As a teacher of youth in the Church for eighteen years I have personally witnessed their frustrations as they attempt to interpret and understand Revelation. In these frustrations they are no different than the rest of the western world. A recent issue of TIME magazine printed the following description of the Book of Revelation: “… that stunning piece of apocalyptic biblical literature that has fascinated and frustrated interpreters for nearly nineteen centuries.”1 In a contemporary scholarly text on the New Testament this observation about Revelation was given: “Probably no other book of the Christian canon has caused so much confusion or given rise to so much unbridled speculation as this.”2 Additional scholarly commentaries about Revelation have stated: “To a modern reader the Revelation is the strangest book in the New Testament.”3 “The more it was studied, the less it was understood, as generally either finding a man cracked or leaving him so.”4
For most, a little taste of Revelation lasts a long time, and in some cases, a lifetime; for this reason Revelation is the least read book of the New Testament. The apocalyptic vocabulary and jargon, such as, beasts with seven heads, a woman clothed with the sun, four beasts all full of eyes with six wings apiece, a little book to be eaten which was bitter in the belly and yet sweet as honey in the mouth, two olive trees and two candlesticks standing in the streets, four and twenty elders, 144,000 ministers, a great red dragon, a woman given two wings with which she flies into the wilderness for 1260 days, marks in right hands or in foreheads, the number of a man is 666, etc., is to say the least, confusing and bewildering.
In spite of all that has been said about the difficulty in understanding the Book of Revelation thus far, the Prophet Joseph Smith made an astounding declaration in a discourse he gave in 1843:
“The book of Revelation is one of the plainest books God ever caused to be written.”5
Certainly to God, or to John the apostle, or even to Joseph Smith, Revelation was a “plain” book; but most of us in the world do not have the knowledge and power to gain such an insight. However, those of us in the Church have more resources from which to draw when studying the book than the world knows of.
In addition to all of the scholarly knowledge available to us in many historical, textual, and linguistic studies, the Latter-day Saint student has the following resources, which still may not make the book entirely “plain” but which will help them in part to understand it:
1. The inspired revision of the Bible made by Joseph Smith made a tremendous contribution to the meaning of Revelation. The Prophet revised almost 20 percent of the verses of that book. He changed 94 percent of the verses in the very difficult chapter 12.
2. There is a helpful section in the Doctrine and Covenants that sheds light on Revelation. Section 77 is ofttimes referred to as the key to interpreting the book. The key, however, only dealt with matters of the first half of the Book of Revelation, chapters 1–11.
4. On several occasions in the later years of his life, Joseph Smith gave some public discourses that dealt entirely or in part with the interpretations of various aspects of the Revelation. To ascertain his thinking on the book these sermons are indispensable.7
To be fair and thorough in his studies of Revelation every Latter-day Saint student should exhaust all of these sources, those of the scholarly world as well as those that come from Joseph Smith, before making any interpretive conclusions. However, after pursuing all of these avenues of study any Latter-day Saint has the right to make interpretations that seem best to him—at least until further information comes that may alter his views. Indeed, each Latter-day Saint student has the responsibility to study and stretch his mind and spirit upon the scriptures with all the helps available to him. If God has not clearly revealed the specific meanings of the figures in the Revelation, then we are justified in making personal judgments and interpretations—as long as we are emphatically clear that any or all of our interpretations do not constitute authority in the Church. Joseph Smith was quite clear on this matter:
“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.”8
“Again, there is no revelation to prove that things do not exist in heaven as I have set forth, nor yet to show that the beasts meant anything but beasts; and we never can comprehend the things of God and of heaven, but by revelation. We may spiritualize and express opinions to all eternity, but that is no authority.”9
This statement should serve as a guide to us and should temper each of our efforts in intellectual and spiritual pursuits.
A sound interpretation and understanding of a scripture becomes easier to obtain as a correct view of the historical and literary setting and background is ascertained. This is no less true with the book of Revelation. First, to be better prepared to interpret Revelation some knowledge of the nature of biblical apocalyptic literature is necessary. It would hardly do for a student to attempt his study of the “queen” of apocalyptic literature and be unfamiliar with the nature or characteristics of that peculiar literary form. Second, at least a cursory acquaintance with the Roman Empire and some of its emperors would be necessary. Revelation is “persecution literature;” and the particular persecution the Christians were undergoing or were at least anticipating at the time Revelation was being written comes from the Roman Empire. Third, the so-called “Nero-Redivivus” myth should at least be explored and given a possible consideration for the study of Revelation. A brief exploration of each of the above three major areas of background material would seem appropriate at this point.
The word apocalypse literally means “to uncover” and implies the uncovering of that which is hidden. An apocalypse, then, is a writing supposed to contain great hidden messages for God’s true and enlightened people, which they understand; but for those outside the group of true believers the messages cannot be understood—they are hidden. Apocalyptic literature has sometimes been called “crisis literature” because it was invariably written at a time when God’s people were called upon to endure a particular ordeal or crisis. The theological hopes of God’s people depend on receiving the ultimate reward of a heaven, a paradise, a celestial abode, a new Jerusalem, a Zion, or a happy hunting ground because it is earned by the keeping of covenants. It is their belief that rewards are proportional blessings from God for their righteousness. But how do God’s people feel when a terrible calamity threatens to come upon them? How can they explain God’s blessings and promises for them when history seemingly contradicts their theology? God’s people were dismayed when the Babylonians totally conquered them and took them into captivity. Where were their blessings then? Why did God let the wicked heathens do this to them? Where was God’s promise? God’s people couldn’t understand why he allowed the Roman government under Nero’s reign to capture, persecute, and brutally slaughter them—especially because they were God’s people. Where were their promised blessings? While being soaked in oil and set aflame to make light for the Roman games to continue, or while being exposed totally defenseless against wild dogs or ferocious lions, many of the early Christians must have wondered at God’s ways and even questioned his promises.
In order to put the saints at ease concerning their plights and ultimate destinies, prophets ofttimes wrote apocalyptic literature. In addition to being called “crisis literature,” apocalyptics have also been referred to as “detour literature.” One essential theme of this kind of literature deals with the expectation of a cosmic cataclysm that God will bring at the “end of times” or “in the last days” upon all the ruling powers of evil. All of the promises made to the just will still be theirs, but after tribulation. Righteousness will ultimately be victorious over wickedness; the saints will surely inherit their heavenly abodes in the end. But they will have to bypass or detour around the present crises and look with hope to the end of times. The writer of Revelation most vividly presented a drama of the historical struggle between all the forces of evil (anti-Christ) and the kingdom of righteousness (Christ). He presented very colorful descriptions of the complete destruction of evil, showing the Saints to be triumphant in the battle. In order to present this drama, John had to deal with the evil with which the saints were then contending. Therefore, if the writer made it clear who or what the evil was, his literature could very well have been considered treason literature, especially if the evil was a world government or a particular governing tyrant. (In the case of Revelation, it seems certain that John saw the Roman Empire and its emperor as the present evil.) A writer of apocalyptic literature, therefore, needed to use a vocabulary filled with odd and strange symbols and images to disguise and hide the real message from the world. He cleverly employed numerological puzzles, and almost everything he described about the evil was cryptogrammic in nature. However, one who was well-read in the ancient scriptures and apocalyptics and had God’s spirit as a guide, would be able to comfortably understand the figures, symbols, numbers, puzzles, and cryptogrammic messages. All of them were well-known and used in apocalyptic literature.
On the Ides of March, 44 B.C., because sixty members of the Roman senate had plotted to take his life, and after Cassius and Brutus stabbed him on the senate floor that day, Julius Caesar fell and bled to death at the foot of the marble statue of Pompey. This was ironic because it was Pompey whom Caesar fought and defeated. It was Pompey who began an initial monarchial control over the Roman government. Through him the seeds of dictatorship over the empire were sown. Although Pompey did not abandon the Roman republican government, he did in reality become the chief power in the state. Without him the senate had become helpless. And now on this fateful day, Caesar, who totally ended the Roman republican government by his overwhelming dictatorship, lay dead. The effects of his leadership were to be felt from then on in the Roman Empire.
After Caesar’s assassination it was inevitable that some form of monarchial government would continue. The republic itself had died and couldn’t be revived. It was Caesar’s successor, Octavian, who was later given the title Augustus, the name by which he is generally referred to, who was called “Princeps” or “first citizen of Rome.” He was named in an official senate memorial “The Father of His Country;” and it was with his reign that all subsequent history of the Roman imperial government for three hundred years was designated as the Principate (the tenure of office of the Princeps). Augustus was the so-called first emperor of Rome and was the reigning monarch when Jesus Christ was born. The following are the names of all the emperors from Augustus to Domitian, who was the emperor at the time of the writing of Revelation:
27 B.C.–A.D. 14
A.D. 14–A.D. 37
(Christ’s ministry and death)
A.D. 37–A.D. 41
A.D. 41–A.D. 54
A.D. 54–A.D. 68
(“Nero Redivivus” myth)
Galba = 6 months
June 68 to December 69
Three military generals who acted as leaders over Rome for a short period of time.
A.D. 69–A.D. 79
A.D. 79–A.D. 81
(only two years)
A.D. 81–A.D. 96
(Revelation is written)
For purposes of interpreting Revelation we must be mainly interested in the lives of two of these emperors, Nero and Domitian.
Nero had plunged the dignity of the imperial people into weakness and contempt. He was only sixteen years old when he succeeded Claudius, and the reason for his early career was because his mother, Agrippina, who was the fourth wife of Claudius, poisoned her husband to insure the succession for her son while he was still young enough to be molded by her will. Therefore, during the first eight years of Nero’s reign, his mother, together with the philosopher Seneca and Burrus, prefect of the Pretorian Guard, were the controlling powers. However, as Nero grew to maturity he dissociated himself to a great extent from her and also from the advisers Seneca and Burrus. Nero began to cater to his baser instincts by performing deeds by which history would assign him the name of tyrant and use his name as a synonym for evil. In A.D. 55 he caused his brother Britannicus to be poisoned through fear that he might prove a rival. He forced his own mother into exile; but not satisfied with her exile and under the influence of his mistress, Poppaea Sabina, he had his mother murdered in A.D. 59. In order to marry his mistress, he had his wife banished and put to death. As he took over independent reigns of government, the sole object of his policy was the gratification of his capricious whims. He exhausted the imperial treasury, which demanded new confiscations of private property. Extreme heavy taxations were imposed and any man of wealth could expect momentarily to have some trumped-up charge brought against him and have his properties summarily appropriated. So deep a hatred had developed toward Nero that the senatorial class sought relief by plotting his assassination. Unfortunately, the plot was discovered, and sixteen nobles were sentenced to death by Nero, including Seneca and Lucian the poet. The whole moral tone of the empire declined under Nero’s administration.
On July 19, A.D. 64, a terrible fire broke out that lasted for six days and destroyed the greater part of the city of Rome—including some of the very parts of the city on which Nero had earlier planned a grandiose rebuilding program. There were too many influential citizens who felt confident of Nero’s responsibility for the terrible conflagration:
“Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. … Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination when daylight had expired. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle and was exhibiting a show in the circus while he mingled with the people in the dress of a Charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserve extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man’s cruelty, that they were being destroyed.”11
This was the first persecution of Christians conducted by the Roman imperial government and with it, the name of Nero would be indelibly remembered for being the evil man he was. So cruel and so much a tyrant was he that people rejoiced at the news of his suicidal death. Suetonius said that “such was the public rejoicing that the people put on liberty-caps and ran about all over the city.”12 And yet many people, as with Hitler’s death, could not bring themselves to believe this tyrant was really gone. In fact, some people believed he would surely come again with even increased power to inflict domination and cruelty upon mankind. This belief was commonly known in Christian historical sources as the “Nero Redivivus” myth. Suetonius said “there were some who for a long time decorated his tomb with spring and summer flowers, and now produced his statues on the rostra in the fringed toga, and now his edicts, as if he were still alive and would shortly return and deal destruction to his enemies.13 It even appears possible that John, in writing the Revelation may have used this popular myth about Nero. However, it is certain that neither John nor his readers could have seriously entertained a belief that Nero would literally be revived to life again (the Christians knew he would be resurrected with all evilness at the second resurrection), but figuratively they might have believed Nero could live again in the life and deeds of another person.14
Domitian succeeded his brother, Titus, as emperor of Rome in A.D. 81, and from the very beginning of his principate “he displayed autocratic tendencies, which grew continually stronger with the lapse of years.”15 Like Nero, he was avaricious and cruel. Like Nero, he was constantly plotting the death of his possible rivals even though they were members of his own family.16 Like Nero, Domitian’s baser nature emerged after the first few years of administration.17 As with Nero, Domitian looked to the wealthy to force funds from them in order to fill the depleted treasury of Rome. Nero-like, Domitian also became obsessed in the belief that he was divine; but Domitian, unlike Nero, took a further step in this obsession. Domitian was the first Roman emperor who commanded that he be worshiped as a god. This even out-Neroed Nero. And to insure that he received the proper homage as deity, he inaugurated “emperor worship” along with the old Roman priestcraft and cultus, and he revitalized the imperial priestcraft and empowered it to enforce this worship.18 The Christians in John’s day couldn’t help but be adversely affected by this emperor’s whims.
“… the establishment of emperor worship, and the suppression of any group that resisted state policies or that was even suspected of being hostile to the existing order placed the Christians in a disadvantageous position. … The Christians’ habits of private worship and their consistent devotion to an invisible deity laid them open to charges of conspiracy and atheism. There is no specific record in the Roman historians of a wholesale concerted persecution of Christians in this period, but there can be little doubt that the social and religious atmosphere of the empire was becoming increasingly unfavorable and that in some localities Christians were brought to trial and martyred for their faith.”19
John was banished to the Isle of Patmos by Domitian’s authority, and, therefore, he must have felt that Domitian’s mark, like Nero’s, was soon to fall upon all the Christians.
It is easy to discuss history, sources, and backgrounds of Revelation. It is another matter to give interpretations, and, therefore, much that will be given here has to be considered speculative in nature. But for the reader, the following interpretive outline of Revelation by chapters may serve as a challenge to him to study, ponder, and stretch his own mind and heart to understand. Each reader through study and faith should find his own interpretations.
Of course, there will be some basic interpretations upon which all should agree because they are made on the basis of modern revelation in scriptures or from Joseph Smith the Prophet. A safe overall interpretive statement of Revelation would be that it is the apocalyptic drama depicting in its historical struggle (past, present, and future) the forces of righteousness (Christ) with the forces of unrighteousness (anti-Christ). Latter-day Saints, then, do not fall solely into the various schools of interpretation, such as allegorical, preterists, and futurists. They remain broader and fall more comfortably into a “world history” school, accepting some elements of all the other schools.
Chapters 1–3. The problems the saints were experiencing all over the world are dealt with in the letters to the seven churches of Asia. The seven are representative of all Christians in all the world at that time, and their problems are representative also.
Chapters 4–5. What constitutes the forces of good? What is the supreme power? It is God and his Christ. Chapter 4—vision of God’s majesty, Chapter 5—vision of Christ’s majesty.
a. 24 elders—faithful ministers in Paradise. The chorus of 24 in Greek drama.
b. Sea of glass—this earth in its sanctified state.
c. 4 beasts (eyes and wings)—See Doctrine and Covenants 77:22.
d. Sealed Book—history of our earth divided into seven time periods.
e. Lion and Lamb who opens book (the Lord is God of this earth).
Chapter 6:1–8. John is allowed to peek into each of the “seals” of the book (each seal represents 1000 years of earth’s temporal history). The first four seals represent earlier dispensations, and John’s peek into those time periods only lets him see some major event (in each time period) that is integral in the whole drama of the struggle between good and evil. The traditional 4 horses of the Apocalypse have more significance than simply representing death, pestilence, or famine, etc. First seal—Adamic; Second seal—Noah’s dispensation and the flood; Third seal—Mosaic and the Law of Moses; Fourth seal—the period of all the pagan nations.
Chapter 6:9–11. The fifth seal represents events in John’s own time and the current crises his people are enduring or will shortly have to endure.
Chapter 6:12–17. The sixth seal represents events in the last dispensation—the great day of the Lord.
Chapters 7–9. Continues showing events in the last days—how evil will be recognized; how angels will begin the final cleansing of the earth.
Chapter 7. Recounts additional important events still to occur in the sixth seal.
a. Four angels—angels of God with power over all the earth, over all life and death, over the gospel, over salvation and damnation, all having to do with restoration work in last days.
b. An angel from the east—Elias to gather Israel and restore all things—all having to do with restoration in last days.
c. 144,000 men are high priests from every nation who administer the everlasting gospel. They also are special ministers of Israel to administer in the “daily sacrifices”—all having to do with the restoration in the last days.
d. Dan not included? Apocalyptic belief that evil powers will come out of north.
e. Great multitudes in heaven, not just 144,000.
Chapters 8 and 9. The seventh seal is opened. It is to be the Millennium; however, there will still be the final and total cleansing and destruction of evil before that period of peace and righteousness begins. (D&C 77:12; D&C 88:94–107.)
a. The seven destroying angels announce with their trumpets the final last touches of cleansing that will occur on the earth.
b. “Third-part” is telestial. Represents the cleansing.
Chapter 10. Vision of a book that John eats up. In his mouth it is sweet, and yet in his belly it is bitter. The book represents future missionary work for John. (Remember, he was translated in order to continue his labors.) It is sweet to preach the good news, but it hurts to see the saints suffer so because of the gospel.
Chapter 11. John is told to measure up God’s righteousness. The saints and the Church make up God’s spiritual temple (“ye are the temple of God”). He sees the gentiles (wicked) conquer the righteous for a certain time period designated as 42 months (using the Hebrew month of 30 days that equals 1260 days). This period represents the period of the apostasy.
a. The two witnesses sent to testify (witness) to the Jews before the end are their most favorite and important prophets, Moses and Elijah (or at least prototypes of a Moses and Elijah).
Chapter 12. Where does evil really begin? It really begins in the preexistence.
a. War in heaven. Preexistence.
b. Woman (dressed with cosmic clothes) is the Church and kingdom of God.
c. Dragon is the devil and all his angels (1/3 by his tail).
d. Dragon caused an apostasy. The priesthood (man-child) and the woman is taken away for the time of the apostasy, 1260 days. (Joseph Smith changed days to years. See JST.)
e. Time = 360; times = 720; half-a-time = 180; total—1260 years!
Chapter 13. John now attempts to describe what to him is the personification of evil in his present day. What is the present anti-Christ that most assuredly will bring about the apostasy in the latter-day (after John’s immediate day)? What power is it that is presently destroying the saints and the kingdom that will continue to do so until it is all gone?
a. First beast out of sea (Mediterranean Sea) is Rome and the Roman Empire with all of its parts.
b. Leopard = Babylon; bear = Media; lion = Persia.
c. Seven heads = seven emperors; ten crowns = the three military generals who ruled Rome for a few months, but who were not Emperors long enough to be considered leaders.
e. 42 months of apostasy (overcome the saints) = 1260 years!
f. 666—Nero or Domitian, not the Pope!
g. Second beast from the earth (Asia Minor) is the Imperial Cultus or priesthood (real power from devil) that enforced worship of first beast.
Chapters 14–16. Describe a period of righteousness and of harvest of the saints in the last days prior to the wind-up scenes.
a. Another angel—one of many in the restoration.
b. Three musketeers of the anti-Christ—frogs, scorpions, locusts, etc.—devil, Rome, Roman priesthood.
c. Armageddon—final cleansing battle.
Chapters 17–18. More elaboration on what is the present evil. More commentary (and clues) with which to interpret chapter 13.
a. Woman (dressed with uncosmic, but very worldly clothes) in contrast to the woman in Chapter 12. She is Roma, the goddess of Rome. She sits on Rome (whole Roman Empire).
b. Scarlet-colored beast—Rome (whole Roman Empire).
c. Seven heads = seven hills (Rome) and seven emperors.
d. One head “was” (Nero), “is not” (Nero was certainly dead), “yet is” (“Nero Redivivus”).
e. “Even he is the eighth”—Domitian was the eighth! He was considered to be Nero all over again—a type of resurrected Nero.
f. Corruption and fall of spiritual wickedness—Babylon.
Chapter 19. Final destruction of evil. Then rewards and punishments follow.
a. The bridegroom cometh for the bride.
b. The supper is made ready.
Chapter 20. Final events in the drama.
a. The binding of Satan for the millennial reign.
b. Millennial reign of 1000 years.
c. After Millennium, Satan loosed for last struggle.
d. Battle of Gog and Magog is after Millennium.
e. Final resurrection takes place.
f. Final judgments.
Chapters 21 and 22. The beautiful paradise, heaven, garden, city, New Jerusalem, all reserved for the saints (the righteous), are described.
Regardless of how one interprets various details in Revelation, there are several great basic teachings that are contained therein that make the book worthy of canon and of our study. Perhaps no other book in the New Testament, or even in the entire Bible, so vividly expounds on the awfulness of sin and rebellion against God and his Christ as does Revelation. Of course we should emphasize the love and mercy of God for the sinner when we teach the gospel, but not so much as to exclude his justice. Sometime each person must become aware of the seriousness of sin.
The book beautifully presents the truth that because of the moral universe and the existence of a predictable God each man knows that he will reap what he sows. Rewards and blessings or their opposites are predicated upon obedience or disobedience.
The Revelation also urges the follower of Christ to overcome and endure to the end no matter the degree of hard times or adversity he is called to bear. There may be crises, and there may be persecution and afflictions; but if he has faith, he will have the strength and courage to hold on and endure. Indeed, as one looks down through past dispensations, he cannot but be overwhelmed by the fact that the saints of God have been purified and refined by life’s tribulations.
Finally, as in no other book of scripture, Revelation depicts in awesome grandeur that righteousness will ultimately become victorious over all the filth and sordidness existing in the earth. All tares will be burned into stubble; evil will be destroyed; and all the righteous will be dressed in white robes, and their rest will be glorious.
If only these great truths are discovered in your study of the book of Revelation, then that study will be exceedingly profitable.