The prophet Joseph Smith declared the Book of Revelation to be “one of the plainest books God ever caused to be written.” You would not be alone in cocking an eyebrow at this statement — even setting aside what may very well be John the Revelator’s attempt to describe helicopters in terms that were then available to him, it’s easy to get bogged down in the sea of symbolism and occasionally bizarre descriptions found in Revelation. But don’t you fret, gentle reader, because that will not be our focus today.

Oh, okay, I won’t leave you hanging entirely. Written in my old seminary Bible is a handy little list entitled, “Keys to Understand Revelation.” Here are some of the symbols listed:

SymbolMeaning
1God
2witnesses
3Godhead
4wholeness
6incomplete
7perfection
12priesthood
40hardships that end in victory
1000fullness
lampstandchurch
starsgood (unless fallen)
swordword of God used as a weapon
iron rodword of God used for defense
crownsymbol of victory
headcenter of power
eyesintelligence/light
hornpower
dragonSatan
wingspower to move

That should be enough to start with.

When we think of the Book of Revelation, our minds tend to go to seals and horses and beasts full of eyes (gross) and Armageddon and such. This is all well and good — these are the more exciting parts of the book after all — but it can be easy to overlook the preamble, wherein John delivers counsel and admonitions directly from God to the “angels,” or “servants” (we might call them bishops) of the seven churches (we might call them wards) in the area. To paraphrase Paul, “there [had] no temptation taken [them] but such is common to man.” So it is well worth our time to spend some time here; we will be looking at three in particular.

Ephesus

I know thy works, and thy labour, and thy patience, and how thou canst not bear them which are evil: and thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars:
And hast borne, and hast patience, and for my name’s sake hast laboured, and hast not fainted. (Revelation 2:2-3)

In each message, the Lord leads with the good stuff: “here’s what you’re doing right.” In this case, we have a man who has fought hard against local apostasy, who has worked hard to keep his flock on the strait and narrow.

Nevertheless, I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love.
Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent. (Revelation 2:4-5)

And now the bad news: this man, who has labored so diligently, has “left his first love,” and is being warned to “repent, and do the first works.” The wording here is admittedly vague, but the context of this admonition implies that this man may have become so focused on the evil-doers, the false apostles, and the Nicolaitans threatening his flock that he’s lost sight of why it is that he’s fighting those things in the first place — that is, he’s taken his eyes off of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and has let his own “first works” slide. What is meant by first works? Well, again, this is some speculation on my part, but what immediately springs to my mind is the Fourth Article of Faith, as well as the so-called “primary answers:” pray, read your scriptures, go to church, follow the prophet.

Pergamos

I know thy works, and where thou dwellest, even where Satan’s seat is: and thou holdest fast my name, and hast not denied my faith, even in those days wherein Antipas was my faithful martyr, who was slain among you, where Satan dwelleth. (Revelation 2:13)

Being the bishop of the Satan’s Seat Ward doesn’t exactly sound like a picnic, but it seems this man is holding strong in the face of such adversity: his own faith is steadfast and unshaken, despite even the martyrdom of a prominent member of the faith in that area.

But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumblingblock before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication.
So hast thou also them that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which thing I hate.
Repent; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.
(Revelation 2:14-16)

It would seem the bishop of Pergamos has the opposite problem of the bishop of Ephesus: while his own personal faith is both intact and robust, apostasy has made itself a nest within his flock, and his own efforts to stamp it out have been inadequate.

The juxtaposition of the respective problems of Ephesus and Pergamos is as good an illustration as any that ours is indeed a strait and narrow path: one man was so concerned about the faith of his flock that he lost sight of his own, whereas the other kept his own exactly as he ought to have, but lost sight of the danger those false teachings posed to those in his charge. Each man veered off course in a different direction, but a similar disaster awaited each if he did not change course.

The Laodiceans

I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot.
So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.
(Revelation 3:15-16)

We’ve led with the good so far; unfortunately, there’s no good here in the message to the Laodiceans with which to lead off. Yikes.

A common interpretation of the Lord’s criticism of being “lukewarm” is that of someone who refuses to choose a side. I prefer a different interpretation I heard many years ago: while both hot water and cold water have useful functions, lukewarm water really does not.

Because thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked:
I counsel thee to buy of me gold tried in the fire, that thou mayest be rich; and white raiment, that thou mayest be clothed, and that the shame of thy nakedness do not appear; and anoint thine eyes with eyesalve, that thou mayest see. (Revelation 3:17-18, emphasis mine)

This isn’t a description of someone who is wishy-washy in his faith, but of someone who is content to coast along on whatever goodness he feels he has already amassed in life — is there a less useful servant than the one who thinks he has no more to do? Nephi rather more vividly illustrated this particular spiritual malady:

And others will [the devil] pacify, and lull them away into carnal security, that they will say: All is well in Zion; yea, Zion prospereth, all is well–and thus the devil cheateth their souls, and leadeth them carefully down to hell.

I can’t speak for everyone, but I know that I myself have fallen into this trap before. The cure is right there in verse 18: “gold tried in the fire” is the wisdom of God, and he is told to buy it because it is a thing that must be earned with effort; “white raiment” represents covenants made and kept; and the “eyesalve” of which he speaks are the gifts of revelation and discernment, which two things help us see more clearly than anything else.

In Sum

The Lord finishes his messages to the churches with an assurance of his love for them, an invitation to repent, and the promises he makes to those who both hear and heed his words:

As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent.
Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.
To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne.
He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.

(Revelation 3:19-22)

We know the Lord acts deliberately, so it is fair to ask: Why include these admonitions in a book about the end of the world? Why not send them separately? We can only speculate, but a clue to that answer may be found in the Joseph Smith quote with which we opened this post: “The book of Revelation is one of the plainest books God has ever caused to be written.” Just like the parables of Jesus, it is deliberately written in a way that obscures its deeper meaning from those who try to discern spiritual things through their natural eyes only. In other words, the greatest key to understanding the Book of Revelation is not to be found in a table like the one near the beginning of this post, but is rather to be found by bringing our lives more in line with the strait and narrow course our Father and His Beloved Son have set for us.

Supplemental Reading:

You can follow Angela on Twitter at @angelaisms.

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