Let’s think about how to read Revelation and principles to employ in the interpretation of Revelation. There are straightforward statements, similes, and metaphors. We know the Lamb is Jesus Christ. We know the enthroned one in chapter 4 is the Father. We know about the marriage supper of the Lamb as the union of Christ with his people.
But this book does require some careful thinking in how to interpret particular parts of the book. There is a lot of rhetoric today in terms of how to interpret the book. He quotes, “The book is peculiar and you are to use history and grammar, the preferred approach to the apocalypse is literal interpretation.” This is a contradiction. Are there principles in Scripture that guide us how to interpret the book? John denies that he is John the Baptist in John 1. Yet Jesus says in Matt. 11 and 17 says that John is Elijah and that he was unrecognized. In Luke 1, John will go in the spirit and power of Elijah. So it wasn’t fulfilled literally.
In Acts 10:9ff. Peter didn’t want to eat because it was unclean, and while he was perplexed, at that point Cornelius and his men showed up.
17 Now while Peter was inwardly perplexed as to what the vision that he had seen might mean, behold, the men who were sent by Cornelius, having made inquiry for Simon’s house, stood at the gate
Like Peter, it is possible that John may not have understood, but faithfully recorded. Peter’s vision was not clearly understood for him to understand it, history had to unfold for him to get it. This could have similarities with John’s being perplexed as he records what God told him to record.
The common and profane referred to people, though Peter may not have initially understood the referents that may have seemed obvious.
There are things in Revelation that no one takes literally, like Christ as a lamb with seven horns and seven eyes.
Here are four principles to interpret given by Vern Poythress: There are four levels of meaning. If you don’t make the first and lest distinction, you will get in trouble.
1. The visionary level – he received actual visions from the Lord. John repeats, “and I saw.” This is actually what he saw. How much freedom did John have to describe his vision. You can make a junction between what he saw and how he described it. The short answer to this problem, as it were, is, “we’re not mind readers, so we should set it aside and stick with the inspired Scripture that we have. If you make this junction, it is all speculative.” There’s no way to access what he actually saw. This is where we take the Bible literally. Take the book of Revelation literally. This is what he saw.
2. Contemporary level – Stephanos referred to a victory crown in contrast to a “diadem” which was a crown worn by a king. So the people in John’s day understood the difference and it communicated to those in his day. Another example is the saber that comes out of Christ’s mouth. It is a saber used by the cavalry and not by a ground soldier. The first century audience would understand this as his contemporaries.
3. Redemptive-historical (intertextual) level – This level is the most interesting and often the most important. Scholars have devoted significant parts of their lives to show inter-canonical connections. It’s like a tapestry woven into the book of Revelation as the end point. There are only a few OT quotes. Many of his visions are different than the OT visions, but were tied to the rest of the Bible’s visions and they are tied together. Baugh argues that Revelation interprets those texts.
4. Referential level – The point. This is where people talk about them taking the book literally. It is not a question of whether you interpret it literally, but how do you do it? Everyone spiritualizes or takes the symbolism seriously at some points. For example, in Rev. 5, John saw a Lamb with 7 horns and 7 eyes. He literally saw it, but what do you make of that? It has meaning beyond the symbol. So how do you interpret it? Well, first off, consider the 3 previous levels already mentioned. (1) what he saw, (2) keep in mind what the original audience understood, and (3) are there threads in other Scriptures that John is seeing and picking up. Talking about the method of interpreting Revelation may be boring after a while, so you want to actually begin to interpret it.
Revelation 1. Preliminary comments.
1. Appearance matters and is described.
2. Numbers are significant. How many people are blessed in the name of the angels (Rev 1:4)?
3. Actions. People ride horses. People measure temples.
4. Surroundings. – sea of glass
5. Events – thunders, earthquakes, the ark opened up, the dragon is chained and thrown into the lake of fire. Things are happening.
Now Revelation 1. Look at v. 9. The purpose of the book. John is being commissioned to write this book. He tells his testimony that he was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day. He was told to write it in the book and send it to the 7 churches.
12 Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, 13 and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. 14 The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, 15 his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. 16 In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength.17 When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, 18 and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades. 19 Write therefore the things that you have seen, those that are and those that are to take place after this. 20 As for the mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands, the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.
John doesn’t necessarily understand what he sees. But he records what he sees.
Observations in passing: (1) The stars in his right hand are a mystery (v. 20). In the text itself, we’re pushed that there is significance beyond the vision, that the stars are beyond stars but that the stars represent something, these angels of the seven churches. The angels themselves are symbolic. The angel is also a symbolic figure for the church. Right away we’re pushed to symbolism. (2) It is interesting that he has the 7 stars on his right hand, and then he puts his right hand on John. What happened to the stars (1:16-17)? There are things in this vision right away that are intuitively wonderful.
His eyes were like a flame of fire (1:14). This refers to the blazing gaze of Christ that sees our minds and hearts (2:18, 23). The sword in his mouth slays his enemies. We haven’t walked through many examples of how to use these four levels, but you should use them in studying the book.
Conclusion: Why didn’t John just give an interpretation and explain it? Like Peter in Acts, 10, he may not have known what it meant. Furthermore, take comfort that we have a faithful record of the visions for the church. Secondly, the people John is writing to, spent a considerable amount of time trying to figure out what was going on at the present time in the spiritual world. They were very superstitious and mystical in trying to figure out what was behind the appearances into the world of the spirit and the spiritual world. Well the Lord Jesus allows us to see that, and what John sees first is Jesus. He is the main player and the one in control, not the demons, the dragon, or the enemies. Jesus is the center of the book. The Trinity controls history and the book and will win in the end. Finally, be content when reading Revelation that the genius of the vision is both to reveal and conceal. The Lord doesn’t really want to tell us every detail of what is going to happen. He tells us enough to trust him and move forward, but not all the details so that we don’t get complacent.
So you should read this book humbly and prayerfully.