All's Well That Ends Well: An Intro to Revelation

By Leland and Philip Ryken

Every story must have a beginning. The story of the Bible, for example, begins by answering the question of origins. But we also need to know how a story ends; for this we turn to Revelation, the closing act of the biblical drama. In effect, Revelation allows us to peek at the last chapter of human history to see ending of the Bible's grand narrative.

In addition to this desire for narrative closure, we instinctively feel a need to know something about the future. Without a knowledge of how history will end, we would feel insecure and perplexed as we see human culture decline. The Book of Revelation tells us enough about the future that we can be confident of ultimate victory in Christ.

The Timing of the Book

The author tells us that his visions concern “the events that will happen soon” (1:1 NLT). John wrote these words 2000 years ago, and there is good reason to believe that some of his prophecies were fulfilled already in the First Century A.D. Thus, we should not assume that everything in Revelation is simply futuristic. Surely, most of what John portrays has happened in some form throughout history, including in our own day. Yet this is not to deny that the events portrayed in Revelation are also recurring, ever-escalating, and heading towards a climax at the end of history.

It is a safe premise that the symbolic mode of Revelation makes it always relevant and perpetually up-to-date. To cite an obvious example, the visions of the cataclysmic decline of the elemental forces of nature look more familiar with every passing year as our planet’s ecological crisis grows. To believe that the predictions of Revelation will be ultimately fulfilled at a coming end of history should not prevent us from seeing how much of the book is happening right before our very eyes.

The Form of the Book

Several important literary forms converge in Revelation. Most obviously, the book presents a series of visions. Instead of telling a single, linear story, these visions are arranged in the form of a pageant, with mysterious visions rapidly succeeding each other—and never in focus for very long.

Secondly, the individual units fall into place if we apply the usual grid of narrative questions, such as: (1) Where does the event happen? (2) Who are the agents? (3) What action occurs? (4) What is the outcome? Any passage in Revelation can be charted in terms of these basic questions.

The Book of Revelation falls into a type of writing known as apocalypse. While the ingredients of this genre do not provide an analytic grid (as narrative does), knowing the ingredients will help us know what we are looking at as we read. The ingredients of apocalyptic include:

  • Dualism (the world divided clearly into forces of good and evil)
  • Visionary mode
  • Futuristic orientation
  • Focus on the appearance and work of the Divine Messiah
  • Presence of angels and demons
  • Animals as characters and symbols
  • Numerology (use of numbers with symbolic meanings)
  • Cosmic forces (e.g. sea, land, and sky) as actors in the drama
  • Denunciation of the existing social order

The Most Important Thing to Know about the Book

The basic medium of expression in the book of Revelation is symbolism. This means that instead of portraying characters and events directly and literally, John the Evangelist pictures them indirectly by means of symbols. Jesus is portrayed as a lamb and a lion and a warrior on a horse, for example. Churches are portrayed as lamps on lampstands, and so on.  

To highlight the non-literal mode of Revelation, the author employs fantasy, which is always characteristic of apocalyptic writing. Only in the fantastic imagination do we find horses that are red (6:4) or a red dragon with seven heads (12:3). The right way to assimilate this kind of writing is to accept the strangeness of the world that is portrayed and abandon a literal way of thinking in favor of reading symbolically.

To say that the mode of Revelation is symbolic, however, is not to deny that the characters and events are real. What is at stake as we interpret the book is how the characters and events are portrayed. They are symbols that speak of realities—beings who really exist and events that do happen.

The Symbols of the Book

The best rule of thumb for interpreting the symbols and visions of Revelation is to relate them to common teachings of the Bible and to obvious events in our own world. In particular, Jesus’ outline of coming events in his Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24-25) provides a blueprint for the visions of Revelation. Jesus outlined the following sequence of events that will happen at “the close of the age” (Matthew 24:3, ESV):

  1. Wars, earthquakes, famine, false teachers (24:5-8)
  2. Persecution of Christians (24:9-22)
  3. False Christs and false prophets (24:23-28)
  4. Natural disasters, the appearance of Christ, the harvesting of the elect (24:29-31)
  5. Final judgment (24:32-25:46)

We repeatedly cover this same material in the visions of Revelation.

A safe question to keep asking of a given vision is this: To what familiar doctrine or event in salvation history does this symbol reffer? Examples in Revelation include the sovereignty of God, God’s judgment against evil, God’s salvation of believers, the existence of heaven and hell, the great battle between good and evil, etc. We do not need to look for mysterious and hidden levels of meaning. The very word apocalypse means “to unveil”; the purpose of the visions of Revelation is not to confuse us, but to confirm our understanding of the Bible, and to help us interpret events in the daily news.

To take one example, Chapter 12 begins with a vision of a woman (Israel) giving birth to a son (Christ), whom the red dragon (Satan) tries to destroy when he is born, but who is miraculously protected and snatched up to heaven (the ascension of Christ after his incarnate life on earth). This passage is an interpretive key to the whole book, because we know the referent (the realities to which the symbols point). The details of the vision are not a literal portrayal of the earthly life and ascension of Jesus, but the details definitely call those circumstances to mind.

The four horse visions are similar (6:1-8). In this case, the symbolism paints a picture of warfare, famine, destruction, and death. To what do these horses refer? They are a visionary and symbolic version of what Jesus predicted directly in Matthew 24:7: "nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places." Similarly, the sealing of believers (chapter 7) is a symbolic account of how God will save eternally all who believe in him.

What we need when interpreting the symbolic visions of Revelation is a keen eye for the obvious. The things to which the details refer are for the most part familiar: God’s judgment of evil, his saving of those who believe, the decline of the earthly order of things. We are best advised to keep relating the symbols to familiar doctrines, events in salvation history, and happenings in the world around us.

The Structure of the Book

Everything in Revelation, except for the prologue and epilogue, is part of a sevenfold pattern. This at once makes the book manageable, despite the multiplicity of details. There are seven seals (5:1-8:1), seven trumpets (8:2-11:19), seven great signs (12:1-14:20), seven bowls of wrath (15:1-16:21), and seven last events (17:1-22:5).

The book is also structured like a pageant—a succession of visions and brief snapshots. There is no single thread of action. In fact, the visions tend to be cyclical and repetitive rather than sequential, though there is an expanding scope as the destruction moves from a fourth of the earth (6:8) to a third of the earth (8) to the whole earth (15).

Finally, within each of the sevenfold units, there is a general movement from fallen earthly history—associated with evil and calamity—to the final consummation of history, in its two aspects of the punishment of evil and the glorification of believers in heaven. We can look for this general rhythm in all of the units.

The Key Places and Characters of the Book

The setting of Revelation is cosmic, encompassing heaven, earth, and hell. References to earth are often to the whole earth, not just a localized part of it. Once we get beyond the cities named in the seven letters (2-3), the main settings of earthly action are a symbolic city of Babylon (the human race in community against God) and elemental nature (water, earth, sea, and sky). The single most memorable place is the concluding picture of the heavenly city of God—the new Jerusalem.

Christ is the central character, as even the opening phrase indicates (“the revelation of Jesus Christ”). His great antagonist is Satan. The remaining cast of characters consists of large groups—angels, Satan’s hosts, crowds of believers and of unbelievers. There are many crowd scenes in Revelation, with attention to stationing characters in a setting, and even to their costumes. In keeping with the visionary genre of the book, major characters include natural forces like the sun and stars, and fantastic animals like the dragon, the beast from the sea, and the beast from the earth. 

The Application of the Book

The book of Revelation concludes the Bible’s story of salvation history. At the same time, it is a thoroughly Christocentric story, with Jesus Christ as the exalted one who defeats Satan and wins heaven for his followers. Within that broad umbrella, this book contains numerous specific pictures of redemption, all based on the premise that believers have defeated Satan “by the blood of the Lamb” (12:11 NLT).

Revelation conveys important information about the present and future—information that we need to believe and live in light of. In the middle of his eschatological speech, the "Olivet Discourse," Jesus told his disciples, “See, I have told you beforehand” (Matthew 24:25 NKJV), with the implication that the information that he imparted about the end times could help his followers make sense of what was happening, and not be overwhelmed by cataclysmic events when they happened. The book of Revelation can serve the same purpose; it can be a ballast amidst troubling times, and a guard against false information and speculation.

Revelation is also filled with information and pictures that can help Christians endure patiently through tribulation and persecution. As 13:10 puts it, “Here is a call to the endurance and faith of the saints” (ESV). Victory in Christ is assured, so the rest of life must be lived with that goal in view.

Another application of the book might be termed "doxological" (that is, “having the effect of moving one to praise”). There is a lyrical undertow to the book, and the notes of celebration and praise for what God has done continually break through the descriptions of events. As we read, we can allow these notes of celebration to draw us to worship the God who has promised us the victory in Jesus Christ.

Leland Ryken (PhD, University of Oregon) served as professor of English at Wheaton College for nearly 50 years. He has authored or edited over fifty books, including Pastors in the Classics and 40 Favorite Hymns on the Christian Life. He also served as literary stylist for the English Standard Version Bible.

Philip Ryken (DPhil, University of Oxford) is the president of Wheaton College and the Bible teacher of Every Last Word radio and internet broadcasts. He preached at Philadelphia’s Tenth Presbyterian Church from 1995 until his appointment at Wheaton in 2010. Dr. Ryken has published many books, including The Message of Salvation, Art for God’s Sake, When Trouble Comes, and a number of expository commentaries.

Related Links

PCRT '20 | Revelation: The Sovereign Reign of the Exalted Christwith Greg Beale, Derek Thomas, Philip Ryken, Joel Beeke, Richard Phillips, and Cornelis Venema

"Approaches to Revelation" by James Boice

Seven Churches, Four Horsemen, One Lord by James Boice

Revelation (Reformed Expository Commentary) by Richard Phillips

Every Last Word

Note: This material is adapted from the chapter on Revelation in Ryken’s Bible Handbook (Tyndale, 2005).