I just released a new supernatural conspiracy novel about the historical origin of the book of Revelation titled, Tyrant: Rise of the Beast, which drew me into the eternal debate over Bible prophecy interpretation. I want to share a little something of the power and beauty of Biblical imagination that I have learned in the process.
If we want to approach Revelation properly, we must understand that its interpretation is rooted in an ancient Jewish context of meaning, not our modern one. We must seek to understand the text as its original writer intended. And that context is saturated in the imagery of Old Testament prophecy.
The apostle John draws so heavily from the Old Testament that scholars claim it has more Old Testament allusions and echoes than any other New Testament book. If we want to “unveil” the hidden beauty and meaning of God’s Word (revelation means unveiling), we must look back to the Old Testament first, before we start exegeting current newspapers looking for modern correspondences. And when you do look back instead of forward, wow, what an unveiling of Jesus Christ occurs!
One of the primary purposes of Revelation, stated right up front by John, is to describe God’s judgment on those who pierced Christ.
Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the land will wail on account of him.1
This is particularly relevant for Good Friday meditation because it gives the believer hope that Christ will be vindicated against those who rejected him as messiah and crucified him. There is judgment on sin before resurrection and final glory.
But what does this judgment look like? Many Christians read Revelation so literally as to assume that this involves the physical destruction of the world. They read passages like the sixth seal and it seems so obvious:
When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. The sky vanished like a scroll that is being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.2
To our modern non-Hebrew eyes this reads like scientific cosmic catastrophes. Meteorites pounding the earth, the sky being sucked into a black hole, and all the mountains flattened and all the islands gone.
And Jesus seems to affirm this when, at his Olivet Discourse, he says that “Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”3
To us, this all reads like the end of the space-time universe. Except it’s not.
John’s language is nothing new to his ancient Jewish audience. They were very familiar with this kind of imagery from the Old Testament prophets who used extreme cosmic catastrophes all the time as spiritual metaphors to describe the fall of earthly rulers and the spiritual principalities and powers behind them.
In fact, in this very passage of Revelation 6, John draws directly from Isaiah. The prophet describes the fall of Edom and the surrounding nations to the Babylonians around 587 BC with the same exact terms as does John.
All the host of heaven shall rot away, and the skies roll up like a scroll. All their host shall fall, as leaves fall from the vine, like leaves falling from the fig tree. For my sword has drunk its fill in the heavens; behold, it descends for judgment upon Edom, upon the people I have devoted to destruction.4
But here’s the point: this all happened in 587 BC. You read that right.
When the Babylonians destroyed Edom, the stars obviously didn’t literally fall to the earth. Remember, if you believe this is literal, then you would have to believe that literal stars fell to our literal earth. But stars are suns like our own. One star/sun alone would have burned up the entire galaxy on its way to collision with earth. So no one takes that literally (meteors would be a non-literal interpretation). The sky didn’t literally roll up like a scroll (or black hole) in 587 BC, because if it did, it would have been the end of the space-time universe.
Isaiah is describing the fall of earthly rulers and their spiritual powers behind them. He says so in Isaiah 34:12: “[Edom’s] nobles—there is no one there to call it a kingdom, and all its princes shall be nothing.”
In the Bible, the sun, moon and stars (“heavenly host”) were symbolic of earthly rulers and their spiritual powers behind them (Judg 5:19-20). When God destroyed Babylon through the Medes in 539 BC, he described it as the “destruction of the whole earth” (Isa 13:5), the “darkening of the sun, moon and stars” (v. 10), and the earth and heavens being “shaken from their place” (v. 11). Obviously, the whole earth wasn’t destroyed in 539 BC, nor were the earth and heavens shaken from their place, otherwise, none of us would be here. This same exact language that John uses in Revelation is not end of the space-time world, but a spiritual metaphor for the fall of earthly and heavenly powers under the judgment of God (Isa 24:21).5
So it is true that God is judging in Revelation, but it is not necessarily the literal destruction of the heavenly host and earth that is occurring, but a judgment of God upon the earthly rulers and spiritual authorities behind them.
And think about it. In Christ’s death, he “disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him” (Col 2:15). Christ’s triumphal parade did not occur until his resurrection and ascension into heaven (1Pet 3:22; Eph 4:8-9), but his victory over the principalities and powers in both heaven and earth was accomplished first and spiritually at the cross. Christ’s sacrifice of the New Covenant was a spiritually real but physically metaphorical “shaking of the heavens and earth” (Heb 12:22-28).
Of course, this is only the tip of the holy mountain of biblical symbolism used by John in the book of Revelation. If you want to dive into more exploration of this ancient Hebrew worldview, I’ve written a companion book for the novel. It’s called End Times Bible Prophecy: It’s Not What They Told You.
Check out the novel Tyrant: Rise of the Beast here.
In part 2, available Saturday, April 15, Brian Godawa shares an Easter exploration of God’s earth-shattering New Covenant.
- Revelation 1:7. ↩
- Revelation 6: 12-14. ↩
- Matthew 24:29. ↩
- Isaiah 34: 4-5. ↩
- When God judged Israel in 586 BC through the Babylonians, Isaiah describes that event as the foundations of the earth “trembling” (Isa 24:18), the earth being “split apart,” “violently shaken,” “staggering,” and falling, “not to rise again” (v. 19-20), as well as the sun and moon being “confounded and ashamed” (v. 23). He then explains to us that these cosmic disturbances were not the literal end of the universe that they read like, but metaphors for the fact that God “will punish the host of heaven, in heaven, and the kings of the earth, on the earth” (v. 21). ↩