Any time you read Revelation, it is like stepping out of reality and into a carnival of mirrors. Only those mirrors do not, or should not, reflect our own faces, so much as they reflect the prophets of the Old Testament, whose faces were reflected the glory of God’s Son.
While Revelation is a book that is filled with signs, those signs have a registered trademark—a trademark found in the Old Testament. And anytime we read Revelation we should labor to understand the book in its canonical context. To that end, let me offer three words of how to interpret and apply this chapter.
These three exhortations come from my last sermon on Revelation 12. But they would apply to any passage in this glorious and mystifying book.
First, Revelation is a book signs and symbols.
In Revelation 1:1, John uses the word for signs to describe what God has “indicated” (better: signified) to him. And in Revelation 12, we find two signs mentioned. In verse 1, John sees a great sign in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. Then, in verse 3, another sign in heaven appears, a Red Dragon ready to devour the woman’s son
In these two signs, we see a symbol of the woman and her seed and the serpent and his seed. Accordingly, Revelation 12 can be seen as a chapter that comments on Genesis 3:15 and the history of seed warfare between God’s people and God’s enemies. Therefore, to understand this chapter (and this book), we need to see how the signs relate to the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent (as well as a host of other Old Testament prophecies).
Second, the interpretation of these symbols comes from the Old Testament.
If you are like me, you’ve seen enough end-times movies to know that not everyone who reads Revelation does so with the Old Testament in mind. But such immediate appeals to modern weapons and contemporary geo-political actors is a failure to read Revelation in its biblical context.
In the nineteenth century, George Tyrell, a Jesuit priest who was defrocked for his liberal theology, mocked other liberal theologians for making Jesus look like themselves. He said famously, “The Christ that Harnack sees, looking back through nineteen centuries of ‘Catholic darkness,’ is only the reflection of a Liberal Protestant face, seen at the bottom of a deep well.”
To put it plainly, this is how one scholar dunks on another. In today’s post, I don’t want to dunk on anyone, but I do want us to avoid reading our face or our place into the Bible. And this is what I do see with many who read Revelation a secret decoder ring for the future. Instead of seeking to understand why John writes what he writes, in the way he writes it, and seeing Revelation through its connection to hundreds of Old Testament passages, many have interpreted this book in light of Roman popes, oil embargos, or Soviet Leaders with a marks on their forehead. This misfires and undercuts the power of Revelation’s message.
Before making contemporary application, therefore, we always need to ask: Does this verse in Revelation have any connection to the Old Testament? (N.B. Almost every verse does). And if this verse does not have an Old Testament precursor, how can we be sure that it points to our supposed contemporary event, figure, etc.?
Straight lines are best drawn with at least three points. And in the Bible typology is best seen with types, ectypes, and antitypes. Rarely (never?) do we find a type that does not have multiple reiterations (ectypes) between the historical figure and its final goal. Thus, it is always wise to interpret Scripture with Scripture. Immediate applications from Scripture to historical position invite all kinds of unhealthy speculation.
More positively, knowing that all the promises of God are Yes and Amen in Jesus Christ, and that every type and shadow in the OT has it connection to Christ, we need to let the Law and the Prophets be our guide in the book of Revelation. For without them, we are slaves to our own imaginations and the imaginations of other uninspired commentators.
That said, if we commit ourselves to reading of Revelation in light of the whole Bible, then we can read it with anticipation that we will find overlapping images from the Old Testament that bring us face-to-face with the exalted Christ. And this is the third point.
Third, the focus in Revelation is on the exalted Christ and not on speculations about the future.
In his book, The Gospel in Revelation, Graeme Goldsworthy makes the sustained argument that this book is first and foremost about Christ. This both fits with the rest of the Bible and the opening statement of Revelation: “The revelation of Jesus Christ.” As many commentators have suggested this statement may have a double entendre. The revelation is from Jesus Christ, but it also about Jesus Christ. Indeed, because the Spirit of Christ always bears witness to the Son, we should have a priori commitment to finding Christ in Scripture. And this is no different in Revelation.
Indeed, as Dennis Johnson states in his commentary, “Revelation is pervaded with worship songs and scenes because its pervasive theme despite its gruesome portrait of evil’s powers is the triumph of God through the Lamb. We read this book to hear and to fall down in adoring worship the King’s call to courage and to fall down in adoring worship before him” (Dennis Johnson, The Triumph of the Lamb, 23). Truly, the book is not just about setting up calendars for the end times; it is given to know and worship Christ.
And thus, we should approach Revelation with an expectation of seeing Christ.
The Seed of the Woman Wins
In Sunday’s sermon, this is what I sought to do—to hold up Christ in Revelation. For by seeing Christ in Revelation 12, we find the certainty of Christ’s victory over Satan.
In Revelation 12, this victory is final and complete in heaven. And now, on earth, the spiritual warfare commences. While Satan attacks, the risen Christ continues to provide and protect his people. And for the last 20 centuries, this has happened, as the Spirit and the Gospel bring salvation to the elect and judgment to his enemies.
And we who live on the earth, and face the threats of Satan, need to remember Christ’s victory and the promise of his spiritual presence. This is what Revelation 12 declares. And far more important than supporting our millennial position, this ageless promise of God’s protection is what we need to walk in faith, hope, and love.
So as we finish this year and begin a new year, may the Lord be glorified in our earnest dependence on him. He has won the victory and when we read Revelation rightly, this is the truth we find.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds