The book of Revelation seems to lend itself to either obsession or neglect. In the first church I attended as a new Christian, our pastor preached through the entire book of Revelation at least twice in a two-year span of time. We were convinced that Revelation was the key to understanding today’s headlines. At the other end of the spectrum are those who think Revelation is too difficult to understand and give up trying. The book is difficult, but it also promises a blessing to those who hear and keep what is written in it (1:3). Despite its difficulty, therefore, it is worth studying.
I discussed Revelation at some length in my book From Age to Age. Here I simply want to summarize a few points that may make understanding this part of Holy Scripture a bit less complicated. First, and probably most important, is the fact that Revelation cannot be fully comprehended apart from a good understanding of God’s earlier revelation to His people. The book of Revelation alludes to and echoes the Old Testament more than any other New Testament book. Revelation also reveals the ultimate fulfillment of previous biblical promises and prophecies. In short, if you want to understand Revelation, get to know the rest of the Bible first.
The second point to consider is the book’s structure and outline. This is a disputed issue among New Testament scholars, but despite the disagreements, the basic outline and flow of the book can be grasped. The book begins with a prologue (1:1–8). The first major section of the book includes John’s vision of Christ and the messages to seven churches (1:9–3:22). John continues with his first vision of heaven (4:1–5:14), which leads to three series of judgment oracles. The judgments associated with the seven seals are first (6:1–8:5). This is followed by the judgments associated with the seven trumpets (8:6–11:19). Before the final series of judgments, John includes an interlude about the conflict of God’s people with evil (12:1–15:4). The judgments associated with the seven bowls follow (15:5–16:21). The next section describes the judgment of the harlot Babylon (17:1–19:10). This is followed by the transition from Babylon to the New Jerusalem (19:11–21:8). In the final major section, John describes the new Jerusalem (21:9–22:9). The book concludes with an epilogue (22:10–21). If this basic outline is kept in mind, it is much easier to grasp the meaning of the book.
A third point that has caused some difficulty is the date of the book’s composition. There are two main options. Some have argued for a date between AD 64 and 70, while others have argued for a date around AD 95–96. Most contemporary scholars believe the book was written at the later date, and this, I believe, has contributed to the difficulty of interpreting the book. The evidence for the earlier date is quite strong, and if the book was written at the earlier date, it is much more comprehensible. John indicates a number of times that his prophecy will be fulfilled very soon (1:1, 3, 19; 2:16; 3:10–11; 22:6–7, 10, 12, 20). If the book was written between AD 64 and 70, before the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, then these references to an imminent judgment make perfect sense. We will realize that many of John’s prophecies in this book are judgment oracles against Israel.
The final point that must be considered is the basic hermeneutical approach one should take. Throughout history, four basic approaches have been suggested: the futurist, historicist, preterist, and idealist approaches. The futurist approach is the most popular. Those taking this approach understand everything from 4:1 forward to be a prophecy of events that are yet to occur. The historicist approach understands Revelation to be a prophecy of church history from the first advent to the second coming of Christ. According to the preterist approach, most (not all) of the prophecies in the book were fulfi lled not long after John wrote the book. The idealist approach understands John to have been using symbols to express timeless principles concerning the ongoing conflict between good and evil.
As hinted at above in the discussion of the date, the preterist approach makes the most sense of the book. John himself says the prophecies of the book will be fulfilled soon, not thousands of years later. Furthermore, he repeatedly identifies his book as a “prophecy” (1:3; 19:10; 22:7, 10, 18, 19). This means the way we approach earlier prophetic books should instruct the way we approach this one. Many of the Old Testament prophetic books deal with impending judgments on Israel and surrounding nations. They also contain sections referring to ultimate future restoration. This means we already take a basically preterist approach to most of the Old Testament prophetic books. The same approach should be taken to this New Testament prophetic book. It too refers to an impending judgment of Israel while also pointing forward to ultimate restoration. Once we grasp this fact, the meaning of the book of Revelation becomes clearer.