As we begin to consider this book we need to lay down some basic principles of interpretation as we study this book. These basic rules will help you as you read the Book and as we discuss it in class.
Principle 1 – There are two types of prophetic formula; symbolic and simple.
Symbolic interpretations can be discovered in two ways, first by the context of what is being written, or secondly from other parts of the Bible. For example in Revelation 1:12 we are told about the seven lamp stands. The lamp stands are symbolic of something which is explained to us in the context of what we are reading. If you look at Revelation 1:20 we are told the answer that the 7 lamp stands symbolize the seven Churches of Asia Minor. In Revelation 2:12 we learn about the double edged sword. What is that? It is a reference to the Word of God (Hebrews 4:12).
Paul also uses the metaphor of a sword to describe the Word (Ephesians 6:17). That the sword is two-edgeddepicts the Word’s potency and power in exposing and judging the innermost thoughts of the human heart. So we see that the symbolic is explained here or in other portions of Scripture. An assumption that is made by the writer of Revelation is that its reader is familiar with God’s Word, which at the time it was written was the Old Covenant. It is believed that 278 of its 404 verses allude to the inspired Old Testament Scriptures.
The Simpleinterpretations are simply to take literally what is being said like reading history in advance. An example of this is found in Revelation 2:5, if the church at Ephesus doesn’t repent God will remove their lamp stand, that is the church will cease to exist. This in fact has happened.
Principle 2 – understanding the time element, that time can be eclipsed and refer to two different time periods. A classic illustration of this principle is Luke 4:16ff which is where the Lord reads from Isaiah 61:1-2 in which Jesus ends the prophecy in the middle of a sentence because there was an over two thousand year gap in time.
A person reading it at the time or before the resurrection of Yeshua would never have know of such a split, but now we understand this. This is what Peter was getting at in 1 Peter 1:10-12. This has been described by some writers at Mt. Peaks of prophecy. The only way to understand is to study parallel portions of Scripture and even then we can’t say we are correct with absolute certainty.
Principle 3 – There is unity in diversity, this is sometimes called wrongly as double fulfillment. But it should be understood that some things can be given as a unity with diverse parts. An example is the first and second comings of Messiah, there are two comings but one work. This is true of the counterfeit antichrist as well when we consider Daniel 9:27. A partial fulfillment is found in the defilement of the Temple by Antiochus in 164 BC which set in motion the events that are now celebrated as Hanukkah. Yeshua then speaks of time yet in the future described in Matthew 24:15.
With these principles, prophecy can be interpreted by the Historical grammatical method. This means that we can read the Bible on the basis of the historical meaning of the words and according to the common rules of grammar. This is so important because you can study all the historical, doctrinal and prophetic portions of Scripture all with the same type of exegesis and you don’t have to shift exegesis from one portion of Scripture to another.
Exegesis is the careful explanation of the meaning of a given text. The term comes from a Greek term, exegesis, that means “explanation.”
If we are not consistent in our interpretative methods than we leave ourselves open to any kind of interpretation of Scripture. For example there are many Hindu gurus who will use Scripture allegorically or spiritually to suggest that their theology and world-view is endorsed by Scripture.
It is also leaves open the door to liberal neo-orthodox “Christian” theologians. The heart of neo-orthodox theology is that the Bible gives us resources for religious experience, but that the Bible contains mistakes when history and science contradict it. This concept now has come into evangelical circles as well.
The neo-orthodox believers who will spiritualize and allegorize do so by suggesting that we can interpret the Bible differently depending on which part we are dealing with. One set of interpretive rules for the historical portions of the Bible a different set of rules for doctrinal parts and still another for the prophetic parts. This leads to all kinds of inconsistencies and doubts.
There are four main interpretative approaches to the book:
The preterist approach views Revelation not as future, predictive prophecy, but as a historical record of events in the first-century Roman Empire. So this would eliminate the letter of Revelation’s own claims to be a prophecy (Revelation 1:3;22:7,10,18-19). This would mean that everything after Revelation 19 which speaks of the 2nd coming of Messiah and events of heaven has already occurred. The pre-terist sees the words about Christ’s second coming as fulfilled in the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70, even though He did not appear on that occasion.
The historicistapproach sees Revelation as a record of church history from apostolic times until the present. Historicist interpreters often resort to allegorizing the text in order to find in it the various historical events they believe it fulfills. The historicist view also ignores Revelation’s own claims to speak of events of prophecy. It leaves the interpretation to allegorical and spiritualized meanings invented by each would-be interpreter.
The idealist approach sees depicted in Revelation the timeless struggle between good and evil that is played out in every age. According to this view Revelation is neither a historical record nor a predictive prophecy. It too denies Revelation as being prophetic. This view suggests that Revelation is myth designed to convey spiritual truth.
Finally the futurist approach sees in Revelation 4-22 predictions of people and events yet to come in the future. Only this approach allows Revelation to be interpreted in the literal, grammatical-historical method thus avoiding allegory and spiritualizing. The futurist approach allows for the claims of the Book concerning prophecy. As we said if allegory and spiritualizing is accepted as a valid means of interpretation than anything can mean anything that the interpreter believes it to mean.
So when we consider the prophetic book of Revelation we are to interpret according to the historical grammatical method of interpretation. We will follow normal rules of English grammar and how it is historically interpreted. Prophecy and the Book of Revelation is one part of the entire message of God’s Word and must be considered as part of the entire fabric of Scripture, which is a seamless garment.
Rule 1 – Nothing is to be taken in the Book of Revelation such as a figure of speech unless it is clearly marked as a figure of speech or known as a figure of speech in other parts of the Bible. This corresponds to our first principle. This means that God expects us to understand what is written in this Book. For example the seven stars which is a figure of speech in Revelation 1:16 are revealed in the chapter to be the seven angels of the seven churches in Revelation 1:20.
The same is true of the seven golden lamp stands which in the same verse is interpreted as a picture of the seven churches. So in Revelation 1 we are told that the angels and the lampstands are figures of speech. In comparison we read of “seven thunders” in Revelation 10:4. John understood the meaning of what was said because he was told not to reveal it. But that which is to be revealed should be able to be understood by the reader of the letter otherwise what would be the point in revealing anything in this letter to the church.
Daniel was told not to reveal certain things in his prophecy in Daniel 12:4 and Paul also was told not to reveal certain things as well in 2 Corinthians 12:2-3. But the rest was to be revealed. As we begin our study in Revelation 1:1 we see clearly that this letter is a call to John to write so that God’s servants will know what will soon take place. In Revelation 1:3 we see again that we are to know and understand and obey what is written. In the last chapter of Revelation 22:6 we are told again that the purpose of this book is that God’s servants might know what is to take place.
In the 10th verse we are specifically told that this book is not to be a sealed book. In Mark 1:10 we have a figure of speech in an historical section of Scripture, the Spirit of God descending like a dove. We see another illustration of this in Acts 2:10 and we know that this is not literally but a figure of speech by the modifier “like”. These are the rules concerning figures of speech.
Rule 2 – Tempo sequences are shown, this is dealing with time concerning events.
Rule 3 – Whether the action is in heaven or on the earth is clearly shown. This rule deals with where this action takes place.
Rule 4 – The rule of the parenthesis that the action starts at this point and then goes on. This is a literary usage in the book of Revelation and there are three of these in the Book of Revelation.