The gloomy old reprobate Ambrose Bierce said this about the book of Revelation: “A famous book in which St. John the Divine concealed all that he knew. The revealing is done by the commentators, who know nothing.” It is indeed unfortunate that we by our sloth have made a revelation into one of the most obscure books of the Bible. “I, John, both your brother and companion in the tribulation and kingdom . . .” (Rev. 1:9).
As we seek to understand Revelation, the question will arise-“Do you take this book literally?” Well, we are Christians, and this means we believe the book. But if the questioner means by “literally” what such folk usually mean, the answer is that we take parts of it literally, which means that other portions cannot be taken that way. Most contemporary Christians reverse the order, but everyone takes some parts literally and other portions symbolically.
Here are some guidelines-we hold that the book of Revelation, which the exception of the last three chapters, was fulfilled two thousand years ago. We take this position because we take certain clear statements in the book at face value. First, this is what the book directly says: “The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show His servants-things which must shortly take place” (Rev. 1:1; cf. 1:3, 19; 22:6-7,12,20). Secondly, this is what the book indirectly says: In Dan 8:26, the prophet is told to seal up his prophecy because it is a long way off. The event proved it to be about four hundred years away. But John hears this-“And he said to me, ‘Do not seal the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is at hand’” (Rev. 22:10). What does this mean for us two thousand years later? And third, this enables us to make sense of the prophecies in a way which fits them “literally,” and also dates the book. History happened a certain way, but for the creative, the future is infinitely malleable. Fourth, this means that the book was not meaningless to its original recipients, the seven churches of Asia. “Hey, Clement! Who is Saddam Hussein?” John says to his first readers, “Let him who has understanding . . .” (Rev. 13:18).
One of the reasons why we are so confused about the book of Revelation is that we have drifted away from the classical education of earlier times. This kind of education provided, in some small measure, the kind of information which the residents of these cities had from their “newspapers.” Nero was an animalistic pervert. He kicked one of his pregnant wives to death. He murdered his mother. He set Christians on fire to serve as lamps for a dinner party. He would dress up as a beast and rape both male and female prisoners. And he was the covenant head of Rome-that great Satan.
He had the number of a man. Latin, Greek and Hebrew all used letters for numerals. We use Roman letters and Arabic numerals, but they used their letters for both purposes. In Hebrew, using their numbering system, the name Neron Kesar adds up to 666. No need exists to “massage” the numbers. And if you take it as Nero Kesar, as a Greek mistakenly might, you get 616, one of the textual variants of the number.
John also points to the line of emperors-the beast was the Roman empire, a city seated on seven hills. But the seven heads of the beast had another signification. “There are also seven kings. Five have fallen, one is, and the other has not yet come” (Rev. 17:9-10). The first five Caesars were Julius, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, and Claudius. The sixth Caesar was Nero, who was reigning when Revelation was written. Five have fallen, and one is.
Then there is the question of the forty-two months-“And he was given a mouth speaking great things and blasphemies, and he was given authority to continue for forty-two months” (Rev. 13: 5-7). Nero was the first Roman emperor to persecute the saints, and he did so from November 64 to June 68 . . . forty-two months.
Nero was the blasphemer-Asia was the center of emperor worship, and it was where our seven churches were located. Nero most certainly received “great things and blasphemies.” He had an immense statue of himself in his palace, and received accolades such as “The Eternal One! Thou august! Sacred voice!” Nero was one of the great blasphemers of history.
We have many other reasons to identify Nero as a principal figure in this book. He was the head of the beast which is the focus of the wrath of our Lord Jesus Christ, the ruler of the kings of the earth.
We also see that Nero provides us with a case study of what the Lord Jesus does when He wields the rod of iron. Rebellion against heaven is judged. Because of such judgments, we are told that the kings of the earth will (eventually) bring their honor and glory into the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21:24). But why would they see it in this way when we do not see it in this way?