Studying the Book of Revelation

When it comes to studying the Scriptures, one of the most exciting sections is the revelation from Jesus Christ, which God made known by sending his angel to his servant John. Through the years, these 404 verses (as previous generations have divided them) have been the source of intense study, many questions and no little controversy.

A few years ago I came across something helpful in a book by Homer Hailey. In the following excerpt, Hailey suggests three rules for studying and interpreting the Book of Revelation.

What did the book mean to the people of that day to whom it was written? Any interpretation that omits or overlooks this point is invalid. This approach involves (a) some understanding of the conditions under which the saints lived, and (b) the spiritual needs of the hour, which were: revelation and instruction of Christ’s present rule, and encouragement and assurance of victory in the midst of trials.

A second help is an understanding of the Old Testament, particularly the prophets and especially the prophets Ezekiel, Daniel, and Zechariah and their use of symbols and signs. If one does not have an acquaintance with these, he should try to acquire some knowledge of them, or be directed by one who has made such a study. It is variously estimated by students of Revelation that the book contains from two hundred sixty to more than four hundred allusions to the Old Testament; but it is acknowledged by all that there is not a single direct quotation from it.

In giving to the church a revelation of truth in visions and symbols, there would necessarily have to be some divine basis on which to interpret the message. The total Old Testament revelation and the writings of the New Testament is that basis. As God showed to John vision after vision and allowed him to hear voice after voice, the Holy Spirit directed him in recording these. The visions and message of the voices were so patterned after the revelations God had made known through the centuries that these writings become our guide and basis of interpretation. The Spirit uses symbols and revelations of the past without slavish duplication of them, but uses them as they serve God’s present purpose in providing the New Testament apocalypse.

A third rule is that all interpretations must be consistent and harmonious with the total teaching of the remainder of the New Testament. There must be no conflict or contradiction between the two.

When these three simple rules are kept in mind and followed, the careful student will find a rich reward and blessing from his study and will not be led astray and become lost in the quicksands of error.

(Homer Hailey, Revelation, An Introduction and Commentary, Barker Book House, Grand Rapids, Michigan, pages 52-53)

Well, what do you think? Are you aware of additional guiding principles which have proven to be beneficial when studying the Book of Revelation?

About a fellow sojourner

a sojourner in life, trying to follow in the steps of Jesus.
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13 Responses to Studying the Book of Revelation

  1. Greg England says:

    Hailey was a good expositor. There are other “keys” that I find very helpful in understanding Revelation.
    (1) That it is a particular style of literature, and knowing how to read and understand that style.
    (2) That apocalyptic literature was abundant during the 200 years before and after the birth of Jesus, so they would have been familiar with something that we find mysterious.
    (3) The general theme of an apocalypse is that God is in control of history and human destiny and fully capable of bringing both men and events to his desired ends.
    (4) They typically reflect dark times in human history, personifying good and evil in a situation of conflict. Predictions are made about the outcome and fate of the wicked. They contain extensive use of visions and symbolism.
    (5) They are typically sealed for a future generation to discover. This is a huge key to understanding Revelation because it was NOT to be sealed. As Hailey points out, this was to be read and understood by the first century reader. This style of literature was written to reveal, not to conceal, information. It was to be understood, not avoided. John not only tells his readers they will be blessed by this letter, but four times he says the events will happen “soon.” If Revelation is for the end of times (primarily), what blessing is there to the first century readers? And what happens to the “soon” aspect. It was not to be sealed for that very reason … this was a message of blessing and comfort to those readers and the events would happen soon!
    (6) A final key that comes to mind is that the symbols, pictures, visions are not to be taken literally unless forced by the context.
    Much of this comes from the intro of Rubel Shelley’s book, “The Lion and the Lamb.” When we ignore the style of literature and the keys to understancing that style, then we come up with all kinds of theological nonsense. I imagine one could possibly write an entire series of books of theological nonsense! 🙂

  2. Cecil Walker says:

    Greg beat me to it. Keeping in mind Rev. 1:3 (Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.), the reader of these words in the 1st Century would have have never of dreamed that believers, 2000 years later would be waiting and predicting the occurence of the events in Revelation.

  3. Keith Davis says:

    Hailey’s book was one of our commentarys used when I was in college. It is so easy to read and understand. That I appreciate the most, being a slow reader.

    I love teaching this book because of my immense knowledge and insight on the subject. People flock from all over just to hear me expound upon it. HA!!!

    Seriously, I love teaching it in a way that simplifies it. Many people won’t study the book because of misconceptions and deceptions. “It’s just too hard to understand,” they say.

    I believe the central theme to be about overcoming in the name of Jesus the persecution and hardships in our lives. The original audience dealt with things I hope I or my family never have to deal with. Praise be to God for sending the worthy Lamb, Jesus to overcome on our behalf!

  4. Kathy says:

    “Greg [and Cecil] beat me to it. Keeping in mind Rev. 1:3 (Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near….”

    If we follow 1;3, that in itself seems to ‘simplify’ the understanding of Revelation. I’m trying to get an idea written down either in book, article or small group study form [still don’t know which] that addresses just this subject brought up by Bill. Prayers are always solicited and coveted!!

    Revelation, to me, is one of the most beautifully written books in the whole Bible. Many are beautiful but Revelation has a particular beauty that enraptures me, drawing me to my knees in worship and thanksgiving.

  5. Greg England says:

    Kathy gets it! When a person reads Revelation and has that response, they get the message of the book!!!

  6. Nicole says:

    Throughout the OT the stage is set for “the end”, the coming of Jesus Christ as man’s rescue from the inevitable consummation of evil and the punishment to follow because of the fall of man. The Bible gives us the origin and the conclusion of mankind as we know life to be on planet earth. Start, finish, and eternity.
    I don’t think one can ever assume he is going to understand every symbol used either then or now. God sealed things up in the book of Daniel, and He sealed up what the seven thunders said in the book of Revelation. It further states in chapter 10 “the mystery of God will be accomplished, just as He announced to His servants the prophets.” Although there is much to study in context of the time it was given, clearly there is much left to the “mystery of God”. I think it’s presumptuous to think we, then or now, can fully understand or even greatly simplify the profound revelation of future events. All we truly know is there is an end, the wrath of God is coming to those who refuse Jesus Christ, and their eternity will be a fiery, horrible one.

  7. Kathy says:

    Ah, Nicole, let us not forget the glorious other side of the coin – the incredible destination for those the DO accept Jesus as the Christ. To me, that is the beauty of Revelation to the believer. The other side you mention, is part of our story to those that have NOT received Him.

    Revelation presents the most spectacular visions of both sides – more so, imho, than any other book of the 66 in the canon left by God as His Word for us.

  8. Kathy says:

    Thanks, Greg. But if I ‘get it’ it is due to God’s great grace in opening my eyes and ears as I’ve read and heard this wonderous book of His Word. It doesn’t frighten me, it thrills me! May I always be able to worship Him and praise Him as the angels, elders, beasts, all do as described in Revelation.

  9. Mark Wilson says:

    Here’s my list

    1.) Be sensible, logical and LOOK at the words written.

    Did Jesus SAY that it would happen to THOSE people and THAT generation and they would see it with THEIR eyes? Was He a liar? No! I guess it happened in that generation then? Hmmm… that simplifies things a lot.

    2.) Know thy history.

    If you see a sequence of events (like the kings and rulers and invading nations in Daniel) we can simply look into history and see… are there historical events that correspond? Daniel’s writings were exactly right historically. Jesus in Matthew was exactly right historically. Some parts of Revelations have been exactly right historically. (But the rest remains to be done still).

    3.) Avoid the very modern plague of ego-centricity. (It’s all about me).

    It’s simply not likely that so much was written for us in this short time. Each previous generation also thought it was for them too! It’s MUCH more likely that the time span described is the same as Daniel wrote for: hundreds of years. Surely it’s not *all* about me and my lifetime?!

    4.) Maintain perspective.

    Paul wrote some sentences as if he expected the very very imminent return of Christ. Nothing happened – we’re here 2000 years later. Imagine what it felt like to be living in 665! Nothing happened. In 999 they thought it was the end. Nothing happened. 1999 we thought the various computer problems would get us. Nothing happened. What can we learn from this?

    Bless you Bill!

    • Michael L Roach says:

      But that’s the wonder of prophecy! If God is Eternal, His words and character are Eternal. John was delivering a message to the first century saints in real time and history, but the words belong to God, so they are Eternal truths and principles.

      2000 years ago, the “Beast” did indeed rise from the “Abyss” and seek to destroy the early saints in the guise of misguided Jews, pagans and the Roman Empire. But the Eternal truth is that the “Beast” will arise from the “Abyss” whenever and wherever the saints rise up and clasp the hand of Jesus in any age. That old “dragon” will always seek to destroy the Church, whenever and wherever She stands against this evil world.

      So John’s vision was very relevant to the first Christians – in real time and history – and is just as relevant to Christians throughout every age.
      Mike from MO

  10. Skeeter says:

    Book of Revelations.

    Mans part in the book of revelation. It is my belief that Jesus gave John to Mary and Mary gave John the equilivant of a childs scrapbook. From this John created the body of the story.
    The beginning of it and the end of it, I believe came from seven letters Jesus had previously written and hidden on Patmos. These gave John a beginning and an end for the book.

    Gods part in this.
    Two thirds of the book can be found word for word in other books of the bible, with in the rest God has placed our future events.
    The whole bible begins with two major things. First god said, Multiply and fill. Mans first piece of knowledge comes from, ‘a man shall leave his mother and father and cling to a wife. If there are no longer curses, would this not be our present focus?
    2,000 years ago circumstances relating to the bible bought about a time when local woman found it difficult to find a husband. Now in China men can not find wives.
    Refined gold = atomic number 79. The problem for men now finding wives began in 79 of our last century.

    Mans 666. Oddly enough the time between the ark going missing and the book of revelations. 586 bc to 80 ad equals 666 years. could be why 616 and 665 have been found on other documents. 616 makes 30 years earlier, about the time he began putting this book together. 665 might be the time he submitted it for publication and 666 when it was done.
    Gods 666. 6/66. The six hours he spent working in the dark and the 66 he spent working in a light of his own.

    Just a thought………..

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