite all the hardship this unholy trinity inflicts on the people of God across time, Jesus Christ will deliver His people in the end.
Although Revelation is not often thought of as a “practical” book, surely it is one of the most practical books in all the New Testament. Because it is the last book of the canon, Revelation serves as the capstone of all previous biblical revelation. Those who knew the Old Testament knew where to find the explanation of Revelation’s images and symbols. This book is God’s final word to His people, and it ties up all the loose ends in redemptive history. In fact, a great blessing is promised to those “who keep the words of the prophecy of this book” (22:7), while those who add to or take away from it are threatened with covenant curses (vv. 18–19).
When seen in this light, Revelation is very practical, not because the vision given to John by the angel maps out the course of human history with great specificity, but because Revelation makes it abundantly clear to God’s people that despite the ebb and flow of human history, Jesus Christ and His church will triumph in the end.
The book of Revelation was given to God’s people to make a critical point: Jesus Christ will destroy Satan and all his minions. Jesus will establish a new heaven and earth, and the Lamb and His people will reign forever. Knowing the final outcome of redemptive history is intended to give God’s people great comfort in times of trial, as well as to motivate us to take the gospel of Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth. But we will secure these blessings only if we read this book in the right way and for the right reasons. We must keep Jesus Christ—not speculation about current events—as its central focus.