August 29, 2023

The Number One Key to Reading Revelation

By Blake Zimmerman


I remember the first time I ever talked to a software developer about their day-to-day job. I remember it because I didn’t understand any of the words that came out of their mouth.

Have you ever had an experience like that with someone? It typically happens when we talk to people in positions that required significant amounts of education and training — doctors, electricians, chemical engineers, financial advisors, etc.

They start telling you about what they do in a normal day, and you leave the conversation having no idea what they do in a normal day. Why? Because they might as well have been speaking a different language.

Learning the Language

Many Christians have had a similar experience trying to read the book of Revelation. For most of us, it makes absolutely no difference that John’s writing has been translated from Greek into English. The actual words on our pages, though technically readable, seem far from understandable. It’s like there’s an additional language barrier for us modern readers that isn’t fully solved by our English translations. We can read terms like “the four horsemen” or “bowls of wrath” or “a beast rising out of the sea,” but do we know what they mean? Have you ever felt this way?

Well, if it feels like you’re reading a different “language” when you read the book of Revelation, it’s because you are. It’s the language John knows best (besides Greek), the language of “Bible.”

Authors of the New Testament — men like John — were specialists in their own right, just like doctors, engineers, and accountants. But their education and training weren’t in spreadsheets, surgery, or stocks. It was in the Bible. It’s hard for us to imagine today, but an author like John would have had large chunks of his Bible (what we call the “Old Testament”) memorized.

In an age in which “paper” wasn’t really a thing yet, much less mass publishing, the words of Scripture were regularly read aloud and committed to memory in the Jewish and Christian communities. These families didn’t have copies upon copies of the Bible at their homes like we do. If you wanted to know the Bible, you had to memorize it when you heard it read aloud.

A man like John would have lived, breathed, and even dreamed in Bible.

Here’s why this is so important when it comes to how you and I read the book of Revelation: If John knew his Bible like the back of his hand, and if John wrote to communities that would have also known their Bibles well, what do you think he would expect of modern readers? That’s right. Get to know your Bibles!

The single most helpful tool in interpreting Revelation is not the New York Times, Fox News, The Economist or (pick your media outlet of choice); it’s your Bible.

The Most Helpful Tool for Understanding the Bible is the Bible.

Let me prove it to you with some math. There are 404 total verses in Revelation. Now, out of those 404 verses, guess how many references John makes to the Old Testament…

I’m serious, try to think of a number. Got one?

Scholars differ on the exact number, but all agree that there are at least 500 references to the Old Testament in the book of Revelation.

If you’re keeping count at home, that’s more than one reference per verse. When I said John lives, breathes, and dreams Bible, I meant it. He’s like that friend that can’t stop quoting their favorite movie.

Lines from the film are so deep inside them that quotes and references just naturally make their way into everyday speech. John is very similar to that friend, except he doesn’t offer any direct quotes from the Old Testament. He uses words, phrases, hints. He’s a subtle composer, always pointing our attention back to the grand drama that Revelation completes. And he expects us to be familiar with his source material, the Old Testament. For example:

What does this mean for us, 21st century readers?

What does this mean for readers who don’t know their Old Testament as well as the first Christians to whom John wrote?

For starters, it means that we should get to know our Old Testaments. Unfortunately, some Christians see — and have even been taught that — the Old Testament is merely one long, boring, legalistic introduction to the more exciting and grace-filled New Testament. Nothing could be further from the truth. Just look at what Jesus had to say about it (Matthew 5v17).

Far from being a boring introduction, the Old Testament contains the characters, setting, and plotline for the grand drama that Jesus saw himself fulfilling. And Revelation is this drama’s grand finale.

In it, John reintroduces main characters in new costumes, adds some trumpets to the bridge of the song, and even builds out the final set piece in Revelation 21-22: the new heavens and new earth.

All of this presupposes that the reader is familiar with the first several acts of the drama. This is how all epic stories work. The Last Battle in C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia series presupposes that you know what’s happened in the series up until that point. Same with J. R. R. Tolkien’s Return of the King, J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and even Marvel’s The Avengers: Endgame.

Can you watch these movies or read these books that conclude the story without knowing the full story and still get something out of it? Sure, but your experience will be disorienting at times. It will feel like you’re missing something, and that’s because you are.

So, where do we start?

If we don’t have the Old Testament memorized, if we feel like we’re starting at ground zero, are there any steps we can take towards understanding the acts of the drama that come before Revelation? Yes. Read your entire Bible before reading Revelation.

Okay, if you don’t have time for that, here are two of John’s favorite Old Testament references that, if you study them, will help you grasp the grand, epic finale that is Revelation.

Old Testament References

Exodus 7-11: The ten plagues are the backdrop for most of the judgment we find in Revelation. As you go back and study the plagues, ask yourself, “What was the purpose? What was God hoping to accomplish, and did he accomplish it?” Then, as you read the cycles of judgment in Revelation 6-16 (it’s a lot of judgment), ask yourself the same questions: “What is the purpose? What is God hoping to accomplish? And does he accomplish it?”

Daniel 7: Daniel was probably John’s favorite book, and it contains one of the most important chapters in the entire Old Testament: Daniel 7. In it we see visions of beasts, empires, and ungodly rulers on the earth. John is tracking with all of this when he writes about the mega-beast in Revelation 13. If you’re to read only one Old Testament book that will help you understand Revelation, look no further than Daniel. As you read, ask yourself, “What do the beasts represent?”

You Get What You Put In

The first time I talked to that software developer wasn’t the last time I talked with one. I worked in a job that required me to talk to developers on a regular basis, and do you know what eventually happened? I could hear one of them say something like “JavaScript” and not have to Google it. Their lingo became mine (kind of).

Hopefully, as you dive into these Old Testament chapters Revelation will feel less and less like a foreign language and more and more like your second language. There’s an old cliché that goes something like, “You get out what you put in,” and it’s no different with our study of the Bible.

Trust me, I realize – and readily admit – that this is hard work. But this hard work will, I believe, lead to fruitful reading and faithful participation in the grand drama that is the story of the Bible.

Happy reading!


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