Some books and passages of Scripture are admittedly, “hard to understand” and men would be wise to take care lest we, “twist them to our own destruction” (2 Peter 3:16). Perhaps every Christian has been puzzled by the last book of the Bible — Revelation. Unique in scope and purpose, Revelation is written in the style of the Old Testament prophets, and we would do well to remember several principles as we seek to understand its meaning.
Revelation has a definite theme — Every book of the Bible has an overarching theme that should be considered in understanding the author’s meaning. The theme of Revelation, simply put, is that, “We win.” Christians gain the victory over Satan, sin, and self through the marvelous resurrection and reign of Jesus Christ! “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on… that they may rest from their labors, and their works follow them” (Revelation 14:13). Whatever else we understand about this wonderful book, we should never lose sight of the victory Jesus has won and the victory Christians have through Him. Revelation is a book of good news!
Revelation meant something to its first readers — With an inordinate desire to see sensational prophecies fulfilled in our lifetime, some have seen everything from helicopters to Henry Kissinger in this book. When reading Revelation, however, we must keep in mind that readers in the first century had to understand what God wrote to them. Chapters 2 and 3 of this epistle are specifically addressed to seven churches in Asia Minor (see Rev. 1:4). Wisdom and prudence would dictate that we keep in mind the addressees specifically named in this epistle as we seek to understand its meaning.
Revelation is written largely in apocalyptic language — One reason why we don’t understand Revelation is that we haven’t investigated much in the Old Testament prophets. Zechariah, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel are just a few of the prophets whose rich imagery and language is echoed in the chapters of Revelation. Apocalyptic language nearly always deals with the rise and fall of nations in history. When we see sun, moon, and stars being blotted out and swept from the sky, it’s a good idea to look for nations under the judgment of God. Indeed, “God rules in the kingdoms of men.” Revelation was not written so that nobody could understand it, rather, it was written specifically so that early Christians who knew their Old Testament COULD understand it (Rom. 15:4).
Revelation is primarily symbolic — Revelation is often misunderstood because men unwisely attempt to attach meaning to each individual detail. Understand that this is a VISION that was SEEN by the apostle John. “Write the things which you have SEEN” (Rev. 1:19). This is not to say that we cannot always investigate and wonder at the details of Revelation, but the main message of the book is communicated in the symbols taken as a whole. Thus, while there are many details worthy of investigation, we will miss the entire point of John’s writing if we fail to take the vision as a concerted whole. It is unwise to allow specific details to distract us from the broader meaning of John’s vision.
I believe that God intends for us to be genuinely fascinated by His word. Without a sense of awe and wonder, we might find our “daily food” a bit bland (cf. Matt. 4:4). Revelation will continue to be a curiosity to many, but let us always remember its purpose — Christians gain the victory through Jesus Christ! — JB