The problem with the way Revelation is often taught is that it makes the book mostly irrelevant to 99% of Christians throughout history.
The illusion is that if you’re not alive during some specific time it describes, its an unnecessary distraction from living as a Christian. Sure, you have Jesus’ warnings to the churches at the beginning and His final victory at the end. Nevertheless, every detail in the middle is about a tiny slice of Christendom disconnected from the rest.
Many American evangelicals, of course, turn Revelation into an obsessive game of pin the tail on the antichrist. They see it as a record of the last few years of Earthly history, and so when they try to apply it to their lives, they’re inevitably trying to “discover” that they’re living in the end times. They may (or may not) stop just shy of asserting the day and hour of Christ’s return, but every evil politician is an antichrist candidate, and every heavy-handed government program just might be the Mark of the Beast. But all they end up with is a chain of failed predictions as history continues to march on. Meanwhile, every previous generation of Christians had a book telling them about technology like microchips and helicopters they would never live to even encounter let alone see used against them.
On the other extreme, you have Christians who relegate absolutely everything except the Second Coming as having already taken place in the First Century. They say it’s all about the Roman persecution under Nero and the destruction of Jerusalem, but John wrote it in apocalyptic code out of fear of the authorities. His contemporaries understood the code and could apply its message easily, but we just don’t get it because we’re not contemporary. Meanwhile, for every Christian living in the subsequent 2000 years and counting, Revelation is just a history book made useless by its inscrutability.
And there are, of course, a million other mutually exclusive ways of looking at it. Maybe it presents a long view of history from the Cross to the Second Coming (but then, every generation mapped the symbols to history differently, so it’s effectively unusable for that.) Maybe it’s not about events in history at all but rather about various spiritual generalities (except the book itself repeatedly says its about “what must take place.”) Maybe it’s one of the others– I’m confident I haven’t even heard of many of them.
The hard reality is that Revelation is not an easy book to read. With all the heavy symbolism, it’s not surprising that there have been so many wildly different takes on exactly what it’s all about. But it’s not as though the Holy Spirit didn’t know He was verbally inspiring a difficult book. And I can’t imagine that Jesus is sitting at the right hand of the Father frustrated that His beloved Bride could never really settle on what He meant by those locusts with women’s hair, lion’s teeth, and scorpion’s tails. So maybe the multiplicity of views isn’t accidental, and maybe they’re not actually mutually exclusive in the first place.
Maybe Revelation presents us with something akin to a fractal.
A fractal is essentially a kind of repeating pattern. But that pattern is made up of smaller instances of the same pattern repeated ad infinitum. So whether you’re looking at the whole thing or zooming in on some portion of it, you’re basically seeing the same pattern.
Sierpinski’s Triangle is probably the easiest example to grasp. It’s an equilateral triangle with a smaller equilateral triangle removed from the middle to create a stacked pyramid of three triangles (so basically the Triforce.) But then each of those triangles has the middle removed as well, and so on and so on.
So you have a grand pattern of triangles that comprises the whole. But if you take any one of the major triangles from that grand pattern, you still have the same pattern on a smaller scale. And if you take one of the tiny triangles from that grand pattern, you still have the same pattern on an even smaller scale.
That’s what I suspect Christians have been given with the events prophesied in Revelation. Yes, there is a grand pattern in which history finally ends with things like the Antichrist and the Mark of the Beast. There will be war, famine, pestilence, and death the likes of which the world has never seen before. False prophets will team up with earthly authorities in an attempt to destroy the Church of Christ. Jesus will return and put an absolute end to whole mess.
But if you zoom in on that pattern of history, you’ll find the same thing on a smaller scale. If you zoom in closely on the 1st Century, you’ll find Nero and Roman persecution prophesied in Revelation. If you zoom out from there a little bit, you’ll find the Fall of Rome and the end of antiquity prophesied there as well. If you zoom in on a different part of the grand pattern, you’ll find the Pope and Roman persecution during the Reformation, the Islamic invasion of Europe, and the end of the medieval world. And yes, if you zoom in on today you’ll find a nascent “New World Order,” vaccine passports as the Mark of the Beast, the imminent end of the modern West, and so forth as the same demonic powers & principalities manipulate today’s false teachers and powerful governments in their latest and greatest attempt to destroy the Church.
And everywhere you look, you’ll also eventually find those attempts failing. You’ll find the people of God suffering and afflicted for a time. But then you’ll find God putting a stop to it, laying down the mighty, and preserving us.
But it’s basically impossible for Christians to tell whether the marks and antichrists we see are the final ones in the ultimate pattern, or just part of a smaller pattern. And in a way, it doesn’t even matter because it’s all the same pattern. The imminent collapse of the modern West could be the end of the world. Or it could just be the end of our world as history moves on to a new chapter. Either way, though, Satan’s schemes, our callings, and God’s provision remain the same.
I also suspect that if you zoom in even further in our personal lives, you’ll still find the same pattern. It’s not as though Satan doesn’t target smaller human institutions in exactly the same ways. A congregation can fall prey to a false prophet who uses the authority of its boards and assemblies to afflict the faithful Christians in its midst and lead them astray. An abusive wife can steal her husband’s authority, make it so he cannot buy or sell without doing as she demands, and introduce falsehoods and deception to the children. Families and communities go through times of hunger, disease, and violence. Clubs and corporations can get drunk on mammon.
But Jesus is there with us on those smaller scales as well. We will suffer, then He will deliver us one way or another because none of this is unforeseen in Heaven or unaccounted for by the Throne.
Now, I’m not claiming that this is finally the right way of reading Revelation. I simply find it to be a very useful analogy because it has a lot of explanatory power.
It explains why Jesus explicitly told us that no one knows the day or the hour, but still expected us to be able to know the signs of the times. It explains why so many faithful Christians throughout history saw the circumstances of their day in Revelation and believed they were living in the last days. It explains why John can talk about both a coming Antichrist and many antichrists who have already come. It explains why the world ends multiple times in Revelation. It explains why the book is written with such a sense of urgency–why it “must soon take place” and why “the time is near.” It explains why it’s given to the whole Church and not just some small group of Christians living at the right time.
And so, despite the myriad of takes on the Book of Revelation, I think there were indeed many Christians throughout history who were entirely correct about it despite disagreeing with one another so often. It’s meant to apply to the end times. It’s meant to apply to history as a whole. It’s meant to apply to every Christian’s current events–including us today, Christians in the 1st Century, and everyone in-between. It’s even meant to teach spiritual generalities, so long as we don’t try to divorce those lessons from our history.
And yes, I think it’s even meant to be difficult and confusing. Because what is the Christian life if not difficult and confusing? Who among us doesn’t struggle to discern why he’s suffering, what he’s supposed to do when the devil and the world attack him, or when God is finally going to take action and rescue him?
So read Revelation again. Not to finally crack the code and figure out when Christ is going to return, but to understand the kind of fury and strategies Satan is using against you right now and to recognize the loving provision of Christ Jesus who remains our King in every time.