Some Interpretive Tips for Understanding Revelation (Part 2)

I well remember the first time I sat in front of my first computer.  The machine seemed to be so complex that it was simply outside my ability to figure out how to use it.  Hopeless frustration would best describe my feelings at that moment.  Fortunately, my friend John came alongside and gave me some tips on how to approach this mini-monster.  And those tips became invaluable in my quest to try and subdue the machine.  And while I am far, far from being a master of my computer, those initial tips from John gave confidence and some ability to navigate through the technology maze.

The purpose of these present studies is to give some tips on understanding the Book of Revelation.  While we may not become immediate masters of Revelation, hopefully we will gain confidence and some ability to navigate through the complexities of this final book of the Bible.

We ended our discussion last time by looking at the first of six interpretive guidelines for Revelation.  The first is the most basic rule in our interpretation of all scripture; it is that we are to interpret Revelation literally.  This simply means that we approach the Scriptures normally, letting language function in its usual way.  Words in Revelation are interpreted according to their usual, customary usage.  We let language function as language, recognizing the historical context, the normal rules of grammar and the common use of figures of speech.

(2) Interpret figurative language scripturally.  Literal (normal) interpretation includes figures of speech and symbols.  It is part of the normal use of language to employ such things as communication devices, and this is fully recognized in literal interpretation.  However, figures of speech and symbols represent things that are actual.  The interpreter cannot make them mean anything he desires.

There are some key matters to be aware of.

  1. THE OLD TESTAMENT PROVIDES THE LENS THROUGH WHICH MUCH OF THE IMAGERY OF REVELATION IS TO BE VIEWED. In his book “Interpreting Revelation”, Dr. Merrill Tenney says that there are about 350 direct quotes or allusions in Revelation that are found in the O.T.  (He describes an “allusion” as something that is so unmistakable that we can trace its origin even though it is not a direct quote. For example, the “two Witnesses” in Revelation 11 are said to be the “lampstands and olive trees” that stand before the Lord of the earth.  That designation clearly comes from Zechariah 4 even though it is not a quote). This averages out to 16 OT references per chapter in Revelation. Dr. Tenney observes that there are about 235 OT references that come out of the 16 writing prophets.  It should be immediately apparent that if an interpreter does not have a good working knowledge of the OT prophets then he will have problems with many statements found in Revelation.  The point here is simply that the symbols and figures of speech in Revelation cannot be made to mean anything; the OT has established their meanings.
  2. JOHN’S USE OF COMPARATIVE LANGUAGE MUST BE CAREFULLY OBSERVED. There are events observed by the Apostle John in his vision that went beyond his experience and comprehension.  John uses the word hos some 16 times and homois 22 times.  Both words are used for comparison and are usually translated “like”, “as”, “something like” or “like as”.  So in Revelation 8:8, John says he saw “something like” a “great mountain burning with fire” landing in the sea, causing it to become blood.  Whatever John observed in his vision, it resembled a burning mountain.  He doesn’t know what it was, but it looked like that.  So we don’t know what John is actually describing and must take care in trying to say what it John meant in terms today’s world.
  3. THE IMMEDIATE CONTEXT SOMETIMES INTERPRETS THE FIGURE OF SPEECH. For example, in Revelation 17:1, the “great harlot sits on many waters.” Later in the chapter we are told the “many waters” represent the gentile nations.  Now, we might have guessed that because in the larger context (e.g. Isaiah and Daniel), waters are so identified.  In the case of “harlot”, the larger context of our OT prophets tells us that this is a religious system that claims loyalty to the true God but has prostituted itself by going after other gods (e.g. Jeremiah and Hosea).

    Therefore, symbols and figures of speech are an important element in Revelation.  These, however, have established meanings, usually in the OT.  John’s use of comparative terms (“like”, “as”) signals us that he is describing things outside of his first century realm of experience.

(3) Interpret Revelation with Genesis 1-11 in mind.  There are two important interpretive issues that we need to look at.

  1. GENESIS 1 and 2 PROVIDES THE NEEDED FRAMEWORK FOR UNDERSTANDING GOD’S ULTIMATE PURPOSES. When God created the heavens and the earth, He declared it all to be “very good.”  The material world, man being created in His image and all that was part of the original creation was considered excellent by God.  It was not a substandard plan or one that had need of revision.  God created Adam and Eve in His image so that they could rule the planet, have fellowship with Him and enjoy the material paradise of Eden.  When the first couple sinned, all three were lost: they lost rulership of the planet to Satan, they lost their fellowship with God and they lost the privilege of living in Eden.  At that moment, God could have destroyed everything and started over. (He would have lost two people and six days work, but a week later it all would have been up and running again!).  But God chose to restore everything that was lost in Eden.  And so, when we come to Revelation 20-22, we discover that everything that was lost will be restored, and even enriched!  A new earth; a new level of fellowship (God will come and live with His people) and the restoration of rulership back to the Son of Man and to those who have faithfully served Him (note that there are even “kings” in the eternal kingdom of God, 21:24-26).  It is critical that we understand that God’s purpose is to restore all that was lost in Eden and that helps frame our understanding of what God is doing in Revelation and why He is doing it.
  2. THE EVENTS OF GENESIS 1-11 SPEAK OF EVENTS THAT TAKE PLACE OUTSIDE OF THE REALM OF NATURAL SCIENCE. Natural processes did not bring the earth into existence.  Scientific law cannot explain how animals suddenly became carnivores after being made herbivores in the original creation.  How does one explain a global flood? Certainly not be looking at the normal processes that are observable today.  What happened at the tower of Babel?  How did people who got up in the morning speaking the same language go to bed that night speaking an entirely different tongue, with different words, vocabularies and so on. So many events found in Genesis 1-11 are only accounted for by the supernatural activity of God.

    This is the mindset we are to have when looking at the end time events.  It is so common to hear “natural” explanations for the events found in Revelation whether it is in the pulpit or on the History Channel. For example, when 1/3 of the earth is burned up, a preacher might say this is a picture of nuclear war.  Probably not.  The burned up earth is clearly seen as the judgment of God.  Men know that God is at work.  If it were some insane politician in Washington DC or North Korea launching nuclear warheads that would not at all communicate the critical fact that God is judging man. It absolutely loses its desired effect. Men must know (and they will know) that this is God who is judging. How is it that the waters of the earth are turned to blood?  This is not the coloration of the seas by some chemical or plants life, as some have suggested.  The water is actually blood (according to the angel in Revelation 16:4-7). There is no explanation of that judgment unless it is seen as an unmistakable work of God.  Revelation is interested in telling us WHAT God is going to do, not HOW He is going to do it.  But it is God who is doing it! Many of the judgments and activities are outside of the realm of normal events and those on earth understand it is the doing of the Lamb of God (6:16).  God may use natural objects, as He did in the plagues of Egypt, but it became apparent to the Egyptians and the Israelites that the mighty hand of Jehovah was at work.  Therefore, we should cease attempting to explain everything in natural or scientific terms.  Genesis 1-11, with its amazing supernaturalism, needs to help us create an appropriate interpretive mindset. The Creator runs the creation.

Our next study will look at some more interpretive tips to aid us in understanding the wonderful Book of Revelation.