How Should I Read "Revelation"?


How should I study the book of Revelation? I've read the whole Bible more than once, but I sometimes still feel confused and lost when I read the book of Revelation. How can I better prepare to read through it?

- Courtney Fink

This is a question posed to me recently, and one that I've heard countless times. What a great question.

I'm careful in writing this, as there are constantly more and more scholarly opinions that circulate about how to read Revelation. I choose to reserve the right to change my mind about certain scriptures in Revelation; however, the overall theme of the book is attainable, and within the theme, many positions can be held about what a prophecy or illustration might mean or might have meant, and of course there is leading scholarship and poor scholarship. Because of this, I'll begin with this quote:

"Here are two unhelpful approaches to Revelation. One is to think it is such an incomprehensible book of enigmas and riddles that we avoid it. The second is to uncritically follow someone else’s arbitrary interpretation of all the details and hidden meanings of its passages. Revelation is not too hard to comprehend, and we should benefit from it. But first we need to understand the big picture." Mel Lawrenz

Have you ever sat down to read a novel, and once you're a quarter, or half-way, through the book, you become impatient and skip to the last chapter? This is what we're doing if we decide to read the book of Revelation before reading the entire Bible. One is better off by reading the entire Bible several times before attempting to achieve a deeper understanding of Revelation. Just like if you skip to the last chapter of any novel, reading Revelation before every other book might be exhilarating and enriching, but key allusions, motifs, references, history, and countless Biblical "inside jokes" will be overlooked. Revelation is an incredible book with explicit imagery and an explosion of illustrative literature, but it's easy to become quickly confused without keeping some different reading strategies in mind, as well as properly preparing to dissect such a dense read.

I have good news and bad news. The bad news is, just like any dense subject matter, or like learning a new language, understanding the book of Revelation won't happen over night. That's the bad news! The good news: with practice, strategy, perseverance, and patience, you CAN understand the theme of Revelation, why it was written, and what God intends for us to learn from it. Quickly answering all the "what-does-this-mean"s and the "what-does-this-stand-for"s pulls away from the more illustrious art that is the book of Revelation.

Five Important Things Before Reading Revelation

1. Revelation chapter 2-3 are fairly straightforward. We can read into the seven churches as perhaps being the perfect number, seven, and being inclusive of the universal church as a whole; otherwise, it's supposed to be read as a letter. Chapters 4-19 is usually what confuses people. It's written in apocalyptic language, and involves mostly the prophecies of the Roman attacks on the church, and God's eventual victory over the Beast, Rome. There is an incredible amount to explain in Revelation, but the basic take-away for us is that God was, and is, and will be in control. When the church was persecuted by Nero and Domitian (the 5th and 8th "kings" of the Beast, Revelation 17:11), God promised the Saints at that time that the persecution would soon come to an end. These prophecies have been fulfilled now since the fall of Rome (the fall of Babylon, the fall of the Great Prostitute, around the same time as the death of Domitian) in the 1st century.

2. One should be sure to properly utilize exegesis and hermeneutics when reading through Revelation, just like any other book of the Bible. Exegesis: What did John, the writer of the book of Revelation, originally intend for the original recipients to understand when they read his letter? Hermeneutics: Considering what the book meant to its original readers, what does it now mean to me? The Bible can't mean now what it didn't mean then.

3. Revelation is intensely saturated with Old Testament motifs, allegory, Jewish theology, apocalyptic literature, prophecy, and regular letter-writing. When reading through Revelation, it's important to understand key Old Testament apocalypse, prophecy, and Jewish historical customs.

4. Revelation draws heavily from Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and Zechariah, and further uses context from several other Old Testament books. More times than not, the Old Testament references in Revelation are not packaged and gift-wrapped for the reader, and there often is no footnote pointing you to the direct OT passage. This is because much of the OT used in Revelation is allusive rather than explicit, meaning the easiest way to notice that the Old Testament is being utilized is sometimes only by having read the Old Testament, and making the connection for yourself. (Of course there are also commentaries, study Bibles, and people you could ask for help).

Along with reading the entire Bible before diving into Revelation, pay special attention to the prophecies in Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and Zechariah.

5. Much of the prophecy in Revelation was prophetic for the people hearing it for the first time (when the book was written by John, on the Island of Patmos, around 85-95 AD). This means that much of the book's prophecy has already come to pass and has been fulfilled. Consequently, determining the end times, or the "apocalypse", based on the imagery in Revelation is an impossible road to walk.

36 “Now concerning that day and hour no one knows—neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son[q] —except the Father only. 37 As the days of Noah were, so the coming of the Son of Man will be. 38 For in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah boarded the ark. 39 They didn’t know until the flood came and swept them all away. So this is the way the coming of the Son of Man will be: 40 Then two men will be in the field: one will be taken and one left. 41 Two women will be grinding at the mill: one will be taken and one left. 42 Therefore be alert, since you don’t know what day your Lord is coming. 43 But know this: If the homeowner had known what time the thief was coming, he would have stayed alert and not let his house be broken into. 44 This is why you also must be ready, because the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect." Matthew 24: 36-44

To make things trickier, sometimes prophecies that have already been fulfilled may also refer to things yet to come.

Four Helpful Characters Explained

1. The Lamb is Jesus Christ, and has many names in Revelation, as well as the rest of the Bible. In Revelation 1:1, His name is Jesus Christ. In 1:8, He is "the Alpha and the Omega" (the first and last letters in the Greek alphabet). He is the Lion of Judah (Rev 5:5). He is the Root of David (Rev 5:5). There are some others; King of Kings, Lord of Lords, the Beginning and the End, the Bridegroom, etc.

2. The Dragon in Revelation 12 is Satan. Satan is defeated but fights nonetheless. The woman is the church (clear from Revelation 12:13-17), and though Satan attempts to drown her in water, he is defeated and enraged. (The woman in chapter 12 i not to be confused with the woman of Revelation 17 and 18, who is Babylon, the Great Prostitute).

3. The Two Beasts in Revelation 13 are not the anti-Christ. The beast out of the sea (13:1-10) is Rome, and it has ten horns (17:12), each corresponding to one of ten Roman kings. It also has seven heads (17:1), which correspond to Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Vespasian, and Titus (John Oakes). The beast out of the earth (13:11-17) is Domitian, who persecuted the Saints for a time, empowered by Satan and allowed by God.

4. The Beast in Romans 17 is not the political leader that you strongly disagree with, and it's not the "anti-Christ". There are countless interpretations of the Beast that are obviously wrong when Revelation is read in historical context and in context with the rest of the Bible. The Beast refers to Rome during the time that the book and written, and shortly thereafter. (It doesn't refer to modern day Italy).

When we decide to read Revelation in its historical and Biblical context, we begin to more clearly recognize the history that has taken place throughout the Bible that prophetically pointed to Revelation, then the prophecy in Revelation that pointed to things that are now history (in the past) for us today! Simply put, much of Revelation has already come to pass. With this in mind, and with a few helpful hints, we can dive more deeply, and begin to understand more fully, the last book of the Bible, Revelation.

Helpful Resources

1. Jim McGuiggan's Revelation

2. Jim McGuiggan's The Kingdom of God and the Planet Earth

3. A chapter by chapter, verse by verse, exhaustively compiled commentary on Revelation at BibleStudyTools.com

4. John Oakes's helpful Revelation articles and Q/A.

5. Douglas Jacoby's 30-part series on Revelation that can be found here. in addition to articles and Q/A

6. Gordon Ferguson's Mine Eyes Have Seen Thy Glory