The book of Revelation has been a mystery to Christians for centuries (perhaps millennia). Some Christians avoid the book altogether, while others push through reading Revelation with the belief that they are not really supposed to understand the book but will receive a blessing just for reading it. However, John the apostle, who wrote the book, intended for his readers to listen to his letter and to think about it. In fact, the name of the book “Revelation” (from v. 1:1) means, “something that has been revealed / uncovered.” John says his message has been “made known” and the church is to “keep what is written.” (1:3)
John begins his letter with a detailed description of Jesus. He says:
“Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth. To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen. (Revelation 1:4–7, ESV)
While this description of Jesus is a glorious hymn of praise, John is also indicating to his readers how to read his letter. Consider how the following passages from the Old Testament relate to John’s description of Jesus:
The faithful witness, firstborn of the dead, the ruler of the kings of the earth: “And I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth... I will not lie to David. His offspring shall endure forever, his throne as long as the sun before me. Like the moon it shall be established forever, a faithful witness in the skies.” Selah” (Psalm 89: 27, 35–37, ESV)
Who loves us and has freed us by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to God: ̧“‘You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself... and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.”” (Exodus 19:4–6, ESV)
To him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. Behold, he is coming with the clouds: “I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.” (Daniel 7:13–14, ESV)
Every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him: “And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn.” (Zechariah 12:10, ESV)
Notice that while John makes very clear allusions to Old Testament passages, he never quotes them directly. John will follow this practice throughout the book. The seven trumpets? (Rev. 8:2) A reference to the battle of Jericho. (Jos 6) The four living creatures? (Rev. 4:6-8) A reference to Ezekiel’s vision of the heavenly temple. (Ezk 1) Yet, John will often combine several descriptions together in his letter to the churches. For example, in chapter 6, John sees four riders on horses of different colors, bringing four different judgments, who are given authority “to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth.” (Rev 6:8) The description references the prophecies of Zechariah (6), Jeremiah (15), and Ezekiel (5).
One may ask why John would write in such a confusing way if he intended his prophecy to be understood. I propose that the answer is that, while John wanted his prophecy to be understood by the church, he did not want it to be understood by everyone. It is evident from the book that many Christians were suffering severe persecution (2:9-10), and some had even been killed (2:13). For this reason, John chose to write in such a way that the early church would understand the letter, and that the Romans and others would not. John used Old Testament references because this was the Bible of the early church while the New Testament was still being written and finalized.
One may also ask why, if John had written to be understood by the church, is the book is still so hard to understand today. Though all prophetic books of the Bible have some areas of difficulty and confusion, the bigger reason that so many people struggle with Revelation is that many modern Christians simply do not study the Old Testament to the same degree as the early church. The good news is that, as modern Christians commit to studying all of Scripture, particularly the Old Testament, they will grow deeper in their understanding of this fantastic book of the Bible as well.
Live for Jesus.