How to Interpret Revelation

The Challenge to Understand Revelation

Revelation is the most difficult book in the Bible to understand. This is certainly true if one measures difficulty in terms of disagreement over what the book means. Disagreements over the meaning of Revelation have divided Christians into a number of different “eschatological camps”.

So much disagreement, even among well-respected theologians, can have a discouraging effect. How can the average reader of Revelation hope to understand things that are difficult for theologians?

On the other hand, Revelation is a book of the Bible given to us by God. Its opening paragraph says: “The revelation from Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place“, and “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near“.

This says that the book of Revelation was given to inform God’s servants about future things, and that it is beneficial for them to read and understand it. Are we really to believe that God would would say this and then turn around and make this book incomprehensible to most Christians?

No. These verses at the beginning of Revelation affirm that this book conveys an important message from God to his servants, and therefore a proper understanding of Revelation must be reasonably within their grasp. While understanding Revelation isn’t necessarily trivial, it has to be accessible provided that we go about it properly and prayerfully.

Proposal for Proper Interpretation of Revelation

Below are some principles of interpretation that I believe we should adopt in order to understand Revelation. These principles outline the approach used to develop the content of this website.

Have a good working knowledge of the Old Testament – God cannot be faulted for requiring His readers to be familiar with what He wrote in earlier books. In mathematics, you cannot expect to pick up a book on calculus and understand it if you have not first read the prerequisite books such as algebra and trigonometry. In the same manner, the earlier books of the Bible are prerequisite material for understanding its final book, Revelation.

Old Testament knowledge is vital to understanding Revelation for three reasons:

  1. The Old Testament includes many prophecies concerning the end times. Since any proper interpretation of Revelation must be in harmony with those earlier prophecies, they are an indispensable guide in our efforts to understand Revelation.
  2. Revelation makes heavy use of symbolic imagery, and much of the imagery that we see presented in Revelation is not explained in Revelation. However, in these cases, you’ll often find that the imagery clearly alludes to something in the Old Testament. When this happens, God is establishing a parallel between that Old Testament account and the account given in Revelation. By first understanding the Old Testament account, we should be able to see a parallel (or metaphorical) meaning that helps explain the similar imagery used in Revelation.
  3. There are many prophecies in the Old Testament which have already been fulfilled. Studying these fulfilled prophecies helps us understand the general nature of Biblical prophecy. This informs us about how we can expect the prophecies of Revelation to be fulfilled. After all, we have no reason to assume God will change His methods. Here are some things we learn from fulfilled prophecies:
    • Prophecy doesn’t exaggerate (as some imply regarding Revelation, e.g. Preterists).
    • Prophecy is often written figuratively, but it is still fulfilled in real and discernible ways. That is, prophecy is not fulfilled in “mystical” or “allegorical” ways (as some claim, e.g. Idealists).
    • Prophecy isn’t intended to give us a complete understanding of what will happen (see example below).
    • Prophecy doesn’t fail. If God says it will happen, it will happen.

♦ Pay attention to the structure of Revelation – Revelation is easily the most structured book in the Bible, and all of that structure is there to provide important context for the passages within. However, one must understand what the structure means before one can gain this proper context. Revelation’s structure is the main topic discussed in Revelation Overview.

♦ Remember that Revelation is meant to be understood – This is perhaps the most overlooked principle, and yet one of the most important. What it means is that we must seek an interpretation that would be reasonably within the grasp of any of God’s servants (Rev 1:1). The proper understanding should be based simply on scripture and reason, without requiring us to be highly inventive or imaginative. It is wise to employ Occam’s Razor: If you have a choice between a simple explanation that works or a complex explanation that works, favor the simple one.

Applying this principle means that if you find an interpretation that seems mystifying or excessively complicated, then it’s probably wrong. In particular, interpretations that depend on dubious numerology, stretchy assumptions, or knowledge of obscure information external to scripture should be dismissed.

There are plenty of examples where this principle has been violated. One interpreter famously announced that the world would end on May 21, 2011, having arrived at this conclusion using a dubious and complex correlation of figures from Genesis. Predictably, it turned out to be wrong.

Also, if you do a Google search for “end times chart”, you will be treated to some of the most bewildering diagrams you will ever see. Ask yourself: Would God really expect his servants to each arrive at such a complicated understanding of Revelation?

♦ Know the significance of the number seven – The number seven occurs 55 times in Revelation, which is more than any other book of the Bible. We see the number seven applied to several different things. This is not some strange coincidence. The number seven carries the meaning of wholeness (see The Number Seven for explanations). The implied meaning of wholeness must not be overlooked because it is actually an important guide for correctly understanding the scope of all the things that are associated with seven.

Apply standard, solid, proven methods of interpretation – It may seem unnecessary to say this, but I’ve found that people often take more liberties when interpreting Revelation than they do with other books. Simply put:

  • We pay close attention to context, which has local (within the passage), intermediate (within the book), and global (within the Bible) aspects.
  • We give priority to the most sensible face-value meaning of the passage, starting with the literal meaning and moving away from it only if there is justification for doing so.
  • We seek consistency with other scripture, which means that we must seek an understanding that “fits” all applicable scripture on a given subject.
  • We interpret from a Jewish perspective. Since scripture was written by (and generally for) Jews, it sometimes takes for granted that the reader understands Jewish culture and history.

In most cases, these methods will produce a single interpretation that emerges uniquely as the best. In some cases, there is room for disagreement, and a few of those cases may be very difficult. Translations and commentaries written by qualified Biblical scholars often provide useful information on how to interpret challenging passages.

We should accept that not everything will be understood with 100% confidence. So, let’s not make 100% confidence the goal. The goal should be the most reasonable and defensible understanding. This is how we interpret the Bible in general, and it applies to Revelation also.

♦ Be familiar with the Bible’s use of figurative language – Why does the Bible, and especially Revelation, make such heavy use of figurative language? The answer is obtained by observing what figurative language accomplishes. Interestingly, it accomplishes two objectives that seem contrary to each other:

    • On one hand, figurative language can clarify the reader’s understanding by relating a new concept with an older and already familiar concept. Also, figurative language gives the writer more freedom to express an idea without becoming too specific.
    • On the other hand, figurative language can deliberately cloud the reader’s understanding, and this is especially true of Revelation because its figurative terms will seem obscure to anyone unfamiliar with earlier scripture. More than any other book, Revelation is dependent on scripture that is found outside of itself. Someone with little interest in reading and understanding scripture in general will be frustrated if they try to find “quick answers” about the future from Revelation.

Please note that the use of figurative language is not an invitation to let one’s imagination run wild. Figurative language will either have a meaning that is readily understood (perhaps with the help of historical/cultural knowledge) or it refers to something else presented earlier in the Bible, in which case Biblical knowledge is required.

♦ Be familiar with the Bible’s use of parallels – God likes to use parallels. This is where an event that takes place at one time corresponds metaphorically to a similar event at a later time. The observance of parallels in the Bible is not due to cleverness on the part of the observer, but rather the intended design on the part of God. God may use parallels because it confirms His existence. No human enterprise could orchestrate such parallels across the vast landscape of history.

Examples of Biblical parallels include:

  • The Passover sacrifice in Exodus with the sacrifice of Christ our Passover (1 Cor 5:7).
  • David’s anguish expressed in Psalm 22 with the crucifixion of Christ (Psalm 22:1 quoted by Jesus during his crucifixion, Matt 27:46).

In a broader sense, the whole experience of the nation Israel in the Old Testament parallels the experience of the church in the New Testament. This parallel is rather natural since both groups constitute God’s representatives on earth — first Israel, and then the church.

The parallels between Old Testament events and the first coming of Christ should cause us to expect more parallels surrounding the glorious second coming of Christ. Indeed, in Revelation there are a number of clear and strong parallels, and they must be properly recognized as such.

♦ Avoid preconceived notions – Revelation is the most detailed and complete book concerning the end times. Therefore, one should let Revelation speak first. That is, try to interpret Revelation without forcing it to conform with any particular eschatological view. For example, don’t go into Revelation presuming a pre-tribulation, post-tribulation, pre-millennial, post-millennial, or any other such stance. If you start with presumptions, you will in effect be telling Revelation what it says when it should be the other way around.

After letting Revelation inform your mind, there will be plenty of time to see which eschatological view fits best with what you have learned.

♦ Keep an open mind – Normally, when interpreting scripture, one is not highly encouraged to have an “open mind”. That is, if someone discovers a new way to interpret scripture that no one else ever thought of in the centuries past, then this new interpretation should be viewed with some healthy skepticism. However, if one accepts that Revelation is prophecy that has not yet been fulfilled, then the situation is a bit different.

Regarding the fulfillment of end times prophecies, Christ gave his followers some signs to look for and he taught his followers to be watchful and alert (e.g. Mark 13:32-37) regarding those signs. Since there are many things we can’t be certain about with regard to future prophecy, we should avoid becoming too committed to any one specific idea about how the end times will play out. If our expectations happen to be wrong, they might cause us to overlook a significant fulfillment.

It is okay (and only natural) to form some ideas and opinions regarding how prophecy will be fulfilled. However, one should be careful to keep one’s opinions separate from the scripture itself. While scripture must be accepted as it is, our opinions about what it means can and should be subject to revision as we gain knowledge — and some of that knowledge may change as history unfolds.

There may be mistakes in the interpretation of Revelation presented in this website. In fact, I’ve changed my mind about some things a number of times and I may do so again. We have no objective way of knowing for sure if any given interpretation is correct! In this sense, the interpretation of Revelation is more of a path than a destination.

♦ Be cautious – There have been many professing Christians in history who have made wrong predictions about the end times. Some predictions made claims about when Christ would return and others were about revealing the identity of the “Antichrist”. So far, they have all been wrong. Every time false predictions such as these are announced, they undermine the Christian witness in the world. It is like the Boy Who Cried Wolf, because when the actual fulfillment is upon us, the truth will be met by scorn. The last thing any true Christian should want to be is a false prophet, and no Christian should risk making false accusations.

There is no reward for being the first Christian to correctly announce matters associated with the end times. If you wish to be commended by God regarding the end times, then seek to understand scripture, and prepare yourself to faithfully persevere to the end. (This last point is discussed in Living During the Great Tribulation).

Good interpretation comes from humble interpreters. They are aware of their own bias and finite knowledge, and they are open to correction. Realizing one’s own flaws is the first step to avoiding them.

Example of Prophecy

It is helpful to consider an Old Testament prophecy that has already been fulfilled. I’ve chosen one from Zechariah chapter 11:

12I said to them, “If it is good in your sight, give me my wages; but if not, never mind!” So they weighed out thirty shekels of silver as my wages. 13Then the LORD said to me, “Throw it to the potter, that magnificent price at which I was valued by them.” So I took the thirty shekels of silver and threw them to the potter in the house of the LORD.

When Zechariah wrote this prophecy and for a few centuries that followed, this was future prophecy. There were ancient readers — people, like us — who read it and wondered what the fulfillment would be. Today, we know how this prophecy was fulfilled. From Matt 26:14-15 and Matt 27:1-10, we learn that:

  • Judas sought to betray Jesus for money, and the chief priests gave him thirty pieces of silver (Matt 26:15). This was the value (sarcastically, “that magnificent price”) that the religious leaders of Israel considered Jesus to be worth (i.e. his “wages”).
  • Judas betrayed Jesus, and then later felt remorse and wanted to return the money, but the chief priests refused to accept it (Matt 27:3-4). Judas forced them to take it by throwing the silver into the temple, and the priests retrieved it (Matt 27:5-6). In this way, the money was thrown to them in the house of the LORD.
  • Not wanting to keep it, the priests used the money to buy a field, which happened to belong to a potter (Matt 27:7-8)! Thus the money was ultimately thrown to the potter in the house of the LORD.

If we are honest, we would not fault those ancient readers if they failed to understand completely how Zechariah’s prophecy would be fulfilled. They probably understood it to be Messianic, but the exact details would have been difficult to foresee. However, knowing now how this prophecy was fulfilled, we can think of some advice we might have given them regarding the methods of interpretation they should have used:

  • We would tell them to keep an open mind. Some overconfident ancient readers may have become convinced that they had this prophecy all figured out, yet the chances are good that their understanding would be inaccurate. These people would likely fail to notice the fulfillment when it happened.
  • We would tell them to pay attention to the context. The broader context of this passage in Zechariah is clearly critical toward Israel, and so they should understand that this prophecy will reflect badly on Israel, particularly its leaders, regarding their treatment of the Messiah.
  • We would tell them to take the most literal understanding as reasonably possible. The broader context of Zechariah’s prophecy has some figurative elements. For one thing, the Messiah is depicted as a “shepherd” holding two staffs called “Favor” and “Union”. It seems unlikely that the Messiah will literally be a shepherd with these two actual staffs. But a shepherd carries an obvious metaphorical meaning (as in Psalm 23), and the staffs are explained in Zechariah. The other key elements of the prophecy, such as the thirty pieces of silver, the house of the Lord, and the potter, don’t have any obvious metaphorical meaning and there’s no reason to think that the literal meaning is unacceptable. It would have been wrong for the ancient interpreters to imagine figurative meanings for these things.

While this advice might not help them know exactly what the fulfillment would be, they would have a reasonably good idea that Israel (especially the leaders) would mistreat and devalue the Messiah in some way. This mistreatment would probably involve a literal thirty pieces of silver that moves between the literal temple and a literal potter. Someone with this much understanding would be well-prepared to recognize the fulfillment of the prophecy when it happened.

It is possible that some of the prophecy in Revelation is like this also. We may not know enough to confidently reach a complete understanding, but we can be ready to recognize the fulfillment when it happens. By doing this, we can be Christ’s faithful servants who are watchful and alert, as he called us to be.

Note: This article is one of two foundational articles for this website. The other is Revelation Overview, which you may wish to review now if you haven’t already.

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