Revelation is perhaps the most controversial Book of the whole Bible. It has been studied and examined from the early Church to the present day, with four major interpretations. This being the case it demands a careful approach. The Scriptures must be allowed to interpret themselves. One must always be on guard against imposing their own system of events into the narrative of Scripture.
First we must see that like Daniel in the Old Testament, the Book of Revelation is an apocalypse 1:1. It is an unveiling or a revelation of Jesus Christ. The reason for this style of writing is usually severe persecution and the desire to deliver a message in symbolic form. Many people today do not pay close enough attention to the fact that much of the book of Revelation is figurative or symbolical. 20:2 He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil or Satan. One does not use symbolic and figurative language of prophecy and poetry to interpret the historical narrative portions of Scripture. In order then to literally interpret this book, one must carefully consider its literary form and structure.
Timeline of Revelation
Further the book exhibits a common feature of scriptural apocalypses in that it is blocked off in definite sections, like Daniel. And the blocks recapitulate or retell the same facts from different points of view. This is commonly called progressive parallelism. These sections generally cover the same period but they give more information each time. While each section does not completely overlap, there is great evidence that the final judgment is mentioned in 6:12-17; 11:16-19; 14:15-20; 16:1-21; 20:11-15.
Despite the fact that the Revelation seems to many strange and foreboding, and thus is often neglected, the Revelation is the only book in the New Testament containing the promise of blessing to the one that readeth, and they that hear the word so this prophecy, and keep those things whicha re written therein: for the time is at hand. 1:3 In addition, the book closes with a serious warning to any who would add to or take away from the contents of the prophecy 22:18,19
Methods of Interpretation
This approach says that events in Revelation belong to the first century, and have therefore, long ago been fulfilled. There is no prophetic or future aspect to the book. The setting for the visions was the existing conflict between the Church and Rome in the age of the apostles according to the Preterist method of interpretation.
Giving full recognition to the relation of the drama of the book to earthly events, this approach sees the Revelation as a picture book of the conflict between the Church and the World (energised by Satan) from the time of the Apostles until the end of the age. A panorama view of Church History from John to the end of the world. The cries which have arisen in world history, the aspiring world-conquerors of past and present are portrayed here and all are doomed to failure. The major weakness of this method is the difficulty in equating events of the book with events in history.
With the exception of Chapter1-3, the Revelation is viewed as wholly future, depicting the drama which awaits the end of the age, the day of God's wrath and the appearance of Christ from heaven.
This method unlike the last three does not tie the book to history or literal events. It deals with spiritual, rather than historical, realities. Emphasising the conflict between God and Satan, good and evil, righteousness and sin, it assures the reader, apart from concern with specific historical situations, that victory will be won by the power of God.
One danger that needs to be avoided is literalism. The danger is to interpret the book as though everything will happen exactly as it has been described. Some interpret the Book of Revelation as though the things predicted will be literally fulfilled. A reference to God reigning in Zion means that in the millennium Jerusalem will be the capital of the world. The symbol rather teaches us that God's rule in history will eventually be victorious. But there needs to be ballance here because nobody is a strict literalist or a complete spiritualist consistently at every point. It seems that it is more a matter of degrees. The issue is not between spiritualization and literalism but between lesser and greater degrees of spiritualization.
What is important for understanding Revelation is not to miss the symbols. Prophecies involving horses or chariots or camels are dealing with transportation. Prophecies speaking of spears and shields are about weapons. Prophecies about surrounding nations are about God's enemies. This is where a wooden literalism gets into trouble.
That which makes the language of prophecy so vivid and yet so difficult is that it is always more or less figurative. It is poetry rather than prose. It abounds in peculiar words and expressions which are not usually to be found in narrative passages. Many of the referances to historical events are obscured with pictures and figures that are hard to identify with absolute concreteness. The aspect of time is many times fused together so it is difficult to determine what is past present or future. What is clear and what must not be missed, is that the Church will be completely redeemed by a victorious Savior.
Rules of Interpretation
The first rule is to realize a certain amount of mystery is involved in a Prophecy. The very nature of Prophecy is that it is visionary.
It is a revelation of the future painted in word pictures. Also in most cases we are not in a position to compare the picture the prophet has painted with the fulfillment. If we could see the fulfillment then the mystery in most cases would disappear. Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53 are clearly understood to be speaking of Christ because we have seen the fulfillment in Christ. However it is still a mystery to the Jews. So the problem of understanding the mystery is due to the nature of the revelation and not the lack of intelligence of the hearer.
Determine the details of the passage by identifying the proper names, events, geography, customs, etc. Who were the Churches mentioned in the first three chapters?
A key for interpretation of apocalyptic Prophecy is to seek to understand the images or symbols. What is the candlestick, Dragon, Scroll in Revelation. Apocalyptic literature is characterized by a high degree of symbolic imagery that is sometimes interpretated for us and sometimes is not. Many of the symbols are identified for us in the Old Testament. Some are idenified right in the book itself. Revelation 1:20; 20:2 There is no rule of thumb method to unlock the mysteries and perplexities of apocalyptic imagery. Hermeneutics is an art and a science, and the specific interpretations of the interpreter reveal to what degree he is an artist and scientist.
Look up any parallel passages. The Day of the Lord, outpouring of the spirit and the shaking of the nations are all common themes throughout Scripture.
Identify the time
Pay special attention to the tense and time of the fulfillment. The Prophets were preachers and visionaries and not academic lecturers. Prophetic writings are not organized like lecture notes but are totally unique. The prophets are not systematic in their presentation of sequences. The future may appear in the present, past or future tense. Widely separated events on the actual calendar of history may appear together in the prophetic sequence of events. Is. 53:1-10 are in the past tense but they speak of the future. Sometimes you have a mixture of events prophecied in the same verse.
Some Prophecies were conditional and some were unconditional. The Scripture may or may not state if it is conditional. Now the great promises of a Saviour and his salvation are certainly unconditional. But there are conditional Prophecies. Jeremiah 18:8,10; 26:12-13 Jonah 3:4 Ezekiel 33:13-15; 18:30-32 Then there are the curses and the blessings where only one can be realized. Be careful here.
Determine whether it is fulfilled or unfulfilled. A prophecy that is conditional and unfulfilled is at the end of the line. We should not try and milk more out of it than is there.
The general principle to follow is to be careful. Never build a cardinal doctrine on an obscure verse. Do the study necessary before making concrete and absolute blanket statements. Leave room for the possibility that you might be wrong!
The centrality of Jesus Christ must be kept in mind in all Prophetic interpretations. It was not given for creative speculation but always given for the practical response of duty, ethics, and moral conduct. To keep watch, be on guard etc. Every single reference to the second coming of Christ is mentioned for the purpose of stimulating the believer to holiness and the sinner to repentance and faith. Some have made the study of Prophecy Jewish and cultic because they have neglected Christ in their study. The Spirit of Christ was in the Prophets and to read them without reference to Christ is to miss the great redemptive purpose of Scripture. To get bogged down in the details and miss the theme of redemption is the great danger of studying prophecy. Your study must be Christocentric - Christ centred.