Decoding Revelation: Know the Encoder
by Ervin Thomsen
About 60 years ago a popular bestseller by the title How to Win Friends and Influence People appeared. While not endorsing all the principles in this book (some may border on manipulation of people), it nevertheless contained much valuable material on how to establish mutually positive and satisfying relationships with others. The author spoke about the tremendous power of affirming words. But are those the kind of words you find in the three angels’ messages? Would you be able to attract people to our wonderful God by using words such as…
loud voice…fear…judgment…wine of wrath…fallen…fornication…
indignation…wrath of God…fire…brimstone…smoke…torment…no rest day or night…
When was the last time you used this Scripture passage for family worship? Now, if the book of Revelation is a trustworthy “revelation of Jesus Christ” (Revelation 1:1), then why did John under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit use language like this? If you give people the ‘straight’ message by using such expressions, how many would you attract to Christ?
The fact is, Revelation was not written to non-believers, but to Christians, because Christians who knew the Scriptures [the Old Testament] would therein have the tools to decode this book. Any Roman citizen who might stumble across a manuscript of this book would consider it as pure nonsense and gobbledy-gook. To make sense of Revelation you must first decode it, and the best decoders are those who personally know the Encoder, Jesus Christ, and have a living relationship with Him through their prior understanding of the Scriptures. And remember, decoding does not mean diluting. Decoding is what enables you to give these messages in their full strength, authenticated by the integrity of your own life.
Decoding the book of Revelation
Here are some common-sense methods to help you decode in a responsible way the symbols of the three angels’ messages and apply them to your own life.
The primary decoding principle: the person of Jesus Christ. In the Scripture passage of 2 Peter 1:19, you will find the core principle for understanding prophecy. “We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your heart” (KJV). So what is the purpose of prophecy? To guide us to the “day dawn” [the 2nd coming of Jesus] “that the day star [Jesus Christ] arise in our hearts.” ‘Prophecy’ does not always mean a forecasting of the future; its primary meaning is the faithful transmission of God’s truth in order that we may come into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. Of what value is the knowledge of future events, if you do not know Jesus as Savior? Though there are mysteries galore in the book of Revelation, yet through a painstaking and patient study of the Scriptures, comparing text with text, you can start a most reliable decoding process as you focus on the centrality of the person of Jesus Christ. Scholars refer to this as the Christo-centric principle. Discern in every symbol its relationship to the Savior and His plan of redemption as revealed in the great controversy between Christ and Satan. To repeat our earlier railway terminology, it is not enough to know the timetable—you must also know the Conductor. Ellen White noted that while the “the third angel's message calls for the presentation of the Sabbath of the fourth commandment, and this truth must be brought before the world; but the great Center of attraction, Jesus Christ, must not be left out of the third angel's message.”  The ultimate qualification of a decoder is to be a born-again worshiping believer. The best decoders are those who personally know the Encoder, Jesus Christ.
One vital principle of decoding is to bring Jesus Christ out of “hiding” in the Spirit-inspired text. He is always there, but He is not always readily visible [remember the walk of the disciples to Emmaus]. When you study Revelation, always seek to discover the connection of every symbol, event, and phrase to the person of Jesus Christ. Some years ago I visited the beautiful city of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, and the porter at the hotel offered this piece of advice as I prepared to go sightseeing in a city where it is so easy to get lost: “If you ever become disoriented, just look up and find the statue of Christ, the Corcovado, situated on a mountain high above the city. Always use this as your reference point, and then it will be easy for you to find your way should you become lost.” As you heed this advice in studying Revelation, you will not be lost in the maze of all the symbols, words, events, beasts, angels, et cetera.
Let Scripture interpret Scripture. While it may be tempting to match news headlines with Bible texts, rely rather on patiently comparing Scripture with Scripture. Let the Old Testament interpret the New Testament. The book of Revelation is saturated with allusions to the Old Testament—some have counted more than 470 such allusions. An allusion is not a direct quote, but rather a subtle hint to some Old Testament event, person, or symbol—Jezebel, Balaam, prophet, Euphrates, Babylon—just to name a few. Someone has stated that “the New Testament is in the Old concealed, and the Old Testament is in the New revealed.” For any symbol found in Revelation, discover first its Old Testament roots, and the meanings revealed therein, often made evident through its historical context. Then let these original meanings be the interpretive keys to unlock the symbols of Revelation. Studying the various comparisons between the symbols can be of inestimable value as you look for the contrasts between Babylon and Jerusalem; the two trinities (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit versus dragon, beast, and false prophet), the Lamb and the beast, heaven and earth, and many others.
How would the original audience of readers (and listeners) of Revelation have understood this book? What was the intent of the author? John was also a pastor. What were his pastoral concerns for his parishioners? What were the conditions in the church and in the world at that time? Ask yourself—how might Christians in the first centuries after Christ’s resurrection have understood the book of Revelation? Many of the prophecies, for which we see specific fulfillments by looking in the rearview mirror of past history, had not yet been fulfilled. Is it possible that these early Christians saw concepts in Scripture that we do not see as readily today? How might they have interpreted Revelation in light of their contemporary world and in light of their own personal experiences? Is it possible that such symbols as Babylon and the beast may have had different applications for them than they do for us today? 
Get the big picture of Revelation. You have heard the saying, “I can’t see the forest because of the trees.” It is entirely possible to become so focused on the numerous details of the book that we fail to see the big picture found in both the earthly and heavenly dimensions of Revelation. In my past study of Revelation, I would often focus on drawing parallels (often stretched ones) between historical events and the text of Revelation. This is how I failed to see the heavenly dimensions made very plain in this book. When you focus primarily on impending events (time of trouble, the plagues, the trumpets, et cetera) you may experience a great deal anxiety. Focus primarily on the heavenly dimensions in this book, and you will experience hope.
Visualize yourself as a worshiper joining with the other worshipers in the heavenly courtroom. Become a participant in the multiple scenes set in heaven’s open courtroom, the sanctuary, where you view God’s behind-the-scenes initiatives that will bringing the great controversy to a just and righteous completion. This will give you immense courage as you discover that “though the wrong is oft so strong. God is the Ruler yet.” May this be to you the motivation to come “boldly to the throne of grace to obtain mercy and find grace in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16). This how you may gain renewed encouragement that God is indeed in charge of the last steps of the journey to our heavenly home, and we are almost there.
Note the BIGGER picture of the presence of Jesus. To assure them of the continuing presence of Jesus, John utilized material from much of the Old and New Testaments. But not once did he ever quote Scripture directly; rather he employed allusions – hints that would direct the readers and the listeners to Bible passages, events, symbols, sanctuary and temple services (material they were already familiar with because of their Jewish culture). As they read and listened to such allusions, the Holy Spirit would enable them by faith to re-imagine through the power of sanctified imagination, the significance of this material for their present lives now. So when, for instance, these believers would hear about Babylon, or Jezebel, or Euphrates, or the false prophet, they could experience Spirit-directed “aha” moments, causing them to exclaim, “so this is what Jesus meant!” or “this is what God had in mind.” As they read about fire coming down from heaven (Revelation 13) they could re-imagine both the tongues of fire on the day of Pentecost and also the fire falling from heaven at Mt. Carmel in response to Elijah’s prayer.
Through such bigger pictures, John as a caring pastor would direct his parishioners to the unseen, but nevertheless real world, where Jesus is now reigning in glory. This would be in full accord with Paul’s counsel about the identity of believers being legally secure by being seated with Christ in heavenly places (Ephesians 1:7; 2:6). As John, through the inspiration of Jesus Himself, would give them glimpses of Jesus receiving worship in heaven’s open courtroom (Revelation 5), no doubt they would have had their “aha” moments recalling Paul’s words, “If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory” (Colossians 3:1-3).
Discern the “literary structure” of the Revelation as you see the relationship of the individual parts of Revelation 14:6-12 to the larger whole of the book of Revelation as well as to the rest of scripture. The book of Revelation is not a seemingly haphazard collection of bits and pieces of Biblical material; there is a definite order and progression in the development of its various themes. In one literary outline of Revelation by Dr. Douglas Waterhouse, Ph.D, (see Appendix 1), you will notice the prominence of the number “seven.” Someone has suggested that Revelation might be understood as a play for a theater, where there are seven acts, each containing seven scenes. Notice how each sequence of sevens is first introduced by a sanctuary scene. Be cautious, however, in trying to arrange all the material in Revelation into exact chronological timelines of past, current, and future historical events on earth. Often it will only work by a tweaking of the text or by a tweaking of historical event. Focus rather on the progression of the great themes of God’s activity in the great controversy between good and evil as it nears its final culmination in the enthronement and ultimately in the rulership of Jesus Christ as Kings of kings and Lord of lords.
Beware of super-literalism which often imposes an interpretative strait-jacket on expressions that have deeper meanings. At His trial, the accusers of Jesus insisted on a super-literal interpretation of Jesus’ words (“destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up,” John 2:19-24), and thus accused Him of plotting to destroy the Jerusalem temple, when in reality He had spoken in advance of His own crucifixion. While not everything is literal, yet everything is real—It points to realities from God’s perspective.
The “transparency overlays” in Revelation. This may be rather new paradigm for understanding Revelation. The study of Revelation can sometimes be like looking at what we might term the “transparency-overlays” as found in some anatomy textbooks, showing the multiple systems of the human body—skeletal, circulatory, digestive, neurological, et cetera. If you would gain a complete understanding of the workings of the human body, you must study all the systems of the body and their inter-relatedness to one another. Likewise, to understand Revelation, you must look “outside the box” (without discarding what is in the box of the prophetic-historical material) at other transparency-overlays. These overlays are found in the history of Israel, the Exodus, the Babylonian exile, the sanctuary and its services, the Old Testament festivals, and much, much more Biblical material. Let these “overlays” of meaning (and often there are multiple layers) become the foundation for looking more intently than ever before at the meaning of Revelation, which asks these questions: How can this exalt Jesus Christ? What are we to do about it? How can this change our lives? As you do so, you will also gain a renewed appreciation for the sufficiency and completeness of Christ’s redemptive work for your every need.
The purpose of this kind of study is not for one layer of meaning to replace another, but rather to arrive at a more complete understanding of God’s ways for our lives than we have ever seen before. Thus, when you come across any experiential applications for the “beast” or “Babylon,” remember that these are not substitutes for the historical applications, but they are rather amplifications together with all the other systems [layers] of Biblical material in order to unearth all the possible truths from the mines of the Holy Scriptures. Looking at the book of Revelation through as many ‘transparency overlays” as possible will yield rich results.
Here then is a summary of the methodology of this kind of study:
Methodology of Study –
Utilize the “transparency overlays.”
1. Discover first the “building blocks” of Old Testament and other Biblical material on which the Bible passage is built [the Biblical material layer].
2. Discern, where possible, how the Bible writers originally used this passage (or symbol etc.) and with what intent [the original meaning layer].
3. Look for verifiable historical applications as found in recorded history, both Biblical and secular [the prophetic-historical layer ].
4. What are the experiential applications of this passage as recorded in the lives of the people as found in Bible history? And how are we to live in light of all of the above? [The experiential layer]
Look at the three angels’ messages as God’s prescriptions for your own sin-disease. These messages are not just evangelistic messages for others, but they are about God’s diagnosis and prescriptions for our own sin-disease. In order to win the victory over the beast and to develop immunity to Satan’s last-day deceptions, it is a must to take the entirety of the three angels’ messages as God’s medicine for your life today. These messages contain everything you need in order overcome all the power of the enemy. To be an overcomer is far more dependent on discovering and living out your personal identity in Christ rather than on your ability to identify “Babylon” and the “beast” in other persons, organizations, and movements.
Lay aside expectations of total uniformity in all our conclusions. There is in the scriptures such a vast field of unexplored material, that even when we think we have discovered some gem of truth, we will expect others to see it, and appreciate it, just like we did. Do not hold others captive by your expectations that they will always be in agreement with your conclusions. Ellen White wrote, “We cannot then take a position that the unity of the church consists in viewing every text of Scripture in the very same light.” 
Personal Attitudes Facilitating the Study of Revelation
Decoding does not mean diluting. Responsible decoding enables you to give the three angels’ messages in their full strength, because you have first sought to understand the original purposes and the audiences for whom they were written.
Beware of sensationalism. Avoid studying Revelation from the perspective that the book is primarily a timetable to alert us to the next events on God’s prophetic timetable for this world. As I through the years have preached on prophecy, I have discovered the alluring appeal of rumors and late-breaking sensational news, all purporting to proclaim, this is it! In my early years of ministry, I would often fall for such rumors and news reports and include them in my preaching. On some occasions, I later had to change the content of my sermons, because the rumors or news were not verifiable or had not come to pass. Of course, there was instant excitement among church members, which only lasted as long as the rumors persisted.
Ellen White addressed this phenomenon, noting that “it is not excitement we wish to create, but deep, earnest consideration, that those who hear shall do solid work, real, sound, genuine work that will be enduring as eternity. We hunger not for excitement, for the sensational; the less we have of this, the better. The calm, earnest reasoning from the Scriptures is precious and fruitful. Here is the secret of success, in preaching a living personal Saviour in so simple and earnest a manner that the people may be able to lay hold by faith of the power of the Word of life.”  Are we to put our heads in the sand, ostrich-style, and ignore current events? Of course not! Jesus Himself invited His disciples to draw lessons from current events. When the collapse of tower of Siloam killed eighteen individuals, Jesus urged His followers to consider this event as a serious motivation for repentance, lest they also perish (Luke 13:4). At this juncture, let me ask you, in what ways have the events of 9-11 permanently and significantly changed your own life?
Approach the Scriptures with an open mindset as you recall Paul’s words “Now I know in part” (1 Corinthians 13:12). All our knowledge is incomplete and partial, for we do not know it all. The study of Revelation can often be compared to an archaeological dig where we patiently sift through various layers of Biblical material to uncover hidden treasure. Do not ever come to the conclusion that your current understanding of a text in any way exhausts any further meaning of the text. “The Bible has a fullness, a strength, a depth of meaning, that is inexhaustible.” 
As we take advantage of the gift of prophecy to our church, let us sanely use the writings of Ellen G. White. Do not consider that any comment by her on the book of Revelation, or the rest of the Bible, in any way exhausts with finality the meaning of the text.
In a “Statement of Present Understanding,” issued in February 1983, leaders of the General Conference made several clarifying statements regarding the role of the writings of Ellen G. White as an aid to understanding Scripture. Here are a few of these.
“We do not believe that the study of the writings of Ellen White may be used to replace the study of Scripture. . . .
We do not believe that Scripture can be understood only through the writings of Ellen White. . . .
We do not believe that the writings of Ellen White exhaust the meaning of Scripture.” 
Accordingly, when you in this book read quotations from Ellen White, do not consider such as “proof statements,” but rather as illumination and amplification of what is already found in the text with a particular emphasis on the practical applications of the text to personal living.
“There is no excuse for anyone in taking the position that there is no more truth to be revealed, and that all our expositions of Scripture are without an error. The fact that certain doctrines have been held as truth for many years by our people, is not a proof that our ideas are infallible. Age will not make error into truth, and truth can afford to be fair. No true doctrine will lose anything by close investigation. We are living in perilous times, and it does not become us to accept everything claimed to be truth without examining it thoroughly; neither can we afford to reject anything that bears the fruits of the Spirit of God; but we should be teachable, meek and lowly of heart. There are those who oppose everything that is not in accordance with their own ideas, and by so doing they endanger their eternal interest as verily as did the Jewish nation in their rejection of Christ.” 
“Do you ask, what shall I do to be saved? You must lay your preconceived opinions, your hereditary and cultivated ideas, at the door of investigation. If you search the Scriptures to vindicate your own opinions, you will never reach the truth. Search in order to learn what the Lord says. If conviction comes as you search, if you see that your cherished opinions are not in harmony with the truth, do not misinterpret the truth in order to suit your own belief, but accept the light given. Open mind and heart that you may behold wondrous things out of God's word.” 
Jesus has promised His personal blessings on those who study the book of Revelation. “Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written in it; for the time is near” (Revelation 1:3). The primary application you will pursue is the enrichment of your personal relationship with Jesus Christ—a relationship that can stand no matter how the historical details of the future may unfold. To intimately know Jesus Christ as the Lamb of God is the best way to overcome the beast. Learn to hear the voice of the Shepherd, for His sheep hear His voice (John 10:27).
You may consider Revelation…
- as a revelation of the person of Jesus Christ,
- as an inspired theological poem, written to bring encouragement to persecuted and discouraged believers, living not only in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, but also every Christian who has had to face personal disappointment and disillusion as they asked, where is Jesus now in my particular set of painful circumstances?
- as an exquisite work of art produced by a close friend of Jesus, the apostle John, whom Jesus loved, who with masterful strokes of his brush took colors from the palette of Old Testament material and produced a masterpiece whose beauty exceeds the sum of its individual parts.
- as a work of literature in which the author brings together as allusion (no quotes, but only hints) of salvation-history materials (the sanctuary, the temple and its services, Old Testament events, et cetera) in new and stunning ways that exalt Jesus Christ supremely, showing God’s sovereignty in the great cosmic conflict between good and evil.
- as a film documentary utilizing hundreds of clips from Old Testament people, places, and events. This documentary has the distinct advantage of showing not just historical and political events on earth, but it also reveals heaven’s initiatives and participation in events where God works all things together for good to those who love Him.
- as an art gallery where you can take the painful pictures of your life and replace them with pictures where Jesus is always present (truth). Learn to follow the Lamb wherever He leads, and Jesus will even now start drying your tears. Since John never quotes, but only uses allusions, it might be helpful to consider such allusions as Spirit-inspired impressionism of heavenly realities. Thus we see things not only as they are, but as apprehended in the context of our own personal experiences.
- as a musical composition designed especially for believers, where we can now join in the songs flowing through heaven’s open doors, to rise above all the sour notes and discordant harmonies of this present world.
- Above all, look for and join in the triumphant songs of joy and worship. The anticipation of the coming rule of Christ is what sustained the early Christians as they engaged in worship, not as religious entertainment, but as a settling into the security of their identity in Jesus Christ. This is not all doom and gloom. This book is not a journey into the night, but a journey through the night until the day dawn of Christ’s glorious appearing.
The book of Revelation may sometimes appear as a haphazard collection of seemingly tangled and unconnected threads from all over the Scriptures. But as you look at Revelation as a theological poem that reveals Jesus in new and stunning ways, you will come face to face with the supremacy, sufficiency, and sovereignty of Jesus in all life’s circumstances. Similarly, if your own life, far too often, appears like a confused collection of tangled threads from painful trials, unmanageable circumstances, and deep, but hidden wounds, then remember that Jesus personally wants to untangle the threads of your life.
|The thread of your life is all tangled and knots?
There's nothing you can do?
You've tried and you cannot unravel the thread?
Another must do it for you.
|The Lord will unravel your tangled thread,
He knows every knot,
He knows where the end is hidden away from you.
Only One can do it for you.
|Let Jesus unravel your tangled thread,
He knows 'tis too hard for you.
The harder you try, the tighter it gets.
Oh, let Jesus do it for you!
|He never will take it out of your hand;
The offer must come from you
Oh, hand it to Him, and let Him begin,
To straighten it out for you.
When you follow these above-mentioned decoding principles, you will indeed find that Jesus Christ will become to you the great center of attraction in the three angels’ messages, as you give Him permission to untangle the twisted threads of your own life.
Questions to Ponder
What has been your personal methodology for your own study of the book of Revelation? What have been the results (both positive and negative) in your own life?
Have you ever experienced disappointment and discouragement in your pursuit of certain sensational news about upcoming prophetic events, particularly events that did not come to pass? What were the long-range outcomes in your own life? in the lives of others?
Do you consider that your present knowledge of the book of Revelation is adequate preparation to face any future crisis as you prepare for the coming of Jesus? If not, why not?
Text to Remember
“Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written in it; for the time is near” (Revelation 1:3).
Truths versus Lies
You can develop immunity to Satan’s deceptions by replacing Satan’s lies with God’s truths.
“Through Your precepts I get understanding: therefore I hate every false way.
Your word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path” (Psalm 119:104, 105).
|Satan’s lies or half-truths||God’s truths|
To be ready for the coming crisis I must thoroughly know the exact sequence of last-day events.
To be ready for the coming crisis, I must personally know Jesus Christ.
I am satisfied with my current understanding of the Book of Revelation.
I always want to grow by letting the Lord stretch me as He did to the early Advent believers.
The book of Revelation is very confusing to me; therefore, I leave its interpretation to some good preachers that I like.
Though the book of Revelation may sometimes appear confusing, yet I trust that God will speak to me as I pursue its study, for He has promised to do so.
Write out any lies or half-truths
you have personally believed.
Write out other Bible truths to replace
any previously held lies or half-truths.
 Ellen G. White, Evangelism, p. 184.
 In their study of Revelation, there are commentators who also look at Revelation also as a pastoral letter, written by Jesus Himself and put into writing by John, and addressed to 1st and 2nd century Christians facing immense discouragement because of tribulation. I think specifically about Joy in Our Weakness – A Gift of Hope from the Book of Revelation by Marva Dawn ((Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2002). and Eugene Peterson’s Reversed Thunder – The Revelation of John & the Praying Imagination. (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988).Rather than trying to calendarize end-time events, these two books exalt the Lordship of Christ for disappointed believers in the 1st century AD, as they expose the workings of the forces of evil, and offer hope to those who suffer evil and injustices until such are finally defeated.
 Ellen G. White, Volume 11 of Manuscript Releases, 266.
 Ellen G. White, Letter 102, 1894, quoted in Evangelism, 170.
 Ellen G. White, Counsels to Parents, Teachers, and Students, 1913 edition, 182.
 “The Inspiration and Authority of the Ellen G. White Writings; a Statement of Present Understanding,” Ministry, February 1983. Also found at https://www.whiteestate.org/issues/scripsda.html
 Ellen G. White, Counsels to Writers and Editors, 35.
 Ellen G. White, Christ’s Object Lessons, 112.