You’re reading through your Bible and you come to the Book of Revelation. When you read it, you may have more questions about the book than when you started reading! Don’t be discouraged. I think most Bible students admit that the Book of Revelation is a constant challenge and as such requires care and perseverance to understand. I certainly am no “expert” on this topic, but I have found some “hints” that can make study of the book easier and more profitable.
Milk & meat. We approach God’s word with the attitude that it is understandable (Eph. 3:3-4), and by “common people” (Mk. 12:37). The fact that Scripture can be understood doesn’t mean that it will always be easy to understand. Some people seem to think that everything should somehow be automatically understood – they even trust their first impression without looking deeper. Peter admits that the New Testament contains “…some things hard to understand…” (2 Pet. 3:16). The writer of Hebrews even makes a distinction between “milk” and “strong meat” of God’s word (Heb. 5:12-14). So, don’t be surprised or discouraged if you have to do some “chewing!”
Warning! When Peter said that some scriptures are hard to understand he went on to write, “…which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures. You therefore, beloved, since you know this beforehand, beware lest you also fall from your own steadfastness, being led away with the error of the wicked” (2 Pet. 3:16-17. Difficult passages are a false teacher’s dream. Clear verses are difficult to twist (although many still try), but hard verses are by their nature easy to abuse. Of course, this is a warning to us not to twist the scriptures, but there is much more here. The Book of Revelation seems to find its way into hundreds of denominational books, as well as radio and TV programs. We must use extreme care listening to self-proclaimed “experts” and authors. We could be “led away” as Peter warned!
Read, read, read! We need to carefully read the Book. Sometimes we just want quick answers to popular or familiar questions. We want “fast food” Bible study, where someone just gives us answers, rather than fully digesting the Word through personal study. We need to begin by knowing the Book. This requires reading it, and reading it a lot! Even if you don’t understand what it means yet, you need to have a picture in your mind of what is generally said in the Book. Others can help us understand, but no one can do this part for us!
See the “BIG PICTURE”. Next, go from what is generally said in the Book to the general message or purpose of the Book. Luke was written “that you may know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed” (Lk. 1:4). John wrote “…that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name” (Jn. 20:31). Some books don’t have a single message as clear as these, but I think Revelation does have a clear point. Sometimes we get so tangled up in figuring out the meaning of specific symbolic references that we fail to see (and benefit from) the Book’s point. Revelation is about the relationship between God and His people during a terrible trial. It tells us who are the spiritual winners and losers in the battle between right and wrong, and shows which side man should be on.
Careful specific interpretation. Of course, there are more things in Revelation than generalities. When we move from the general to the specific, we must do so with great care. Many people say they “know” things which are simply their clever conclusions or even guesses. Here are a few more things that will help us to be careful.
Explain the difficult by the easy. Once a man rejected what I taught about baptism because he disagreed with me about the Book of Revelation. Some people form an opinion (“conviction”) about Revelation and then try to make the rest of the Bible conform to their opinion. There are many very clear things in the Scriptures. Understand and apply the simple and clear, then understand the difficult passages in keeping with that!
Always remember the time setting. There is some controversy over the exact date of Revelation, but one thing is very clear, the events of Revelation were to “shortly take place” (Rev. 1:1). Revelation 1:3 urges them to “keep those things which are written in it; for the time is near.” If that isn’t enough, the Book ends by saying those things “must shortly take place” (22:6); “Behold, I am coming quickly!” (22:7); and “the time is at hand” (22:10). Some consider it unthinkable that what John wrote about in Revelation could have for the most part already have happened. I say, let the Book tell us when it was to happen! It says SOON after being written!
Put yourself in the original receiver’s shoes. Some people apply the “shortly take place” statements to our generation. Remember, Jesus was originally communicating with some first century Christians. What did it mean to them? He told THEM “the time is near”! We must try to see this book through the eyes of the recipients and what they were experiencing.
Language. One of the greatest difficulties we have is deciphering the symbolic language. Denominationalists and cultists tend to make texts literal and symbolic based on their predetermined doctrines and goals. Great care must be taken in this area. Never interpret a symbol in such a way as to contradict other Scriptures. In Revelation we often find very graphic language that is describing catastrophic events. Often similar language is found in other parts of the Bible (Daniel, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Matthew 24, etc.). Comparing how symbolic language is used throughout the Bible can help us understand how it is used in Revelation. Again, always remember to keep the message and symbols in their historical and self-assigned context.