There is no book in the Bible that is harder to interpret than Revelation. Revelation is the only book in the Bible that is made up of three different types of writing wrapped up into one. It’s an apocalypse which means it shows us something that had previously been hidden. It’s also a prophecy which does not only talk about the future, but is also a proclamation of divine truth in the present. Finally, it’s an epistle just like Galatians or 1 Corinthians or Romans. It was written to seven literal churches who literally received it and read it.
But to us it seems foreign. We often come away confused after we have discovered creatures that are like lions or eagles and have six wings and are full of eyes. We read of judgments that come in the form of seals and trumpets. We see angels with messages and a Lamb who breaks seals. We read about four winds and earthquakes, a white horse, two witnesses and a woman clothed with the sun and the moon under her feet. You have 144,000 worshipers in one place and a great multitude in the other. We read all of these things and we step back and say, “What does it all mean?”
Then, you have basically four groups that offer explanations for these things. First, there are the historic premillenialists. This is the perspective that the majority of the church has taken on Revelation throughout history. Historic premillenialists say that a great and terrible time of tribulation is coming upon the world. God will preserve His church through that time and then Jesus will come back when it’s all over. After He comes back, He’ll set up a 1,000 year kingdom that will last until the Day of Judgment. After judgment, believers will continue to live with God forever and unbelievers will be cast into the Lake of Fire for all of eternity.
Then, there are the dispensational premillenialists. This is a relatively new belief that has been popular only since the 1800’s. This group that believes that God’s plan was for a physical Israel. But since Israel rejected Jesus, God now works through the church. He will continue to work through the church until the day of the rapture when Jesus comes part of the way down from heaven, snatches up the church and then takes them with Him for 7 years. During those seven years, with the church gone, there will be a time of terrible tribulation and wrath upon the earth. It will be at this time that physical Israel begins to believe in Jesus. At the end of the 7 years Jesus comes all the way back down to earth and sets up His millennial kingdom.
Next, there are the postmillenialists. Postmillenialists put great emphasis on the Gospel. They know that God’s Word will never return to Him without accomplishing what He set it out to do. They know that Jesus promises that the gates of Hell will never overcome the church. So they say that the church and the kingdom will continue to grow until eventually, the majority of the world consists of Christians. The preaching of the gospel will usher in the kingdom where Jesus will reign over a world that follows Him in majority. Then, after 1,000 years or so Jesus will return and bring an end to history.
Finally, there are the amillenialists. The amillenialists believe that the 1,000 year kingly reign of Jesus is not a future event. It’s already happening now as the 1,000 years symbolically stands for an indefinite but perfect span of time. Jesus defeated the enemy at the cross and now rules and reigns as kings in the hearts and lives of Christians. We don’t have to wait for Jesus to begin reigning. He reigns right now at the right hand of the Father.
We hear all of these perspectives and already our minds are spinning. How do we know which perspective to use? Then, to make our interpretative challenges even more difficult, we learn that there are many schools of thought when it comes to the best way to interpret the book in order to even reach those four explanations.
The preterists read the book from the standpoint that everything that is in it happened in the first century. Most likely, everything that happens happened before AD 70 when the temple in Jerusalem fell. And guess what? That interpretation actually makes sense when you look at it from that perspective.
Next you have historicists who believe that the first three chapters of Revelation deal with the first century and then the rest of the book is an unfolding of history which finally culminates with the second coming of Christ. And guess what? That interpretation makes sense when you read Revelation from that perspective.
The third school of interpretation is the futurist school. This group believes that almost everything in Revelation is an end-time event. Little to none of it has happened in history. Almost everything is awaiting fulfillment sometime in the future. And guess what? It makes sense if you read the book through a futuristic lens.
Finally, there are the idealists. Idealists understand that this book is a highly symbolic book and therefore interprets it by looking at the ongoing battle between good and evil. Idealism looks at the behind the scenes happenings that are always true. And guess what? It makes quite a bit of sense to understand Revelation in this way.
So what do we do? Which perspective do we take? All four of these views work well in explaining the book of Revelation. All four views can result in orthodox interpretation that is God-glorifying and heavily focused on Jesus Christ. What we need to help us are some foundational principles that will help us interpret the book. What is the driving principle behind how you interpret Revelation? Are there any “do’s” and “don’t's” in your opinion?