Revelation uses a lot of metaphors that tend to be “filling” to sensationalists who refuse to look them up; they would rather read in their skewed ideas. What we need to know is that symbols in Revelation had specific meanings for a first-century Jew or Greek, like when we might say “it is raining cat and dogs.” This does not mean to be careful not to step on a poodle. These are metaphors; they are not to be taken literally but at the same time, they are not to be taken lightly. They should be taken as they meant then, not compared to a modern day newspaper. John was in a totalitarian, evil regime under Emperor Nero who was very much an antichrist, as in one who opposes Christ—not just one person but anyone who oppresses someone away from Him (1 John 2:18, 22; 4:3; 2 John 1:7). Thus, when he uses 666 or beast in Revelation, it can also refer to Nero and/or someone like a Hitler, a Mussolini, a Saddam Hussein, or someone who is yet to come; more probably, all of the above.
The symbol, 666, was typical of first century Jewish apocalyptic riddles that were usually known to the audience to whom they were written; John’s readers knew who he was talking about. It was not a secret code to the hearers, only to those outside of the Church such as Roman officials who would take away their property, jobs, and even their lives for uttering blasphemy to Caesar or Rome. This was also a common way to express or warn about godlessness or those opposing Christ so they would not have to fear reprisal.
Another example in Revelation is that John also uses the language of the current Greco-Roman figures of speech which contain the succession of visions of spiritual warfare, warnings, and judgments, climaxing with the Second Coming of Christ, and finally a farewell. Yet, the figurative speech and images, although borrowed from the Old Testament, would have been clear to an educated first-century Jew. It may not be a style we are familiar with in our contemporary culture, but it was very popular from 200 BC to 200 AD.
Consider that describing our modern life with cars, freeways, electronics, and computers to a first-century person would be unrecognizable and incomprehensible imageries. What we take for granted, considering what we know and what they knew, does not measure up in the understanding of one another. Revelation and its imagery were real and had application for them as they are real and have application for us, too. Much of the imagery was used to get a response from his readers, to evoke them from complacency to spiritual activity.
These images can be literal events as well as symbols. They can apply to the Church of Asia Minor, and be reapplied to us. Sometimes, John explains them; sometimes, they are vague and we may not know what they mean until that day is upon us (Rev. 1:20).
Thus, there are no real mysteries other than when these events will happen, which ones have happened, and the sequence of events. The real mystery is why some of us Christians prefer sensationalism and false teaching instead of actually learning His real precepts and then growing in faith and Fruit as we are called to! However, time and sequence in apocalyptic literature were not important to a Jewish mind or to our God who wants us focused upon Him as Lord. What we learn in our preparation is far more valuable than what will come about.
Much of what is spoken of in the Old Testament for Israel and the Tribulation is found in Revelation 6-19. Its principle purpose is to reveal Christ as Lord and the end of the age. It also gives us firm instructions on how to live our lives being faithful to Christ and receiving His promises as well as His warnings. In Matthew 24, Jesus’ concern about the Tribulation is for us to be prepared and flee from it when it comes, as the Early Church did. But, what do many modern Christians prefer to do? They come up with all kinds of theories that Jesus is coming back before, in the midst of, or after. Clearly, this is not important, or Jesus would have told us. What is important, which Jesus clearly told us, it is to be ready by growing in our faith, and that He is indeed coming back in His good and perfect time, regardless of our theories and ideas! Thus, it is not about being ready by coming up with more sensationalism and misleading others.
Revelation brings a lot of controversy because it is interpreted so varyingly. We need to come to apocalyptic language without a specific view or we will become construed and constrained to it and miss what God has for us. Each prophecy and image can have multiple meanings and multiple fulfillments. Each view has some ideas that are correct and some that are wrong; none of them are all wrong or all correct. Most of the Bible is very precise, but apocalyptic literature is difficult because God has not given us the final key. In addition, apocalyptic language is about relationships and events in an Oriental logic form that does not have Western philosophical chronology in mind. Hebrew logic is based on “and” and “or,” whereas western logic is “if than” or “either or;” very different. Therefore, we must beware not to read into it our current idealistic methodologies and theological frameworks. Rather, we are to focus on real, authentic, Christian faith and allow God to provide us a framework from His principles. Revelation also borrows heavily from Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Psalms as well as apocryphal literature such as 1 Enoch. Revelation is more about who opposes Christ and His principles and who is faithful and fruitful.