The book of Revelation is the final book of the New Testament. It was written by the apostle John “to the seven churches in the province of Asia” (Revelation 1:4) toward the end of the first century.
This book is a challenge for Christians to be faithful until Jesus returns. It reveals the fate of the church in the world as we await His coming. It strongly warns us against false teaching, immorality, and pledging our allegiance to worldly powers.
Yet this challenge is rarely perceived by those who read it. Revelation is easily the most difficult book to understand in the New Testament, perhaps in the entire Bible! It often leaves us scratching our heads rather than searching our hearts. This is for a few reasons:
First, we are unfamiliar with its genre. Revelation is an apocalypse – it portrays the end of the world using detailed symbolism. Because we are unfamiliar with this kind of writing, we ask the wrong questions and misunderstand its message.
Second, we are confused by those who interpret it incorrectly. “Prophecy experts” interpret (and reinterpret!) it in light of current events. They assign dates to its phenomena and construct timelines of the end. They do violence to it by thrusting a false standard of interpretation upon it.
Fortunately, the book of Revelation can still be read profitably. Its message can be heard by the church today. But it must be handled with common sense. It must be interpreted by the same principles used to interpret any other book of the Bible.
These interpretive factors will equip you to make sense of the book of Revelation:
Factor #1: Historical Situation
Revelation was written to first-century churches in the Roman Empire. These churches were persecuted by Jews for proclaiming Jesus as Messiah, and by Romans for refusing to worship the emperor. They also had to guard themselves against idolatry, false teaching, and immorality.
Factor #2: Genre
Revelation belongs to a group of writings known as “apocalyptic literature.” These written during times of suffering to produce hope for the people of God. The defining characteristic of this genre is its use of detailed symbolism.
Factor #3: Old Testament Background
Revelation alludes to the Old Testament more than 500 times! The Old Testament is the source of its symbols. Their meaning should be understood first in their original context. It can then be considered how John has adapted or modified the imagery to suit his purpose.
Factor #4: Numbers
Numbers in Revelation are also symbols. They must be weighed rather than counted. For instance, the number 4 is associated with the earth; the number 7 signifies completion; the number 12 is associated with God’s people; and the number 1,000 implies a large amount.
Factor #5: Structure
John employed a method of writing called “recapitulation.” This means saying the same thing in a different way. He develops his theme of Jesus’ return by presenting the same picture over and over again. He does not write in chronological order; rather, he writes in cycles.
Factor #6: “Literal” Interpretation
To interpret Revelation “literally” means to interpret it as literature. In other words, we find its meaning by allowing it to speak for itself. A “literal” interpretation may account for symbols, figurative language, and recapitulation if that is what John (the author) intended.
(I am indebted to Dr. Shane J. Wood for much of my understanding of the book of Revelation.)
What most confuses you about the book of Revelation? Leave your thoughts with a comment below!
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