The book of Revelation was written in the first century a.d., but it was the last book of the New Testament to be accepted as canon (authoritative scripture). Some Christian scholars in later centuries questioned its authorship, objected to some of its doctrines (for instance, its teachings about the Millennium or its teaching that people would be judged according to their works), and found its Old Testament allusions and visionary narrative to be too strange and too different from other New Testament writings.
But certain irrefutable facts led to the book’s general acceptance. For instance, many of the earliest Christian writers mentioned the book of Revelation, attributing it to John the Apostle, and quoted from it extensively and approvingly in their writings. Several other books whose canonicity was not disputed could not claim such evidence.
By the early 19th century, when God called Joseph Smith as the prophet of the Restoration, the book of Revelation was included in almost all versions of the Bible and was widely read. The imagery of John’s vision stoked people’s imaginations and gave rise to many different interpretations, as it continues to do today.
As the prophet of the dispensation of the fulness of times, Joseph Smith was in a unique position to shed light on the book of Revelation and help make it less daunting to read and understand. He did this in at least two ways: (1) he explained specific parts of the book of Revelation and expanded its overall context, and (2) he demystified it.
The best example of Joseph Smith’s providing an explanation of the book of Revelation is in Doctrine and Covenants 77. Received in March 1832, this revelation consists of a question-and-answer about specific verses in Revelation, chapters 4–11. The Prophet said that this explanation was revealed to him while he was engaged in his inspired translation of the Bible (see D&C 77, section introduction).
The questions are pretty straightforward, essentially asking, “What does this mean?” and “When will this happen?” The answers are likewise straightforward, though not always exhaustive. The answers sought and received by the Prophet Joseph Smith place various speculative interpretations out of bounds and generally help us see how John’s vision relates to the latter-day work.
For example, this revelation helps us see that the seven seals in the book described by John beginning in chapter 5 of Revelation represent seven major time periods in earth’s history and that the final two are the ones that deal with our day and beyond (see D&C 77:6–7), helping us see why John’s vision spends so much more time with the sixth and seventh seals. Joseph Smith’s revelation then goes on to explain how some of the figures in the sixth seal (the four angels and the 144,000 servants sealed from the tribes of Israel) relate to the work of the Restoration and gathering in the last days (see D&C 77:9–11).
This explanatory revelation was, of course, not the only contribution the Prophet Joseph Smith made to our understanding of the book of Revelation from his translation of the Bible. As he worked, he sometimes was inspired to simply render the text more clearly,1 but often he also was inspired to add or revise text in order to draw links to other scriptures so that they reinforce one another.2 Part of Joseph Smith’s work with the Bible, then, appears to have been to weave these common threads between the various books of scripture in order to present a unified tapestry of teachings and prophecies, and the book of Revelation is no exception.
In addition, through other revelations and translations, Joseph Smith expanded upon the context of the book of Revelation by showing that it follows a pattern of panoramic visions given to various prophets throughout the ages. In the Book of Mormon and the Pearl of Great Price, we learn that Nephi, the brother of Jared, Moses, and Enoch all had similar visions showing the sweep of human history, including the end of the world. We also learn that although these other prophets were shown the end of the world, they were forbidden from sharing it with the world because John was foreordained to write it (see 1 Nephi 14:25–26). So, the Book of Mormon, brought forth through the Prophet Joseph Smith, teaches us that we were meant to have John’s description of the events leading up to the Second Coming of Jesus Christ and that it is worthy of our study.
Because of such additional light revealed through Joseph Smith, we are better able to see the overarching theme of Revelation: that “there will be an eventual triumph on this earth of God over the devil; a permanent victory of good over evil, of the Saints over their persecutors, of the kingdom of God over the kingdoms of men and of Satan. … The victory [will] be achieved through Jesus Christ.”3 In addition, Joseph Smith emphasized that Revelation’s message centers on Jesus Christ as the focus of our hope and teaches us that by being faithful to Him and His work in the latter days, we can overcome the world.
In a conference of the Church on April 8, 1843, the Prophet Joseph Smith said, “The book of Revelation is one of the plainest books God ever caused to be written.”4 This statement may have shocked his listeners because it so thoroughly contradicted their own experience. So what did the Prophet mean by it?
While Joseph Smith certainly did unlock some of the mysteries of the book of Revelation, in this address he also seems to have aimed to demystify it. He did this by showing that the book’s cryptic imagery isn’t always as cryptic as we may think and that a scripture’s having impenetrable imagery doesn’t necessarily bestow it with any greater importance or meaning for us.
For instance, elsewhere in the address, Joseph Smith showed that a careful reading of the book of Revelation can place limits on permissible interpretations. He pointed out that the first three chapters of the book deal with John’s day and “things which must shortly come to pass” (Revelation 1:1) and that the rest of the book deals with “things which must be hereafter” (Revelation 4:1), or beyond John’s day.5 By placing some limits on what the imagery in these parts of the book could apply to, these time frames render them somewhat less mysterious.
In addition, Joseph Smith taught that sometimes a beast is just a beast. He explained that when John said he saw beasts in heaven (see Revelation 4:6), what he actually saw were … beasts in heaven. The Prophet thus demonstrated that at least some of John’s descriptions of his visions are literal while others are figurative.6 He also explained a principle related to such figures:
“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.”7
Knowing the interpretation of every detail of mysterious visions is not paramount in our study of the scriptures. The mysteries of the prophets’ figurative language are not the same as the mysteries of God, which are given to the person who “repenteth and exerciseth faith, and bringeth forth good works, and prayeth continually without ceasing” (Alma 26:22).
By demystifying the book of Revelation, the Prophet removed potential distractions from the weightier matters of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Of course, John’s vision gives us important information about the latter days: the Apostasy and Restoration, the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, His triumph over the devil, His millennial reign, and the Resurrection and Final Judgment. These things can help us as we strive to find the truth and follow the Lord’s will. But if we get hung up on a particular interpretation of a figure described in that vision, we may neglect things that matter most.8
As we study the book of Revelation and take advantage of the wonderful light shed on it through the Prophet Joseph Smith, we can see where we stand in the grand scope of the world’s history and of God’s dealings with His children. Knowing this, we can see the importance of our personal testimony of Jesus Christ and of participating fully in His work in the latter days. Then we can overcome the world and, with Christ, inherit all things from the Father (see Revelation 3:21; 21:7).