Editor’s Note: This is the best I've read on the subject of how to read and interpret the book of Revelation. Full scriptural text inserted by the editor of this blog. 2 Timothy 2:15 ESV Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.
10 Common Mistakes People Make When Reading Revelation
The book of Revelation is either the most exciting or the most frustrating book of the Bible to read. It can be exciting when you’re looking at prophecy fulfilled or frustrating when you’re confused about what is literal, what is symbolic, what is future and what is past. It can also be the most divisive book of the Bible because of differing views on interpretation.
Yet John, the writer of the Revelation of Jesus Christ, said “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” (Revelation 1:3, ESV).
How can you be blessed or happy when reading Revelation? When you avoid the common mistakes most people make when reading it – mistakes that can lead to confusion, fear, inaccurate predictions, disillusionment, paranoia, or end-of-the-world hype. Here are 10 common mistakes people make when reading Revelation.
1. Failing to Start at the Beginning
When you read a story, would you start with the last chapter first? Yet this is what many people do when they read Revelation. They start at the back of the book, instead of starting at the beginning. The Bible is one book of 66 smaller books and the first part of the book (the Old Testament) sets the stage, introduces the characters, lays down the Law and provides the reasoning behind God’s judgment – and His deliverance – at the very end of the book. It’s common for readers of Revelation to ignore the cross references and not look at the context of the Old Testament passages that are quoted throughout Revelation. But there is a reason Revelation is filled with footnotes directing you to the beginning of the book – passages in Exodus, Deuteronomy, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel, just to name a few.
By going back to the beginning of the book and looking up passages quoted from the Old Testament you can arrive at Scriptural answers, rather than conjecture, when it comes to questions like “Who is the Harlot?” and other hotly-debated points.
2. Forgetting the Original Audience
We tend to read the book of Revelation as if it’s written to Christians of 21st Century America so we can know what our future holds. Yet, the Revelation of Jesus Christ was a letter written “to the seven churches that are in Asia” to provide for them comfort in the midst of the persecution they were enduring and to strengthen them, as well as give them hope for what was soon to come.
Revelation 1:4-5 ESV John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth. To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood
So, every time you see the word “you” in a narrative, you must realize that “you” is not literally you. This letter written from prison to persecuted Christians in the First Century and delivered through the Roman Postal System used veiled language, at times, that its direct recipients would fully understand.
Revelation 13:18 ESV This calls for wisdom: let the one who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man, and his number is 666.
So, be a history buff. Brush up on what was happening in the First Century and why these words would be a comfort to them and why certain codes would be significant to them and quit trying to put yourself into the picture. There is room for application of God’s Word after you have first looked at what the text says by its original author to its original audience. The basic model of hermeneutics is to first ask What does the text say? Secondly, ask What does it mean, in light of who it was written to and the time at which it was written? The third and final question to ask is What does this mean to me and how I should live? Application is important, but keep first things first. Remember to whom it was written and read it through the eyes of a First Century persecuted Christian.
3. Misunderstanding the Term "Last Days
"Christians today read about the "last days" and they get excited. They think in terms of Jenkins/LaHaye novels and Hollywood movies and immediately think "last days of the earth." Again, if you start in the Old Testament, you will understand that most of the references to the “last days” – also referred to as “latter days” (KJV and NASB), and “days to come” (ESV, NIV and NASB) – are referring to the last days of the Old Covenant,not the last days of the world.
For example, Peter starts his powerful sermon on the day the first Church was established by quoting from the Old Testament Prophet Joelin which he says “In the last days it shall be….”
Joel 2:28-32 ESV "And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit. "And I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. For in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the Lord has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the Lord calls.
That wouldn’t exactly be a relevant sermon on Opening Day of the First Christian Church, if Peter was talking about the last days of the earth some 2,000 + years hence, would it? But when you realize that sermon is talking about the last days of the Old Covenant that God made with Israel, it suddenly makes sense that Peter would be letting the first Christians know that, indeed, the ending of the Old Covenant was finally upon them and the New Covenant was being ushered in. The New Covenant was with Jesus – the long-awaited Messiah – who had been killed and then raised from the dead and “God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you (remember the audience relevance?) crucified”.
Acts 2:36 ESV Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified."
By the way, the term Old Testament and New Testament is another way of saying Old Covenant and New Covenant. Understand the meaning of the various uses of “last days” throughout the Bible and you’ll better understand Revelation.
4. Comparing Scripture with Headlines, Tweets, or Tradition
If you read Revelation and compare it with headlines on the evening news or in social media, you will have a completely skewed idea about what the book is about. Likewise, if you read it with the latest apocalyptic movie in mind, or the images in your head from the Left Behind series of novels, you will be reading into it what isn’t there.
Don’t compare Scripture with headlines or movies or even long-held beliefs going back to what you heard in Sunday School as a child. Compare Scripture with Scripture (both Old and New Testament Scriptures) and you will discover what is actually Scripture and what is merely conjecture, tradition, or hype from current events.
5. Taking the Symbolic as Literal
Yes, you believe the Bible is literal. So do I. But certain portions of Revelation (and the Bible, for that matter) are meant to be symbolic, not literal. When John says “I saw a star fallen from heaven to earth, and he was given the key to the shaft of the bottomless pit” he obviously is not talking about a literal star falling from heaven and being handed a set of keys.
Revelation 9:11 ESV They have as king over them the angel of the bottomless pit. His name in Hebrew is Abaddon, and in Greek he is called Apollyon.
That is a symbolic reference to Satan from the Old Testament book of Ezekiel.
Ezekiel 28:12-19 ESV "Son of man, raise a lamentation over the king of Tyre, and say to him, Thus says the Lord God : "You were the signet of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty. You were in Eden, the garden of God; every precious stone was your covering, sardius, topaz, and diamond, beryl, onyx, and jasper, sapphire, emerald, and carbuncle; and crafted in gold were your settings and your engravings. On the day that you were created they were prepared. You were an anointed guardian cherub. I placed you; you were on the holy mountain of God; in the midst of the stones of fire you walked. You were blameless in your ways from the day you were created, till unrighteousness was found in you. In the abundance of your trade you were filled with violence in your midst, and you sinned; so I cast you as a profane thing from the mountain of God, and I destroyed you, O guardian cherub, from the midst of the stones of fire. Your heart was proud because of your beauty; you corrupted your wisdom for the sake of your splendor. I cast you to the ground; I exposed you before kings, to feast their eyes on you. By the multitude of your iniquities, in the unrighteousness of your trade you profaned your sanctuaries; so I brought fire out from your midst; it consumed you, and I turned you to ashes on the earth in the sight of all who saw you. All who know you among the peoples are appalled at you; you have come to a dreadful end and shall be no more forever."
Likewise, when John says that 200 million horsemen with heads like lions and fire and smoke and sulfur coming out of their mouths will line up in the Valley of Megiddo to kill a third of mankind, this is also symbolic of a massive battle but most likely not a literal 200 million horse-mounted demon-like soldiers akin to the machines in Terminator or Transformers! Know the difference between narrative, which is to be read literally, and portions of prophesy and apocalyptic language, which is to be read symbolically.
Revelation 9:16-17 ESV The number of mounted troops was twice ten thousand times ten thousand; I heard their number. And this is how I saw the horses in my vision and those who rode them: they wore breastplates the color of fire and of sapphire and of sulfur, and the heads of the horses were like lions' heads, and fire and smoke and sulfur came out of their mouths.
6. Taking the Literal as Symbolic
You’re right, this process goes both ways. Some phrases are meant to be symbolic and not taken literally and some of the prophesy is meant to be read literally and not symbolically. For instance, the churches in Asia that John is writing to are seven real churches that existed at the time the letter was written. That doesn't mean it was written to the seven “ages” of the church through the past two thousand years. Nor does it mean it was written to and about the seven “types” of churches or the different conditions of the church that exist in America or around the world today. While practical application can be made from the condition of the seven churches (such as the lukewarm Laodiceans), don’t make the mistake of making something literal completely symbolic.
Another example of this is in terms of numbers. When Revelation refers to a “thousand-year reign” is that a literal 1,000 years or is it symbolic of a very long time? Likewise, when John says the time is near;
Revelation 1:3 ESV 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.
and the events he has described “must soon take place”;
Revelation 22:6 ESV And he said to me, "These words are trustworthy and true. And the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, has sent his angel to show his servants what must soon take place."
is that literally near and soon or symbolic for a distant date in the future? Know the difference between literal and symbolic and simile and metaphor when you read Revelation.
7. Ignoring the Time References
This also becomes a literal vs. symbolic question. But it is significant that there are more than 100 time statements in the New Testament. Do you know the different Greek words/phrases used for “time” in each of these references? It takes research to demonstrate the differences and when you compare Scripture with Scripture, you will find that they progressively become more imminent the closer you get to the Book of Revelation. Since the letter was written to the First Century Church undergoing persecution, and they are being told the events are “near” and Jesus is quoted as saying “I am coming soon” there is an undeniable sense of imminence.
Revelation 22:20 ESV He who testifies to these things says, "Surely I am coming soon." Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!
Again, in reading the time references, refer to the Old Testament cross references. For instance, the Prophet Daniel is told to “seal up the vision, for it refers to many days from now”
and he is again told “shut up the words and seal the book, until the time of the end.”
Daniel 12:4 ESV But you, Daniel, shut up the words and seal the book, until the time of the end. Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall increase."
Daniel was to seal his prophecy because it wouldn’t come about for another 400-600 years. Yet John is told “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near.”
Revelation 22:10 ESV And he said to me, "Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near.
Did God think 400-600 years for Daniel was further away than 2,000-plus years for John? Or does “near” actually mean “near” and “far” actually mean “far”? The Bible doesn’t contradict itself, so that problem can be solved through a proper understanding of time references.
8. Not Understanding "Apocalyptic Language"
Throughout the Bible “apocalyptic language” is used to describe the devastation of God’s wrath and judgment against his enemies. In Second Samuel 22, after God spared David’s life from the hand of King Saul, David penned a song about how “the earth reeled and rocked; the foundations of the heavens trembled and quaked, because (God) was angry. Smoke went up from his nostrils, and devouring fire from his mouth; glowing coals flamed forth from him”. David is describing God as a fire-breathing dragon who “parted the heavens and came down” and laid bare the foundations of the world at the blast of breath from his nostrils.
2 Samuel 22:7-10, 16 ESV "In my distress I called upon the Lord ; to my God I called. From his temple he heard my voice, and my cry came to his ears. "Then the earth reeled and rocked; the foundations of the heavens trembled and quaked, because he was angry. Smoke went up from his nostrils, and devouring fire from his mouth; glowing coals flamed forth from him. He bowed the heavens and came down; thick darkness was under his feet. Then the channels of the sea were seen; the foundations of the world were laid bare, at the rebuke of the Lord , at the blast of the breath of his nostrils.
But that is poetic imagery to describe God’s might and power, not a description of God as a literal dragon leveling the earth.
The same type of language is used by John when he says “The sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red, and the stars in the sky fell to earth, as figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind. The heavens receded like a scroll being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.”
Revelation 6:12-14 ESV When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. The sky vanished like a scroll that is being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.
John was using apocalyptic language similar to Jesus’ words in Matthew 24 when He was describing God’s judgment. This type of language is foreign to us, which can cause us to look at Revelation and expect literal events from the apocalyptic language. But the First Century Jews understood this language because they were familiar with the Old Testament Scriptures.
9. Trying to Put "America" into the Scriptures
If you’re like me, you might have grown up looking at the Bible egocentrically, believing we (and this country) are at the core of everything God is doing. That type of approach to Scripture causes us to scour Revelation to find out where America fits into all of it and that can cause people to inaccurately – and repeatedly -- predict the “next date” the rapture will happen, and attribute national storms and disasters to fulfilled apocalyptic prophecy. But the United States wasn’t around when John wrote this vision to the First Century churches. So, you’re not going to find your President, your political party, or your country in the Book of Revelation. Taking into account audience relevance, it would’ve been meaningless to the First Century church for John to tell them what would happen a couple thousand years hence to all of us here in the USA. So, don’t waste your time trying to find out which president or world leader is “the Anti-Christ”– a term not even used in Revelation. Scripture tells us that the Anti-Christ is a spirit of rejection of Christ and was “in the world already” at the time John wrote the Book of Revelation.
1 John 4:2-3 ESV By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already. (emphasis mine)
We so want to believe we are “in the mix” and we will see these events in our lifetime that we convince ourselves we’re in there somewhere. In doing so, we fail to see Christ in the book and the vision of His glory.
10. Forgetting it is a Vision of Christ, Not a 'Topic of Debate'
Imagine having a dream or vision so vivid, so inexplicably glorious that you have a difficult time describing it in detail to others. John’s vision of the Revelation of Jesus Christ was something unlike anything he’d ever seen or imagined. He was no doubt at a loss for words in how to describe the glorified Christ’s presence as evidenced in phrases like “His eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters” (Revelation 1: 14-15, emphasis added). John was given a peek into the spiritual realm to see what no man has seen before. Thus, in his limited vocabulary and human existence, he did his best, with the inspiration of God, to give us a glimpse of heaven.
If you don’t fully understand the Book of Revelation, you’re certainly not alone. Its interpretation has been debated by Bible scholars for centuries. But rather than allow it to become a book of divisiveness, ask the Holy Spirit for His guidance as you look at Scripture and read the book for what it is – a book of worship and the Revelation of Jesus Christ – rather than a book of argument or debate. Whether you find yourself an amillenialist, premillennialist, or post-millenialist, and whether or not you subscribe to the pre-trib, mid-trib or post-trib view, make sure what you believe is grounded in what Scripture says, not what everyone else is saying or guessing.
This blog is for you! If you have any questions or topics you would like me to address please use the comments section or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Donald Jacobs is an ordained minister with the spiritual gift of teaching. He is the Associate Pastor of a non-denominational church in Los Angeles, CA.