There are fifty days from Easter to Pentecost: 7 weeks: And the Book of Revelation is filled with sevens of sevens. I'm not sure if I can cover the whole book in 7 weeks, but I'd like to try.
Introduction to Revelation
Most people recognize the book of Revelation as a book of prophecy, typically of end-times prophecy describing the world’s ultimate fate. But it’s also a book steeped in symbolism. And it’s a story, with all the background and repetition and view-points that any other story might have.
In general prophecies might have three separate meanings: immediate, general and long-term.
For example, the well-known prophesy in Isaiah 7:14 Look, the virgin is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel, has several meanings, at least one of which is not accepted by all faiths that accept the passage as prophecy:
Immediate meaning: The “virgin” is used to mean Israel, as opposed to the harlot who represents the godless. The name “God is with us” or Immanuel refers to God’s presence with his people. And the time-span from a child’s birth to Ahaz’s victory gives an immediate meaning at the time the prophecy was made—information about the future prospects for victory in a current crisis.
General meaning: The name “virgin” reiterates God’s calling His people to purity. The possibility of a virgin being with child reminds us that God breaks the rules of biology and of human power. The name “Immanuel” reminds us that God is always present. And a general meaning emerges giving information about God and man, a message to all people in all times and places.
Long-term meaning: Christians believe this to be a prophecy of the birth of Christ. But this meaning would not have been recognized until after the event. Women did not long to remain virgins so they could bear the Christ-child. But after the Christ-child was born, the prophecy was recognized as having been fulfilled.
In a similar way, the prophecies of Revelation would have had immediate meaning to Christians suffering under Roman rule. Equally, it has a general meaning which should apply to all Christians throughout all times—perhaps a reminder that God has a plan, and that ultimately we will all rejoice in His plan even if we can’t understand it at present. The long-term meaning of apocalypse and end of the world might be expected to remain unclear until after the event. If we try to use Revelation to predict or explain modern politics, perhaps we risk making the same mistake as was made at the time of Christ, when God’s people were focused on seeking a political Messiah to overthrow the Romans.
The book of Revelation contains a wealth of symbolism, and reading it without reference to these symbols results in strange disagreements—for example, will 144,000 be saved, or a number too great to count, and how can both numbers be the same?
2= trust (two witnesses), Deuteronomy 19:15, John 8:17
3= certainty, or God, Revelation 1:4, Proverbs 30:18, Daniel 6:10, Jonah 1:17, Matt 12:40, 17:4
4= the earth (four corners, four beasts), Isaiah 11:12, Ezekiel 7:2, 37:9, Daniel 7:2
6= wrong (not quite seven), Revelation 13:18 (or sometimes 2x3 as in six-winged angels)
7= right, according to God’s plan, Genesis 2:2, Leviticus 23:3, Leviticus 25:4, Leviticus 25:8-55
10= countable, a short time, or related to man, Exodus 20:1-17, Daniel 1:12, 7:7, Revelation 2:10, 12:3
12= God’s choice, 12 disciples, 12 tribes of Israel
40= a long time, Genesis 7:4, Exodus 24:18, Numbers 23:13, 1Samuel 17:16, 1Kings 2:11, Acts 13:21, Matt 4:1-2
The Jews of John’s time expected the end of the world to come soon. They were very familiar with all the end-times prophecies of the Old Testament, and would have recognized Old Testament references easily. We are not so familiar, so we end up misunderstanding unless we search the Old Testament for symbols and interpret the events they predict or describe.
Many items which are unfamiliar to us – precious stones, seven branched candles, double edged swords, etc – had meanings that were obvious to Jews and early Christians. Again, we need to allow that things which are inexplicable to us—a cubical city for example—might have had an immediate and obvious meaning to contemporary readers.
When we “read” a cartoon strip, time goes from left to right, words with bubbles tell us what someone is thinking, words in clouds tell what they are saying, stars mean explosions or violent blows, etc. For someone unfamiliar with these conventions, a cartoon in the newspaper might be close to meaningless.
Sometimes we need to “read” Revelation similarly. Instead of trying to imagine how ten horns can be divided between the seven heads of a beast, or how horses can have scorpion’s tails, perhaps we should ask if John’s unimaginable images are actually just an attempt to describe the indescribable.
There are many different ways to tell stories. In some cultures and at some times, different story-telling techniques become more popular.
Newspaper stories often start at the beginning and work through to the end.
A newspaper series might tell all the parts of a story related to a particular topic in part one, then all the events related to another topic in part two. The Gospel of Mark, for example, separates miracles, parables and teaching, telling the story of Christ’s life through “chapters” on different topics.
Multiple viewpoint stories:
Some stories repeat the same events from different points of view. The Bible retains multiple different versions of the same story, with slight variations representing the different points of view.
Emphasis through Repetition:
Some stories give emphasis to events by repeating descriptions of them from multiple points of view. In the Bible we read four different accounts of the death of Christ, but we know that he only died once.
If John mentions an earthquake three times in Revelation, there might be three earthquakes, or he may be using repetition for emphasis, describing the same earthquake as seen through different eyes, or even applying the symbolic number three to the earthquake. If John writes, “And then I saw”, he might be describing the next event to take place. Alternatively, he might be using repetition, introducing a different way to view the same events, or bringing in further imagery that further explains the events.