Some Interpretive Tips for Understanding Revelation (Part 1)

When asked what book of the Bible they would like to study, the average church youth group will almost always include the Book of Revelation at or near the top of the list.  And yet, in spite of such enthusiasm for Revelation, it remains to most people, a confusing and mysterious book.  Take any five pastors and teachers as they teach on Revelation and you will likely end up having at least six different interpretations.

The purpose of these discussions on interpreting the Book of Revelation is to give some tips that hopefully will help in our understanding of this important book.  Some tips will be familiar, but it our desire that all of them will prove valuable in keeping us from wandering away into interpretive minefields where more harm than good occurs.

We should remember that God gave the Revelation so that we could have some understanding about the future and have our lives enriched by it.  It is designed by God to be an “unveiling” not a concealing of truth about the future.

Four Basic Approaches to the Book of Revelation

We need to begin our study with a reminder of the basic approaches that are taken to the Book of Revelation.  One of the real points of confusion for the average church-goer is how pastors and teachers can differ so greatly from one another in their explanations of Revelation.  So, we must review four basic approaches to the Book of Revelation.  Each approach is very different and takes the interpreter to an entirely different place.  This alone will explain some of the differences that we hear when Revelation is taught.

(1) THE APPROACH OF IDEALISM.   “Idealism” does not believe that Revelation indicates the time of events.  In other words, Revelation simply gives principles or lessons that are valid in any age. (Such as, God is sovereign, or that good will win out over evil).  The Book is not intended to look at the past or to peer into the future.  The symbols of Revelation have no direct application to anything specific.  (So, for example, the beast of Revelation 13 is not a person from the past, present or future, but is simply representative of something, such as social injustice).  So Revelation is to be interpreted non-literally; thus employing the allegorical approach.  Now it is abundantly clear that when allegorization (spiritualization) is employed in the interpretation, at that point the interpreter becomes the final authority.  In fact, the interpreter no longer has any solid guidelines and can come up with most anything, which often happens.

(2) THE APPROACH OF HISTORICISM.   “Historicism” was the dominant view of the Reformers and continued to be the approach of choice to Revelation until the end of the 19th century.  In this view, Revelation is a symbolic presentation of the entire course of church history. It holds that we have been in the tribulation since the 1st Coming of Jesus Christ and this will continue until His 2nd Coming.  Therefore, the symbols in Revelation are identified with historical persons (such as, the Pope is the Beast) and the judgments represent particular events.  (For example, one commentator says that the 6th Seal Judgment represents the invasion of the Goths and the Huns around 365 AD).  But one wonders, why would it represent the Goth and Huns and not, for example, the war in Viet Nam?  Among Historicists there is simply no agreement on the exact identification of persons or events because the whole system is subjective.  In fact, the identification of persons and events is constantly changing. The events, persons and symbols are interpreted allegorically and thus, again, the interpreter becomes the final authority.  This approach badly obscures our understanding of Revelation, removing any real possibility of the believer being “blessed” by this book. (Rev. 1:3).  This approach has lost its prominence because many have come to realize that it is so subjective that it provides little help in understanding Revelation.

(3) THE APPROACH OF PRETERISM.   The term “preterism” is based on the Latin preter  which means “past”.  This view believes that most, if not all of Revelation, has already been fulfilled. (There are differing views within Preterism).  This “past” fulfillment is connected with the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.  This view has been popularized by R. C. Sproul in his book “The Last Days According to Jesus.”  This position is arrived at by Preterism’s regular mixing of literal and allegorical interpretation which is seen as a legitimate way to handle prophetic scripture. They operate with the “pre-understanding” of post-millennial thought; that is, the world will be Christianized coming under the Law of God.  Because the world is going to get better and better, the judgment passages of Revelation must be seen as past events and not something in the future.  Also, they justify their non-literal interpretation by appealing to Revelation as being of the “apocalyptic genre.”  This allows them to take the language of Revelation and make it mean whatever they think is best, instead of letting language communicate normally.  (The reader might find helpful the chapter on Preterism, in my book, “Understanding End Times Prophecy” which is published by Moody Publishing).

(4) THE APPROACH OF FUTURISM.   Futurism approaches the book of Revelation as prophecy that has yet to be fulfilled.  Revelation 4-22 is seen as eschatological chapters that will be fulfilled in Daniel’s 70th week (the Tribulation), at the 2nd Coming of Jesus and in the future, forever kingdom of God.  The more literal an interpretation of Revelation, the more strongly will that person be a futurist. Futurism will be the approach taken in this series of studies on interpreting the Book of Revelation.

Six Important Guidelines in Interpreting the Book of Revelation

We will end this first study with the first of the six interpretive guidelines that we wish to share in these studies.  It is the most basic of our interpretive rules because it applies to all of scripture and not just to the Book of Revelation.

(1) Interpret Revelation literally.  Those with a high view of the Scriptures, as being the very inspired Word of God, will always interpret the language of scripture literally.  This simply means that we approach the Scriptures normally, letting language function in its usual way.  We employ this interpretive approach when we talk with one another on a daily basis.  We give words meaning according to their usual, customary usage.  Since we assume that God is trying to communicate truth to us, He based His revelatory communication on the normal rules of human communication.  Literal interpretation recognizes that there are figures of speech.  So, for example, if I were to tell you that we should not eat outside on the patio because there are a million mosquitos out there, you realize that I am saying there are an awful lot of mosquitos out there; so that eating dinner out there would be quite unpleasant.  We both know that I did not count them. The figure of speech of a “million mosquitos” is rightly understood and is taken “normally.”  We will deal with the matter of symbols and figures of speech in more detail in our upcoming study. But this first rule of interpretation simply is that we let language function as language, recognizing the historical context and the normal rules of grammar.

In the next study we will look at the importance of the Book of Genesis in our understanding of Revelation and the use of figurative language. In the third study we will deal with three other interpretive tips in our interpretation of Revelation.