I think it goes without saying that no book in the Bible has been subject to a more varied interpretation than the sixty-sixth one: Revelation. Those in Christian circles either love it, or fear it. They either read it all the time, or not at all. But those who have read it (including myself), or have at least tried, most likely lack a complete understanding. Therefore, in Part 5 of this blog series we will turn our attention to this mysterious book.

Background
The name of the book is taken from its opening verse: “The revelation of Jesus Christ that God gave Him to show His slaves what must quickly take place…” The word translated “revelation” is the Greek word ἀποκάλυψις (apocalypsis), from which we derive the English word apocalypse. According to BLB, the word means to disclose previously unknown truth, or literally to lay bare or make naked (click here to see the lexicon). So right from the start we know that in this book God is going to reveal truth to those who read it about events that will soon take place.

We can gather more important information from the rest of 1:1 and into v2: “He (Jesus) sent it and signified it through His angel to His slave John, who testified to God’s word and to the testimony about Jesus Christ, in all he saw.” A man named John was used to record this revelation, a revelation which he “saw.” This means he had a vision, or several visions, of these events. In fact, the book of Revelation states fifty-four times that John “saw” something. But who was this John? Was he the same John who authored the gospel and the three short epistles? Some say it was a different John, yet the bulk of recent scholarship suggests that it was indeed John the apostle, who had already penned four other New Testament books. The second century church father Irenaeus considered John the apostle to be the author of Revelation. This is important because Irenaeus was a student of Polycarp, who was a contemporary and a friend of John the apostle.

Interpretation
When it comes to the interpretation of this book, several things must be kept in mind. First of all, these visions were seen and this book was written at the end of the first century AD (ca. 95). Secondly, this book was addressed to the seven churches of Asia Minor, which were located within the powerful Roman Empire. When we combine these two facts, we understand thirdly, that these people were under the reign of the emperor Domitian, who advocated and practiced the persecution of believers. John references this persecution in 1:9, where he states, “I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation…” It is referenced again in 2:9 in the letter to Smyrna, “I know your tribulation and your poverty…” As with any other book of the Bible, we must always keep the situation of the original audience at the forefront of our minds when interpreting it.

Though not an exhaustive list, a fourth and final thing to keep in mind when interpreting Revelation is its genre. The sixty-six books of the Bible are composed of several different genres, such as narrative, poetry, prophecy, and epistle. The book of Revelation is a combination of three different genres. First of all, it is an apocalyptic book (remember, the word revelation comes from the Greek word meaning apocalypse). Apocalyptic literature, both inside and outside the Bible, uses numbers, symbols, and figurative language to convey its message. For this reason, it cannot and should not, be interpreted literally. And though these symbols and figures may be frightening, it should be understood that apocalyptic literature was actually written to give hope. This book is not attempting to terrorize its readers with nightmares. Instead, it was written to give hope to those experiencing trials and tribulations (then and now).

This book also falls under the genre of prophecy. As we already saw in 1:1, the book was written to disclose things that will soon take place. Also, in 1:3 we read, “Blessed is the one who reads and blessed are those who hear the words of this prophecy…”

Thirdly, Revelation also contains epistolary features. 1:4-8 introduces the author and audience and includes a standard greeting, such as the letters of Paul. Also, the entirety of chapters 2 and 3 contain seven letters, one to each of the churches of Asia Minor (Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea).

All of this information (including the author, audience, date, genres, and purpose of the book) should be plenty to get anyone on the right track when it comes to interpreting Revelation. Now, with all of this in mind, let’s look at three ways this book has been understood historically.

A Preterist View
A preterist interpretation of prophecy suggests that the events prophesied have already been fulfilled. So those who hold to a preterist view of Revelation believe that every single prophecy in the book has already occurred. But with all the events that still seem futuristic to most, how do they see them as already fulfilled? First of all, they date the writing of the book earlier than 95 AD. This allows them to say that all the prophecies were fulfilled within the first century and experienced by the original audience. Secondly, they look to the Jewish historians Josephus and Suetonius and see several events they recorded as the fulfillment of Revelation’s prophecies. Even when it comes to the new creation of chapters 21 and 22, those holding to a preterist view say we are already experiencing it.

In favor of this view is the statement in 1:1 that these events must quickly or soon take place.

A Futurist View
It should be mentioned from the start that there are differing degrees of this approach. Some futurists say that none of the events spoken of in Revelation have been fulfilled, while others say some have and some have not. Understanding that this book was addressed to first century Roman residents, it would be difficult to see everything in the book as future. At the same time it is hard to deny that most of the events do seem still in the future, especially the events of chapters 19-22 concerning the return of the Lord, the judgment, and the new creation.

An Idealist View
This view takes to heart the fact that Revelation is apocalyptic literature. Interpreting it as such, those who adhere to this view see the events as mostly symbolic and as an attempt to lift the spirits of persecuted believers. Instead of looking for the fulfillment of each and every prophecy, the idealist steps back and takes a very wide-angled view. When this happens, Revelation can be summed up in one statement: Christ, and therefore believers, have secured the victory!

Conclusion
I am a huge advocate of interpreting biblical texts the way the original audience would have understood them, always taking the genre into consideration. When it comes to Revelation, this leads me to believe that a combination of the futurist and idealist approaches are the best way to go. I have no doubt that, even though 1:1 does mention things happening quickly, some of the events prophesied have yet to be fulfilled. At the same time, I don’t look for the fulfillment of every single stroke of every single letter. Revelation is best understood when a broad approach is taken. We don’t want to miss the forest for the trees. We don’t want to get bogged down in the details and miss the main point of the book. And what is that? The fact that Christ has triumphed over Satan, evil, and death and that believers will one day share in that victory for all eternity. According to 22:5 the saints will reign with Him “forever and ever.”

Revelation teaches us what the rest of the Bible has already taught us: God is a God of love and justice; He saves those who are His and sends His wrath upon those who are not. Only in the end, these things will happen on a grand scale and will last for all eternity. Those who are His will live with Him in the new creation, while those who are not will be in anguish.

My prayer is that with this information and guidance, you will no longer be afraid to open up the book of Revelation. And when you do, may you be challenged and may you be changed!

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Posted by Travis Flanagan

I am a believer, husband, and expectant father who loves serving the Lord and the local church. I am currently an associate pastor of youth/discipleship and a pastoral research assistant for three pastors. Educationally, I have a BA and an MA in Biblical and Theological Studies from Criswell College. I am currently pursuing a PhD in Theology from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. My research interests include the early church and Greco-Roman voluntary associations (and especially the relationship between the two!).

20 Comments

  1. Great post! Succinct, organized, and informative.

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  2. This was a great post, thank you for sharing it. I liked that you emphasised the importance of understanding the book in the context of who they are addressed to and in what time they existed. I take a more idealistic view of this particular book; in the end Christ is victorious. But at the same time I understand that the book was not written for me and the literary devices and symbolism used through out the book are almost completely lost on not just me but on modern humanity. I think along that vein, the Book of Revelation is a warning sign for the entire Bible to understand that we are dealing with Life and Death in the entire book of the Bible and we ought to take care for the meaning and interpretation of the Word.

    This post provides a wonderful reflection for me today during Lent, thank you very much for that!

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  3. What a wonderful post! Uneducated people take Revelation literally rather than literately. John alluded to Old Testament imagry to disguise his message from unbelieving gentiles. This book, as well as the other 65, were written to ancient peoples and were preserved for our instruction. I feel sad for people who assume that Revelation is in the future. But one thing is certain; we all believe in Christ’s return. What a great day that will be!

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  4. Concerning the history of Christianity and the distinguishing between an ‘individual’ from a ‘person’ and its charateristics (justice, equality, love), is important.
    Provided that my poor English will allow me to, I would like to introduce some little known of anthropological parameters in relation with the Christianity. Maybe some one find’s them interesting and useful.
    Except for the ancient Greek civilization and the modern western one which both considered as individualistic civilizations, all the rest are of the collectivistic family.
    The ancient Greek civilization era lasted for more than 1000 years and after its pick gradually met its crisis. In order to get over it, it was introduced to Christianity, constructed another civilization that lasted more than 1000 years, the Byzantine Empire or East Roman Empire. If it was not for the Hellenistic then world, it is very probable that Christianity would not exist to the extent we know it today, as it was spread among Hellenism and from there to the rest of the world. From an anthropological point of view, Greeks overcome their humanistic crisis (similar to todays crisis of the western world), having transformed the ancient ‘individual’ human in to a ‘person’ successfully.
    At the same time they have maintained their ancestors heritage and carried it on with their hard and persistent work of copying it, treasure it and eventually passing it to their fellow humans. All that –most importantly- took place during a period of west Europe’s medieval period, final result of which was the transformation of European collectivistic societies into ‘individualistic’ ones.
    A critical challenge concerning Orthodox ‘person’ appeared during the early times, when Latin’s -for reasons of power- pushed towards separatism, mainly for two reasons: They wanted to be the rulers of Christianity as a whole and/but at the same time they have ‘changed’ the fundamentals of the Orthodox message, as part of their effort to control their north threat, that is, the Germanic tribes. The reason behind conceptual twisting exists within the frame of their aim: to bring it closer to the beliefs of the Germanic tribes, which were already influenced a lot by the teachings of Arianism. The Christian mater became -in a different manner- social politics in the heart of central-west Europe. And as we know, under the law of holy examination the so called ‘magicians’ were burned and eventually produced reactions with Protestantism as a result, and Martin Luther translating the Bible from the Greek language.

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  5. I have just finished a Bible study of Revelation that was very enlightening and reading your post now was so inspiring.

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  6. To the extent of my belief, if we can see the patterns and use its repeating doctrine, although it is semi literal thinking in my part. That after world wars i and ii, the prophecy part is being played out year after year and its hidden in the past.

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  7. Your a Christian, right? The first of the “first” 10 commandments reads “I am the lord thy god. Thou shalt have no other gods before me. If you know, what other gods would it be referring to?

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  8. Oh yes, thanks for liking my last post. Have you called your congress people yet?

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  9. […] in Part 5 we turned our attention to the book of Revelation. Its prophecies can be interpreted according to […]

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  10. Nice post! I myself look at Revelation as symbolic and literal depending on the meaning it’s trying to convey. For example I wrote an article on the 24 elders and described who I believe they are. I dont think these are literal 24 elders but rather a symbolic representation of a group of people (i.e. body of Christ, patriarchs, etc). On the other hand we have the judgments which I take a more literal stance of. There are people that go one way or the other which I think allows one to miss details if you take it too far.

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    1. May I ask what leads to you to interpret some of it literally and some symbolically? Do you see clues within the text that suggest this?

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      1. Yes. I look at the context of the general passage and try to see if certain verses have references in other books or parts of scripture. For example, the 24 elders I believe to represent the church and not literal 24 elders. I believe this because they’re wearing white robes, they have crowns, they’re sitting on thrones which implies power/authority, all things Jesus promises the church (to those who overcome).

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  11. I’m always interested in what other Christians have to say about The Revelation, even if I don’t agree with their interpretation. Thanks for being even-handed in this post. And thank you for recently stopping by and for following my blog.

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  12. I am excited to find another Christian blogger, by all means the world must hear the message and we must also bring each other into the light. Good read.

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  13. Great article!!

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