Summary: Learn how to understand and interpret the book, the themes, purpose, main character, culture and other tools in unveiling this book of unveilings.
Put the words "Book of Revelation" into Google and you get 12,000,000 web pages. Yes, that’s 12 MILLION. Without a doubt, this final book of the Bible generates an intense amount of interest, excitement, confusion, and controversy. Much ink has been spilled in attempts to understand and explain Revelation - not "Revelations" by the way - its one big revelation. Approaches in how to interpret the book have split Christians into several camps - and sometimes into bitter rivalries that seem to find no middle ground.
Is it literal? Is it purely symbolic? Is it only historical? Are there clues hidden there to figuring out today the identity of end-times figures like the Anti-Christ? How do we make sense of the bowls and trumpets and seals and beasts and harlots and dragons and horns and all the other weird things John sees?
If you simply read the book from cover to cover you find many more questions than answers - and this leads many people to simply give up and never even crack its pages - the gold leaf still sticks on the edges of the pages as they venture to the far reaches of God’s Word. For others, the pages of the Book of the Revelation are dog-eared with use. They treat it more like a calendar - eager to read present day events into the pages of the book - then take out an eraser when dates pass and events don’t pan out like they thought - and so they too get frustrated.
So is our study of this book even worth it? Absolutely. The Book of the Revelation is not as mysterious as some think, nor is it designed to accomplish things that some want it to. During these next many weeks we will take the book verse by verse - sometimes going more slowly to explain difficult sections, and sometimes more quickly as events unfold.
It’s a book of hope - that justice and salvation prevail. It’s also a book of warning - that justice (God’s justice) and salvation (God’s salvation through Jesus) prevail.
So what are some things that we need to understand?
1. The type of literature genre of the Book of the Revelation
2. Methods of interpreting Revelation
3. The underlying focus of the book
4. The themes
5. The structure of the book
6. The culture into which it was written
7. Interpretive tools for each part of the book (vision, epistle, apocalyptic, prophecy, exhortation)
8. A Quick Flyover
1. What is Revelation?
The Book of the Revelation falls under a particular type of literature. If you don’t understand this then the entire thing will just confuse you. Revelation is a genre of literature known as Apocalyptic. Apocalyptic mans "unveiling" - like taking a shroud off of a statue.
There are several books in the Bible that are apocalyptic - including Daniel, Zechariah, and Ezekiel. Apocalyptic literature has at least two characteristics:
1. It tells the future. Some say Revelation is a fairy tale - couldn’t be future. But Daniels’ prophecies came true in the highest detail - so much so that later some doubted that Daniel was real because it is so accurate.
2. It uses dramatic, powerful, symbolic language. Storms, insects, earth opening, moon turning to blood. It was not all that confusing to those that read it - they were used to the images of apocalyptic literature. But it’s important to remember that the symbols represent something real. Often these symbols are given so that the person seeing them has some frame of reference in which to write. These symbols are also consistent among the apocalyptic books. In other words: beasts in Daniel and beasts in Revelation mean the same thing symbolically.
2. Methods of Interpretation
There are basically three ways to interpret the book: Allegorical, Historical, or Literal. Among these there are subgroups - and other ways to categorize (see below*).
Some say Revelation is all symbolism and allegory. It is a cosmic fight between good and evil and good wins - but there is no literal beast or Lamb or 144,000 or second coming or anything like that. This type of interpretation spiritualizes or mysticises the book. The problem is that the interpretation is then up to the interpreter. You can basically get the book to say whatever you want. This school started in Alexandria in the 2nd century. In fact, they spiritualized the entire Bible.
There is a strong school of thought around Revelation that it was all fulfilled in the 1st three centuries after Jesus came - or that it represents the church throughout history but is historical, not prophetic. (Martin Luther, Calvin)
The literal interpretation takes the book at face value - it doesn’t mean we over literalize it - there are definitely symbols in this book - but if you just let the book speak for itself it cracks wide open. In fact, I think the literal interpretation takes the best from historical and mystical perspectives. There really were churches to whom this book was written and very real things they went through at that time - but yet some of this book is prophetical - telling of real events that have not yet happened. And if you just read the book it is the simplest way of looking at it - just try to interpret chapters 20-22 as historical.