The book of Revelation is a tough book to read. It is full of strange and often scary imagery, confusing numbers, time references, and much more. However, with just a few tips for understanding certain confusing elements, the book opens up as an important and helpful book for Christians.
1. The book is visual prophecy.
One of the first things that help us understand the book is understanding what kind of book it is. John tells us in the opening chapter that what he has written is a prophecy from Jesus.
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. (Rev. 1:3)
2. This prophecy was given to John in a series of visions.
I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet saying, “Write what you see.” (Rev. 1:10-11)
The fact that John was “in the Spirit” and that God says to him to “write what you see” both point to the fact that what John is writing is direct revelation from God communicated through visions, making the book visionary prophecy (Rev. 22:16). As with the other visions, like Joseph’s dreams for instance (Gen. 37:1-11), much of what John sees is strange and needs interpretation.
3. Revelation is full of symbolism.
Because Revelation is a vision, it is full of symbolism. Revelation often has references to symbolism from other prophecies and visions, like the visions of Daniel, Ezekiel, and Zechariah. Some things in the visions are symbolic and interpreted within the vision, such as the lampstands representing the churches (Rev. 1:20). Other things in the vision are simply accessories, like in a dream. To understand what is symbolic and what isn’t, a good rule of thumb is looking for what the thing does within the vision: if the thing accomplishes something, it usually symbolizes something that relates to real life. Sometimes the text interprets the symbolism for you, and sometimes the symbolism relates to something from the Old Testament, but most of the characters described in Revelation are doing something. That way you know they are important.
4. Numbers are symbolic.
Numbers in Revelation are flexible and symbolic. For instance, the number seven represents wholeness and completeness. It is God’s perfect number. For example, the opening benediction says,
Grace to you and peace, from Him who is and who was and who is coming; and from the seven spirits who are before His throne; and from Jesus Christ. (Rev. 1:4-5)
The number seven here symbolizes the Holy Spirit’s wholeness and completeness and is a reference to Zechariah 4:10. Later in Revelation, John will refer to the Holy Spirit in the singular (Rev. 1:10; 2:7, 11, 17).
Similarly, the number twelve and anything divisible by twelve is the number of the people of God (Rev. 7:1-12). Twelve has always been an important number in the Bible because there were twelve tribes of Israel and twelve apostles. Multiples of ten are used to represent an indefinite yet large number of whatever is described.
5. Time is flexible and fluid.
Because it is a vision, time is fluid, not strictly chronological. Like in a dream, time doesn’t work the same way as in the real world. Revelation is a visual picture of things, some of which are past, some of which are present, and some of which are future. Revelation is primarily a visual representation, making it more like scenes that switch around to different times to show different things rather than showing one long chronological story.
One event is often portrayed from multiple angles.
The book of Revelation is a series of visions, but not every vision represents the same thing, nor are they in any strict chronological order. In fact, there is actually a lot of repetition in the book that operates like different chapters of a book or scenes of a movie. One chapter may talk about an event from the perspective of one or two characters, and another chapter will discuss the same event but from a different perspective or angle or talk about different parts of the event.
With these tips for understanding some of the more difficult elements of the book, Revelation opens up more easily. Jesus’ last prophecy to his church before the final judgment is his last word to us:
“I, Jesus, have sent my angel to testify to you about these things for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.” The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” And let the one who hears say, “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price. (Rev. 22:16-17)
We don’t have to give up on the book; the Lord has given us everything we need to understand it because it is for us and for our encouragement in the proclamation of the gospel and our wisdom and endurance.