By Matt Messner

Revelation is a difficult yet fascinating part of our Bible. It’s a book full of mystery, angels, beasts, bottomless pits, and judgments. Many modern readers (and pastors) pass it over because it is challenging to confidently interpret and understand this book.

Here are some keys to help you understand this book:

1. Remember that it is God’s Word, inspired by the Holy Spirit.

2. Recognize the three types of literature that it is and approach it accordingly.
a. It is a letter. This is an epistle, written and circulated among the seven churches to whom it was addressed.
b. It is also prophecy. It is a prophetic word from God for the church in the present situation that John was writing to. As prophecy, there are points of secondary meaning, beyond the understanding of the writer, but our main task is to discover what was being said in the immediate context.
c. It is apocalypse. There were dozens of apocalypses written between 200 BC and AD 200. They were typically written during times of persecution and oppression. God chose to inspire this particular piece of apocalyptic writing. It is focused on God’s work post history. It looks forward to when God would bring a radical end with the triumph of good and the final judgment of evil.
i. It contains rich symbolism. Some of it is clear and some of it is cryptic. Some of the imagery is fantastical symbolic language. It takes metaphorical language into an other worldly realm, including “a seven headed beast” (13:1), a “woman clothed with the sun” (12:1), locust with scorpion tails and human heads, etc. These are inspired symbolic images.
ii. One must be sensitive to the background imagery that formed Revelation; images from the Old Testament and other sources.
iii. God inspires this particular apocalypse to create a response within the listeners, all of whom were experiencing great persecution within the Roman Empire.

3. We seek to understand what the Holy Spirit’s original intent was. The writing meant something to the original audience. What would the first hearers have understood it to mean? This process of study is called exegesis. When we understand what this is, we then can seek to apply that meaning in our lives as well. This process is called hermeneutics.
a. The images of Revelation make this challenging. Here are some that are clear:
i. The one like a son of man is Christ (1:13)
ii. The golden lampstands are the seven churches to whom it is addressed.
iii. The great dragon is an image for Satan.
iv. The prostitute is the great city, which is clearly Rome.
v. There is Old Testament imagery throughout.

4. Apocalypses seldom give a detailed chronological account of the future. The concern of Revelation is that “God is in control of history and the church. Even though the church will experience suffering and death, it will be triumphant in Christ, who will judge his enemies and save his people.” (Fee, Gordon. How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth).

5. Read for the big picture. Don’t try to figure out everything. Let your reading be an experience and get a feel for the book and its overall message. Let it move you. It reads like a drama of multiple scenes. The original audience primarily listened to the reading of this book (See 1:3). They were mostly illiterate and did not have multiple copies for personal analysis.

6. Keep in mind the main theme: The church and the world power structures are on a collision course, and it may appear that the world wins. Suffering and death lie ahead, but God is in control. Trials and tribulations will come, but God’s children are shielded from His wrath. We can triumph through all things. Jesus holds the keys to history and He holds the church in His hands. The church will triumph even through death, and God will bring judgment to the enemy.

7. This book is God’s word of comfort and encouragement to Christians who suffer for their faith. The lamb ultimately triumphs over the dragon.

8. Do not spend time speculating as to how any of our contemporary events may be fitted into the pictures of Revelation. This book was not intended to prophesy the existence of China, or the United States. People have tried this over and over again and have created much confusion while missing the power and the meaning of the book.

9. Accept some ambiguity as to how all the details will be worked out. Be confident in the fact that God will work it all out in the end.

For further study, I recommend Gordon Fee’s Commentary, “Revelation” from the New Covenant Commentary Series (2011).