One of the most difficult books of the Bible to interpret is Revelation. Luther called it a “moot prophecy.” John Calvin, though he wrote commentaries on most of the books of the Bible, wrote of Revelation, “I don’t understand it.”
We won’t be able to cover everything about Revelation in one article (or maybe ever, in thousands of articles). However, here are some helpful tips to interpreting the book.
- Read it in its correct genre. Revelation is not only a prophecy but also a letter and an apocalyptic writing. Apocalyptic literature looks forward to a day when God will judge the wicked and vindicate His people.
- Make sure your interpretation would work for Jewish Christians living under Roman domination 2,000 years ago. Making the locusts into apache helicopters or the red dragon represent the nation of China would be a tough sell in the first century.
- Not everything in Revelation is in the future. It was written to churches in the past.
- Not everything in Revelation happened in the past. We are still waiting on the second coming of Christ as well as the end of all things.
- Not everything is merely symbolic. There seem to be actual events that occur in history within this book.
- Allow Revelation to interpret itself. Instead of guessing what the lampstands are, allow Revelation to tell you (Rev. 1:20).
- Do not read it as if it is a code. The genre of Revelation is highly symbolic and contains a lot of imagery. This does not make the meaning of the book less “literal”; it merely means we have to use caution in interpreting the symbols.
- Interpret the symbols in Revelation in light of the Old Testament, especially Ezekiel and Daniel. Instead of opening your newspaper to find out who you think the four horsemen are, open to Zechariah 6. Instead of guessing who the beast is, look for clues in Daniel 7.
- Revelation uses figurative language to describe literal events.
- Use good resources. The Left Behind series may be entertaining, but it presents an interpretation of the book of Revelation that no one in all of church history ever held until the late 1800s. It is better to use scholarly commentaries (listed below).
- Try not to come to the book with preconceived notions. For example, the word “antichrist” doesn’t occur in Revelation at all. We have to guard against trying to fulfill an agenda or to confirm our suspicions about Iraq so that we may interpret it correctly.
- The book of Revelation is all about Jesus. The point of Revelation is to encourage believers under the domination of Rome to persevere and stay faithful to King Jesus because, although they are suffering now and future Christians will suffer as well, Jesus will one day come back to judge His enemies and rescue His followers.
Though it is difficult, Revelation is inspired Scripture, breathed out by God. Let us not lose sight of our great God and King amid all the details. Let us find hope in the second coming of Christ.