Reading “Revelation” #5 – More principles and guidelines

POST OVERVIEW. One of a series of posts giving principles for reading and interpreting Revelation chapters 4-20, which is the most difficult section of the book. This fifth post of the series continues with the general principles and guidelines of interpretation begun in the previous post (#594). Previous posts in series: Post #590 (11/21), Post #592 (11/26), Post #593 (11/28), Post #594 (11/29).

SERIES DESCRIPTION. The book of Revelation is probably the most difficult book of the Bible to interpret correctly, and the main difficulties of the book are in chapters 4-20. Because of these interpretive difficulties and because many Bible teachers have offered conflicting and bewildering ideas about what the various passages of Revelation 4-20 mean, many earnest believers know just enough about the book of Revelation to be confused and intimidated by it. To clear up some of this confusion, in October 2021, I published my book, The Last Act of the Drama: a guide to the end times.

Now, a year later and before the 2nd edition of that book, I want to offer to readers of this beautiful prophecy a series of posts giving principles and guidelines for how to understand and interpret Revelation so that the book becomes a delight instead of a burden.

Interpreting the complex visions of Revelation 4-20 is made more manageable when the reader understands both the purposes for the book of Revelation and principles for navigating the text. In post #593 (11/28/2022), we had explored four purposes for Revelation, and in post #594 (11/29), we had considered some principles for approaching Revelation. In this post, we will continue our look at general principles for understanding the book.


PRINCIPLE. To understand the prophecy of Revelation, the reader should be quite familiar and comfortable with reading and understanding all biblical prophecy. One reason that many readers have difficulty with Revelation is that they are unfamiliar with the genre of biblical prophecy. While historical narratives (gospels and Acts) and the epistles (Romans through Jude) are understood literally, the book of Revelation is biblical prophecy and so is heavy on symbolism and figurative meanings and must be approached using a different lens. Because of the complexity of handling prophecy, I recommend that the student of Revelation should have read the Old Testament prophets Isaiah through Malachi several times before they study Revelation 4-20. If you have little knowledge of how to understand biblical prophecy, it is unlikely that you will successfully navigate the deep waters of Revelation.

Before we leave this point, I need to make a comment. It goes without saying that any believer can read Revelation at any time in their journey with the Lord. The beauty of the imagery and the power of the visions will edify any disciple. I am simply saying that, if you would study the book, you would be well-served to read and reread the Old Testament prophets and understand the genre of biblical prophecy.

PRINCIPLE. Biblical prophecy like Revelation typically presents events and characters figuratively and symbolically. Therefore, the default should be to interpret the text figuratively. For example, in Revelation, numbers are often symbolic. Symbolic numbers include 12, 7, 144,000, one thousand, and 666. Colors are symbolic, especially white, red, and black. Babylon is symbolic for all worldly and sensual wickedness. Other examples are the two witnesses (11:3ff), the woman of Revelation 12, the mark of the beast (13:16, 17; etc.),

Because so much of Revelation is marked by figurative and symbolic language, a key interpretive skill is discerning the meaning of these figures and symbols such that the interpretation makes sense in its context, is consistent with the rest of Scripture, and is consistent with the other passages in Revelation.

The principle here is that Revelation is to be interpreted figuratively.

GUIDELINE. Revelation is placed at the end of the canon because it is a summary of all that has gone before and is a tying together of any loose ends in the Scripture. As such, the student of Revelation will encounter a thorough test of biblical knowledge. This means that, before we interpret a passage or event in Revelation as new, we need to answer the question, “Haven’t we seen this (event or character) before?” Errors in interpreting Revelation can be avoided if the student remembers that there is little that is new in this final book of the Bible. Instead of new things, Revelation is usually presenting to us the final manifestations of things that we have seen before.

Soli Deo gloria                 rmb                 12/5/2022                   #596

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