Revelation Interpretive Difficulties

This book of Scripture is called “apocalyptic” writing, and it is a form of prophecy. Apocalyptic writing is a type of literature that warns us of future events but in which the full meaning is hidden to us for the time being. Apocalyptic writing is almost a secret, giving us glimpses through the use of symbols and imagery of what is to come. We may not know the meanings now, but time will reveal it.

The key to unlocking these imageries is seeking what they meant back then, to the early church, to the first century Jew and Christian and how the churches in Asia Minor would have understood them, not what they mean in a current newspaper, 2000 years removed, which also removes any cultural or language understandings.

Apocalyptic writing is found in Isaiah, Daniel, Ezekiel, Zechariah, and Matthew as well as in Revelation. Prophecy, as literature and meaning for us today, contains past, present, and future events. Examples include the many prophecies concerning Jesus that already have been fulfilled, and parts of Daniel and Revelation, as well as Matthew 24 that will yet come to pass. Prophecy does not always follow a clear logical and systematic pattern, often jumping from thought to idea to another point and so forth. It also may jump over large periods of time. Thus, in Prophecy, we need to be aware of two essential forms of language.

First there is the Literal (Didactic). This is the simple and direct meaning, or in other words, what it says is what it means. It has a plain meaning. Zechariah, chapter seven is a good example, as are much of Isaiah and Jeremiah. The imagery had a clear meaning to the people to whom it was first presented, so don’t jump to conclusions or read in what is not there. If you get frustrated with it, put it aside. Most Bible scholars debate the meaning, so it is improbable that you will have a clear insight. Some people are not ready or able to comprehend this part of the Bible; if so, that is OK! Focus on the parts of Revelation that are crystal clear.

The second form of language is the Figurative (Predictive). This is the category into which most of prophecy and thus Revelation falls. We are to always view prophesy with the attitude that it has a plain meaning until we have clear and compelling reasons to place it in the figurative category.

Our task is to determine the points and ideas that apply today and point to tomorrow.

The bottom line is that it will happen at some point in history, and come to pass in a literal and plain way. We may not understand it until it is right on top of us. Daniel 7-12; Joel 2; Isaiah 11; and Zech. 4 are clear examples of figurative language. Furthermore, some of the language in Revelation is “word pictures” that John is trying to describe in their language and culture as well as technology, such as Daniel, chapter seven, and many parts of Revelation. For example, if he was describing events we might see in our lifetime, how would he describe a helicopter if he had never heard of or seen one? For most parts of Revelation, John was using imagery from Ezekiel, Daniel, and other Jewish literature that they would have known. Unfortunately, today few of some so called Bible scholars who write the popular books are even aware that there is an Old Testament, let alone how to inductively read it.

The key to the understanding of Revelation is in the Old Testament!

Apocalyptic writing can also be cryptic and symbolic such as the fish which was a secret greeting to see if another person was a Christian, too. When we come to words that seem peculiar to our modern minds such as stars, the first-century Jews would know that it meant “angels.” Lampstands meant “churches;” the phrase, wife of the Lamb meant “Jerusalem,” and the great prostitute was a covert slogan to refer to “Nero” or any corrupt leader in power. Babylon was referring to Rome (Rev. 1:20; 17:1-5, 18; 21:9-10). Consequently, the inscription key is understanding the Old Testament and Jewish customs and thought, not today’s newspaper headlines!

It is important to note that 28% of the Old Testament is prophecy, most of which came to pass in the life and work of our Lord Jesus Christ. The New Testament has over 20% prophecy too, of which most (although this is debated) have not yet come to pass. Thus, prophecy is important because God has dedicated a significant portion of His Word to it.

Again, do not read in what is not there!

Revelation Background and Setting

The Romans believed that there was a thin line between humanity and divinity, and their gods were often depicted as petty, conniving, dysfunctional principalities just as humans are. Thus, they demanded that people worship their Emperors.

Now, here comes a new “religion” in town that is rebelling against and disrupting the status quo. These followers challenged the loyalty and conformity of Rome and what it meant to be a Roman by claiming Christ as Lord and citing and pronouncing judgment of God for the Roman‘s oppressive ways. Revelation itself is an oracle of judgment on the oppressor and cryptic language of Babylon, Edom, and Kittim, referring to Rome. Consequently, the Romans considered this new Christian sect as subversive and the persecutions began under Nero who was paranoid about those who he considered subversive for fear of assassination. Then, the persecutions escalated with the other Emperors and came to fruition with Domitian, who was totally brutal. Faith, for the Romans, was seen in the state; Christians saw it in Christ. These two contradictory mindsets were not compatible in the market place of ideas. Faith is not in an institution or about false gods and Emperor worship. Rather, it is in the One True God who has a plan and purpose for us all.

Just as there was a new “religion,” now there came a new Emperor who was even more heinous than Nero, seeking to get Christians to worship him. The Romans were trying to force anyone who was devout and character-driven to worship their gods.

This started for the Jews under the Emperor Caesar. For the Christians, right off the bat during the beginning of the Church, there were several-  first Caligula, then Claudius, Nero (54-68 AD), Tiberius (14-37), Galba, Vitellius, Otho, Vespasianus, and Julius Sabinus (these Emperors reined less than a year and were mostly assassinated via being lynched, executed, poisoned, murdered by soldiers, executed and the such. I guess Nero’s paranoia was based on some fact. Ironically, Nero committed suicide!), Titus (79-81 AD) and then Domitian. James and Peter dealt with Nero, Paul dealt with Titus, and then there was Domitian (81-96 AD) who was the worst of all. The persecutions continued provincially under Nerva (96- 98) and Trajan (98-117). These dates are significant. Since Nero predates or is current to Revelation even for an early writing, this would make the events depicted as being current as well as pointing to future troubles the readers would see and experience themselves. We know history often repeats itself, so we can also see them in various forms and in what is still to come.

Some of the Christians were compromising, even forsaking their faith, falling prey to their situations, and not trusting in our Lord. The temptation of making life easier by following the ways of the world were as persuasive then as in our day. The dedication and discipline their faith required was negated as temptations continue to lure them, just as they do in our day. The other problem is that false teachings inter-tangled in the churches too.

This is the same thing with which James and Peter dealt. Heretical teachings only glorify Satan and prove his ways of seeking to corrupt and distract people away from God (Rev. 2:2-4, 14-24; 3:1-17). Thus, the churches were in chaos; some were thriving, others were in apostasy, while others were being indifferent.

Revelation was also meant to teach them (and us) to remain in Christ, be faithful, and have security and contentment in Him.

Hence, what John has to say meant something significant and was understood. It is understandable and hopeful for us, too (Rev. 1:3; 22:10)!

Getting the Most Out of Apocalyptic Literature

It is important to note that 28% of the Old Testament is prophecy, most of which came to pass in the life and work of our Lord Jesus Christ. The New Testament has over 20% of some form of prophecy too, of which most (although this is debated) has not yet come to pass. Thus, prophecy is important because God has dedicated a significant portion of His Word to it.

Again, do not read in what is not there. We are given a clear warning in Revelation 22:18-19 not to add in our ideas or take a way His precepts and thus teach what is false. It is OK to speculate academically, research, and argue and deliberate over the views, but we are not to seek or read in what we want and then miss what He has. A lot of Christian writers love to embellish on this subject and give their own version of what will happen. But, the scores of books that have been written in the last hundred years have not panned out in their theories. Every prediction made by many melodramatic preachers and writers have not come true because it is “their” theories, not based on fact or careful study of Scripture. The Bible clearly tells us we do not have access to that information; no one will know the time (Matt. 25:13; John 16:4).

When you come to a word in the Bible, it is best to first assume it is literal, unless the context and word cry out, “hey! This may be a metaphor!”

Just look it up in a Bible Dictionary, a Bible Background Commentary or language help, or use our website. A metaphor does not mean that the Bible is not literal, as finding the meaning of the word is a literal way to receive God’s truth. The bottom line is this; the reason why we do not always take these images literally is for the reason that this is “apocalyptic literature” written in symbolism, poetry and imageries conveying ideas and representations, whereas most of Scripture is narrative and epistles (letters) that we do take as literal; they mean what they mean plainly.

Make sure you are not reading into the Bible what you want it to say; rather, allow His Most precious Word to challenge you to lead a great fruitful Christian life! We can agree to disagree over what is literal and what is figurative, or what view one should take—or take no view at all, as I do. The main point is our love for the Lord and our willingness to learn and apply His precious Truth into our lives and church. He is the One who gives us life, salvation, is in control, has a plan, and will work it out in His perfect time!