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!