The Book of Revelation could be described as an enigma wrapped in a riddle. The difficulty of understanding it has led wonderful teachers of the Bible to shy away from it and to ignore it altogether.
However, the Book of Revelation is inspired Scripture, and it is the only book of the Bible that promises a blessing to those who “read, hear and keep what is written in it” (Revelation 1:3).
The title for the book comes from the first word of the Greek text, apokalupsis, which means “to unveil, disclose or reveal.” It has been said that Revelation is appropriately the last book of the Bible because without it the “Grand Redemptive Storyline” of the Bible would be incomplete.
Revelation 1:1 provides the theme of the book: it is a revelation of, from and about Jesus Christ. In fact, no book exalts the Lord more than this one with its incredible depictions of Jesus in Revelation 1:9-20, 5:1-14 and 19:11-16.
The book is a combination of three literary types:
Apocalyptic literature is an intensified form of prophecy that uses rich and highly symbolic imagery to dramatically portray end-time events and the ultimate victory of God and His people (Revelation 1:1).
Prophetic literature is God’s clear and direct word from His servant to His people, and it involves both foretelling and forth-telling (Revelation 1:3).
In epistolary literature, or the letter form, such as in Chapters 2 and 3, the book reads like an epistle as the Lord addresses seven specific churches in ancient Asia Minor, now known as Turkey (Revelation 1:4-7; Chapters 2-3).
Four basic interpretive approaches have been applied to the Revelation as students of the Bible have sought to understand what the Apostle John penned on the Island of Patmos sometime between A.D. 90-96:
Preterism says that the book is about the first century and most, if not all, of the events described in the book were fulfilled in John’s day and by A.D. 100.
Historicism views the book as a panorama of church history, with attention focusing primarily on its development in the Western part of the world.
Idealism believes that Revelation is symbolic of timeless truth and the conflict between good and evil. No specific events are in view.
Futurism says that beginning with Chapter 4 (or sometimes 6) the book describes what will take place at the end of world history, just before the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus Christ (Revelation 19:11-21) and the establishment of His Kingdom (Chapters 20-22).
While there is some truth to each of these perspectives, the futurist perspective has the most to commend it, especially in light of Revelation 1:19, which appears to be the interpretive key to the book. John is told, “Write therefore the things that you have seen [Chapter 1], those that are [Chapters 2 and 3] and those that are to take place after this [Chapters 4-22],” (ESV). Notice how Revelation 4:1 picks up the phrase “what must take place after this.”
Principles for Interpreting the Book
Even the great reformer John Calvin admitted that he did not know what to do with Revelation. As a result, he did not write a commentary on it, even though he did so with most of the New Testament. Therefore, a “hermeneutic of humility” should guide us as we seek to navigate the book’s 22 chapters.
1. As you would with any book of the Bible, seek to discover its message to the original audience. This helps us avoid the “newspaper” approach that seeks to interpret the book in light of our current events.
2. Read the book naturally but as apocalyptic literature that is intended to be highly symbolic. Revelation intentionally uses figurative and even bizarre symbolic language. However, its picturesque language, with its symbols and images, is conveying literal truth describing real persons and events. For example, in Revelation 5:6 Jesus is described as a Lamb with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. This description caused my four sons quite a bit of grief when they were small.
However, when I explained that the number seven conveys perfection or completeness, and that joined to horns, eyes and spirits it teaches that Jesus is all-powerful, all-knowing and everywhere-present, they rejoiced in the greatness of the one who was sacrificed as our Savior for our sins.
3. Read the book with a general chronology in view–not a strict view. Revelation does not advance in neat linear fashion. Often the book is written to make a dramatic impact on the reader, not to provide a precise sequence of events. For example, the sixth seal (Revelation 6:12-17) takes us to the end of the age. However, when the seventh seal is opened (Revelation 8:11), a whole new series of judgments–the trumpets–appear (Chapters 8-9). And, when the seventh trumpet is sounded (Revelation 11:15-19), we are still not at the “end of the end,” because the seventh trumpet prepares us for the seven bowl judgments of Chapter 16!
4. Give careful attention to the meanings attached to symbolic numbers. In Scripture, numbers often contain symbolic as well as literal connotations. The number one often connotes unity; two, strength or help; three, the number for God; four, the world with its four seasons and directions; six, humanity because we fall short of perfection, which is the number seven; seven, perfection or completeness; twelve, God’s perfect manifestation of Himself to the created order.
5. Look to the Old Testament for help in interpreting images and symbols. There are at least 285 Old Testament allusions in the 404 verses of this book. Revelation contains more Old Testament references than any other New Testament book. Allusions to Daniel, Ezekiel and Zechariah are particularly prominent, and the books of Psalms and Isaiah also are important.
Revelation pulls back the curtain and unveils to God’s people a glimpse of His plan for history. The Lion of the tribe of Judah–the Warrior Lamb of salvation, the Lord Jesus Christ (Revelation 5:5-6) –takes center stage in this cosmic drama. Times of trial and testing have and will afflict God’s people until the end of time. Revelation challenges us to stay faithful to Jesus. It comforts us with the promise of His presence and the certainty of His victory!
Scripture quotations taken by permission from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, ©2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.