Interpreting Revelation

Interpreters have traditionally approached Revelation in four primary ways. The preterist approach takes the historical context of Revelation seriously and attempts to understand the book the way that John’s audience would have understood it. Many of the events of Revelation are seen as having been fulfilled in the first century. The historicist approach views Revelation as a map or outline of what has happened or will happen throughout church history from the first century until the return of Christ. The futuristapproach views most of the book as related to future events immediately preceding the end of history. Finally, the idealist approach does not understand Revelation in terms of any particular reference to time, but rather relates it to the ongoing struggle between good and evil.

In this unit, we opt for an eclectic approach to reading Revelation—an approach that seeks to combine the strengths of several of the above approaches. Revelation certainly seems to address the first Christians directly. We should read Revelation the same way that we read every other book of the Bible—by taking its historical context seriously. Revelation also presents timeless truths for surviving the struggle between good and evil. The visions of Revelation challenge us to forsake our complacency and to stay faithful during times of persecution. Moreover, this book certainly has something to say about events still to come. Some events it describes await future fulfillment (e.g., the return of Christ, the great white throne judgment, and the arrival of the holy city).

In addition to these general approaches to Revelation, we need more specific principles for reading this prophetic-apocalyptic letter. Here are seven suggestions.

1. Read Revelation with humility. We should resist “Revelation-made-easy” approaches. Revelation is not easy! People who must satisfy their curiosity or people who are unwilling to live with any uncertainty are those most likely to read into Revelation things that are not there. Beware of interpreters who appear to have all the answers to even the smallest of questions. “Experts” who claim absolute knowledge about every minute detail of Revelation should be held in suspicion. Reading with a humble mind means that we are willing to admit that our interpretation could be wrong and to change our view when the biblical evidence points in a different direction.

2. Try to discover the message to the original readers. Discovering the message to the original audience is the top priority with any book of the Bible, but especially with this one. When it comes to reading Revelation, the tendency is to ignore the first Chris tians and jump directly to God’s message for us. Some people use today’s newspapers as the key to interpreting Revelation. But, as Keener notes, this approach does not fit well with a high view of Scripture.[7] The “newspaper” approach assumes that we must be living in the last Christian generation. It also implies that in Revelation God was not really speaking to the very first Christians. Doesn’t that seem arrogant on our part as contemporary interpreters? What if Christ does not return until AD 4000? Would Revelation still have a message for us since we would not be the last generation? We must never forget that the first Christians were blessed for obeying Revelation (1:3) and that the book is described as an unsealed (or open) book, even for people living in John’s day (22:10).

The best place to begin is with the question: “What was John trying to communicate to his audience?” If our interpretation makes no sense for original readers, we have probably missed the meaning of the passage. Fee and Stuart remind us of how important it is to discover the message to the original audience: “As with the Epistles, the primary meaning of the Revelation is what John intended it to mean, which in turn must also have been something his readers could have understood it to mean.”[8] The Interpretive Journey serves as a reminder that we must understand what it meant in John’s day in order to understand what it means today.

3. Don’t try to discover a strict chronological map of future events. Don’t look for Revelation to progress in a neat linear fashion. The book is filled with propheticapocalyptic visions that serve to make a dramatic impact on the reader rather than to present a precise chronological sequence of future events. For example, notice that the sixth seal (6:12–17) takes us to the end of the age.

12I watched as he opened the sixth seal. There was a great earthquake. The sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red, 13and the stars in the sky fell to earth, as figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind. 14The heavens receded like a scroll being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.
15Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and everyone else, both slave and free, hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. 16They called to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! 17For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can withstand it?”

But when the seventh seal is opened, we are given a whole new set of judgments—the trumpets—and the seventh trumpet (11:15–19) also takes us to the end of the age:

15The seventh angel sounded his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, which said:

“The kingdom of the world has become
the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah,
and he will reign for ever and ever.”

16And the twenty-four elders, who were seated on their thrones before God, fell on their faces and worshiped God, 17saying:

“We give thanks to you, Lord God Almighty,
the One who is and who was,
because you have taken your great power
and have begun to reign.
18The nations were angry,
and your wrath has come.
The time has come for judging the dead,
and for rewarding your servants the prophets
and your people who revere your name,
both great and small—
and for destroying those who destroy the earth.”

19Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and within his temple was seen the ark of his covenant. And there came flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake and a severe hailstorm.

Then with the first bowl in 16:1–2 we are given another series of judgments. Revelation 19–22 paints the most colorful and detailed picture of the end, but, as you can see, this is not the first time the readers have been transported to the very end.

On a smaller scale, in Revelation 6:12–16 we are told that “the stars in the sky fell to earth. . . . The heavens receded like a scroll being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.” Yet in 7:3 the four angels are told not to “harm the land or the sea or the trees until we put a seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God.” To attempt to force a strict chronological sequence on this wouldn’t make sense. Rather than searching for a chronological map of future events in Revelation, we encourage you to grasp the main message in each vision about living in the here and now.

4. Take Revelation seriously, but don’t always take it literally. Some who say that we should interpret Scripture symbolically do so in order to deny the reality of a scriptural truth or a historical event. When they say that something is figurative or symbolic, they mean that it is not real or that it never happened. That is not our intention in Grasping God’s Word. We insist that picture language with its symbols, images, and figures is capable of conveying literal truth and describing literal events. Picture language is just another language vehicle, another way of communicating reality. In our way of thinking, Revelation uses picture language to emphasizehistorical reality rather than to deny or diminish it.

One of the ground rules of interpretation is that our method of interpretation should always match the literary genre used by the author. As a result, we should avoid taking picture language literally. When we try to force a literal method on the genre of picture language, we run the risk of perverting the author’s intended meaning.

For example, what happens when we try to take the reference in Revelation 17:9 to the woman who sits on seven hills literally? To force this image into a literal mold results either in one very large woman or in seven very small hills. But when we say that the woman in 17:9 is not a literal woman, we do not deny the reality of Scripture at all. We do not take the image literally, but we do take it seriously. First-century Christians would naturally understand the woman to represent Rome, a city built on seven hills. The text probably also looks beyond Rome to powerful pagan empires opposed to God. We take picture language seriously, but not literally.

We are told in Revelation 1:1 that God has “signified” (KJV) the book to John. The word translated “signify” (NIV, “made it known”) suggests that God has communicated the book to John by means of signs or symbols.19 According to Beale, the background of this term is Daniel 2, where God “signifies” to the king what will occur in the latter days by showing him a pictorial revelation (Dan. 2:45). When interpreting much of the Bible, the general rule is to interpret literally except where the context clearly calls for a symbolic reading. The word “signify” in Revelation 1:1 suggests that when we come to this book, the general rule is just the reverse: interpret symbolically unless the context calls for a literal reading.

5. Pay attention when John identifies an image. When John himself provides a clue to the interpretation of an image, we should take notice. In other words, we should pay close attention when John identifies or defines the images for his readers. For example, in Revelation 1:17 the one “like a son of man” (1:13) is Christ, in 1:20 the golden lampstands are the churches, in 5:5–6 the Lion is the Lamb, in 12:9 the dragon is Satan, and in 21:9–10 the heavenly Jerusalem is the wife of the Lamb or the church. When images that John has identified are repeated elsewhere in the book, we should assume that they probably refer to the same things.

For example, the lampstands are clearly identified in 1:20 as the churches: “The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.” When the image of the lampstand occurs later in 11:3–4, we should assume that it probably refers to the church there also, based on John’s earlier identification:

3And I will appoint my two witnesses, and they will prophesy for 1,260 days, clothed in sackcloth.” 4They are “the two olive trees” and the two lampstands, and “they stand before the Lord of the earth.”

In this case, the interpretive guideline suggests that the two witnesses of Revelation 11 represent the witnessing church.

You have to be careful not to confuse John’s direct identification of an image (those mentioned above) with John’s fluid use of images. In other words, John is not shy about using the same image to refer to different things. For example, the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches (1:16, 20; 2:1; 3:1). But John also uses the image of a star (not the seven stars) to refer to other things, such as God’s agents of judgment (8:10–12) or even Jesus himself (22:16). In the same way, the image of a woman can be used for a false prophetess (2:20), the messianic community (ch. 12), the harlot city or empire (ch. 17), and the bride of Christ (19:7; 21:9). Even though John is free to use images to refer to different things, when he identifies an image, we should pay attention.

6. Look to the Old Testament and historical context when interpreting images and symbols. Revelation uses language at several different levels:

  • Text level: words written on the page
  • Vision level: the picture that the words paint
  • Referent level: what the vision refers to in real life

One of the most difficult aspects of reading Revelation is knowing what the images and symbols refer to. Even when we understand what is happening at the text and vision levels, we may not know what is going on at the referent level. In other words, we usually know what Revelation is saying, but we are often not sure what it is talking about.

The two places to go for answers are to the first-century historical context and the Old Testament. Earlier in this unit we discussed the historical context, but we have not talked much about how Revelation uses the Old Testament. Although there is no explicit Old Testament quotation in Revelation, the book is filled with echoes and allusions to the Old Testament. In fact, Revelation contains more Old Testament references than any other New Testament book, with the Old Testament appearing in almost 70 percent of Revelation’s verses. Psalms, Isaiah, Daniel, and Ezekiel make the most important contribution to Revelation.

Let’s look briefly at how John draws on the Old Testament book of Daniel to describe his vision of Jesus in Revelation 1. Notice how many of Daniel’s words and phrases John uses to depict Jesus as a glorious divine being (see the italicized words):

9As I looked,
thrones were set in place,
and the Ancient of Days took his seat.
His clothing was as white as snow;
the hair of his head was white like wool.
His throne was flaming with fire,
and its wheels were all ablaze. . . .
13In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. 14He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed. (Dan. 7:9, 13–14)
5I looked up and there before me was a man dressed in linen, with a belt of the fine gold from Uphaz around his waist. 6His body was like topaz, his face like lightning, his eyes like flaming torches, his arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze, and his voice like the sound of a multitude. (Dan. 10:5–6)


7Look, he is coming with the clouds,
and “every eye will see him,
even those who pierced him”;
and all peoples on earth “will mourn because of him.”

So shall it be!
Amen. . . .
12I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands, 13and among the lampstands was someone like a son of man, dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sasharound his chest. 14The hair on his head was white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire15His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. (Rev. 1:7, 12–15)

Understanding Daniel helps us to understand Revelation here. John often uses the Old Testament language to describe what he has seen and heard. As we struggle to identify what the vision is about, we should turn to the historical context and to the Old Testament.

7. Above all, focus on the main idea and don’t press all the details. This last interpretive guideline is perhaps the most important of all. With most literary genres in the Bible, we begin with the details and build our way toward an understanding of the whole. With Revelation, however, we should start with the big picture and work toward an understanding of the details. As we seek to identify theological principles in Revelation, we should focus on the main ideas. Try this: Read a section of Revelation and capture the main idea in a short statement. For example, the main idea of Revelation 4–5 relates to the ascended and exalted Lord, who alone is worthy to execute the divine judgments. The details of any particular section will heighten the impact on the reader but will not change the main idea. Resist the temptation to focus on the details so that you miss the main idea. Don’t let the main point of each section or vision fade from view. As has been said, when reading Revelation, the main thing is to make the main thing the main thing!

If the central interpretive rule is to grasp the main idea of each vision, it becomes important that we have a general understanding of how the book unfolds. We see the book unfolding in seven broad movements, bracketed by an introduction and a conclusion.

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