The world as we know it is not the truth; it is simply “the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you to the truth.” So says Morpheus to Neo in the movie “The Matrix”.
The concept behind the movie is that the world of regular experience is nothing more than a complex computer simulation. Morpheus offers Neo a choice of two pills. The red pill will take him to true reality – outside the simulation. The blue pill will take him no further, and he will remain as someone who believes what he wants to believe.
The Book of Revelation is Jesus’ “red pill” for his church. He offers us the choice of experiencing “true reality” – a world where God rules demonstrably, a world of spiritual warfare, where Satan is active, and seeks to bring down God’s people and God’s purposes. Reality is a world where the saints, rather than being passive victims, are victorious warriors with the message of life, fighting beside their glorious King Jesus.
Revelation is Jesus’ wake-up call to comfortable Christians who have swallowed the blue pill. For them, life isn’t scary, or spiritual. Satan is a toothless tiger. God’s people are passengers, happily cruising along, staying out of trouble, waiting for heaven. God’s purposes are no bigger than keeping his people well fed, warm, and dry, and occasionally finding them a parking spot at the supermarket. Revelation is Jesus’ comfort to persecuted Christians. Satan is trying to bring them down. But they are not without hope. God is on the throne, and has won the victory in his Son. Those who persevere in holiness and witness will win the crown! There is perhaps no more relevant and important message for the church today.
And yet for most people, Revelation is a mystery. They think, “Why bother with Revelation? All those numbers, and weird animals. I can’t make head or tail of it. It’s all just too confusing!” In recent times the books of “millennial experts” have filled Christian bookshops. Their bewildering timelines and latter-day signs have scared off most Christians who feel incapable of deciphering the book’s intricacies. (This includes most ministers, who might preach on the letters to the seven churches, or perhaps the throne-room scene of Chapter 4, but who come to a screeching halt at the end of Ch 5!)
How to Read!
The temptation in reading Revelation is that the staggering array of images and numbers encourages us to concentrate on the fine detail. (What DOES the third crown on the head of the beast represent?) However, to read Revelation this way is to make a mistake – you risk losing sight of the forest for the trees. At times such a fine-detail analysis is necessary. But I believe more can be gained by a “high-altitude fly-over”, than a pain-staking tree-by-tree search. This approach would have seemed obvious to the original audience – first century Christians, sitting together in church on the Lord’s Day, hearing the work read aloud from start to finish. John exhorts such a gathering– “Blessed is the one who reads (aloud) the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it” (1:3). This means that hearers can understand the message of the book with sufficient clarity to receive the comfort, encouragement, and correction which God intends for them.
By reading the whole book, without getting bogged down in details (it takes less that an hour!) the great images and pictures that John has painted wash over us. The big themes they represent explode like fireworks in our brains – themes like God’s sovereignty, His complete victory over sin through Jesus DESPITE present appearances, the Church’s present privilege and responsibility, together with her glorious future hope. These themes fill our imagination, stretch our vision, break our pride, embolden our witness, and empower our endurance and obedience.
Given to Reveal
Part of our problem is that we forget the book is designed to reveal, not to confuse. It’s right there in its name – Revelation. Within the first verse, it is described as a revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave to show what must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel. He didn’t give it to confuse, divide, frustrate or terrify his people, but rather to reveal true reality – the red pill!
A Picture Book, not a Puzzle Book:
The way God chooses to show us true reality is by using images and symbols. Revelation is a picture book! John testifies to everything he saw (1:2) – that verb is used fifty-two times! Images and symbols are necessary because, in true reality, things are not what they seem. The church in Smyrna appears poor but is rich (2:9). Laodicea thinks itself rich and self-sufficient, but it’s really destitute and (3:17). The beast seems invincible, able to conquer the saints by slaying them (11:7; 13:7); but it is their faithful witness even to that proves to be their victory over the dragon and the beast (12:11).
Symbols show things for what they are, with a vividness that could not be matched by a mere conceptual description. Often a picture is worth a thousand words. The great city is a harlot luxuriously dressed (17:18). The seven churches are seven lampstands (1:20). Satan is the dragon-serpent (20:2).
The obvious problem with symbols is that they can be misunderstood. We must work out the precise point of comparison between two things that are dissimilar in many other respects. For example, John hears the promise that the Lion of Judah is worthy (5:5). But he sees the Lamb who had been slain (5:6). Jesus is like a lion and a slain lamb. John hears the roll call of God’s people – 144,000 from the twelve tribes of Israel (7:4), but sees a great multitude from every nation beyond counting (7:9). God’s people are both an army of perfect size and symmetry, and a huge worldwide worshipping community.
A helpful rule of thumb, wherever possible, is to take what John sees as symbolic. For example the great city, which persecutes and kills Christians (11:8, is “figuratively called” Sodom, and Egypt, and Jerusalem – all at the same time!
It’s a Prophecy
While the images seem foreign to us, they are not pulled out of the air – nearly all are found in the prophetic writings of the Old Testament. Revelation itself is a prophecy (1:3) and John saw himself as standing at the end of the line of Biblical prophets (10:8-11) – with Revelation as “the climax of prophecy” as Richard Bauckham aptly describes it. Perhaps the best way to help you understand Revelation better is to read the Old Testament prophets! For example, the church in Rev 11 is described as two witnesses – representing true testimony (Deut 17:6), and is symbolised as two olive trees, and two lampstands. Zechariah 4 refers to two olive trees and a lampstand, probably referring to Joshua the priest and Zerubbabel the Davidic descendant. They are called, as anointed ones, to “serve the Lord in all the earth” (Zech 4:14).
For a Church Under Attack:
Another mistake people make is to see Revelation as a time-line of events we can tick-off before Jesus returns. This would mean it was irrelevant to the seven churches, and has been to every other generation since. Revelation is a historical document, written to real churches, undergoing real persecution from the Roman Empire. It concerned events which “must soon take place” (1:1) for them. Likewise, it also concerns events that must soon take place for us. The enemies of God’s people are still around today. They are still blinded by the same lies. Satan is still behind them. The names and faces might have changed, but the enemy is still the same. And the task for us is still the same – to overcome Satan by the of the Lamb and by the word of our testimony, and to love not our lives so much as to shrink from (12:11)
Go ahead! Take the red pill! Experience true reality! Are you game?
Grab a cup of coffee, find a quiet spot, and read it right now. As Vern Poythress, in his great book “The Returning King: A Guide to the Book of Revelation”, encourages us, “Become engrossed in the overall story. Praise the Lord. Cheer for the saints. Detest the beast. Long for the final victory.”