Perhaps no book of scripture has led to more speculation, spawned more foolishness, and resulted in more spiritual imbalance than the Apocalypse, the Revelation of John the Beloved. It was an important book in the first century of the Christian era, one that provided hope and perspective for the "Former-day Saints."
And, when properly approached and understood, it provides a like hope for the Latter-day Saints who live in the closing years of the 20th century. Although it is not likely that even the most serious students of scripture will uncover every symbol and thereby come to understand every particular of the Revelation, there are certain doctrinal refrains, recurring lessons and basic principles that may be grasped by all of us.
The author of Revelation is John, the brother of James and son of Zebedee. This is the same John who served as an apostle and as a member of the First Presidency of the meridian church, the one who wrote the Gospel of John and the three epistles. He is known variously as John the Beloved, John the Revelator and the one Jesus loved. (John 21:20.)
We know from the Book of Mormon (3 Ne. 28:6) and from modern revelation (D&C 27) that John was translated – changed to a terrestrial state so as to no longer be subject to the effects of the Fall, including physical suffering, bodily decay, and death. He is still ministering among the House of Israel and will do so until the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. (D&C 7:1-8; History of the Church 1:176, footnote.) This book of scripture is called "The Revelation of John, a servant of God, which was given unto him of Jesus Christ." (JST Rev. 1:1; see also 1:4, 9; 22:8.)
Though most modern biblical scholars are prone to cast doubt on the authorship of John the Beloved, authorship by him has been attested from as early as the second century A.D. by Justin Martyr. The actual time of the writing is unknown, and debates continue among New Testament scholars; some date the Apocalypse during the reign of the Roman emperor Domitian (81-96 A.D.), while others propose a date some time during the reign of Vespasian (69-79 A.D.).
What we do know is that John wrote this book from the island of Patmos (1:9), a small volcanic island just southwest of Ephesus. The Revelation contains specific counsel, condemnation, warning, and prophetic promises to the seven churches of Asia – Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamus, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea – branches of the Christian Church that had been organized by the Apostle Paul during his missionary journeys.
As most readers of Revelation can attest, reading this book is unlike any other experience we have with the scriptures. Whereas most of the Book of Mormon, for example, is given to us "in plainness" (2 Ne. 25:4; 31:3; 33:6), Revelation is not terribly plain to the generality of the Saints. John's messages are not always clear, and coming to understand what is intended often requires extensive cross referencing, searching out historical details, and much pondering and discernment. It does not help that many plain and precious truths have been taken from the Bible (1 Ne. 13:20-40), and specifically from Revelation. Nephi was given a panoramic vision, a view of things from the beginning to the end. (1 Ne. 11-14.) He was told, however, that he would not be permitted to write the whole of the vision of the Nephite record but that another, the Apostle John, would be asked to do so. "Wherefore, the things which he 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." (See 1 Ne. 14:18-23.)
Like Lehi's dream/vision, and Nephi's vision, John's Revelation is "a God's eye view" of things from eternity past to eternity future. "John had the curtains of heaven withdrawn," the Prophet Joseph explained, "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.)
John's book is an example of apocalyptic literature. Apocalypse is a Greek word meaning revelation or unveiling. Other examples of apocalyptic literature include chapters in Ezekiel and Daniel, Matthew 24 (sometimes called the "little Apocalypse"), Mark 13, and 1 Nephi 13-14. These all contain some apocalyptic elements. Chronology seems irrelevant in apocalyptic writing. The writer seems to jump back and forth through time, darting from distant past to distant future in the blink of an eye. Thus we would read in chapter 11 of two prophets who will be killed at the Battle of Armageddon for their testimony and then, in the next chapter, discover the war in heaven. To God, for whom the past, the present and the future are "one eternal now" (Teachings, p. 220), time is not reckoned in the same way.
The following are additional elements and characteristics of apocalyptic writings. The book of Revelation contains all these:
- Symbols. This literary genre is filled with symbols – objects or messages that stand for, represent or typify other things. We find in Revelation such figures as lambs, dragons, candlesticks, stars, white stones, a sea of glass, animals filled with eyes and wings, books with seals, a bottomless pit, a huge cubic city, trumpets, vials with bitter potions, various colored horses, white robes, seals on the forehead or right hand, locusts and scorpions, little books that are eaten, olive trees, a great whore, and a tree with twelve manner of fruit. These all point to greater realities and deeper messages. They are symbols.
In some cases we are able to uncover the symbolism through a careful reading of Revelation itself, while frequently we must turn to other revelations (particularly modern revelation) to uncover the meaning. And in some cases we are left without scriptural or prophetic commentary.
- Beasts. There are many types of beasts in Revelation, and some of these are easier to understand than others. The Prophet Joseph Smith explained: "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. . . . 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, pp. 287, 291.)
- Numbers. It is common in apocalyptic writings to find numbers everywhere – three, seven, twelve, and forty. The number seven, for example, which represents wholeness or perfection in Greek, occurs 52 times in Revelation; everything in Revelation seems to be done in sevens – seven seals (chapters 5-8), seven significant signs (chapters 12-14); and seven last plagues (chapters 15-16).
- Astral phenomena. Often we read of things taking place in the heavens, as well as on the earth – stars falling, the heavens being shaken, the moon turning to blood, a burning fire from heaven hitting the earth, etc. These signs and symbols seems to represent unrest in the universe, God's anger, or the coming destruction of the wicked.
- Cosmic dualism. In apocalyptic literature the world is a battleground between light and darkness, good and evil, the kingdom of God and the kingdom of the devil. Satan rules and reigns now in a fallen world, but the time is not far distant when the God of heaven will step into history, defeat the powers of darkness, and bring to an end all wickedness on earth. Today may be the day of Lucifer's power, but the future belongs to Jehovah. Thus the plea of Revelation to the true and faithful on earth is essentially: "Hold on! The day of the Lord is at hand. Don't give up, don't give in, don't compromise or concede to diabolical forces; the time of deliverance is near."
Some guides to interpretation
There is no substitute for reading Revelation, straight through, looking for key themes and seeking to understand the grand overarching and undergirding messages of the book. It is worth our while to read Revelation several times to simply recognize the doctrinal refrains and recurring precepts that John chose to weave through this remarkable document. The big picture is crucial. As the Prophet Joseph Smith suggested, it probably doesn't matter a great deal whether we know exactly what this beast, that horn, or some poisonous vial represents; it does matter whether we get the point of the book.
Second, to paraphrase Nephi, the book of Revelation, though a sealed book to man, is clear to those who have the spirit of prophecy. (2 Ne. 25:4.) There is absolutely no way for us to grasp what was intended by John unless we are moved upon by the same Spirit that moved upon the Revelator. That is to say, it takes revelation to understand Revelation. The spirit of prophecy, which is the spirit of revelation, the same spirit that plants within our souls the testimony of Jesus (Rev. 19:10) – even that Spirit will lead us unto that level of understanding the Lord intends for each of us.
Third, the greatest commentary on scripture is scripture. Indeed, the best way to understand Revelation is to rely on other books of scripture, particularly the scriptures of the Restoration. President Marion G. Romney was emphatic in stressing the need to search and study modern revelation: "In each dispensation, . . . the Lord has revealed anew the principles of the gospel. So that while the records of past dispensations, insofar as they are uncorrupted, testify to the truths of the gospel, still each dispensation has had revealed in its day sufficient truth to guide the people of the new dispensation, independent of the records of the past. I do not wish to discredit in any manner the records we have of the truths revealed by the Lord in past dispensations. What I now desire is to impress upon our minds that the gospel, as revealed to the Prophet Joseph Smith, is complete and is the word direct from heaven to this dispensation. It alone is sufficient to teach us the principles of eternal life. It is the truth revealed, the commandments given in this dispensation through modern prophets by which we are to be governed." (Ensign, January 1981, p. 2.)
For example, there are certain sections of the Doctrine and Covenants (29, 45, 77, 84, 88, 133) that provide invaluable insight into John's work. Section 77 is especially helpful; it explains details concerning people and events in Revelation 4, 5, 7, 8, 9, 10 and 11. First Nephi, chapters 13-14, and Ether 4 and 13 in the Book of Mormon are instructive. Joseph Smith's Translation of the Bible is an indispensable aid; some 20 percent of the Book of Revelation was altered by the Prophet under inspiration (including about 95 percent of chapter 12). Finally, a sermon delivered by Joseph Smith on April 8, 1843, in Nauvoo contains several valuable insights regarding Revelation. (See Teachings, pp. 287-94.)
One other guiding principle may be useful. The Prophet Joseph explained: "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, emphasis added.)
The first three chapters of Revelation are directed to the seven churches of Asia and address current problems in John's day, problems of conversion, immorality, idolatry, and apostasy in general. In addition, other than the brief glimpse into the past in the first 11 verses of chapter six, in which John reviews the history of the world from the beginning down to the meridian dispensation (see Bruce R. McConkie, Doctrinal New Testament Commentary 3:476-85), Revelation deals with "things which must be hereafter." (Rev. 4:1.)
To put this in perspective, only 11 verses are used to discuss the events of the first five seals, meaning the period of time from the Creation to 1000 A.D. This is approximately 3 percent of the total number of verses in Revelation. On the other hand, 281 verses or about 70 percent deal with the sixth and seventh seals, the time from 1000 A.D. to the end of the Millennium.
Even if we are uncertain as to the meanings of many of the unusual symbols in the Apocalypse, we can grasp and appreciate the overarching messages of this book of holy scripture. Some of these include:
- Those Saints who overcome the world shall receive from Christ the supernal rewards of the faithful: They will eat of the tree of life. That is, they will gain eternal life. (2:7; Alma 32:41.) They shall come to know all things, even as God does. (2:17; D&C 130:9-11.) They shall gain power over many kingdoms and rule with the word of God, even as Christ, who is the bright and morning star. (JST 2:26-27; 22:16.) They shall be adorned in white, the robes of righteousness. (3:4; 19:8.) They shall have the name of God written upon them; that is, they shall be gods. (3:12; Orson Pratt, Journal of Discourses 14:242-43.) And, they shall sit with Christ on His throne, even as Christ also overcame and is set down on the throne of the Father. (3:21; compare D&C 93:20.)
- Jesus Christ, who is the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the root of David, has power to loose the seals on the record of men's dealings on this earth. (5:1-10.) In other words, the Master knows the end from the beginning – He knows what was, what is, and what is to be. His is the eternal perspective, and we can trust in and rely upon His omniscient and omni-loving wisdom in orchestrating the events of our lives.
- "Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing." (5:12.) Indeed, if any people in all the wide world have reason to rejoice in the Lord, it is the Latter-day Saints. When we contemplate what has been restored to earth – knowledge and power and gifts abounding – we ought to lift our voices to heaven and exult with the Revelator, "Alleluia: for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth." (19:6.)
- The war that began in heaven continues on earth; it will be waged until the Savior returns in glory. Many in our day are afflicted with the same poison that once afflicted Lucifer and his followers – they are "accusers of the brethren." But the faithful overcome dissidence and opposition and persecution "by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony," for they love "not their lives unto the death." (12:1-12.)
- Despite rising tides of wickedness, the Lord saw fit to restore the fulness of His gospel. John "saw another angel fly in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach unto them that dwell on the earth, and to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people." (14:6.) President Gordon B. Hinckley recently testified: "That angel has come. His name is Moroni. His is a voice speaking from the dust, bringing another witness of the living reality of the Lord Jesus Christ. We have not as yet carried the gospel to every nation, kindred, tongue, and people. But we have made great strides. We have gone wherever we are permitted to go. God is at the helm and doors will be opened by His power according to His divine will. Of that I am confident. Of that I am certain." (October 1995 general conference, Ensign, November 1995, pp. 70-71.)
- All people will be judged by their works out of the books that are written on earth and in heaven. (20:11-13; see also D&C 128:6-7.) "He that overcometh shall inherit all things; and I will be his God, and he shall be my son." (21:7.) The faithful will become kings and priests, queens and priestesses unto God forever. (1:5-6; 5:10; 20:6.)
- Wickedness will widen, malevolence will multiply, and the forces of evil will cover the globe. But the great and abominable church will eventually fall, and Satanic influences will be no more. (See chapters 17-19.) There will be an eventual triumph of good over evil on this earth. A day of righteousness will be ushered in at the time of our Savior's return in glory. Satan will be bound and the work of God will go forward without distraction for a thousand years. At the end of that glorious era, the devil will be loosed for a little season, but he and his minions will be defeated by the powers of God, and a final cleansing will take place. The earth shall then become the celestial kingdom. (See chapters 21-22; D&C 88:17-20.)
The Prophet Joseph Smith taught: "The book of Revelation is one of the plainest books God ever caused to be written." (Teachings, p. 290.) Some of us who struggle with understanding this rather esoteric book of scripture might be prone to suggest that such a point of view is appropriate for one who, like Joseph Smith the Seer, has essentially seen and experienced what John the Revelator saw and experienced.
I sense, however, that the Prophet had reference to the key themes, the unmistakable principles that are found in Revelation, more than the seemingly infinite number of symbolic details. These central messages we can all understand. We can, like the Former-day Saints, watch and be ready. We can be vigilant, ever alert to evil in all its diverse forms. We can take heart that the God of heaven is in charge, that He presides over the affairs of men and women, and that divine justice and pardoning mercy shall yet deliver and reward the Saints. In short, we can yield our hearts to God and look to heaven. In harmony with the soul-cry of the beloved Revelator, we can exclaim: "Even so, come, Lord Jesus." (22:20.)