When looking at The Revelation of Jesus Christ it’s critical that we approach the entire book with the right frame of mind. Another way to say this would be: making sure that we are using the correct lens to view The Revelation. In this chapter I am going to cover how to interpret The Revelation. I will cover some of the basic symbolism within the book and then give a brief description of the 4 primary schools of thought concerning The Revelation. This might be review for you, or it might be brand new, but either way I want to establish what I believe to be a correct or proper lens from which to view The Revelation.
I do not claim to have full understanding or complete revelation of this glorious book. But after studying the book itself, praying through several of the topics and reading other peoples thoughts on it, I have become familiar with it. I am confident that I understand a large portion of the broad brush strokes while I am continually searching out the finer details of this book. Preaching and writing on this book is actually a rather fearful thing to do. The reason for that is because many have done so much with this book to make it either really bizarre or incredible confusing and hard to understand. I have had key leaders in the body of Christ encourage me to leave this book (The Revelation) to the scholars to debate. I do appreciate men who are much smarter and far more studied than I am. However, I think it’s critical that we always approach the Bible with the presupposition that God wrote it with the peasant in mind. I do not believe that God the Holy Spirit intended parts of the Bible to be relegated to professors and college instructors. God has made it clear that it’s His glory to hide matters and it’s our glory to search them out (Proverbs 25:2).
Understanding the Symbolism of The Revelation
It’s a common thing when talking about the Book of Revelation to hear people speak of how confusing and symbolic it all is. One group says this symbol means this and the other group says this symbol means that. It’s tiresome to wade through this muddy pool of strange symbolism and hard to grasp allegories. If this has been your experience with The Revelation I have good news for you: it wasn’t John’s intention for this to happen to you. In fact, The Revelation is meant to be read straightforward and literal, unless it’s stated otherwise. What this means is that The Revelation isn’t nearly as symbolic and allegorical as most presume it to be. It’s actually really straightforward and literal.
As I began to actually read The Revelation I started to notice that it’s really not all that symbolic and allegorical. Something I encourage people to do with The Revelation is to become acquainted with it before you start reading commentaries on it. Many people spend more time reading other peoples’ thoughts on books of the Bible than trying to understand what the Holy Spirit was actually inspiring the various writers to write. I have found this incredibly helpful, especially when it comes to The Revelation. It’s good to see what other people have written about the different books of the Bible, but I believe it’s best to search out others’ thoughts after you have become familiar with the actual book itself.
I am going to list just a few of the examples I have come across in The Revelation concerning some of the symbolism and their explanations. Most of the time when a symbol is given in The Revelation, it also comes with an interpretation. Not always, but more times than not, when a symbol is given there is also an explanation connected to it. Kevin Conner in his book Interpreting The Book of Revelation has listed around 150 different symbols mentioned in The Revelation; then gives their explanation from either The Revelation or one of the other books of the Bible. Sometimes you have to use the rest of the Bible to explain some specific symbols. For instance, the devil is referred to as the serpent in Revelation 20:2. When you look up the idea of a serpent, the primary place you would go is Genesis chapter 2, where the devil is mentioned as being a serpent moving through the Garden of Eden. So here in Revelation 20:3 we use the rest of the Bible to help clarify what John was saying when he mentioned …the serpent of old…(Rev. 20:3).
One of the first mentions of symbols in The Revelation is found in Revelation 1:12,16 where it says …when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands and He had in His right hand seven stars…But in Revelation 1:20 (within the same chapter) those symbols which were introduced previously are now explained. In Revelation 1:20 Jesus says to John The mystery of the seven stars which you saw in My right hand, and of the seven golden lamp stands is this: the seven stars are the angels of the seven Churches, and the seven lamp stands which you saw are the seven Churches. In this portion, John sees two separate things, and then Jesus explains what John saw. This is really simplified and helps us clearly see what’s being explained to John.
In Revelation 3:1 John hears Jesus say These things says He who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars… The symbol has been given by Jesus and we already have one of the explanations within the previous paragraph from Revelation 1:20, which tells us that the seven stars are seven messengers (angels). But the other symbol from Revelation 3:1 is what Jesus called the …seven Spirits of God… For the explanation of this symbol we will need to look within the whole of the Bible to rightly interpret it. We know from the whole of the Bible that there is only One Holy Spirit, not seven. So it’s not that we’re looking for more Holy Spirit’s, but rather the seven-fold Spirit of God. Seven is a number often used within The Revelation that speaks of perfection, or of God who is perfect. I agree with the commentators on their explanation of this passage that comes from Isaiah 11:1-2 which speaks of the seven-fold Spirit of God, not seven different Spirits of God. Isaiah 11:2 says The Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon Him, The Spirit of wisdom, and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord. We are easily able to better understand the symbol that Jesus presents by looking through the Bible to see better what is actually being said.
And lastly for this short study on symbols within The Revelation I want to look at Revelation 4:5 which says And from the throne proceeded lightings, thundering, and voices. Seven lamps of fire were burning before the throne, which are the seven Spirits of God. The symbol John introduces here in this verse is also explained within the very verse in which it was introduced. And since we have already looked at the seven Spirits of God in the previous paragraph there is no need to further belabor the point. What is clear from this short study is that most of the major and even smaller symbols within The Revelation are explained as they are introduced. Now, there are some chapters within The Revelation that have heavy symbolism like Revelation 12 and 17 and in those chapters, especially Revelation 12, it is important that we don’t spend all of our time tied up there trying to explain the many things introduced. We should talk to the Holy Spirit who inspired the very chapter and then also read others’ writings on it and take time to make sense of that Chapter, but don’t let one chapter keep you from the other 21 within The Revelation.
The purpose of talking about the symbolism is so that you are empowered to read The Revelation at face-value and take things in their literal sense unless it’s mentioned otherwise. It’s clear why many want this book to be symbolic, figurative and allegorical. The reason for this is that if you take the numbers, places and subjects mentioned within this book as literal, it’s terrifying. But this is one of the express purposes of The Revelation: to release sobriety in those that read it. David Pawson says that if your stomach isn’t bitter when you read this book, then you haven’t fully digested its contents. Though personally my stomach isn’t nearly as bitter as God intends it to be, I have experienced what David Paswon is talking about, and it is the will of the Holy Spirit to feel that way.
Four Primary Views of The Revelation
Though many people view The Revelation a multiplicity of ways, throughout history there have been four primary schools of thought concerning the proper way to view The Revelation. In each of these schools there are a few chapters that are viewed almost entirely the same. In each of the these four schools of thought they mostly agree on Revelation chapters 1-3 as dealing with things in John’s day (his calling and the seven Churches) and then on Revelation chapters 21-22 which speaks about the eternal states. The Chapters of The Revelation that divide these four schools of thought are Revelation chapters 4-20. So the big question between these four schools is what does Revelation 4 through 20 speak about? This is what the rest of this chapter will work to cover.
The first school of thought is called the Preterist. Within this school they see the prophesies of Revelation as having been already fulfilled. The Preterist assumes that most of The Revelation was fulfilled between the 1st and 3rd century and nothing more. This group takes the stance that the book of Revelation mostly concerns a historical explanation and cares only for Revelation 20-22 as it relates to the final states and judgment. In my opinion there are a couple of problems with this school of thought. The first problem I see is that though some of it may have been fulfilled in the past, the majority of it is still looming over the human race and the planet. And secondly, The Revelation is first and foremost a prophecy. In my opinion there are some positives within this school, but it can’t be taken wholly as is.
The second school of thought is called the Historicist. This school of thought sees The Revelation and other end-time books as referring to history, a past and a historical people. This group has found world history throughout each of the chapters and would place us today somewhere around Revelation 19. The biggest problem with this school of thought is that no two groups or individuals agree on the same chapter being the same era of human history. This creates a real problem concerning healthy Bible study. If we do this, we move more into speculation rather than divine Revelation and what the scriptures say about it. The Bible must be rooted somewhere on the ground so that not just anyone can grab it and twist it to say whatever they want it to say. For the above reasons mentioned, I don’t believe this is a proper way to view any of the Bible, let alone The Revelation.
The third school of thought is what’s called the Futurist. This group believes this book contains a forecast of universal history. It says that Revelation 5-19 have not been fulfilled but are yet coming, and gives us a forecast of what we can expect. This school of thought sees Revelation 20-22 as speaking about eternal states of the unrighteous and the righteous. Though this school can’t be wholly taken as is, this is the most universally held school of thought and biblically accepted view of The Revelation. Personally, this is the school that I (Patrick Walton) adhere to. Within this school of thought you don’t want to take everything as being yet future. Surely Revelation 1-3 are historical, as they actually happened to John while on Patmos, and the chapters that follow are still awaiting their consummation. Reading the book of Revelation through this lens is helpful, Biblically true to the Bible as a whole and the most helpful personally.
The last school of thought is called the Idealist. The Idealist stresses the spiritual element of The Revelation and they discourage anyone from firmly establishing any of the more mysterious visions of The Revelation. This group sees The Revelation are being symbolic, spiritual and not to be taken literally. The main problem with this school of thought is that this isn’t a proper way to approach any of the other books of the Bible, let alone The Revelation. On a side note, it’s the strangest thing that happens to people when they finally arrive in The Revelation to make it symbolic, allegorical or all spiritual. Why we do this I really don’t know. It’s not a right way to approach the other 65 books and to do it to this one is equally as tragic. I am assuming that it’s clear; this school isn’t a safe or healthy way to view The Revelation or any of the Bible for that matter.
As I close this chapter I have come across something that really helped me see the breakdown of The Revelation as it relates to the past, present and the future. In Revelation 1:19 Jesus says this to John, Write the things which you have seen, and the things which are, and the things which will take place after this. David Pawson is the one who in his book When Jesus Returns helped me see this simple guide to a right understanding of The Revelation. From this passage it’s clear that Revelation 1 is speaking to …those things which John had seen… And Revelation 2-3 is talking …about the things which are… Which, based on Revelation 1:19, leaves Revelation 4-22 to speak about …those things which will take place after this. When we look at it like this we can see how God has intended The Revelation to be broken up, understood and interpreted.
It’s my prayer that you would come to love this grand book that God the Father gave as a gift from Jesus Christ to help us encounter Him now, and also to prepare for those times which are yet ahead. The breakdown on how others have viewed history mentioned above is short, but I hope it’s enough to whet your appetite to understand both what the Bible says about the Revelation and what others have said about it throughout history.