“How Do I Read the Book of Revelation?”

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Yesterday was my last lecture day for my Biblical Hermeneutics class this semester at Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Dasmariñas, Cavite, Philippines. As I explained hermeneutical principles in interpreting prophetical and apocalyptic books, one of my resources was this paper written by Rev. Danny Hyde of Oceanside United Reformed Church in Oceanside, California. I hope you too will benefit from this simple but sound explanation of how to read and understand the book of Revelation.

To download a printer-friendly version of this paper, click here.

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This essay originally appeared in The Presbyterian Banner (July 2004): 3-4.

© 2004 Daniel R. Hyde

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Saint John in PatmosFor many of us the book of Revelation is an unopened book. And why should we open it? After all our great Protestant forefather, John Calvin, wrote commentaries on every New Testament book except for Revelation (along with 2 and 3 John). Martin Luther followed the words of St. Jerome, who in his letter to Paulinus, bishop of Nola, in A.D. 394, said

The Apocalypse of John has as many mysteries as it has words. I have said too little in comparison with what the book deserves; all praise of it is inadequate, for in every one of its words manifold meanings lie hidden.

It is difficult; it is hidden; it is seemingly unprofitable. But this attitude is tragic, for “all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16; ESV). As well, the book of Revelation was intended by the apostle John to be read in public worship, which reading is one of the seven “blesseds” of the book of Revelation: “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear” (Rev 1:3; ESV).

As I preached through this amazing book several years ago, I came up with the following basic hermeneutical principles for my parish to use in reading and listening to this book as we studied it from Lord’s Day to Lord’s Day. Of course it is not all that can be said or that I would say, but it is a start.

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Revelation Had Real Every-Day Meaning for its Original Audience (1:4,11; 2:1,8,12,18; 3:1,7,14)

This first principle means that John wrote Revelation to seven actual, historical, living and breathing, first-century Churches in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). These churches needed the strength this book offered in times of persecution and suffering while they awaited the return of their heavenly King, Jesus Christ.

This is such an obvious, basic fact, that we must keep before us when we read and listen to this book. The tendency of many interpreters and preachers today is to pull Revelation out of its historical context and interpret it in the light of current events or of some future events that are predicted to come.

What Revelation says to those ancient churches to comfort them it says to us by way of application to comfort us.

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Revelation is Christ-Centered (1:1)

The book of Revelation opens by telling us that it is about when it says,”The revelation of Jesus Christ” (Rev 1:1). The little phrase “of Jesus Christ” is what is called an “objective genitive” in Greek grammar. This means that the book is a revelation about Jesus Christ. He is the “object,” the main theme the book is intending to communicate. And this is no different than what our Lord Himself said about the entirety of the Hebrew Scriptures

You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me. (John 5:39)

And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. (Luke 24:27)

What this means for us is very simple. Instead of Revelation being a book that is turned into a speculative mess about such things as the 144,000, or the beasts from the sea and earth, or the “Battle of Armageddon,” we find meaning in the book because it reveals Jesus Christ in His person and work. For example, the 144,000 of chapter 7 cannot be abstracted, understood apart from Jesus Christ. Instead, they are those whom Christ has already been said to have redeemed “from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev 5:9). In chapter 7 these saints of the Lord are described using the symbolic number 144,000 (12,000 of each of the 12 tribes of Israel).

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Revelation is Written in Symbols (1:1)

So Revelation is about Christ, but it is still difficult. There is no doubting that. But it is not impossible. Revelation 1:1 teaches us that the book as a whole was communicated to John in symbols (cf. Rev 12:1, 15:1). The Greek word used in 1:1 is very interesting. In our modern translations we have the following: “He made it known” (NIV); “communicated” (NASB); “to show” (ESV).

The best translation of the Greek word behind these translations, esemanen, is best translated by the NKJV as “signified.” This is interesting because it is the same Greek word that John uses in his Gospel to speak of Jesus’ “signs.” Whereas Matthew, Mark, and Luke speak of Jesus’ “miracles,” John uses a word that interprets what a miracle is: a “sign.” Signs are used to point us to something important. A freeway sign points to off-ramps for streets or use symbols such as an “X” to communicate that a railroad crossing is ahead.

In a similar way the book of Revelation communicates to us through signs, which point us to important truths. So how do we understand what a sign is pointed to? A few general rules will do.

Things are not Always what they Seem to be

Remember, Revelation is a visionary world that corresponds to reality. Satan is not a big scary looking red dragon (Rev 12:3), angels are not holding large cauldrons and tipping them over so that they spill onto the earth (Rev 16:1), and there is not a manhole cover on hole to hell (Rev 20:1-3). These are vivid word-pictures used to communicate to our world what is happening in the spiritual world.

The Main Thing is Keeping the Main Thing the Main Thing

Symbols are intended to communicate one main point to us, and we need to keep that in mind and not try to find special meaning for all the details. For example, in Revelation 9:1-11 we read of locusts that come out of the abyss. If we try to over-interpret, we’ll end up saying these are Apache helicopters, with the teeth being .50 caliber machine guns, the hair being the fire out of the exhaust pipe, the breast-plates being the titanium armor, and the tails being tomahawk missiles. This misses the point entirely as this vision had meaning for the first- century believer. What did Jewish Christians hear in the synagogue? What did Gentile “god-fearers” hear in the synagogue? What did converts hear in the church? They heard the Old Testament! And what does a locust do in the Old Testament? It destroys as in the plagues on Egypt or the judgment on Israel in Joel’s day.

The Meaning of Many Symbols in Revelation are Already Indicated in the Visions of the Old Testament

As we’ll see below, we need to know the Old Testament before we read Revelation. The Old Testament is the key to unlock the symbols and mysterious visions in Revelation. To crack the “code” in Revelation we need only look as far as the first part of our Bibles.

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Revelation is Patterned After Old Testament Prophetical Books (1:3; 22:7,18)

This leads us to remember not to fall into the trap of thinking that the word “prophecy” means “to predict the future.” It is true that the Old Testament prophets did this, but they were primarily proclaiming salvation and judgment upon the people of God. In the same vein, Revelation is not meant to predict the rise of Russia or the European Common Market, nuclear war nor advanced military tactics, or the revival of Babylon and Rome. Instead, John is called to be a prophet and commanded to “prophesy” (Rev 10:11) to the 7 churches.

He must proclaim the peril of the Church’s heeding the words of the false prophet (Rev 16:13), who has infiltrated the sheepfold (Rev 2:20). Just as the prophets warned of compromising with the ungodly world and the impending judgment of doing so, so too the apostle warns the Church of spiritual adultery but also proclaims a message of salvation to the overcomer. John is a prophetic herald, proclaiming judgment and salvation, law and gospel.

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Revelation is Structured With Recapitulation

The Fathers of the ancient church taught that Scripture employs a literary device called “recapitulation.” Those such as Tyconius (ca. 380) in his handbook on Biblical interpretation, The Book of Rules, and St. Augustine (354-430) in his book to young pastors, On Christian Teaching, explain this principle in detail. “Recapitulation” means “to return to the top.” What this means is that in Revelation one chapter or group of chapters describes an event from one symbolic point of view, while the next chapter or group of chapters returns to that event only to describe it again from a different vantage point with different emphases. This rule has been applied to Revelation in the history of the Church by The Venerable Bede in An Explanation of  the Apocalypse (ca. 710), B. B. Warfield, and William Hendricksen.

As we said above, Revelation’s main theme is Christ, especially His soon return to save His suffering Church and to judge those who persecute them.

The heart of the book is seven parallel sections which describe the period from Christ’s 1st to His 2nd Coming, the Church age. Each section climactically concludes with the Final Judgment. The following is a very basic outline:

Introduction (1-5)

1. John Commissioned as a Prophet (1:1-20)

2. John’s Prophetic Messages to the 7 Churches (2:1-3:22)

3. The Heavenly Origin of John’s Prophecy (4:1-5:14)

The 7 Cycles of Judgment (6:1-21:9)

1. 7 Seals of Judgment on Earth (6:1-8:1)

2. 7 Trumpets of Judgment on Earth (8:2-11:19)

3. Rise of the Dragon, Beast, & False Prophet (12:1-14:20)

4. 7 Bowls of Judgment (15:1-16:21)

5. Rise & Judgment of Babylon (17:1-19:10)

6. Judgment of the Beast and False Prophet (19:11-21)

7. Judgment of the Dragon (20:1-15)

God’s New Creation (21:1-22:5)

Conclusion (22:6-21)

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Revelation Must be Interpreted by the Analogy of Scripture (analogia Scripturae)

As we read difficult sections of Revelation, always remember our Protestant principle of letting the clearer portions of Scripture interpret the more difficult portions. One example of this would be Revelation 20:1-3. What does it mean that Satan is bound? Read the clearer texts such as Jesus’ words in Matthew 12:29 and John 12:31, Paul’s words in Colossians 2:15, and the book of Hebrews 2:14-15.

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Revelation Must be Interpreted by the Analogy of Faith (analogia fidei)

Finally, Revelation must be read with the analogy of faith clearly understood. The analogy of faith are those basic doctrines of the Christian Faith that we have summarized for us in the ecumenical creeds and that we have as Reformed churches in the Three Forms of Unity. We must presuppose these doctrines any time we read a book of Scripture, for they come from Scripture.

An example of this principle would be with Revelation 1:4. There is a false teacher in Southern California that teaches that there are seven Holy Spirits? Sounds crazy, right? But doesn’t John send greetings to the seven churches from the “seven spirits?” (Rev 1:4) We know that the Church has always believed in “the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of life” (Nicene Creed). The creeds speak of “one” Holy Spirit precisely because the Scriptures do (Eph 4:4) – in fact Revelation itself does! (Rev 2:7, 22:17). As well, the number 7 is both and an Old Testament image, as we have seen in two of our principles above. Seven is the number for fullness and it is used in Isaiah 11 to speak of the anointing of the Messiah. The one Spirit, in all His fullness is poured out upon the churches.

For these reasons we need to keep Revelation open, not closed. For by doing so we will reap a blessing from the Lord in this “present evil age” (Gal 1:4).

© 2004 Daniel R. Hyde

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Beale, G. K. The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text (New International Greek Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998.
Demar, Gary. Last Days Madness: Obsession of the Modern Church. Atlanta: American Vision, 1999.
Johnson, Dennis E. Triumph of the Lamb. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2001.
Hoekema, Anthony. The Bible and the Future. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994.
Koester, Craig R. Revelation and the End of All Things. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001.
Mathison, Keith. From Age to Age: The Unfolding of Biblical Eschatology. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2009.
Poythress, Vern S. The Returning King. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2000. (This book is published online by permission of publisher.)
Riddlebarger, Kim. The Man of Sin: Uncovering the Truth About the Antichrist. Grand Rapids: Baker, June 2006.
Riddlebarger, Kim. “For He Must Reign: An Introduction to Reformed Eschatology.” White Horse Inn. 12 tapes.
Venema, Cornelis. The Promise of the Future. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2000.

And avoid these descendants of Montanus (ca. 150 AD) and John Darby like the plague:

Charles Feinberg, Norman Geisler, John Hagee, Ed Hindson, Zane Hodges, Thomas Ice, Harry Ironside, Grant Jeffrey, Jerry Jenkins, Tim Lahaye, Hal Lindsey, Dwight Pentecost, Charles Ryrie, C. I. Scofield, John Walvoord.

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