Commentary on Revelation (covers all chapters from 1 thru 22, including Introduction)
Copyright © 2019 by Steve Sewell, Theology First. All Rights Reserved
I would encourage you to read (or re-read) the introduction on this commentary. It provides a good lead-in to the remainder of this book….along with what’s written here.
Olivet Discourse as a Guide
In order to know how to interpret Revelation 4-20, we have to have some sort of guide. I talk about that in the introduction. But here I want to emphasize the importance of the The Olivet Discourse (Matt 25-25; Mark 13; Luke 21). I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that John’s gospel is without this discourse. I can’t say for sure, of course, but I believe the reason for that is because John was given an extended version of it in the form of the book of Revelation. Therefore, the Olivet Discourse is a miniature of Revelation and should be used as a general guide for interpreting this book. As we go along in our commentary, I’ll be providing cross-references from the Olivet Discourse, enabling you to see Christ’s discourse and the book of Revelation side by side.
If you haven’t already read my commentary on the Olivet Discourse, I encourage you to do so. I believe this Discourse details events that take place throughout history up to the return of Christ. In other words, what’s described in that Discourse can be seen throughout the Church age (gospel era, Christian era). Therefore, we can be confident that what we see in Revelation takes place throughout history up to the time of Christ’s return. It’s a mistake to limit this book to one particular time period, such as AD 70 (Preterism) or the last few years before Jesus comes back (Dispensationalism). Such limitations blinds us to what’s being depicted in this book, which has application for all Christians at every point in history.
However, having said that, we can also see the end of the world in both the Olivet Discourse and the book of Revelation — for all things in this world must eventually come to an end. We have a fairly detailed picture of that in Revelation.
New Testament Priority
In general, I believe the book of Revelation can be accurately and adequately interpreted apart from the Old Testament. As I already talked about, I believe the Olivet Discourse of the NT provides a good general guide. But don’t misunderstand, it’s not that the OT can’t and doesn’t shed light. It does! For example, the mention of “God and Magog” in Rev 20:8, is obviously a reference to Ezekiel 38 and 39. However, it’s not necessary to know those two chapters in order to correctly identify the war of Rev 20:7-9. Other examples where the OT is significant are Rev 4, Rev 11:3-4, Rev 13:1-2, and the references to Babylon. You’ll see that discussion in the commentary.
However, since the NT fulfills and interprets the OT, we can confidently interpret and understand most of Revelation without the aid of the OT. Too much reliance on the OT – without a NT context – can result in a disastrous interpretation of this book. I believe we fall into much confusion when we try to interpret this book according to our understanding of the OT. That, of course, applies to all of the NT. We cannot accurately understand the NT if we start with an OT understanding. If we start with the OT, we end up with an OT understanding — and that’s not what we want!
We greatly complicate things when we try to understand the NT according to the OT. On the other hand, we greatly simplify our understanding of the OT when we do so in light of our understanding of the NT. That includes the book of Revelation. We complicate this book when we view it through the eyes of the OT prophets. On the other hand, we simplify it when we interpret Revelation according to our understanding of the rest of the NT. It’s the NT overall that is to serve as our guide in understanding this book, not the OT! It’s a costly mistake to use the OT as a guide for understanding a book that is already difficult. But again, the OT can and does shed light on certain passages. It just shouldn’t be used as a primary guide — as Dispensationalism does to a large degree.
What then, do we do with the OT prophecies? We benefit from the OT prophecies mostly by seeing how accurately and wonderfully they were fulfilled in the NT. The NT is a witness of the things written long before. They’re a witness to the truth. They’re a witness to the truth of the Christian faith.
Even though we have the OT prophecies regarding Christ’s first coming and our redemption through Him, we don’t need those prophecies to understand God’s plan of salvation through Him. The NT explains it all. However, we can go back to the OT and see how wonderfully those prophecies about Him were fulfilled. This glorifies God to see His Word fulfilled, and with such precise detail. Likewise, even though we have the OT prophecies relating to Christ and His Kingdom and end time events, we don’t need those prophecies to know them or understand them. The NT explains it all. The NT serves as a witness to the accuracy of the OT prophecies.
Therefore, in general, we don’t need the OT prophecies to understand the general theme or most of the events of Revelation. Indeed, we’re to view the OT through the lens of Revelation — not the other way around. Furthermore, in its proper order, we’re to view Revelation through the lens of the rest of the NT. An incorrect order will greatly undermine our understanding. Thus the manner in which we approach Revelation is everything. Understanding of NT prophecies must precede our understanding of OT prophecies.
I believe that God has so ordered the NT Scriptures that, if all we had was the NT, we would have sufficient light to have a good understanding of the book of Revelation. We must realize that the NT was written specifically for Christ’s Church. Thus we must realize that the book of Revelation, too, was written specifically for the benefit of His Church. Revelation is a NT book, not an OT book! Therefore, I believe it’s a grave mistake to separate the Church from this book — as Dispensationalists do. If we didn’t have the OT, we would naturally understand Revelation to have the Church in view. We must always bear in mind that the NT is the fulfillment of the OT. The OT is full of types and shadows of Christ and His Church. That’s what it always pointed to. Therefore, we must have a New Testament mindset when we approach the book of Revelation.
The Seventy Weeks of Daniel
Most likely, there are many of you who will want to know what we do with the “seventy weeks of Daniel (Daniel 9),” Especially the “70th week,” which premillennialists insist is the last few years (“The Great Tribulation”) that leads up to the return of Christ, and insist that Revelation 4-20 is about those last few years. Instead of dealing with that subject here myself, I highly recommend Sam Storm’s article, “Daniel’s 70 Weeks.” He does a superb job of explaining this seventy weeks. He provides great insight for those who want a solid understanding of that passage of Daniel. What you’ll find is that it reveals the Amillennial nature of this prophecy. It provides strong confirmation that our approach to Revelation is correct. It also reveals the weaknesses of, and the biased nature of, the Dispensational interpretation of that passage.
Israel and the Church
The 70th week of Daniel, as Dispensationalism teaches, is focused on the nation of Israel. Again, they come to that conclusion because they begin with the OT. They bring their understanding of the OT to the NT, and explain the book of Revelation according that understanding. That’s a mistake. It throws everything completely off. Once you start with an OT understanding, everything goes downhill from there.
It simply doesn’t follow that Jesus would give His Church a book (the NT Scriptures), written specifically for His Church and about His Church, and then have it be all about the nation of Israel in the end — as supposedly revealed in the book of Revelation. Furthermore, it doesn’t make any sense for Jesus to address His Church in the beginning of Revelation, and then have it be all about the nation of Israel. Indeed, the fact that Jesus does address His Church in the beginning of this book, indicates that this is a message to His Church and about His Church. Again, if all we had were the NT Scriptures, I don’t believe we would even consider the idea that Revelation has the nation of Israel in view. The natural understanding is that it’s about the Church, just like the rest of the NT Scriptures are about the Church.
When one begins with a NT understanding of Israel and the Church, it then becomes very easy to see that Revelation is not about Israel at all, but about Christ’s Church. That Israel has its fulfillment and continuation in Christ as a spiritual nation, there should be no disagreement. When one studies the NT apart from the OT, there’s no other reasonable conclusion that one can come to, other than that Israel has its fulfillment in Christ and His Church. This is the central key to properly understanding the book of Revelation. Indeed, realizing that Israel has its fulfillment in Christ and His Church is a key to understanding the whole New Testament.
Therefore, I believe it’s unreasonable that the book of Revelation is about the nation of Israel in the last few years of history. To view the NT through the eyes of the OT is missing the central message of what the OT Scriptures pointed to— which is the centrality of Christ and His Church.
At the same time, it would be equally unreasonable to think that Revelation is all about the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, as Preterism teaches.
Central Theme of Revelation
Spiritual battle between two kingdoms:
I believe the book of Revelation is mostly about the spiritual warfare between the kingdom of light and the kingdom of darkness, the Kingdom of Christ and the Kingdom of Satan (Matt 11:26; Lu 11:18) — where Christian persecution is a point of focus.
What is this kingdom of darkness? This is the spiritual domain of Satan who rules this ungodly world. It’s the realm that we’re all in before we come to faith in Christ:
(Colossians 1:13) – 13 who delivered us out of the power of darkness, and translated us into the kingdom of the Son of his love; (ASV)
(Acts 26:18) – 18 to open their eyes, that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive remission of sins and an inheritance among them that are sanctified by faith in me. (ASV)
(2 Corinthians 4:3-4) – 3 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled in them that perish: 4 in whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of the unbelieving, that the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should not dawn upon them. (ASV)
(1 John 3:10) – 10 In this the children of God are revealed, and the children of the devil. Whoever doesn’t do righteousness is not of God, neither is he who doesn’t love his brother. (WEB)
(Ephesians 6:12) – 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavens. (NET)
(1 John 5:19) – 19 We know that we are of God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one. (WEB)
The kingdom of darkness is all that opposes the truth, all that opposes Christ. Both Christians and non-Christians alike, are involved in spiritual warfare. However, Christians are members of the Kingdom of Christ (Col 1:13) and are protected by the “armour of God” (Eph 6:13), while unbelievers are totally under the influence of the rulers of darkness and have no protection. Unbelievers are still members of this kingdom of darkness, ruled by the “god of this world” and his demonic army. As the “god of this world,” Satan is the ruler of this world, who rules over the secular governments (anti or non-Christian) and false religions and philosophies and values of the world — indeed, the whole world system, which is in opposition to Christ and His truth.
In other words, it’s the kingdom of darkness that is behind the kingdom of the world. The kingdom of the world is the image of the kingdom of darkness. The beast of Revelation 13 and 17 is the kingdom of darkness, which is expressed or lived out in the form of the world system — all that opposes Christ and His truth.
Regardless of how one interprets the details of Revelation, I think most would agree that the whole tenor of this book is one of conflict between the kingdom of Christ and the kingdom of Satan.
When one considers the fact that the NT was written specifically to the Church and for the Church and about the Church, it’s inconceivable that the book of Revelation would be about anything other than the Church or at least for the benefit of the Church. I believe Jesus Himself confirms this and makes it obvious by addressing the “seven churches.” The number seven, being the number of completion or perfection, most certainly has the whole Church in view.
While I believe the central theme is this conflict between these two kingdoms, Revelation also highlights natural disasters, as well as the normal trials and tribulations of life that are so common in the world. We see these things in the Olivet Discourse. I believe these are highlighted in order to show the the wide-sweeping effects of sin. We see the catastrophic change that took place in the Garden of Eden when sin came into the world. Sin affected not only mankind, but it contaminated the whole earth. I believe that all these effects of sin are shown to us in order to provide a contrast between the ugliness of this sinful world, and the holy and glorious eternal kingdom of God.
Seals, Trumpets, Bowls
In regard to the interpretation of the Seven Seals, Seven Trumpets, and Seven Bowl Judgments, these are not to viewed as happening in consecutive order (in other words, once one seal is over, then another one begins. Or once one series of seven is over, then another series begins). No, many of these are seen as overlapping, as happening at the same time. Which means, except for those that are associated with the return of Christ, everything we see in these “sevens” are taking place right now, and will continue to do so up to the end of the world, when Jesus comes back in judgement.
To be clear, I believe the Seven Bowl Judgments (Rev 16) take place just prior to the return of Christ, immediately following the resurrection of God’s redeemed. What we see in that chapter is God’s final judgment upon this sinful, Christ-rejecting world (also Rev 14).
Literal or Symbolic?
Ballpark most important!
While the book of Revelation is characterized by symbolism and figurative language, there’s also much that is to be taken literally. It requires careful study and comparison to determine which is in view. We must first have the general theme of the book correct. Otherwise, we’re sunk even before we begin. The context of the passage, the chapter, the entire book, and the entire New Testament, gives us clues which way we’re to go. Again, I refer you to the introduction of this commentary.
It may be argued that a strict literal approach makes the book of Revelation easier to interpret. If it talks about locusts, then it’s about real locusts; if it talks about fire, then it must be about real fire; if it talks about blood, then it must be about real blood; if it talks about Israel, then it must be about the nation of Israel, etc. Such a literal approach may simplify things, but the question is, does it provide the correct interpretation? I have to answer that with an emphatic, no! We must be willing to do the necessary hard work to correctly interpret each passage throughout this book. When we study each passage as part of the whole, a pattern emerges that helps guide us throughout.
When we come to Revelation with a New Testament understanding, the result is a much more accurate picture of what’s going on in this book. Because as I keep stressing, Revelation is a NT book, and must be treated as such.
Furthermore, while the literal approach may be easier, it greatly confuses the who and what and when throughout this book. A strict literal approach presents a false picture of what’s really going on in this book. It’s bewildering to me how an OT-centered theology (as it relates to Israel) like Dispensationalism, can have such wide acceptance among Christians. To be accurate, we must have a NT-centered focus.
It’s important to point out that being completely accurate in the details of events is not nearly as important as being accurate about what the events themselves are about. In other words, a ballpark understanding is what’s most important. As long as we have a proper understanding of the events themselves, being a little off regarding the details doesn’t change the picture that much. It’s when we misinterpret the whole event, that it changes the whole picture. For example, I may correctly see a car, but be a little fuzzy on the details. That’s ok, at least I know that it’s a car. However, if I identify it as a house, I have a real problem. Thus it’s more important to be correct about the overall picture, than it is about the fine details.
That is precisely what separates Amillennialism from Dispensational Premillennialism. While Amillennialism may be a little fuzzy on some of the fine details of Revelation, I believe the overall picture is correct. At least we’re in the right ballpark. On the other hand, I believe Dispensationalism presents an inaccurate (if not bizarre) picture of the world events of this book.
When we read about the events of Revelation, we need to consider the world in which we live and see what’s going on in general throughout the world. But we should also pay close attention to what’s going on in regard to the Church. We can easily see that our primary enemies have always been false religion and anti-Christian government. Within the Church itself we also see a lot of false teaching and worldliness. We can readily see what’s going on both within the Church and outside the Church in opposition to it. This awareness is a key to understanding Revelation. Thus we need to take not only a New Testament approach to Revelation, but also a common sense approach, as well. There should be a good balance between the two.
There’s a lot of evidence that the book of Revelation covers the whole Church age (gospel era, Christian era), including internal evidence — with the exception, of course, the final two chapters, which are about the Eternal Kingdom. Within the book itself, there are many keys that point to the Church age, and not simply the last several years of history – as per Dispensationalism. I pointed out some of those keys in my commentary of the first three chapters. As we work our way through this book, I will continue to point out those internal keys. A discussion about each of them will provide confidence that we’re interpreting the events and the time period correctly.