Understanding Revelations in the Bible

What does historical Bible study have to say about gospel meaning and understanding revelations in the Bible?

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published in March 2013. It has been updated.—Ed.

Understanding Revelations in the Bible

Discovering gospel meaning or understanding revelations in the Bible has baffled readers for centuries. In this 13th-century mosaic in the cupola of the Baptistry in Florence, a voracious Devil devours sinners. Historical Bible study indicates that when Revelation’s author refers to the place inhabited by Satan, he was thinking of Pergamon’s well-known monument: the Great Altar to Zeus. Photo: Erich Lessing/Art Resource, N.Y.

Whether we’re looking for gospel meaning or struggling with understanding revelations in the Bible, historical Bible study can help us find our way.

Ben Witherington III, author of the following article, “Asking the Right Question,” once hitched a ride from a couple who believed the Earth was flat. Why? Because the Book of Revelation says that angels stand on the Earth’s four corners. Can we use that logic when we’re understanding revelations in the Bible? Historical Bible study doesn’t treat Revelation as a cosmology textbook.

The New Testament includes books that are biographies, histories, letters, sermons, and one book of apocalyptic prophecy. Each genre must be studied with some awareness of historical context and historical Bible study. Ancient biographies are different from modern. The gospel meaning reveals the character and purpose of the subject through episodes, not personal details. For example, the gospel meaning of Mark is evident in Mark’s emphasis on Jesus’ death and resurrection. He never mentions Jesus’ birth or childhood. He saved his precious papyrus for what was important to him: his gospel meaning. In the following article, Witherington notes that “a text without a context is just a pretext for whatever you want it to mean.”

If you’re looking for gospel meaning, consider looking into more aspects of historical Bible study—starting with this article by Ben Witherington III.

Israel Museum curators have called “Gabriel’s Revelation” the most important document found in the area since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Read the original English publication of “Gabriel’s Revelation” along with Israel Knohl’s BAR article that made scholars around the world reconsider links between ancient Jewish and Christian messianism in the FREE eBook Gabriel’s Revelation.


Asking the Right Question

To get the most out of the New Testament, you need to know what kind of books you’re reading.

by Ben Witherington III

God Language in the New Testament

Ben Witherington III

In the late 1960s, my car broke down in the mountains of North Carolina, and I had to hitchhike home to the middle of the state. I was picked up by an elderly couple driving an ancient Plymouth. After a little conversation, I discovered they were “Flat-Earthers,” by which I mean they did not believe the world was round.


I pressed them on this and asked, “Why not?”

The elderly man’s response was, “It says in the Book of Revelations [sic] that the angels will stand on the four corners of the earth. The earth couldn’t have four corners if it was round.”

The problem was that the gentleman had made a genre mistake. He though the Book of Revelation was intending to teach cosmology, but it’s not. It’s a piece of apocalyptic literature that teaches theology, history and ethics, and involves prophecy. In this particular passage (Revelation 7:1), the author, John of Patmos, is simply indicating that angels would come from all points of the compass.

The conversation brought home an important message: In order to interpret any book of the New Testament properly, you need first to determine what sort of information it intends to give you. Just as you don’t go to the phone book to look up a word, or to the dictionary to figure out what’s wrong with your car, you don’t turn to Revelation to find the layout of the cosmos.

So, then, what sort of documents do we have in the New Testament? In my opinion, we have (1) three ancient biographies—Matthew, Mark and John; (2) a two-volume Hellenistic historical monograph—Luke-Acts; (3) various letters (like 2, 3 John), some of which (including Paul’s) are in truth rhetorical speeches with the framework of letters; (4) several ancient homilies or sermons—Hebrews, 1 John and James; and (5) one work of apocalyptic prophecy of a hybrid sort—Revelation. Each of these different kinds of documents needs to be approached in a different manner.

Even when we have identified the genre, we must still beware of the dangers of anachronism. An ancient biography, letter or sermon is not the same as a modern one. One example will suffice.

Read “Who Is Satan?” and “How the Serpent Became Satan” in Bible History Daily.

When we think of modern biographies, we think of hefty tomes that mention everything a person did (and often what they didn’t do, too) from birth to death. When I say that Mark is a biography, we might immediately assume that it is a womb to tomb description of Jesus’ life. Of course, that’s not the case. The Gospel of Mark opens with Jesus as an adult, and at least 30 percent of the text that follows is devoted to the last week of Jesus’ life.

Ancient biographies, unlike their modern counterparts, were highly selective in character and were anecdotal. In part, they were selective because the author was limited by the length of papyrus he had to write on. Further, ancient authors didn’t have access to our modern data-gathering tools. He couldn’t look up every reference to, say, Jesus in Capernaum, in a computerized database. Ancient biographies reveal the character of the person in question not by recording exhaustive detail but by focusing on revealing episodes in his life or particular historic moments. When you want to know the character, significance and identity of an important ancient person, you turn to an ancient biography. In Mark, the death and resurrection of Jesus are the crucial salvific moments that Mark devotes extensive space to, not least because they best reveal Jesus’ character. (This is different from historical monographs like Luke-Acts, which focus solely on those words and deeds of a person that were deemed to be of historic moment.)

How then can modern people avoid making a genre mistake when reading a book of the New Testament? How can they avoid bringing the wrong sort of expectations to the text? By studying the Bible in its original historical, literary, rhetorical and social contexts. As I often say, a text without a context is just a pretext for whatever you want it to mean. Any serious student of the Bible must be prepared to do his or her homework on the genre question and read good commentaries on the various books of the Bible. Only then will they be truly able, in Paul’s words, to “rightly divide the Word.”


Asking the Right Question” by Ben Witherington III first appeared in Bible Review, April 2003.

Ben Witherington III is professor of biblical studies at Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky and doctoral supervisor for St. Andrews University in Scotland. For more on the genres of Mark and Acts, see his books The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Eerdmans, 2000) and The Acts of the Apostles (Eerdmans, 1998).

Modern-day archaeological excavations and their artifacts continue to illuminate and challenge our understanding of the ancient Biblical world. In the BAS DVD Digging into the Gospels, learn from leading experts about the cities of the Gospels, archaeology’s impact on faith and what we can learn from canonical and noncanonical text.


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  1. DONALD says

    As Christians there was a knowledge we learned that saved us and after we are saved there is still a knowledge to be learned. I can not remember ever not believing in Jesus Christ but something happened one day that all I can say is that Jesus became as real to me as I am to myself and from that day on I had a hunger and thirst for the Word of God that only diligent study could satisfy and with the guidance of the Holy Spirit I was introduced to the works of spirit filled Christian authors long gone.
    John 14:26 is a very relevant verse to those of us in love with and in search of the truth. It is study that grounds us in the Word where we are not tossed to and fro by every wind and doctrine claiming truth and it is through study that we elevate ourselves by understanding that Christianity as become a religion of the nominal type Christian but its the Holy Spirit that dwells only in the selfless Christian who has gained that personal relationship with the Lord who is rewarded with God’s revelation of truth. John 14:26 is proof that one doesn’t have to have a doctorate to acquire an understanding of the Bible.
    In my study I’ve learned things no preacher or theologian has ever told me as the fact that long before man conceived the idea of a book dedicated to the definition of words known as a dictionary, God had recorded in the Bible the definitions of 2 words directed to Him, religion (Romans 10:3-4) and faith (Hebrews 11:1).
    It is the Book of Revelations that is pertinent to our current day and age and it has caused more controversy and apostasy than any other Book of the Bible. There are educated fools known as Preterist that believe that Revelations concerns itself mainly with the events of the 1st century but Christianity “101” blows them out of the water: salvation came first to the Jew and then the Gentile, the Gentile accepted the Salvation of Christ the Jew did not. Does God leave anything undone? No and since there is no Book in the Bible before Revelations committed to this, then it must occur in the Book of Revelations.
    Then there are those who believe in the Rapture of the Church but it is where they place this event that is a point of contention among Christians. There are those who believe that the Church will be Raptured in the mist of the Great Tribulation or after it, these are the Christians who do not realize that they are calling God a liar. It is God who claims that He is all merciful, therefore, if He allows His faithful to be earth bound when He brings down His wrath upon the wicked, then His faithful will suffer in these calamities as well. This being the case then who are the recipients of His mercy?
    The Bible gives us types or patterns of the Rapture in Noah and the Flood, Lot at Sodom and Rachab at Jericho and in each instance first God warns, then He takes out His faithful and then comes His wrath and the Bible expressly tells us that there is always a remnant that survives. Noah and 7 others survived the Flood, Lot and his 2 daughters survived Sodom and Rachab and her small family got out of Jericho alive and well and this former prostitute is included in the genealogy of Christ in Matthew 1:5.
    Clarity to the path that shows where the Rapture is represented in Revelations can only be seen when you understand that the 7 letters to the 7 churches represent the Church Age. We are currently living in the Philadelphia/Laodicea period of the church and as such it is a work in progress. The first church established outside of Jerusalem was the Church of Ephesus is it coincidence that Ephesus is also the first of the 7 letters?
    The Rapture is represented in ch. 3:10-13 and the first outstanding evidence to support this is the fact that the word “church” itself is absent in Revelations after chapter 3 and does not appear again until ch. 22:16. In verses 10, 11 and 12 are key words that substantiate what I know is correct, “…I will keep thee from the hour of temptation which shall come upon all the world to try them that dwell upon the earth.” That word “come” is derived from a Greek word that denotes movement from one place to another. Luke 10:18 is a prophecy that says, “I beheld Satan as lightening fall from heaven,” this is where that prophecy is fulfilled for at present Satan stands as our accuser before the Throne of God in heaven and in order for him to fulfill God’s plan he must be kicked out of heaven and sent to earth to practice his dirt. In vs. 11 that word “crown” is not the crown of a ruler but it comes from the Greek word that means the crown of the winner of a race as in their Olympic games and it is the apostle Paul who in several verses equates our Christian journey to a race to the finish and that finish is heaven. In vs. 12 “…pillars in the temple..” In order for pillars to be effective and serve their purpose they must stand on a foundation, a pillar can also be used as a term to denote an outstanding person and the cross reference to this verse is 1 Kings 7:21, “…and he set the right pillar and called the name thereof Jachin and he set the left pillar and called the name thereof Boaz.” These are 2 pillars belonging to Solomon’s temple and evidently represented the highest artistic achievement of their author. Boaz was the husband of Rachab in Christ genealogy. Put this all together, the pillars symbolize the members of the Raptured church, who are outstanding, faithful Christians molded to excellence by their “artist” Jesus Christ who is the foundation that these pillars stand upon, plus “temple” is also a word used as a reference to Jesus.
    A billion people claiming to be Christians vanishing from this earth all at once would be enough to make even “Mohammad Alla Akbah” see the error of his counterfeit faith and this would cause calamities and chaos for there will be Christians in motion operating machines, driving cars and flying jets and aircraft and God is not the author of chaos the devil claims this title. In Rev. 3::20, “Behold I stand at the door and knock…” it is evident that this must be Jesus knocking on this church door and who knocks on a door from the inside? He is outside and since this is a church door and only Christians worship in churches it is logical to assume that there are Christians on the other side of this door that He is calling out and even though His Church has departed God is still showing His mercy to these “left behind” Christians! When you go to ch. 4:1 this is a scene in heaven, further proof that the Rapture of the Church has occurred.
    The outline to Revelations is in ch. 1:19, “Write the things which thou has seen..” these are the events in ch. 1 that proceed this verse. “…and the things which are..” these are the events of ch. 2-3, “.. and the things which shall be hereafter.” Hereafter what? Hereafter the Church s Raptured!! Ch. 4-19.
    2 Thessalonians 2:3 tells us that, “..that day shall not come except there be a falling away first and the man of sin is revealed, the son of perdition,” isn’t that the devil and doesn’t it say “a falling away first” this is in reference to the Churches departure before Satan even gets here.
    Those that say chapter 12 is the church because it is a woman and the 12 stars in the crown are the 12 apostles are dead wrong. This woman gives birth to a child and this child is Jesus. Does the Church give birth to it’s founder? No and the 12 stars represent the 12 tribes not the apostles.
    In God’s numeric value 3 pictures completeness and 7 perfection completed, the Church is ready to depart in chapter 3 in the 7th and last Church Age.
    A few years ago I sent my study to Arno Frose editor of Midnight Call magazine and although he said that he thought i was wrong I knew he was lying. Then about 2 or 3 years later i stumble across MC’s website and on it’s website is a section dedicated solely to the Rapture with an article claiming to be non authored that is almost word for word what I sent to him.
    I do not care about this all I’m interested in is the truth and I sent my study to pastors who know the Word well and ask for their opinion of what I found in my study but not one as ever replied. BAR is an organization of scholars of the Bible and I would greatly appreciate a scholars confirmation that my study indicates where the Rapture is represented and is founded upon God’s truth. Can someone there please give me feedback?

    Sincerely, Donald LeFlore

  2. Don says

    Mr. LeFlore, Everthing in Revelation is yet future, and has mostly to do with God’s dealings with the naton of Israel. The Church will have already been raptured when the events in Revelaton begin to happen. The whole of chapter 1 is John’s introduction to the things he had already seen; that is why God told him to write the things which he had seen “and explain what they mean” (v19). Chapters 2 and 3 have nothing to do with the Church that will be raptured prior to the events in Revelation but they are 7 Jewish synagogues (assemblies) that will have come into existence some time following the Rapture. You might keep in mind that the Rapture is not the event that signals the beginning of the Tribulation, it is the signing of the covenant of peace with the Antichrist that begins the 7 years of Tribulation. So from the Rapture to the signing of the covenant approximately 40 years will have elapsed; and during that time the synagogues will have come into being. All the terms in chapters 2 and3 are Jewish and there is no way they can be applied to the Church. A study of the history of Israel will reveal that that history will be replayed in the future. So Revelation is more of God’s directive to the jewish people during the Tribulation and how they are to endure it.

    When John states that he was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day, He means the Day of Jehovah, the day of judgment. He was caught up and in chapters 4 and 5 he tells us what was taking place in Heaven, on the throne and around the throne. He tells of the Lamb (Christ) that was found worthy to open the seven-sealed scroll. When the seals are opened, John gives somewhat of a brief discription of the whole of the Tribulation as each seal is broken. Then toward the end of chapter 6 he mentions the coming of Christ back to earth. the question is asked “Who shall be able to stand” during the Tribulation?

    Chapters 7 reveals those who will be able to stand: the 144,000 who are sealed from 12 tribes of Israel (the Jewish remnant); and those who have come out of the great Tribulation (Gentiles). Chapter 8 is the actual beginning of the Tribulation.

    Well, so much for that. Please don’t hesitate to let me know if you have further questions.
    I appreciate your interest in future events.
    Dr. Don Bailey

  3. Jami says

    Tribulation is very clearly stated in the Bible. Begin with Matthew 24:21…
    For then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of he world to this time, no, nor ever shall be.
    And except those days should be shortened, there should no flesh be saved; but for the elect’s sake those days shall be shortened.
    Then proceed to verse 29…
    Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and powers of the heavens shall be shaken;
    And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven: and then shall ALL THE TRIBES OF THE EARTH mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.
    Now according to my dream (see-What did Jesus look like?), I saw the world in the desert after the great tribulation, at the Second Coming of Christ. We (the tribes of the world) will suffer and endure the Tribulation, none shall escape it. After we are judged, then Christ will separate the goats from the sheep. I saw this, at Christ’s second coming, indicating that all of us will be present during Tribulation (Matthew 25:31-35)

  4. Mike says

    Thank you for sharing that.

  5. Karen says

    Please contact Sis Purvis at 267-345-3108. I captured on my cellphone Satan bowing down at the altar while two angels were standing at the altar. When no one was at the altar but Prophetess Dukes she was speaking from the book of Isaiah chapter 14:12-15.She was saying Satan said, he would take over the congregation, but thus said The Lord, not this one. That’s when i saw lights shoot through the room and i took a picture with my camera. “Oh My God”, what i saw! I have the picture of Satan bowing down while two angels was standing at the altar. I have the picture and many other miraculous moving pictures. Especially one I took of her when I took this picture it seem like the atmosphere changed a cloud over shadowed me the wind start blowing hard. People was holding onto things as though they were going to fall. The sun looked like it was closer than normal and there appeared right above the sun a big star that looked like the one that appeared over the birth of Christ. I was trembling. When i looked in my camera to view the picture that i took, i did not see her. I saw an angel with wings coming up from the back glowing and shining. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I had the picture blown up for everyone to see. It is unbelievable. This picture is always glowing and changing it moves especially when she is singing and preaching. Satan is fighting up against this ministry and this woman. When she was teaching on Christ reconciling the world to God the room was filled with smoke. You could see lighting in the air. I quickly took a picture. You talking about a miracle there was horses, thrones, figure of people, smoke, a man look like he was sitting on a throne, flying scrolls and a big hand coming through the clouds, which was actually the ceiling and she was standing in the middle with smoke or cloud rapped around her. She was transfigured. I have the pictures and videos of the moving picture. This is just a small part of the things i saw Revelation 4:4-11 have come alive. We have captured things flying in the church, especially doves and eagle. We have captured somethings which we believe to be the living creatures that is talked about in Revelation 4. We believed we had captured a cherubim and seraphim which the world had never seen, but they are always creating an imaginary one. But we captured several different guardians of Gods’ throne according to Revelation 4. I asked this woman, How come all this is happening? It is hard to believe this is real. She said The Spirit Of The Lord is upon me. He put his Glory on me, not in the building. And that is why we are capturing so many things and the world don’t believe it, but God gave me the evidences. Things that were never done or seen before, he is doing now by using a woman Jeremiah 31:22.
    She was talking to me while going in her bedroom, she said that she want to take a picture of herself. Before and after picture because she going on a diet. She never took pictures in her bedroom before because she is always praying in there. She screamed and said, come here! Look at all the eyes that was in the room going around the room and in her face. When we look in the camera we saw on her bed something we never seen before filled with feathers. Some historical creature and we always saw feathers falling in church like snow balls and than opened up to feathers. We saw what look like a lion, yet it looked like a man or something with a mask on and there was a crown in the center of his head. We also saw this big black creature that look somewhat like a stuff ox or some sort of huge toy. It was sitting on the side of dresser. We thought that it couldn’t be real until we saw the eyes blinking. I could go on and on there is so much to see. Transfiguration of the hands and so much more. Many of these things she believe took place when there were two earth quakes. Her house shifted and she thought it was because of other causes. Than she begin to see things flying through the house and church. She remembered reading when The Spirit Of The Lord come
    forth, his mighty powers thunders like a earth quake and breaks rocks. After reading and thinking about it, this must be when The Glory Of The Lord entered the church and it was already in the house. She said she is asking God for help, because the angels of The Lord is holding up the house. Because she needs to move and use this house as a historic land mark. This is where it all happened. And we have pictures of it all. This woman lives to serve The Lord. I never mention the many people who were healed of cancer and different diseases. Many people dislike her because they are pretending to be who she is a true Prophetess backed

    -up by the power of God. Many people are saying that they are true Prophetess but they do not have the power of God backing them up. All these pictures were created by the hand of God. Not by the hands of any man.

  6. Bob says

    Post the picture of Satan on this site please.

  7. Gideon says

    To Understand the Bible book Revelation visit the website http://www.jw.org and look for a Book called REVELATION – ITS GRAND CLIMAX. This Book will help you to understand verse by verse.

Continuing the Discussion

  1. “Lost” Manuscripts of J.B. Lightfoot Found! | newsantiques.com linked to this post on March 13, 2014

    […] as Messiah?” is accessible online for free. Want to learn some-more about his research? Read “Understanding Revelations in a Bible,” “God Language in a New Testament” and “The Göbekli Tepe Ruins and a Origins of Neolithic […]

  2. Mid-Week Religion/Agnosticism Report | Evangelically Atheist linked to this post on September 17, 2014

    […] What does historical Bible study have to say about gospel meaning and understanding revelations in the Bible? [Read more] […]

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