It is no secret that the book of Revelation is difficult to read, let alone understand! Many people would rather read something easier and more applicable. So should we just ignore it?
The book of Revelation shares a lot of similarities with the book of Daniel. I have studied both Revelation and Daniel quite extensively. I first studied Daniel in 1971-72 and have read numerous commentaries through the years. In college, I studied Greek, Roman, and Jewish history, and I took seminary courses in apocalyptic literature. Following graduation, I taught Sunday School classes on Daniel and Revelation (see articles on Daniel and Revelation). All that to say, while Revelation is not an easy read, it is definitely worth the read!
My goal for this article is to break down Revelation’s difficult (yet wonderful) truths into bite-sized pieces so it is easier to comprehend. It will still take some time and effort on your part. My understanding has stretched over a lifetime of studying and teaching. But I pray that if you keep studying and referencing these articles, God will bless your efforts to understand the book!
Before we begin, we should not overlook the very words of John, the author of Revelation. “Blessed is the one who reads, and those who hear the words of the prophecy and keep the things which are written in it; for the time is near.” (Revelation 1:3) The blessings of the book are not for the casual observer!
So, what makes it so difficult to understand?
1. Symbolic Nature
The book of Revelation uses literary devices like symbols, images, metaphors, and figures of speech to give us grand word-pictures. Revelation is not telling us something that is cryptic, It is revealing something to come. A literal interpretation might be easier to grasp, but may not instill the same reaction as a symbolic figure. For example, if I see a literal bear in the wilderness, I immediately know what I’m looking at, but may not be aware of what I need to do. But a “beast coming up out of the sea with ten horns and seven heads. On its horns were ten crowns, and on its heads were blasphemous names. The beast I saw was like a leopard, its feet were like a bear’s, and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth” like in Revelation 13?! Wow! You see, while I may not know what I’m looking at immediately, I am still fully aware of the danger.
Be sure to stick to the defining points surrounding the symbols in Revelation, rather than jumping to conclusions. Do not read more into the symbolism than what is revealed in its context, unless you can relate the symbol to another Biblical context. Once you begin to understand each piece of the puzzle in its own context, and then carefully consider them within the framework of the whole of the book, you will begin to see the big picture.
Jesus taught in parables during His earthly ministry; so those who were not seeking Him were blind to its truths. (Matthew 13:10-17) A similar thing is happening in Revelation. Jesus is revealing things to those who would seek Him and are ready to read, hear, and obey the text! (1:3) When God, in His promise, timing, and providence begins to actually bring these revelations to pass, we will then have more details and specifics, not before.
2. Is Revelation a Chronology of Events?
The actual events in Revelation are not in chronological order nor do they only depict things in the future. This is determined by observing and interpreting scripture, rather than the text stating it specifically. This is also true of the book of Daniel which was not written in chronological order either, but the chronology is determined by names and date markers throughout the text. Maybe the simplest way to illustrate this in Revelation is to simply go to a passage in the middle of the book – Revelation 12. It is a vision of a woman, Israel, giving birth (by Mary) to the Lord Jesus Christ and the conflict that ensues between Him and Satan. Satan is pictured, in the present tense, when he and a third of the demons fell with him. He is portrayed in conflict with both Christ at His birth and a woman and her offspring during times of great trouble. This is quite a series of events over a very long period of time that has already happened or are about to! And they are not necessarily in chronological order.
3. Connection to Old Testament Texts?
In what book of the Bible do four chariots go forth with four different colored horses? You might inadvertently have said Revelation. But actually, in Revelation 6:1-8, it shows four horsemen, rather than four chariots. The four chariots appear in Zechariah 6:1-8. So should we relate New Testament texts to Old Testament texts that seem to use the same words or themes? And if so, how? Similarly, Revelation 11:1-6 tells of two witnesses who are called the two olive trees and the two lampstands before the Lord. Most bibles would refer in the side notes to some old testament texts using these same words. But how exactly do they relate? Care must be taken in attempting to refer something in one place to something in another place.
Revelation gives snapshots from various angles regarding the same subject matter. Take, for example, Babylon. The word is used six times in what seem to be at least four different contexts. It seems in each context that it was destroyed (i.e. fallen). How do we resolve this? If we look at it as a collage and express these pictures as various aspects of the one term – we get the whole picture of what Babylon was in God’s eyes and why he destroyed it! (See Babylon in Revelation)
On the other hand, it could also be the case that different visions use the same term, say, for example, a “beast” or a “woman,” and they are describing completely different characters. So each word and every vision should first and foremost be taken and interpreted in its own particular context to get that picture!
In Matthew 24, the disciples point out to Jesus the buildings of the temple. Jesus is prophetic when he tells them that the temple buildings will be torn down. He is affirming that which was prophesied in Daniel 9:26 about the fourth beast destroying the city and the sanctuary. (See Daniel’s End Time Prophecies and Chronology of Daniel) The disciples ask him privately “Tell us, when will these things happen, and what will be the sign of your coming, and of the end of the age?” (24:3) They are expecting all of the events they ask about will be together. But as Jesus unfolds some future events, He seems to indicate that there will be a delay – they will be over a period of time.
It is not until Matthew 24:14b that Jesus says the end will come and He reminds them of the prophecy in Daniel 9:27 about the abomination of desolation. (See Will Christians Know Who the Antichrist Will Be?) After that there will be “great distress unequaled from the beginning,” great cataclysmic events, and “the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with great glory.”
If Jesus, during his earthly ministry, relayed the future to his disciples, would we anticipate that they might correspond to the unfolding of events, timing, and markers in the book of Revelation? I think yes, but it isn’t necessarily obvious how they mesh together. Nor is it easily understood as to the timing of persons and events depicted in Daniel that might help us understand Revelation.
Where and at what time is this event of the desolation seen in Revelation? It isn’t there. But, we know it does happen from Daniel and Jesus’ own words! So we humbly and carefully attempt to look at the puzzle pieces to answer the questions we encounter.
I hope to write even more articles on Revelation. It will include some of the specific “how it is put together” details already mentioned. If we accurately consider these things I believe we will have a more confident and complete view as we read. It is indeed the final word of the canon of Scripture and is not to be knowingly tampered with. How is it possible we should disregard it? The Apostle John wasn’t able to disregard it! When he heard the voice and turned around, he saw the exalted Lord Jesus Christ and he fell at his feet like a dead man. (Rev. 1:17) Our response to this final word is found in the words of the Old Testament prophet Isaiah:
“But I will look to this one. At one who is humble and contrite in spirit, and who trembles at My word.” Isaiah 66:2 NASB
God’s use of symbols in revealing things to Daniel has seen partial literal fulfillment throughout history, and will see complete fulfillment in the future. We will not be surprised when the exact same thing happens with the book of Revelation!
For More on Understanding Revelation
Understanding the book of Revelation – How can I do it? – Compelling Truth