Below you’ll find some helpful tools and frameworks for reading the book of Revelation together in community. To start out, though, I’d like to set before you two points of counsel:
Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near. – Revelation 1:3
How one reads, teaches, and preaches Revelation can have a powerful impact on one’s own—and other people’s—emotional, spiritual, and even physical and economic well-being. Therefore, interpreting the book of Revelation is a serious and sacred responsibility, not to be entered into lightly.Michael Gorman, Reading Revelation Responsibly, xii-xiv
Revelation is a book that is often tossed around, either as a shortcut for interpreting world events or a fear mongering “turn or burn” methodology for evangelism. And far more than most other books of the Bible, Revelation and its portrayals (ex. Left Behind) play a role in how non-Christians think of their Christian peers. So, following Dr. Gorman’s advice, we shouldn’t interpret Revelation lightly (though, if we’re being levelheaded, we should take the same careful approach to all books of the Bible).
However, the possibility of pitfalls is no reason to ignore the final word in God’s Holy Scripture. With all care taken we should read Revelation earnestly, keeping in mind Revelation’s own promise, that those who read and heed it are blessed.
- Prologue – 1:1-8
- First Vision: The Son of Man – 1:9-3:22
- Second Vision: The Lamb Reigns from the Heavenly Throne Room – 4:1-16:21
- Third Vision: The Judgement of Babylon – 17:1-21:8
- Fourth Vision: The New Jerusalem – 21:9-22:5
- Epilogue – 22:6-21
5 Interpretive Views
The literature on Revelation is immense, and plenty of positions have been taken on what exactly the book intends to describe. However, many fall into different categories of interpretation, and understanding these different approaches for reading Revelation is immensely helpful for knowing how to interact with other people about the book. Here are the five primary views:The first four views are summarized from Charles E. Hill, “Revelation” in A Biblical-Theological Introduction to the New Testament, 521-522
The Historicist View: Believes that Revelation describes world events in chronological order that have taken place since the time of the early Church. Many in the past have taken this view; for example, during the Protestant Reformation many Protestants viewed the Pope as the antichrist. However, one difficulty with this perspective is assigning the “correct” events to the correct passages in Revelation—many Catholics thought Martin Luther was the antichrist instead. Few hold this view today for that reason, and because world events like a natural disaster or war tend to continually revise the assignment of specific passages to specific events.
The Preterist View: Believes that Revelation describes past events that all took place during the era it was written. In particular, this view connects the acts of judgment described in the book with the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 AD. A preterist reading of Revelation is faulty for a number of reasons, primarily because it doesn’t read the return of Christ in chapters 19-21 as a future event. However, preterists do a good job of emphasizing the context in which John was writing and Revelation’s relevance to its first audience.
The Futurist View: Believes that most of Revelation (i.e., chapters 4-21) describes events in the last few years of human history. To be sure, this is not wholly off the mark, but futurists tend to read most of Revelation like linear history, which poses problems for understanding many passages. For example, exegetically the male child born in Revelation 12:5, “one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron,” has to be Jesus, but this view would take Revelation 12 as describing a future event in an End-Times era. Also, futurism is most closely related with dispensationalism, which expects a secret rapture of the church before most of the events of Revelation, meaning the book has little to say to followers today.
The Idealist View: Believes that Revelation does describe any events, but instead communicates ideas and principles that are relevant in any era. One benefit of this view is the applicability of Revelation to the Christian life in any era. However, its weakness is abstracting Revelation from all history, such that the climactic future fulfillment of the events surrounding Jesus’ return are lost.
The Eclectic View:Cornelius Venema, “Interpreting Revelation” https://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/interpreting-revelation Believes that there are helpful aspects of all four views. It appreciates the Preterist emphasis on Revelation’s original context, like how it would’ve explained Roman persecution to John’s contemporary audience, without losing the book’s inherently futural, apocalyptic emphasis. This view appreciates the Futurist’s gaze towards coming, climactic events that will usher in the eternal era, but it observes the cyclical rather than linear way in which the events of the book unfold (see below). This view also defends Revelation’s applicability in any era, much like the Idealists, without abstracting it entirely from real events in history. The eclectic view considers Revelation to be all about the time between Jesus’ first coming and his second (though not linearly/chronologically, like the Historicists), helping the Church understand times of suffering and persecution while also leading the Church to anticipate a time when God’s Kingdom will arrive on earth in full.
Read through Revelation, particularly the second vision with its seven seals, seven trumpets, and seven bowls, and you might wonder how many times the world is going to end. Over and over, we’re brought right up to the final judgment, in 6:12-17, 11:15-19, 16:17-21, 19:17-21, and 20:11-15. The stars fall from the sky in 6:13 but are back up in 8:12; the islands of the earth disappear in 6:14 and 16:20. That’s because Revelation is repeating itself.
This phenomenon has been noticed as far back as the third century by commentators, that God was showing John similar things multiple times over rather than in order.Hill, “Revelation,” 523-524, referencing the third century commentator Victorinus of Pettau. Scholars call this recapitulation, and it’s the same thing a public speaker does when they repeat a key phrase multiple times through their speech so that it sticks in your mind. In the case of Revelation, think of this repetition like watching the same football play from multiple different angles. The Holy Spirit revealed different facets and vantage points of the End to John in order to provide a richly developed drama in anticipation of the coming Kingdom.
The Number Seven + Seven Spirits
Get just a few verses into Revelation and you’ll notice the prominent role of the number seven; see the above section on Repetition for more. Numerology was big in the ancient world, but a modern take on the significance of numbers can lead us astray here. John isn’t speaking in a mathematical code, nor are there hidden calculations or predictions about specific events. Read across the rest of the Bible and you’ll see that the number seven is primarily used to communicate completeness. The most foundational source of this meta-theme is Genesis 1 and the creation account—God created everything in six days, but when it came to the seventh day he both rested and blessed the very day, showing that his work was finished. The basic seven day structure gets developed particularly through the Mosaic Law, with the Sabbath commands, Sabbath Year, and Year of Jubilee. If you’d like more of a deep dive, check out the Bible Project’s podcast on this subject. But for this overview, suffice it to say that God is communicating fullness or perfection through the use of seven in Revelation. An example of this is in 1:4 and 3:1 with the “seven spirits of God.” On first glance that’s perplexing; is it Holy Spirit or Holy Spirits? Note that, soon after both references, John talks about the Spirit; “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day”(1:10), “hear what the Spirit says”(3:6). This is symbolic language, with John describing the one Holy Spirit as seven spirits, and elsewhere “seven torches of fire” (4:5) and “seven eyes”(5:6), to communicate the completeness and perfection whereby the Spirit of God sees and acts in a manifold way.Dennis E. Johnson, notes on Rev.1:4 in The ESV Study Bible.
|↑1||Michael Gorman, Reading Revelation Responsibly, xii-xiv|
|↑2||The first four views are summarized from Charles E. Hill, “Revelation” in A Biblical-Theological Introduction to the New Testament, 521-522|
|↑3||Cornelius Venema, “Interpreting Revelation” https://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/interpreting-revelation|
|↑4||Hill, “Revelation,” 523-524, referencing the third century commentator Victorinus of Pettau.|
|↑5||Dennis E. Johnson, notes on Rev.1:4 in The ESV Study Bible.|