Rescuing Revelation

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Rescuing Revelation

Monday, 10 July 2017  | Michael Bull


The book of Revelation polarises Christians. Some become obsessed with ‘cracking its code’ while others throw it into the too hard basket. Thankfully, recent advances in biblical theology enable us to liberate this enigmatic book from both mistreatment and obscurity.

The prophecy is attractive to some because of its mystery, its beauty and its terror, and also because interpreting it promises access to divine knowledge about future events. But when it comes to its application in everyday life, most pastors are unwilling to venture beyond the letters to the seven churches in their preaching, since these offer some easily identifiable and practical moral advice.

A practical book

The truth is that Revelation is, in many ways, one of the most practical books in the Bible. It reveals how sin, when left unchecked in the lives of individuals, leads not only to judgment for individuals, but also to the corruption of a church, and, ultimately, judgment of that church at the hand of Jesus:

But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. (James 1:14-15)

But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. (Revelation 2:4-5)

The book of Revelation follows this pattern from the ‘birth’ of sin to its ‘maturity’ in death. All of the ‘budding’ sins that Jesus rebukes in the sapling churches of Asia (Revelation 2-3) are revealed in ‘full flower’ in the great city that was corrupting and tormenting them (Revelation 17-18). Jesus pictures this centre of worship and commerce as a woman who has not only broken her vows by committing adultery but also indulged in theft, sorcery and bloodshed – corruptions that rendered her ripe for judgment. As in the world before the flood, the sins of individuals, left unchecked, had grown into systemic evil, an institutionalised rebellion against God.

The pastors who had failed to judge their local ‘Balaam’ (a false prophet) and ‘Jezebel’ (a spiritual harlot) in the early chapters are, in the remaining chapters, shown a culture that, instead of being a light to the world, had become the very source of religious and political corruption. The prophecy was an exhortation for these shepherds of the saints to exercise church discipline on behalf of their Lord. Failure to deal with sin in the sanctuary (priesthood) leads to bloodshed in the land (kingdom). Failure to speak the truth to power leads to intervention by God in the world (prophecy). The churches – as fresh plantings of a new beginning – were to judge, so that they might not be judged in like manner.

Cultus – that is, our system of belief or worship – inevitably shapes culture. The Church of Christ leads the world – for good or for ill – so the failure to make this connection between the early and latter parts of the book of Revelation not only robs Christians of the true interpretation of the prophecy but also of the wisdom that enables its proper application.

Furthermore, the Revelation actually teaches us how to read the rest of the Bible. Everything the prophecy contains is a reference to someone or something found somewhere else in the inspired texts, revealing the ultimate form – the adult ‘fruit’ – of every seed planted throughout Scripture. What is wrongly perceived as cryptic symbolism is simply an employment of literary allusion that enables the author to load a single word or phrase with the entire import of any momentous event in covenant history. For instance, the infamous ‘image of the beast’ and the number ‘666’ are simple condemnations of the priests and kings of Israel. The first is a reference to the golden calf fashioned for the High Priest after Moses had ascended Mount Sinai, a condemnation of the Herods who continued to build the Temple after the ascension of Christ. The second points the hearer to the beginning of the downfall of King Solomon, who, in blatant disobedience of Moses’ laws for godly kings (Deuteronomy 17:14-20), amassed 666 talents of gold in his first year. This explains the call for wisdom and understanding in Revelation 13:18 – the priest-kings of the new era were to be wiser than Solomon:

The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here. (Matthew 12:42)

This use of allusion is the primary method used by the prophets to apply the lessons of previous historical events to contemporary moral challenges. When Ezekiel condemns Israel as Egypt and Sodom, his point is not lost on us. However, when John refers to the great city as Egypt, Sodom and Babylon, a place ‘where their Lord was crucified,’ somehow it goes right over our heads. Instead of the book being a revelation – an exposure or uncovering – not only of the ascended Christ, but also of hidden corruptions of the sort revealed in the early chapters of Ezekiel, the historical identity of this spiritual Babylon remains a mystery.

Reading the prophecy without reference to previous Scriptures is like watching the movie Shrek without any knowledge of nursery rhymes and fairy tales. We simply will not get its pointed jokes or comprehend its cutting ironies. The Bible’s gradual accumulation of historical objects, people and events as symbolic references means that, by the time the reader gets to Revelation, every word is a hyperlink. If we want to understand the book of Revelation, we must remember that it is at the end of the Bible, not the beginning.

The structure and nature of covenants

However, the biggest hurdle faced by modern interpreters is our ignorance of biblical literary structure. For ancient readers, the shape of the story was every bit as much a method of allusion as its contents. There is nothing random or arbitrary about the shape and contents of the book of Revelation. The prophecy is meticulously arranged according to a pattern found throughout the Bible, one that was established in the first chapters of Genesis.

This formula is the shape of ‘covenant’, and it can be seen in the commissioning of Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Israel and, of course, Jesus. Every covenant in the Bible was a mission on earth established via a legal treaty with heaven, a ‘tour of duty’ with a definite beginning (a call) and a definite end (a reckoning). God used covenants to change the course of history, so it should not surprise us that the historical events that resulted from these seminal occasions – all ratified with the shedding of blood – recapitulate in flesh (humanity, family, tribe and nation) the pattern that was initially spoken as word to the chosen man. All of Scripture is founded upon a single literary blueprint that works through a fivefold legal ‘architecture’:


God, the uncreated one, introduces Himself. He is above His creation as its lawmaker. As the originator, He is the boss.


He then defines the relationship between Himself as the master and His beloved servant/s. This step establishes a tiered authority structure, with God’s chosen delegate/s acting as mediators between heaven and earth.


God then stipulates in detail the methods for carrying out the mission. The Laws of God, when obeyed in faith, bring fruitfulness and prosperity. When disobeyed they bring barrenness and plagues.


This step outlines the possible outcomes as blessings and curses. Those given authority will be assessed, and their works on God’s behalf called into judgment. The Oath concerns voluntary submission to heaven (priesthood) and the Sanctions concern the resulting dominion (or lack thereof) upon the earth (kingdom).


God then describes a future role with greater authority for those who have been faithful in smaller things, since they have demonstrated sound judgment. Those who have been unfaithful are cut off, and their inheritance is given to the righteous.

The testing of Adam follows this formula. It is then expanded upon in the progression of events in Genesis 1-5, which describes the creation of the world by God (Transcendence), the promise of authority to Adam (Hierarchy), his disqualification (Ethics), the usurping of priesthood by kingdom in the murder of Abel by Cain (Oath/Sanctions) and finally a genealogy from Adam to Noah (Succession).

This pattern works at multiple levels, but most obviously it describes the progression in the five books of Moses and the logic behind the composition of the book of Deuteronomy. But, most importantly for our discussion, it is the deep structure of the book of Revelation. The final prophecy is a ‘serving of papers’ whose judicial authority is founded upon earlier decrees. The Word of God is ‘profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness’ because it is ‘breathed out’ by God (2 Timothy 3:16), yet, as we seek to interpret the Bible, the nature of the Scriptures as legal documents must not be overlooked. Just as every planting of seed promises a harvest, so every establishment of a covenant with God promises a reckoning: condemnation for the wicked and vindication for the righteous. This is why Paul, who suffered greatly at the hands of his own people, could say,

I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that day what has been entrusted to me. (2 Timothy 1:12)

The question is, what day was Paul referring to? Although there were eternal consequences for the Jews who rejected Christ as a false prophet, the Apostle was also expecting a decisive and imminent vindication of the Gospel against them here on earth, fulfilled in the judgment of Jerusalem in 70AD.

Covenant accountability: blessings and curses

Despite ignorant claims to the contrary, the God of the Bible is not temperamental, racist or murderous. Every judgment is based on a previously dispensed accountability. Every covenant brings with it not only accountability, but also an opportunity for mercy. We see this in the judgment of Adam, who, thanks to the very first shedding of atoning blood to provide tunics of animal skin (‘atonement’ literally means ‘covering’), did not die on the day that he sinned. Cain was also spared the immediate consequences of murdering his brother. The alleged ‘genocide’ of the Canaanites was an outpouring of judgment upon those who had centuries earlier rejected the testimony of Abraham, and the Lord later judged Israel in the same way for the same sins. As with Adam, Cain and the entire antediluvian world, God was long-suffering with Israel, waiting until the righteous had ‘filled up’ their sufferings and the wicked had ‘filled up’ their sins. Just as the enduring prophetic witness of Noah left humankind without excuse, the witness of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel not only delayed the ultimate ‘cutting off’ of Israel’s kings, but also vindicated the character of God as both just and merciful before all nations.

The language of covenant accountability is found in all the prophets, and they are often misunderstood because they are not read in the light of the blessings and curses of the Mosaic Covenant. For instance, Elisha set bears upon the children of the people of Bethel, home to one of Jeroboam’s calf idols, not because he was personally affronted by their insults but because he was an administrator of the covenant. They disrespected him because they were idolaters. In the light of Leviticus 26, Elisha’s apparent capriciousness is revealed to be not only a just recompense upon covenant breakers, but also a warning of greater calamities to come:

Then if you walk contrary to me and will not listen to me, I will continue striking you, sevenfold for your sins. And I will let loose the wild beasts against you, which shall bereave you of your children and destroy your livestock and make you few in number, so that your roads shall be deserted. (Leviticus 26:21-22)

Crucially, this language of accountability is also found in the parables that Jesus spoke to the Jews. Jesus’ words were given in a very specific context: they constitute a ‘covenant lawsuit’ against those who were accountable to God under a distinct historical administration. The ‘testimony of Jesus’, both before and after His resurrection, was every bit as much a lawsuit against the rulers of Jerusalem as the legal witness of the biblical prophets before Him. Joel McDurmon writes:

Most people don’t realise that many if not most of Jesus’ parables were intended not as general morality tales, but as particular pronouncements of coming judgment and change. Jesus was warning Jerusalem to repent and to accept its new King (Jesus) or else fall under ultimate condemnation of God. In fact, much of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels pertains primarily to that pre-AD 70 crowd, and without reading it in this light, we misunderstand it. And when we misunderstand it, we misapply it.[1]

Covenant context

Most Bible teachers apply the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles directly to Christians today without any thought of the historical – and more importantly, legal – context. The ministry of Christ and the Apostles began a day of reckoning that had been predicted in the Law and the Prophets. The phrase ‘the last days’ in Hebrews 1:1-2 does not refer to the New Covenant era but to the death throes of the Old:

For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch… Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction. (Malachi 4:1, 5)

I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire. (Matthew 3:11-12)

Jesus and the Apostles, like John the Baptist before them, were murdered because they were prophets who faithfully spoke the truth to those in power in their day. This explains the number of times Jesus refers to ‘this generation’. Those powers were abusing the authority given to them by God as part of the Old Covenant administration. The Pharisees were exploiting the seat of Moses (priesthood: Oath), and the Herods – who were descendants of Esau – had usurped the throne of David (kingdom: Sanctions). This means that the New Testament, which includes the book of Revelation, can only be rightly interpreted in the light of the Law and the Prophets. And so, the testimony of two witnesses was required to condemn Israel (Deuteronomy 17:6; Matthew 18:16-2026:59-60; Mark 14:56; 1 Corinthians 14:29; 1 Timothy 5:19), thus the authority of the two witnesses, Moses (Law) and Elijah (Prophets), the men who could turn the sea into blood and shut up the sky, was transferred to the testimony of Jesus and His Church (Matthew 17:4-5; Luke 16:29-31; Revelation 11:6-7).

Covenant context is also invaluable when it comes to interpreting the warnings in the book of Hebrews. These were written to the Jewish Christians of the first century, so the ‘apostasy’ about which they were warned was not something a Christian can commit today. It was a return to a system of atonement that was now obsolete and soon to disappear. Those who had been enlightened by the Gospel, yet trampled underfoot the blood of Christ in their return to the Old Covenant ‘shadows’, would be judged and destroyed under the Law in which they sought shelter. For them, the destruction of the Temple and its sacrifices for sins would be a great day of ‘uncovering’ before the face of God.

We must remember that the New Testament was written for us, not to us. Therefore, prophetic books only make sense when understood as ‘covenant lawsuits’ for a particular era. But this does not mean they are now irrelevant. Nobody interprets the warnings of Jeremiah as being written to us today, yet we can still apply them. Likewise, the book of Ezekiel, although it warns of the imminent destruction of Jerusalem, reminds us that judgment upon the nations always begins at the house of God (1 Peter 4:17). As with any literature, the rule must be ‘interpretation before application’. We cannot apply a text if do not first seek to understand it in its historical context. This includes the book of Revelation, which not only reiterates the legal process of the book of Ezekiel but also reprises much of its imagery.

(Mis)reading apocalyptic passages

As the New Testament records, and as many Christians recite in the Apostles’ Creed, our faith is founded upon actual historical events, and that is a crucial part of the strength of our testimony. Our God is not a myth and neither are His acts in history. The problem we have concerning the book of Revelation stems from our failure to take into consideration the immediate results of those first century events. Taken at face value, the New Testament appears to warn its first readers about coming events that were not only momentous but also imminent. This means that there is a great discrepancy between the sacred texts and the things that modern Christians are actually taught. C. S. Lewis writes:

The apocalyptic beliefs of the first Christians have been proved to be false. It is clear from the New Testament that they all expected the Second Coming in their own lifetime. And, worse still, they had a reason, and one which you will find very embarrassing. Their Master had told them so. He shared, and indeed created, their delusion. He said in so many words, ‘this generation shall not pass till all these things be done.’ And he was wrong. He clearly knew no more about the end of the world than anyone else. This is certainly the most embarrassing verse in the Bible.[2]

Is Lewis correct in this observation? If Jesus and His disciples were wrong, then it follows that nothing else in the New Testament can be trusted. This was the very conclusion reached by atheist Bertrand Russell, who, although he granted that many of the teachings of Christ were excellent, regarded such apparent defects as clear evidence that the Scriptures were not inspired but merely the work of humans:

For one thing, [Jesus] certainly thought that His second coming would occur in clouds of glory before the death of all the people who were living at that time. There are a great many texts that prove that. He says, for instance, ‘Ye shall not have gone over the cities of Israel till the Son of Man be come.’ Then he says, ‘There are some standing here which shall not taste death till the Son of Man comes into His kingdom’; and there are a lot of places where it is quite clear that He believed that His second coming would happen during the lifetime of many then living. That was the belief of His earlier followers, and it was the basis of a good deal of His moral teaching.[3]

The reason for Lewis’ concern about the Bible’s ‘most embarrassing verse’ and Russell’s logical dismissal of Jesus as the Son of God is our failure to understand what imminent event Jesus was actually talking about. The blessings and curses pronounced by the Apostolic Church were not ‘pie-in-the-sky’ promises or false alarms, and the fact that they came to pass precisely as predicted, in the time frame expected, is further proof of the identity of Jesus as the incarnate Word. Where Matthew, Mark and Luke include the Olivet discourse concerning the destruction of Jerusalem, John gives us the book of Revelation. The Pharisees condemned the harlots and tax collectors but their city had become the epitome of spiritual adultery and a den of thieves.

To assert that the days of vengeance described in the book of Revelation are anything but the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD – the very city that had been commissioned with the task of mediating before God on behalf of all nations - is to deny the basic logic of the entire Bible. When the New Testament (including Revelation) is read in the light of the books of Moses, many of the inexplicable things that Jesus and the Apostles said suddenly make perfect sense. The final book of the Bible is not about the end of history. Revelation is not about the end of the world. Like Ezekiel, it is about the end of a covenant era – in this case, the Old Covenant. Once it is understood in its historical – and more importantly, ‘covenant’ – context, not only is the question of Jesus’ trustworthiness answered but the Revelation itself is rescued from the obscurity of the ‘fringe’ of biblical studies and is allowed to shine as one of the most insightful and enlightening books of the Bible.

The future is Christian

Now, this likely raises more questions than it answers, but the only real problem is our ignorance of Scripture – our lack of familiarity with the symbolic language of the Bible, its sacred architecture and its careful literary sequencing. The solution to that is further reading, and I make some recommendations below. But the main question would be this: ‘Does the book of Revelation contain predictions of anything that is still future for those of us living today?’

The answer is, yes, most certainly. The final chapters of the book correspond to the Succession step of the biblical covenant, which outlines the future for those who passed through the first century Sanctions of the Covenant with the blessing of God. Following the judgment of Jerusalem and the Gentiles with whom the Herods had conspired, chapter 20 describes this current age in which Satan is bound from gathering all nations together at once against the Church. Like a deposed king, he is bound with a chain so that Jesus might gather a harvest from all nations. This means that any attempt at international unity outside of the Gospel of Christ is not only doomed to fail, but also a sign that the end of the world is anything but nigh.[4] The nations will remain divided until they are conquered. Only after the Gospel has reached all nations, and all rebellion against Jesus reaches maturity – deliberate revolt rather than unwitting disobedience – will the final judgment occur.

The event commonly referred to as Jesus’ ‘second coming’ is history. He came ‘without delay’ in 70AD, just as He said He would. He now rules the nations with a rod of iron, but the final judgment is yet to come. Jesus’ claims concerning His resurrection were vindicated, proving Him to be a better Adam. Revelation describes His vindication as a better Abel, finally avenging the blood of the martyrs upon the brothers who slew them, in this case the Edomite Herods (the ‘first resurrection’). His next vindication will be global, the harvest of the world in the power of the Spirit (the ‘second resurrection’). So keep planting and keep watering. God will bring the increase. Every nation on earth has a Christian future.

What can we learn from the terrible events of the first century, which the Revelation describes as the sacrificial offering of the ‘firstfruits’ of the Christian Church? Like all those who have followed in their footsteps, those early martyrs died to bring down the principalities and powers of the day. This means that the suffering of the saints is not the mark of an irredeemable world but the very means of its transformation. Every trial and test we face, both as individuals and as local gatherings, follows the covenant pattern established in Adam and perfected in Jesus. Trust the words of God, persevere in patient obedience, and you will change the course of history.

Further reading

Michael Bull, Moses and the Revelation: Why the End of the World is not in Your Future, 2017.

Joel McDurmon, Jesus v. Jerusalem: A Commentary on Luke 9:51-20:26, Jesus’ Lawsuit Against Israel, Joel McDurmon Books Ltd, 2011.

Peter J. Leithart, The Promise of His Appearing: An Exposition of Second Peter, Canon Press & Book Service, 2004.

Kenneth Gentry, Before Jerusalem Fell: Dating the Book of Revelation, Victorious Hope Publishing, 1989.

Gary DeMar, Last Days Madness: Obsession of the Modern Church, American Vision, 1999.

James B. Jordan, Through New Eyes: Developing a Biblical View of the World, Wolgemuth & Hyatt, Publishers, Inc., 1988.

Art: James Tissot, Woe unto You, Scribes and Pharisees, Brooklyn Museum


Michael Bull is a graphic designer and theology blogger who lives and works in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, Australia. His passion is understanding and teaching the Bible, and he writes occasionally for Theopolis Institute in Birmingham AL, USA.


[1] Joel McDurmon, Jesus v. Jerusalem: A Commentary on Luke 9:51-20:26, Jesus’ Lawsuit Against Israel.

[2] From C. S. Lewis, ‘The World’s Last Night’, 1960, found in The Essential C. S. Lewis.

[3] From ‘Why I Am Not A Christian’, a lecture delivered in 1927 to the National Secular Society in London, found in Why I Am Not A Christian And Other Essays, 1957.

[4] See my five-part article on the binding of Satan and its geopolitical implications at

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