7 Keys To the Book of Revelation

Learn important principles and guidelines that will aid in your understanding of the Apocalypse written by John.

KEY #1

The first key to understanding the Revelation is to realize the majority of the book has already been fulfilled.

“Things which must shortly take place” (Revelation 1:1)

John opens his letter by stating the things within it were to “shortly take place” (Revelation 1:1). Since he wrote the letter in the late first century AD, that means the events described in the book took place relatively soon thereafter. To put a fine point on it, the book of Revelation was a “future-looking” message to those who received it in the 1st century, but mostly a “historical reality” to those of us who live in the 21st century. Of course, the parts that refer to the final judgment, which is a small portion of the book, are yet future.

We will look at this more in key 3 regarding those to whom the letter was originally written and key 5 as we look at the historical background.

KEY #2

The second key to understanding the Revelation is to accept that most of the descriptions of characters and events are symbolic, not literal.

“Signified it by His angel to His servant John” (Revelation 1:1)

The book of Revelation is filled with signs and symbols. It was “sign-i-fied” (sine-eh-fied). That should seem obvious, but some people teach that the descriptions are all literal and to be taken at face value. With that view, they try to apply the Revelation to modern day or future events, people, governments, etc. That is a huge mistake that only brings confusion.

Let’s look at an example: the battle of Armageddon (Revelation 16:16). Modern men will say there is going to be a cataclysmic war in the middle east where Jesus and His followers fight a literal battle with Satan and his followers. Many modern wars were thought to be the catalyst to Armageddon. Everything from the first Gulf War, to the second Gulf War, to Afghanistan, and more have been hailed as “the battle of Armageddon” or ushering in of the same. The reality is there is no “Armageddon” (literal meaning is Mount Meggido). It is symbolic for a place of decisive battle where God’s people are victorious as in the defeat of Sisera by Deborah and Barak (see the song of Deborah in Judges 5:19).

Further, consider the “Lamb” mentioned throughout the book (chapters 5, 6, 7, 12, 13, 14, 15, 17, 19, 21, 22). This is not a reference to a wooly, four-legged creature. Rather, it is an obvious description of Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God (cf. John 1:29).

Much of the message of the book is given in symbolic, or apocalyptic, language, often drawn from Old Testament terms, but given a New Testament meaning. Thus, the “beast of the sea” in Revelation 13 is not a literal monster rising from the ocean, but a depiction of the Emperor of Rome who was ruthlessly persecuting the children of God. The “beast of the land” is the Imperial Cult that enforced Emperor worship, even on pain of death (Revelation 13:11-18). The “mark of the beast” is not a literal tattoo or UPC codes or credit-card numbers or social-security numbers. Rather, it is simply a counterpoint of the “seal of God” (or mark of God) given to His followers (Revelation 13:18; 7:1-8).

Questions or Comments?
Let us know!

KEY #3

The third key to understanding the Revelation is to know the book had primary application to the original audience.

“To the seven churches which are in Asia” (Revelation 1:4)

Revelation was not primarily written to people in the 21st century. Instead, it was written to Christians who were members of congregations in 1st-century Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). Each church received an individualized message from Jesus in chapters 2 and 3, while all of them received the message given in the rest of the book.

As with all books in the Bible, there was a primary audience and a secondary. For instance, the book of Galatians was written mainly for the churches of Galatia (Galatians 1:2). Others could and did benefit from it. We benefit from Galatians as well, though the exact circumstances may not exist in our time or the church where we attend. To be specific, we may not deal with the issue of the Circumcision, but we might face people who are trying to bind where God has not (Galatians 5:1-4).

The Apocalypse is the same. The main audience who needed the encouragement from the Lord lived long ago. However, we still benefit from the knowledge that no matter how bad society gets and regardless of any governmental persecution, God remains on His throne in heaven, is fully aware of what is going on, and will act in the best interest of His children (Revelation 4:1-11).

KEY #4

The fourth key to understanding the Revelation is to recognize parallel messages given from two perspectives.

Many people are tripped up when studying the book of Revelation because they try to impose a linear timeline from chapter one through twenty-two. This brings confusion because what is written is not a progressive story. It would be like trying to make Matthew and Mark linear - Matthew 1 is the start of the story and Mark 16 is the end. While Matthew 1 is the start and Mark 16 is the end, everything in between would get mashed up and confused as to where the events fit.

We readily understand that Matthew and Mark overlap, being two different perspectives on the life of Christ. The same is true with regard to Revelation 4-11 and Revelation 12-22. These sections of the book are overlapping accounts of the same thing from two different views.

Revelation 4-11 is the view from heaven that addresses the suffering of the saints, God’s punishment of the enemies, and His final victory. Revelation 12-22 is the view from the Church, the persecution of the saints, identification of the enemies, God’s wrath and ultimate defeat of Satan.

When we realize the repetitive nature of the message, it clears up confusion.

KEY #5

The fifth key to understanding the Revelation is to have a basic understanding of the historical background.

The Revelation was written in the late 1st century AD; somewhere around 96 AD. Rome was the dominant world power with the emperor Domitian ruling the empire. The emperor demanded divine honors including being called “Lord God” and worship via the emperor cult. This emperor cult was especially strong in Asia Minor with a powerful priesthood that vigorously imposed the cult on the populace. Homage to the emperor was considered an act of patriotism. If you did not participate, you were considered an enemy to Rome.

Christians refused to partake in the emperor cult and, therefore, were severely persecuted by Domitian through the priests of the cult. Punishments included the inability to conduct commerce, confiscation of land, imprisonment, torture, and death. While other emperors before Domitian persecuted Christians, their actions were relatively limited compared to Domitian’s empire-wide, zealous pursuit of the saints.

In the 250 years following Domitian’s rule, a number of other Caesars persecuted Christians to varying degrees with an end coming when Constantine adopted Christianity as his religion.

So, when we read the book of Revelation with the historical context in mind, we see the great enemy of God’s people is the Roman empire, its rulers and the emperor cult, both of which were animated by the dragon (Satan). Again, the focus and main application fits in the past, not to current or future governments and events (though there may be similarities).

Fill out your information to receive access to our Bible class on the book of Revelation and other study materials.

KEY #6

The sixth key to understanding the Apocalypse is adherence to rules of interpretation.

When we read the Bible, any book of the Bible, or any other document for that matter, there are rules of interpretation. We cannot give something a meaning that is not found in the content and context of what is written. To help understand Revelation, consider the following rules of interpretation.

  • As stated above in Keys 2, 3 & 5, the book must be seen its historical context, primarily applicable to those who first received it, and acknowledging the symbolic nature of the writing.

  • Look at the “big picture” without getting hung up on the details.When looking at a painting of a famous battle, it would be a mistake to hyper focus on a blade of grass. Yet, this is exactly what some do with the word picture of the Apocalypse. Resist this urge and look at the scenes from a broad vantage point. It will make much more sense.

  • All interpretations of Revelation must be consistent with the rest of the Bible.Any view of Revelation that contradicts plain teaching in the rest of God’s word is an incorrect view. Truth agrees with truth. God’s message is not self-contradictory.

Though it may be popular, we cannot assign any meaning to a message. We must adhere to basic rules of interpretation if we wish to have a good understanding of what is communicated, especially the Revelation.

KEY #7

The seventh key to understanding the Apocalypse is to keep in mind the overall theme: Victory in Christ.

“These will make war with the Lamb, and the Lamb will overcome them, for He is Lord of lords and King of kings; and those who are with Him are called, chosen, and faithful” (Revelation 17:14).

The entire book lays out the picture of a great spiritual war that is played out on earth. On one side is Satan, the Roman government, an imperial cult and other pagan religions, and an immoral society. On the other side is God, Christ, angels, and the saints. God and Satan are working behind the scenes to influence and affect mankind. People on earth choose which side they want to be on. Though the enemy appears incredibly strong, even invincible, the reality is God is Almighty and will defeat all foes.

Those on God’s side will share in the victory and ultimately dwell in His presence forevermore. This is why the book opens with the letters to the churches admonishing the members to be faithful to the Lord so they can share in the eternal bliss. If they do not, they will suffer the same fate as God’s enemies.

Keep this theme in mind as you read through Revelation and it will give context to each scene depicted.

Want to learn more about Revelation or other parts of the Bible?
Fill out the form to get on our email list and we will send you more information to assist in your Bible study.