The symbolism in the book of Revelation often stands as a shadowy figure in studies of the New Testament. Bible classes ignore the dubious discussions that emanate from the book and just snicker at the conspiracy theories and apocalyptic warnings that people throw out. Many believe that the book of Revelation is a prophecy that details the end of the world. From this common mindset, inquiries such as, “Is Iraq one of the horsemen of the apocalypse mentioned in Revelation?” and “Is Obama one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse?” Such questions may induce a chuckle from the Christians who receive them, but the people who ask them sincerely want to know. For many these questions represent a serious concern. Fear mongers terrify believers with their warnings of imminent destruction and the end coming soon, and they ALWAYS point straight to the book of Revelation for their divine authority. However, the calm-headed Christian must always appeal to biblical context!
Revelation 6:1-9 discusses the four horsemen of what readers have called the apocalypse. The phrase “horsemen of the apocalypse” does not occur anywhere in the New Testament; this is a title that commentators and interpreters have conjured. One must understand that interpretations of the book of Revelation are a dime a dozen, and few are reliable because rarely do popular interpretations apply the context of the book itself. There may be some interpretations that include the context of a chapter, but when one studies the books of the Bible, the first thing Bible students must do is put the book as a whole into its proper context. Putting the book of Revelation into context reveals a major factor that so many have overlooked but is necessary to know in order to interpret accurately! In fact, the initial context of the book debunks almost every end-of-the-world interpretation there is!
The apostle John set the stage for the book and explains the context of the message he received at the very beginning of his writings. Notice the first three verses:
The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him, to shew unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass; and he sent and signified it by his angel unto his servant John: Who bare record of the word of God, and of the testimony of Jesus Christ, and of all things that he saw. Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written therein: for the time is at hand.Revelation 1:1-3
First, take note of the authority. The message comes from God given to Christ, which Christ bestows to His angel, and the angel sent the message to John in a vision, which is implied when John writes, “all things that he saw.” John, the penman, writes this letter in the same way he saw or received it; John “signified it,” which means to put into signs (Thayer’s Greek Definitions). The book obviously consists of numerous signs and symbolism that John details of the prophecy, which he received. Keep in mind that John writes this book in prison, having all his correspondence read and monitored by the Romans, so the symbolism is likely used to confound John’s jailers. The book is not to be taken literally.
Could these signs detail the Second Coming of Christ when the world will be destroyed, thus the apocalypse (1 Cor. 15:23-24; 2 Peter 3:10)? This is the common idea behind the book. However, Christ said of the Second Coming, “But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only” (Matt. 24:36). Peter says that it would come as a thief in the night, and no one ever knows when a thief is coming (2 Peter 3:10; Luke 12:39-40). God gives no signs of the Second Coming because if there were then people would know when the end was near, but Christ and Peter explain that the Second Coming will happen when man does not expect it. Notice also that the message came to John from an angel, and Christ said that no angel knows when the Second Coming will occur, clearly the message of John is not about Christ’s return. If the world possesses a book of signs, then they will obviously know when to expect the Second Coming, which contradicts Christ’s teachings. There are a number of context aspects one can study, but this one is the most commonly misunderstood, which is why it should be understood first. Naturally, this information begs the question, “What is Revelation about, if not the Second Coming of Christ?”
In the general overview of the book, John writes to seven churches throughout Asia Minor, which is in modern-day Turkey, and warns them about a battle between good and evil. In the first three chapters, John includes seven letters to seven churches from Christ. Christ admonishes and reproves the churches in order to prepare them for the coming battle that will test and try their faith in ways that no Christian today could understand. In the rest of the book, John describes the coming battles in the form of symbols and metaphors. The theme of the book is simple, good triumphs over evil. The thesis John continually implies throughout his writings reveals that the only way anyone will triumph over evil is through Christ. While the symbols may be mysterious to the modern reader, the message is simple, good wins (I hate to spoil the ending, but there it is!). This book is about the first century church overcoming the great Christian persecutions of the Roman government.
Finally, John reveals a startling aspect to this book that many will not want to believe. In the first three verses, John writes that these signs “which God gave unto him, to shew unto his servants…must shortly come to pass.” The word “shortly,” which means “quickly” (Strong’s Greek Lexicon), is used by inspired writers many times (Acts 25:4; Rom. 16:20; 1 Cor. 4:19; Phil. 2:19; 1 Tim. 3:14; 2 Tim. 4:9; Heb. 13:23; 2 Peter 1:14; 3 John 1:14). The writers use “shortly” to describe a time that will manifest within the current age or lifetime of those that receive the message. The phrase “shortly come to pass” is interesting because it implies that the prophecies would be fulfilled within the lifetime of the people who received the letters. If someone writes you a letter and says that such events would happen quickly, would you expect said events to happen a thousand years later? Obviously not! For God to use the word “shortly” and not mean it in the way people at that time commonly used the word, it would have been a deception. Why write to specific churches warning them and telling them to prepare for a great trial knowing that said trial would never come within their lifetime? Why write specifically to them when the message would not apply to them? It makes no sense! What does make sense is John writing to churches to warn them of events that would happen within their lives. The prophecies in Revelation came and went during the lifetime of the Christians to whom John wrote. Such prophecies no longer apply today.
Believers must face the facts, there are no signs of the Second Coming. No one knows but God the Father, and every person must always be prepared to meet their God. Christ could come at any time!