“Seeing the Book of Revelation As a Book of Revelation,” Ensign, Dec. 1987, 46
No book in all scripture has stimulated more discussion, generated more controversy, and created more questions than the book of Revelation. Many modern readers find its imagery and symbolism strange and its message unclear. It isn’t a great surprise, then, that so many often leave the book unread.
The title of the book in Greek is Apocalypsis, from which we get its other common name, the Apocalypse. Apocalypsis is formed from two Greek words—apo, a preposition denoting separation or removal, and kalypto, a verb meaning to cover, hide, or veil. Apocalypsis, then, literally means removal of the veil or covering. Hence its title in English, the book of Revelation (or the uncovering or unveiling).
While many might find the title to be ironic, arguing that few books are more hidden or veiled, it is an appropriate one, for it truly reveals many things. Elder Bruce R. McConkie, in response to the question “Are we expected to understand the book of Revelation?” answered:
“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. … If we apply ourselves with full purpose of heart, we can catch the vision of what the ancient Revelator recorded.” (Ensign, Sept. 1975, p. 87.)
All of this, however, is not meant to imply that the book of Revelation is simple or easily understood.
From the great vision of Nephi, we gain significant insight into the book of Revelation. After seeing the birth and ministry of the Savior, Nephi was shown a series of future events, from the split of Lehi’s descendants into two main groups to the coming forth of the Book of Mormon and the restoration of the Church. (See 1 Ne. 12:1–14:2.)
In other words, the vision of Nephi began in his own time and progressively moved forward to our time. But just as he came to what would be future to us, Nephi was told not to write what he would see. (1 Ne. 14:25.) The Lord explained to Nephi that another person, the Apostle John, had been ordained to write about these future events. (1 Ne. 14:27.)
Doesn’t that tell us something about the significance of the book of Revelation for us? Many of this generation are anxious about the future and what it holds for us. From Nephi’s vision, we learn that John’s writings are primarily about that which is future to us.
Some portions of the scriptures are less easily understood than others. Many readers are used to fast-moving narratives like the story of the sons of Mosiah and their mission to the Lamanites in Alma 17–26. The books of Isaiah and Revelation are not that kind of historical record, and Church members who try to read them as narratives have difficulty understanding them. Clearly, one should not expect to read Revelation through once and fully comprehend it.
The following four keys may help us to understand the book of Revelation more fully:
Study, ponder, and pray about its message.
Use latter-day revelation to expand our understanding of the book.
Explore its symbolic imagery.
Study its chronological structure.
Key #1: Study, Ponder, and Pray. Diligent study, careful thought, and inspiration can help make the Apocalypse clearer. The Lord apparently couched the language of the book in such a way that only they who paid the price in diligent, prayerful study would come to understand it. As the Lord told John, “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith.” (Rev. 2:7; the theme is repeated six times in chapters two and three.)
Two kinds of effort prove to be especially helpful in understanding Revelation. The first and perhaps most important effort is to heed the promptings of the Spirit as we study the Revelation of John. “We must always remember that prophecy, visions, and revelations come by the power of the Holy Ghost and can only be understood in the fullness and perfection by the power of that same Spirit.” (McConkie, Ensign, Sept. 1975, p. 86.)
As we study and ponder, we should pray for understanding and listen to the voice of the Spirit as it speaks in our minds and in our hearts. (See D&C 8:2–3.) Peter said that “no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation” but came as prophets “were moved by the Holy Ghost.” (2 Pet. 1:20–21.) When the Holy Spirit becomes our confirming guide, we can come to better understand the revelation John received.
A second important way by which we pay the price is acquiring a general gospel knowledge. John did not write Revelation for the nonmember or even the investigator. He wrote for the Saints and assumed that his readers would have a good knowledge of gospel principles, the plan of salvation, the scriptures, and scriptural symbols. (See Rev. 1:1, 4, 11; Rev. 3:22.) He often mentions things in passing, and it is clear he assumes his readers will know them.
For example, in Revelation 19:13, [Rev. 19:13] he describes Christ at his second coming, mentioning that “he was clothed with a vesture dipped in blood.” This may puzzle those who picture him clothed in glorious white. Nevertheless, it is in perfect agreement with other scriptures that tell us that the Savior’s apparel will be red at his coming. (See Gen. 49:11; Isa. 63:2; D&C 133:48.)
The broader our knowledge of the gospel and the scriptures, the plainer the Book of Revelation becomes.
Key #2: Use Latter-day Revelation. Latter-day Saints have a distinct advantage over the rest of the Christian world because modern prophets have revealed much that directly helps us interpret the mysteries revealed in the Apocalypse. Here are four primary sources of help. Specific examples are given in the accompanying chart.
Latter-day Revelation and the Book of Revelation
Examples of how latter-day revelation helps us better understand the book of Revelation
Book of Revelation References
Latter-day Revelation References
• Doctrine and Covenants 77 gives the meaning of the sealed book and the opening of its seals.
• The four angels mentioned in Revelation 7 are angels of the Restoration.
• All the events of chapter 9 immediately precede the second coming of Christ.
Joseph Smith Translation
• The seven stars in the Savior’s hand are actually leaders of the seven churches.
JST, Rev. 1:20
• The imagery of seven associated with the Lamb is changed to twelve, suggesting the role of the Twelve Apostles in the work of Christ.
JST, Rev. 5:6
• The woman and the man child represent the kingdom of God and the Church of Jesus Christ.
JST, Rev. 12:3, 7
• The beast of Revelation 13 is in “the likeness of the kingdoms of the earth.”
JST, Rev. 13:1
Other Latter-day Scripture
• The sea of glass John saw represents the earth in its celestialized state. The earth will be like a huge Urim and Thummim to the Lord and to the earth’s inhabitants.
• The white stone mentioned by John is a personal Urim and Thummim given to each individual.
• The iron rod mentioned in the vision is the word of God.
• Mt. Zion, on which the Lamb will stand with 144,00, refers to the New Jerusalem.
• The woman fleeing to the wilderness is the Church during the great apostasy.
Writings and Sermons of the Prophets
• The Prophet Joseph Smith’s sermon on the meaning of the beasts of Revelation helps us with several passages.
Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, pp. 287–94
• Elder Bruce R. McConkie gave seven keys for interpreting the book of Revelation and numerous suggestions on how to better understand it.
“Understanding the Book of Revelation,” Ensign, Sept. 1975, pp. 85–89
Doctrine and Covenants 77. [D&C 77] This is perhaps the single most important commentary we have about the book of Revelation. On 1 March 1832, the Prophet recorded, “About the first of March, in connection with the translation of the Scriptures [i.e., work on the Joseph Smith Translation], I received the following explanation of the Revelation of St. John.” (History of the Church, 1:253.)
In this section, fifteen questions about the Apocalypse are asked and answered. Some may wish that there had been many more questions answered, but the fifteen we have are sufficient for an understanding of the book. Indeed, these fifteen questions that make up section 77 serve as a key to the book of Revelation. As Hyrum M. Smith and Janne M. Sjodahl pointed out:
“This Revelation is not a complete interpretation of the book. It is a key. … As Champolion, by the key furnished in the brief test on the Rosetta stone, was able to open the secrets of Egyptian hieroglyphics, so the Bible student should be able to read the Apocalypse with a better understanding of it, by the aid of this key.” (Doctrine and Covenants Commentary, rev. ed., Cambridge, Massachusetts: University Press, 1951, p. 478.)
Joseph Smith Translation changes made in the book of Revelation. The Prophet made relatively few changes in the book of Revelation, but the ones he did make are critical and help us gain understanding where otherwise we would be in the dark.
Other latter-day scripture. Numerous verses in the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants aid our understanding of the Apocalypse. In some cases, the direct interpretation for a symbol in Revelation is given in one of the works of modern scripture.
Writings and sermons of latter-day prophets. While there are not a large number of examples in this category, a number of statements by the Brethren provide a better understanding of the Apocalypse. Examples are on the chart at left.
Key #3: Explore the Symbolic Imagery of the Book. There is no question about the importance of understanding symbolism in the scriptures. (See Gerald N. Lund, Ensign, Oct. 1986, pp. 23–27.) But in a study of the book of Revelation, the interpretation of symbols becomes essential. The Apocalypse was painted with a symbolic brush. The palette was filled with metaphors, similes, symbols, and images, which require that we study it with those in mind. The following suggestions may prove helpful in correctly interpreting the symbolic imagery of the Apocalypse:
Remember that Hebrew imagery is different in many ways from the imagery we are used to. Though the Western mind also uses imagery and symbolism, we tend to make our figurative language more concrete, specific, and aesthetically attractive. On the other hand, the Hebrews were concerned not so much with the overall beauty of the image as they were with whether it accurately portrayed spiritual realities.
Because of this, we sometimes find John’s imagery to be jarring and even bizarre. An excellent example is his description of the one “like unto the Son of man.” (Rev. 1:13.) As he describes the figure clothed in a full-length robe, the whiteness of his being, the eyes like a flame of fire, the typical Western reader begins to build an image of the Savior in his mind. Then suddenly comes this phrase: “And out of his mouth went a sharp two edged sword.” (Rev. 1:16.) Our tendency is to try to add that image literally to our mental picture, and we end up with a disturbing portrait.
A Hebrew, on the other hand, might respond something like this: “Of course, there is no actual sword coming out of his mouth. But what does come out of the mouth of a man? Words. But this is not just any man. This is the Son of Man. So out of his mouth comes the truth, the gospel, the word of God. The double-edged sword is an excellent symbol of the word, or the gospel. It cuts through error, pierces the heart, cleaves ignorance.”
In fact, the comparison of the word of God to a two-edged sword is frequent in scripture. (See Heb. 4:12; D&C 6:2.) We must, therefore, analyze each element of the image and ask the question, “What spiritual truth was this meant to portray?”
Do the scriptures themselves give us the interpretation of the symbol? 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. … 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, p. 291.)
In many cases, we have no excuse for not understanding the divine imagery revealed to John, for the Lord has clearly specified how the symbols are to be interpreted. Sometimes the Lord gives the key in the same context as the symbol itself; other times, he explains its significance later in the vision; often, he provides the key somewhere else in the standard works. Here are some examples in which the context gives the interpretation:
Here are a few examples in which the interpretation is given elsewhere in Revelation:
Here are several examples in which the interpretation is given elsewhere in scripture:
Babylon, or “the mother of harlots and abominations” (Rev. 14:8; Rev. 16:19; Rev. 17:5), is a symbol of the great and abominable church founded by the devil and of spiritual wickedness (1 Ne. 14:3, 10; D&C 86:3; D&C 133:14).
Does the nature of the symbol give insights into its meaning? The peoples of the ancient Middle East loved imagery and figurative language. They saw spiritual parallels in the natural characteristics of animals, objects, and natural events around them. Thus, their choice of symbols was not arbitrary or capricious; the nature or characteristics of the item led to its use as a symbol.
If we examine the symbol, pondering why the ancients chose it to represent symbolic truths, we often find important insights into its meaning. For example, trumpets were used anciently to sound an alarm, signal for battle, or announce the arrival of royalty. The sounding of a trumpet, therefore, heralds or announces something highly significant. This explains why the seven angels sound trumpets as each new judgment of the seventh seal is shown forth. (See Rev. 8–9.)
The candlestick is not a source of light but a holder of light. Since the church of Jesus Christ is not the actual source of truth but merely holds up Jesus Christ—the true light of the world—for all to see, the candlestick provides a meaningful representation of the Church. (See Rev. 1:12, 20; 3 Ne. 18:24.)
Another example is the image of keys. (See Rev. 9:1; Rev. 20:1.) Anciently, locks were hand-carved from wood or hand-forged from metal, and they were large, bulky, and expensive. Locks were therefore used to protect only very valuable treasure or stores. Because the common people rarely owned anything valuable enough to lock up, keys usually were held only by the wealthy and powerful—or entrusted by them to stewards. Keys were typically worn around the neck on a chain, so if people saw a man on a street wearing a key, they could rightly assume that he was a man of power and authority. In this manner, keys came to be a symbol, not only of control over something, but of invested power and authority.
Again and again, we find that pondering the natural characteristics of an item chosen as a symbol leads to greater understanding of scriptural imagery. We should constantly ask, “Why would this thing be used symbolically?”
Key #4: Study the Chronological Structure of the Book. Understanding a scriptural passage’s basic structure—how it is organized—and the purposes for which it was written will enhance understanding of the scripture itself. For example, the Book of Mormon follows a basic historical narrative that pauses in places to present selected sermons. However, the chronological order of the narrative is not entirely consistent.
For example, the Words of Mormon, written about A.D. 385, are inserted between writings completed more than 500 years earlier. And Moroni, who writes around A.D. 400, inserts the book of Ether after the record of the fall of the Nephites, even though the record precedes that fall by 2,600 years. These seeming inconsistencies become perfectly logical if we understand that Mormon was writing an abridgement of many records and that his son Moroni decided to add the account of the Jaredites after his father gave the record to him.
The New Testament, on the other hand, has a completely different organizational structure. There is no grand unifying chronological development; it is a series of short, independent works and letters. We would be foolish to look for a narrative flow throughout the New Testament.
Thus, knowing the basic organizational structure of a work is vital to a better understanding of its contents. This is especially true in the book of Revelation. The Apocalypse can be outlined into four main divisions: (1) the introduction (Rev. 1) (2) the seven individual letters to the churches (Rev. 2–3) (3) the vision of things to come (Rev. 4–22:5) and (4) the conclusion (Rev. 22:6–21)
Since the book records the vision (or perhaps series of visions) of things to come, which constitutes not only the majority of the book but also the bulk of the difficult passages, we shall concentrate on the third division.
When John saw a door open in heaven and heard a voice telling him to “come up hither,” he was also told that he would be shown things “which must be hereafter.” (Rev. 4:1.) The Prophet Joseph Smith likewise 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, p. 289.)
The great vision of futurity shown to John opens with God on the throne of heaven surrounded by numerous beings singing praise to him. (See Rev. 4:1–11.) The Father has a book in his right hand that is sealed with seven seals. No one is worthy to open the book except the Lamb of God. (See Rev. 5:9.) Since the rest of the vision is what John sees as each of the seven seals are opened, understanding the symbolism of the book and the seals is critical to understanding the book of Revelation. Fortunately, these were two of the topics addressed by the Prophet in Doctrine and Covenants 77:6–7. [D&C 77:6–7]
“Q. What are we to understand by the book which John saw, which was sealed on the back with seven seals?
“A. We are to understand that it contains the revealed will, mysteries, and the works of God; the hidden things of his economy concerning this earth during the seven thousand years of its continuance, or its temporal existence.
“Q. What are we to understand by the seven seals with which it was sealed?
“A. We are to understand that the first seal contains the things of the first thousand years, and the second also of the second thousand years, and so on until the seventh.”
With this information, we can see how the book is structured and where the primary emphasis lies. For example, if we know the white horse and the man with a bow who goes forth to conquer (see Rev. 6:1–2) are part of the first seal or first thousand years, we will not look for some interpretation from our own time. Elder Bruce R. McConkie suggested that this was a representation of Enoch and the Zion he established. (See Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 3 vols., Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1973, 3:376–8.)
Knowing the chronology of the seals helps us see that John’s emphasis is primarily the future. He spends only two verses apiece on each of the first four seals, or periods of a thousand years each. Obviously, that constitutes the briefest of historical highlights. For the fifth seal, which was very likely the time in which John himself lived, the Apostle took only three verses! (See Rev. 6:1–11.)
The entire vision from beginning to end takes 317 verses, and yet John spends only eleven verses (or about 3.5 percent) on the first five thousand years of history, which is about 71 percent of the earth’s total seven thousand years of recorded history. Without a doubt, the vast majority of the vision focuses on things “which must be hereafter.” (Rev. 4:1.) Furthermore, on closer examination, we see that the focus is even more limited than that. The account of the opening of the seventh seal begins in Revelation 8:1, [Rev. 8:1] and yet the account of the Second Coming and the Millennium do not occur until chapters 19 and 20! The Millennium itself is treated in only seven verses. (See Rev. 20:1–7.) By far the largest portion of the book describes the events that immediately precede the Second Coming of the Savior. (See also D&C 77:13.)
The basic structure of the vision is chronological. After seeing the Father and the Son in heaven (Rev. 4–5), the vision of the history and destiny of the world begin to unfold for John. He sees the first five seals (or first five thousand years of history) in rapid-fire, encapsulated form. Then he sees the opening of the sixth seal, which includes the restoration of the gospel. (See Rev. 6:12–7:17.)
After that, John sees the seventh period of a thousand years, with great judgments poured out upon the earth, including Armageddon (see Rev. 8–9, 11, 16), which eventually lead to the utter overthrow of Babylon (see Rev. 17–18) and make way for the second coming of him who is King of kings and Lord of lords (see Rev. 19). Immediately following that, John sees Satan bound and Christ reigning for a thousand years (see Rev. 20:1–6), a last great battle between the forces of righteousness and evil (see Rev. 20:7–10), and the final judgment (see Rev. 20:11–15). Finally, a new heaven and a new earth are brought forth. (See Rev. 21:1–22:5.)
Not everything fits quite so neatly into this chronological line, however. For example, the war in heaven, which took place before the earth was formed, is shown among the events of the seventh seal. (See Rev. 12:7–9.) Also among the events of the seventh seal is a passage that Latter-day Saints have interpreted to refer to the restoration of the gospel, which actually took place in the sixth seal. (See Rev. 14:6–7.) How do we explain these seeming anachronisms?
As one studies the book, it becomes clear that there are places in the chronological flow where the Lord pauses to teach us important information before moving on. A teacher may do this as he moves through a lecture, pausing in his logical development to say, “Now, before we go further, I need to make sure you understand something.” Such teaching interludes seem to apply to John’s vision. For example:
The joy of those who are saved. (Rev. 7:9–17.) Before launching into a grim description of the judgments, John sees an innumerable company of the righteous—a powerful reminder that not all on earth will be wicked and will suffer God’s judgments.
The “little book” interlude. (Rev. 10:1–11.) In the midst of a vivid description of the great battle of Armageddon, there is another pause. An angel gives John a little book to eat, which we learn is a symbol of John’s ministry. (See D&C 77:14.) Since the Apostle was translated and was to live through all the events he saw, the Lord seems to pause to show him what part he will have in all of it.
The “kingdoms” interlude. (Rev. 12–14.) This is the longest and perhaps the most difficult interlude to understand. The three chapters seem to comprise an overview of mankind’s history from the premortal existence to the Second Coming, as it pertains to the kingdoms of the Lamb (Jesus Christ) and the dragon (Satan). When John hears that the kingdoms of the world are to become the kingdoms of Christ (see Rev. 11:15), it is as though the Lord stops to teach more about these two different classes of kingdoms.
First, we see the woman and the man child to whom she gives birth, then we see a great red dragon ready to devour the child. (See JST, Rev. 12:1–4.) In verse 7 of the Joseph Smith Translation, [Rev. 12:7] we learn that the woman is the church of God, who brings forth the kingdom of God and Christ. We also see that Satan’s opposition to the work of Christ’s kingdom is implacable and, in fact, began in the war in heaven before the earth was formed. (See JST, Rev. 12:6–8.)
Then we learn that Satan’s kingdom also has two aspects: the beast that has seven heads and ten horns (see Rev. 13:1–10) and the beast that causes men to worship the first beast (see Rev. 13:11–14). Revelation 17:9–12 [Rev. 17:9–12] tells us that the heads and horns are kings, while Revelation 16:13 [Rev. 16:13] calls the second beast “the false prophet.” Both the Lamb and the dragon then manifest their power through the political kingdom (the child; the first beast) and the ecclesiastical kingdom (the woman; the second beast).
Eventually, the Lamb’s kingdom shall prevail when Christ shall stand on Mt. Zion with the faithful who have been sealed by the powers that angelic ministration has restored to the earth. (See Rev. 14:1–7.) The triumph of Christ’s kingdom will cause the downfall of Satan’s kingdom. (See Rev. 14:8–11.)
Another interlude that recounts the joy of those who are saved, similar to the first. (Rev. 15.)
If we diligently use the keys that the Lord has given us to interpret the book of Revelation, it can truly become a book of revelation for us. As Moroni wrote:
“And then [in the days when the Lord has restored the covenant] shall my revelations which I have caused to be written by my servant John be unfolded in the eyes of all the people. Remember, when ye see these things, ye shall know that the time is at hand that they shall be made manifest in very deed.” (Ether 4:16.)