“Understanding the Book of Revelation,” Ensign, Sept. 1975, 85
Special Issue: New Testament
Understanding the Book of Revelation
One of our most fascinating exercises in scriptural interpretation is to study the book of Revelation, to ponder its truths, and to discover—to our surprise and amazement—what this commonly misunderstood work is all about.
If you have already fallen in love with John’s presentation of the plan of salvation as it is set out in the Apocalypse, you are one of the favored few in the Church. If this choice experience is yet ahead for you, the day and hour is here to launch one of the most intriguing and rewarding studies in gospel scholarship in which any of us ever engage.
Our purpose in this article is to lay a foundation and generate an interest in what is probably the most unique of all our books of scripture. The real joys of gospel learning will come to us when we begin to drink from the fountain of truth as here recorded by the ancient Revelator.
In my judgment the Gospel of John ranks far ahead of those of Matthew, Mark, or Luke; at least John’s record of the life of our Lord is directed to the saints; it deals more fully with those things that interest people who have received the gift of the Holy Ghost, and who have the hope of eternal life. But even ahead of his gospel account stands this wondrous work, the book of Revelation; or at least so it seems to those who are prepared to build on the foundations of the gospels and epistles and to go forward forever in perfecting their knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom.
For our purposes now, let us use the question and answer method to give an overview of what this unknown book, Revelation, is all about.
What is the book of Revelation?
Before we can understand this book we must have one thing clearly lodged in our minds—it is a book of holy scripture. It is the mind and will and voice of the Lord. It came by revelation. The Lord spoke, his servant heard, the word was written, and we now have the written record for our profit and blessing.
In our study of the book of Revelation, we must start out with the clear understanding that—aside from changes and errors of translation—it is as though the same words were written in the Book of Mormon or the Doctrine and Covenants. That is, they are true and are the very words the Lord wants us to have on the matters with which they deal. Such is the view of the Latter-day Saints relative to this most misunderstood of all scriptural accounts.
How is this book viewed by other Christians?
There is no uniformity of belief whatever, except that none of those outside the Church envision it for what it truly is. It is commonly classed with a great mass of apocalyptic writings, by which is meant that it is considered to be a symbolical presentation designed to encourage the early Christians, in their days of spiritual depression, by setting forth the ultimate triumph of God and his cause over the manifest evils of the day.
Many theologians doubt its canonicity. Some even consider it to be apocryphal in nature. All concede insurmountable difficulties in its interpretation. As Dummelow says: “Its reception in modern times has not been so unqualified as that of the rest of the New Testament. Luther was at first strongly averse from the book, though, later, he printed it with Hebrews, James, and Jude in an appendix to his New Testament. Zwingli regarded it as non-biblical, and Calvin did not comment upon it.” (J. R. Dummelow, The One Volume Bible Commentary, p. 1069.)
Who is the author of the book of Revelation?
To this there is an unqualified answer. It was John—John the Beloved, he who wrote the Gospel of John and the three epistles that bear his name. This runs counter to the conclusions of most Christian intellectuals, but it is a verity which has been confirmed to us by latter-day revelation.
More than six centuries before John was born, the Lord revealed to Nephi many of the things in the book of Revelation. Nephi saw John in vision, and an angel identified him as “one of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.” Nephi heard and bore record “that the name of the apostle of the Lamb was John,” and that he was the one appointed and foreordained to write the very visions now found in the book of Revelation. (See 1 Ne. 14:19–29.)
Have other prophets seen and written what John saw and wrote?
Yes! And their accounts shall be revealed to us in due course. When Nephi saw many of the same things, he was commanded not to write them, and was told by an angel:
“The Lord God hath ordained the apostle of the Lamb of God that he should write them.
“And also others who have been, to them hath he shown all things, and they have written them; and they are sealed up to come forth in their purity, according to the truth which is in the Lamb, in the own due time of the Lord, unto the house of Israel.” (1 Ne. 14:25–26.)
We suppose that many of these things are preserved on the brass plates, and we know that when the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon comes forth, “all things shall be revealed unto the children of men which ever have been among the children of men, and which ever will be even unto the end of the earth.” (2 Ne. 27:11.)
How was the book of Revelation given?
John was on the island of Patmos. It was Sunday. The promised hour had come. The heavens opened, angelic ministrants attended, voices were heard, and visions were seen. John was overshadowed by the power of the Holy Ghost. Under that holy influence he wrote:
“The Revelation of John, a servant of God, which was given unto him of Jesus Christ. …
“Who hath sent forth his angel from before his throne, to testify unto those who are the seven servants over the seven churches.
“Therefore, I, John, the faithful witness, bear record of the things which were delivered me of the angel.” (JST, Rev. 1:1–5.)
Was the account clear and plain when it was first written?
Yes, as much so as any scripture. As the angel said to Nephi:
“The things which he [John] shall write are just and true; and behold they are written in the book which thou beheld proceeding out of the mouth of the Jew; and at the time they proceeded out of the mouth of the Jew, or, at the time the book proceeded out of the mouth of the Jew, the things which were written were plain and pure, and most precious and easy to the understanding of all men.” (1 Ne. 14:23.)
In this connection, however, we must always remember that prophecy, visions, and revelations come by the power of the Holy Ghost and can only be understood in their fullness and perfection by the power of that same Spirit.
Are we expected to understand the book of Revelation?
Certainly. Why else did the Lord reveal it? The common notion that it deals with beasts and plagues and mysterious symbolisms that cannot be understood is just not true. It is so far overstated that it gives an entirely erroneous feeling about this portion of revealed truth. Most of the book—and it is no problem to count the verses so included—is clear and plain and should be understood by the Lord’s people. Certain parts are not clear and are not understood by us—which, however, does not mean that we could not understand them if we would grow in faith as we should.
The Lord expects us to seek wisdom, to ponder his revealed truths, and to gain a knowledge of them by the power of his Spirit. Otherwise he would not have revealed them to us. He has withheld the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon from us because it is beyond our present ability to comprehend. We have not made that spiritual progression which qualifies us to understand its doctrines. But he has not withheld the book of Revelation, because it is not beyond our capacity to comprehend; if we apply ourselves with full purpose of heart, we can catch the vision of what the ancient Revelator recorded. The apostles in Palestine did not know about the Nephites because they did not seek such knowledge. (See 3 Ne. 15:11–24.) We would have many additional revelations and know many added truths if we used the faith that is in our power to exercise.
What, then, of the beasts and plagues and hard portions of the book?
An answer to this question gives rise to an interesting point. It is our observation that those who concern themselves about these hidden and mysterious things, generally speaking, are the ones who have not yet come to an understanding of the many plain and clear doctrines found in this and in all other books of scripture.
As to these difficult portions of the book of Revelation, Joseph Smith said: “I make this broad declaration, that whenever God gives a vision of an image, or beast, or figure of any kind, He always holds Himself responsible to give a revelation or interpretation of the meaning thereof, otherwise we are not responsible or accountable for our belief in it. Don’t be afraid of being damned for not knowing the meaning of a vision or figure, if God has not given a revelation or interpretation of the subject.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 291.)
Also: “It is not very essential for the elders to have knowledge in relation to the meaning of beasts, and heads and horns, and other figures made use of in the revelations; still, it may be necessary, to prevent contention and division and do away with suspense. If we get puffed up by thinking that we have much knowledge, we are apt to get a contentious spirit, and correct knowledge is necessary to cast out that spirit.
“The evil of being puffed up with correct (though useless) knowledge is not so great as the evil of contention. Knowledge does away with darkness, suspense and doubt; for these cannot exist where knowledge is.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, pp. 287–288.)
As a matter of fact, the Prophet, acting by the spirit of inspiration, did give some rather extensive interpretations of many of these difficult passages. An examination of these interpretations is far beyond the purview of this article, but they are set out in extenso in my Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, vol. 3, pp. 429–595.
In this connection we may well note the Prophet’s declaration, to those properly endowed and enlightened, that the book of Revelation “is one of the plainest books God ever caused to be written.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 290.)
How can we understand the book of Revelation?
Our position in this respect is strong. The path of understanding is clearly marked. Here are seven basic guidelines:
1. Know that the book of Revelation deals with things that are to occur after New Testament times, particularly in the last days.
John is not writing of events of his time. He is not concerned with ancient history. The initial pronouncement in the book is that it concerns things that must shortly come to pass, things that are to happen after New Testament times, things that shall transpire in the last days. To give an overall perspective, some past events are mentioned, but all such presentations are clearly labeled. In discussing the war on earth between good and evil, it is mentioned that there was also a war in heaven of a similar kind. In opening the successive seals of a book, to set forth what is to be, brief mention is of necessity made of what has transpired in past days. But the whole thrust of the book pertains to future events.
Joseph Smith said: “The things which John saw had no allusion to the scenes of the days of Adam, Enoch, Abraham or Jesus, only so far as is plainly represented by John, and clearly set forth by him. John saw that only which was lying in futurity and which was shortly to come to pass.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 289.) Also: “John had the curtains of heaven withdrawn, and by vision looked through the dark vista of future ages, and contemplated events that should transpire throughout every subsequent period of time, until the final winding up scene.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 247.)
2. Have an overall knowledge of the plan of salvation and of the nature of God’s dealings with men on earth.
We find in the book either passing allusions, brief commentary, or fairly extended consideration of such doctrines as: preexistence and the war in heaven, the creation of the earth, the Lord’s dealings with men in successive dispensations, our Lord’s atonement and glorious resurrection, what is required to overcome the world and gain exaltation, the gross darkness of the apostasy which followed New Testament times, the setting up of the church of the devil and the reign of the anti-Christs, the restoration of the gospel and the latter-day gathering of Israel, concourses of plagues and desolations to be poured out in the last days, final destruction of the great and abominable church, the Second Coming and Millennial reign, resurrection and eternal judgment, and final celestialization of the earth.
These are but part of the great events described and of the doctrines taught. Manifestly, those who already know the prophetic mind relative to such things will be able to focus the added light found in the book of Revelation on them and thus perfect their understanding of the Lord’s doings.
3. Use various latter-day revelations which expand upon the same subjects in similar language.
Section 45 of the Doctrine and Covenants contains comparable truths relative to latter-day plagues and the Second Coming. [D&C 45]
Section 76 expands upon the doctrines relative to salvation and exaltation. [D&C 76]
Section 77 contains revealed answers to specific questions raised in otherwise incomprehensible portions of John’s writings. [D&C 77]
Section 88 speaks of some of the same angels and sounding trumpets of which John wrote. [D&C 88]
Section 101 has considerable data relative to the Second Coming and Millennium. [D&C 101]
Ether 13 sets forth analogous truths relative to the New Jerusalem and the new heaven and new earth. [Ether 13]
4. Study the sermons of Joseph Smith relative to the book of Revelation.
As already noted, the Prophet preached rather extensively about this book, giving inspired commentary and interpretation as led by the Spirit.
5. Use the Inspired Version of the Bible.
Acting by the spirit of prophecy and revelation, Joseph Smith corrected portions, but not all, of what is amiss in the King James Version of the Bible. In the book of Revelation corrections, for instance, the angels of the various earthly churches become the servants (presiding officers) of those units. The lamb with seven horns and seven eyes becomes a lamb with 12 eyes and 12 horns, thus perfecting the symbolism to identify Christ and his apostles. Chapter 12 is so revised as to identify the woman as the church of God and the Child that she brought forth as the kingdom of our God and of his Christ. And so forth.
6. Reserve judgment on those things for which no interpretation is given.
An example of this is the so-called number of the beast, which is stated to be the number of a man, which, if it could be identified, would show who was involved in the great deceptions imposed upon mankind. This is an answer that we do not know. The wise course is to avoid being entangled in the specious speculation of an uninspired world.
7. Seek the Spirit.
This is the crowning counsel. The things of God are known only by the power of his Spirit. Prophecy and revelation come by the power of the Holy Ghost. Only those endowed by that same power are able to understand the full meaning of the inspired accounts.
What is the chief message of the book of Revelation?
There can be no question about the answer to this query. It has the same purpose as all the scriptures, though the approach is different and the setting original. The message is that Jesus is Lord of all; that he descended from his Father’s throne to dwell among men; that he worked out the infinite and eternal atonement and has now returned in glory to that throne from whence he came; and that he will raise all men to a kindred glory and a like dominion if they will overcome the world and walk as he walked.
But why this particular book? What does it add to the reservoir of revealed truth which is not found elsewhere?
In the answer to these queries we find the real genius of John’s apocalyptic writing. Gospel truths are and should be variously worded, variously described, and variously adorned with literary attraction—all to the end that they will appeal, in one form or another, to every heart that can be touched. The book of Revelation takes an approach to the plan of salvation that is found nowhere else in all of our inspired writings. The language and imagery is so chosen as to appeal to the maturing gospel scholar, to those who already love the Lord and have some knowledge of his goodness and grace.
After the baptism of water, after being born of the Spirit, after charting a course of conformity and obedience, the true saint is still faced with the need to overcome the world. Nowhere in any scripture now had among men are there such pointed and persuasive explanations as to why we must overcome the world, and the attendant blessings that flow therefrom, as in this work of the Beloved John.
As the Saints pursue the course of progression and perfection, they look for a better world. Amid the evils and downdrafts of this life they have a need to look upward and ahead, to look at the overall course ordained by their Creator; they need to think in terms of millennial and celestial rewards. Where is all this set forth so effectively as in the latter part of these writings of John?
Nowhere else do we find the detailed data relative to the plagues and scourges of a sick and dying world. Nowhere is the overthrow of satanic power so pitilessly described. Truly the teachings of this inspired work are some of the greatest incentives to personal righteousness now found in holy writ.
Has not the day come when the maturing gospel scholar can dip into this great treasury of revealed truth and come up with a knowledge of those things that will assure him of peace and joy in this life and eternal life in the world to come?