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5 Reasons Why Revelation is Hard to Understand

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By David Sheldon

Last Updated: April 15, 2024

The Book of Revelation Can Be a Challenge

It is no secret the Book of Revelation can be difficult to understand. It is full of prophecies and apocalyptic writing (future events described with images/symbols) which can be overwhelming. We might be tempted to dismiss or ignore the book, but should we?

Though not an easy read, Revelation is full of wonderful truths that should not be ignored. Throughout my life, God has allowed me to study and teach from the Book of Revelation. I can tell you that it is full of great truths that give a greater understanding of God! God Himself says those who read it will be blessed (Revelation 1:3). So we should do all we can to embrace its truth and obtain its blessings.

For this article, I would like to share five “hurdles” people tend to face when approaching the Book of Revelation, and we will discuss examples of each. I believe grasping some or all five of these will give you the insight and confidence to keep reading and studying the book!

I have also developed timelines for the Book of Revelation which you can find here: Is Revelation in Chronological Order? Also, the Book of Daniel is very similar to Revelation in its apocalyptic approach, and I have produced a timeline for it: The Chronology of Daniel.

1. Symbolism

During Jesus’ earthly ministry, He taught in parables – so that only those truly seeking Him would understand the truth (Matthew 13:10-17). A similar thing is happening in Revelation. Jesus, through the author, John (see When Was Revelation Written?), reveals spiritual truth by using symbolism. This is not for the faint of heart, but for those who desire to know the truth being revealed.

Why symbolism? God has chosen to use symbols – such as images, metaphors, & figures of speech – to instill grandeur.

For example, seeing a bear in the wilderness is familiar. Not because we regularly see bears in the wilderness, but because we know what bears look like and we know they live in wildernesses. This is no surprise.

On the other hand, if we see a “beast coming up out of the sea with ten horns, seven heads, ten crowns, with blasphemous names on its head” (Rev. 13), that is a completely different story! Though we may not know exactly what we are looking at, we know it is EXTREMELY DANGEROUS!

So while a literal interpretation might be easier to grasp, it may not implant the same response as a symbol.
Remember, symbolism is used in Revelation to reveal spiritual truth. It is not cryptic. Do not read more into it than what is stated. Typically the symbol is only one piece of the larger picture. Be sure to stick to the defining points of that particular symbol. Rest in the fact that God will give the illumination to understand it for its intended purpose.

2. Snapshots

Revelation is like a compilation of snapshots in that the same subject matter can be viewed from several different angles (and not necessarily in chronological order which we discuss in #4).

Take Babylon for example. The word ‘Babylon’ is used six times in Revelation in about four different contexts. Each context is a snapshot showing the various evils of Babylon. Seen from different angles, we get a complete picture and the reason for God’s wrath. Babylon was evil and so God destroyed it! (For more about Babylon, see Babylon in Revelation.)

Please note that separate snapshots, not about the same thing, might use similar terminology. For instance, the ‘woman’ mentioned in Revelation 12:1 is not the same ‘woman’ in Revelation 17:3.

Other times, however, it “might be” referring to the same thing. For example, ‘beast’ is used multiple times throughout Revelation. It sometimes refers to the same beast, but not always. We must be very careful when making any connections. (For more on beasts in Revelation see: The Beast From the Earth Part 1: The False Prophet, The Beast From the Sea Part 1: Seven Heads)

The main point here is to view each snapshot in its particular context one at a time. Then we can begin to fit the puzzle together and see the book’s main message – which is of ultimate importance.

3. Connection to Other Scripture

Sometimes we want to connect Revelation with words/themes in other books of the Bible. We should be careful in doing this. For instance, Revelation 6 and Zechariah 1&6 speak of colored horses and riders. It is easy to assume they are speaking of the same thing. While they are similar, they are not the same exact thing. They are vivid imagery of the ministry of angels sent from God to observe and carry out certain tasks. We must be cautious to make any connections beyond that.

Similarly, Revelation 11:1-6 speaks of two witnesses called two olive trees and two lampstands. Most Bibles have cross-references to Old Testament texts that also have olive trees and lampstands. One is Zechariah 4. But does Zechariah 4 relate to Revelation 11? It could. But we might not know exactly how. The olive trees do seem to have similar anointing and duties before the Lord. The bottom line is we must be careful in connecting something in one place of the bible to something in another place. (See Who are the Two Witnesses in Revelation 11?)

4. Order of Events

The events described in Revelation are not all given in chronological order. This is determined by observation and interpretation, and by names and date markers throughout, rather than the text stating it specifically. (See Is Revelation in Chronological Order?) In the chart below, you will see the first five chapters are in chronological order, and the last four are in chronological order. But chapters 6-18 overlap one another.
Revelation Timeline Overlay

One way to understand this is to look at chapter 12 as an example. It is a story that goes back to a woman, Israel, giving birth to Christ and the conflict that ensues between them and Satan. It is a series of events, which started over 90 years before the Book of Revelation was written, and continues until the end of the age. So, while the events of this chapter are in chronological order themselves, chapter 12 does not fall in order after chapter 11 and before chapter 13.

5. Timing of Events in History

Have the events in Revelation already occurred? Some people think so (the false notion of preterism). Revelation 1:3b does say “the time is near.” But God has a way of “bringing” future events into the present – to encourage His people now. Such as in the Book of Haggai which you can read about in our article God’s Promises For Today. (Link coming soon) So how do we know when the events occur? The text gives the clue. In Revelation 1:19, John sees things which are. This includes the introduction of Revelation 1 along with the letters to the seven churches in western Asia Minor which existed at that time in Revelation 2-3.
Revelation 1-5 Timeline
The things which must soon take place (Revelation 1:1) include the present scene (for John) in heaven where the Lamb opens the seals (chapters 4-6), followed by the first four seals. The fifth seal begins to show the unfolding of the martyrs in history waiting before the throne for the end. The first five seals were beginning to unfold even in John’s day and continue through the course of history. The things which will take place after these things (Revelation 1:19) come with the sixth seal (Revelation 6:12) and are those things which will occur close to the very end of the age and beyond. Examples would be the rise of the Antichrist, the tribulation, Christ’s return and His millennial kingdom, the rebellion and judgment, and the eternal state.
Revelation 6:1-8:1 Timeline

Jesus’ own words in Matthew 24 help explain the difference between the things that must soon take place and the things which will take place after these things. It is not explicit, but let’s think for a moment. The disciples ask Jesus what will be the sign of His coming and the end of the age, and there are nearly 10 verses where Jesus describes what will happen before He gets to “and then the end will come” (the events of the first five seals). Then He reminds them of Daniel’s prophecy about the abomination of desolation, great distress, cataclysmic events, and the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with great glory.

Closing Remarks

I believe considering these five things will give a more confident and complete view when reading the Book of Revelation. It is indeed the final word of the canon of Scripture and we should not disregard it. The Apostle John was not able to! When he heard the voice and turned around, he saw the exalted Lord Jesus Christ, and fell at His feet like a dead man (Revelation 1:17).

We too should humbly bow before our King and read Revelation with the expectation that sovereign God will completely fulfill every word of His prophecy and bless those who are faithful to Him. The Lord says He will look upon the one who is humble, contrite in spirit, and trembles at His Word (Isaiah 66:2).

This article was originally published April 19, 2022. The charts provided in this article are part of a 9-page packet which you can download here:

For More on Understanding Revelation

Understanding the book of Revelation – How can I do it? – Compelling Truth

The Beast from the Earth Part 2: The Image and Mark

The Beast from the Earth in Revelation 13 is one of three main players in the global system at the end of this age, along with the Beast from the Sea and the Great Harlot.

The Beast From the Sea Part 3: The Antichrist

The Beast from the Sea is one of three main players in the final world kingdom. Its leader is the Antichrist. He has several defining characteristics and doings.

The Beast From the Earth Part 1: The False Prophet

The Beast from the Earth is a prominent player in the final world system. There are several facets to it including a leader (The False Prophet), mark, & image.

Who are the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse?

We must correctly understand the four horsemen of the apocalypse in order to properly understand the rest of Revelation. Who are they and what is their mission?

Is Revelation in Chronological Order?

Revelation is more of a montage. Some of the chapters are in chronological order, but many overlap each other. Our charts give a visual explanation of this.

When and Where Will the Antichrist First be Seen?

2 Thessalonians 2:3 states specifically that the man of lawlessness, the Antichrist, will be revealed in the end times. Scripture tells us the circumstances.

Who are the Two Witnesses in Revelation 11?

The two witnesses of Revelation 11 proclaim a message of repentance and judgment for a period of 1,260 days during the first half of the end-time tribulation.

What are the Trumpets and Bowls of Revelation?

The trumpets and bowls found in Revelation are specific events of God’s judgments that will take place at the end of the age. They are very similar to each other.

Is the Rapture of the Church Found in Revelation 4?

Some believe John’s experience in Revelation 4:1-2 is representative of the rapture of the church before the seven year tribulation period. Is this the case?

When Was Revelation Written?

It was towards the end of Domitian’s reign that John received the vision. We could surmise about 91-96 A.D. And he wrote Revelation while he was still on the island of Patmos.

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