The Nature of Revelation:The hermeneutical problems are intrinsic. The book is in the canon; thus it is God’s Word, inspired by the Holy Spirit. Yet when we come to hear that Word, most of us in the church today hardly know what to make of it. At the same time, however, there is a rich, diverse symbolism, some of which is manageable while some is obscure. Most of the problems stem from the symbols, plus the fact that the book deals with future events, but at the same time is set in a recognizable first-century context.

The first key to the exegesis of Revelation is to examine the kind of literature it is. Revelation is a unique, finely blended combination of three distinct literary types: apocalypse, prophecy, and letter. Furthermore, the basic type, apocalypse, is a literary form that does not exist today.

The Revelation as Apocalypse: The Revelation is primarily an apocalypse. Some of the common characteristics of an apocalypse follow.

1. Apocalyptic literature was concerned with judgment and salvation. Its great concern was no longer with God’s activity within history. The apocalyptics looked exclusively forward to the time that God would bring a violent end to history.

2. Apocalypses are literary works from the beginning. John was told to write what he had seen not to verbally communicate it.

3. Most frequently the stuff of apocalyptic is presented in the form of visions or dreams, and its language is cryptic and symbolic. Therefore, most of the apocalypses contained literary devices intended to give the book a sense of hoary age. The most important of these devices was pseudonymity, that is, they were given the appearance of having been written by ancient worthies, who were told to seal up their writing for a later day.

4. The images in this writing are often forms of fantasy, rather than reality.

5. Most are very formally stylized. There was a strong tendency to divide time and events into neat packages. There was also a great fondness for the symbolic use of numbers and symbols. As a consequence, the final product usually has the visions in carefully arranged, often numbered, sets. Frequently these sets, when put together, express something without necessarily trying to suggest that each separate picture follows hard on the heel of the former.

The Revelation of John fits all of these categories but one. And that one difference is so important that in some ways it becomes a world of its own. Revelation is not Pseudonymous. John made himself know to his readers. He also did not seal up the book because he was inspired to distribute the message now.

The Revelation as Prophecy: John calls his book “this prophecy,” and says that the “testimony of Jesus,” for which he and the churches are suffering “is the spirit of prophecy.” This probably means that the message of Jesus, attested by him and to which John and the churches bear witness, is the clear evidence that the prophetic Spirit had come. Therefore, what makes John’s Apocalypse different is the combination of apocalyptic and prophetic elements. John clearly intends this book to be a prophetic word to the church. It was a word from God for their present situation.

The Revelation as Epistle: It must be noted that this combination of apocalyptic and prophetic elements has been cast into the form of a letter. John speaks to his reader in the first/second person formula. The significance of this is that there is an occasional aspect to the Revelation. It was occasioned at least in part by the needs of the specific church to which it was addressed. Therefore, to interpret, we must try to understand its original historical context.

The Necessity of Exegesis: Exegesis is especially important when studying Revelation. It is the lack of this that has lead to so many speculative and bad interpretations.

1. The first task is to seek the author’s original intent. The primary meaning of Revelation is what John intended it to mean, which in turn must also have been something his readers could have understood it to mean.

2. Since the Revelation intends to be prophetic, one must be open to the possibility of a second, higher meaning, inspired by the Holy Spirit. However, such a meaning lies beyond what we can correctly define. Therefore, what we need to do is understand what John was intending his original readers to hear and understand.

3. One must be careful to not overuse the analogy of Scripture when interpreting Revelation. The analogy of Scripture means that Scripture is to be interpreted in the light of other Scripture. Therefore any keys to interpreting Revelation must be intrinsic to the text of the Revelation itself or otherwise available to the original recipients from their own historical context.

4. Because of the apocalyptic nature of the book there can be some exegetical problems specifically in regards to some on the imagery.

a. One must have sensitivity to the rich background of ideas that have gone into the composition of the Revelation. The chief source of these ideas and images is the Old Testament, but John has derived images from apocalyptic and even from ancient mythology.

b. Apocalyptic images are of several kinds

c. When John interprets his images, these interpreted images must be held firmly and must serve as a starting point for understanding others.

d. One must see the visions as wholes and not allegorically press all the details. In this matter the visions are like parables. The whole vision is trying to say something; the details are either (1) for dramatic effect, (2) to add to the picture of the whole so that the readers will not mistake the points of reference.

5. Apocalypses in general, and the Revelation in particular, seldom intend to give a detailed, chronological account of the future. John’s concern is that, despite present appearances, God is in control of history and the church. And even though the church will experience suffering and death, it will be triumphant in Christ, who will judge his enemies and save his people.

The Historical Context: The place to begin one’s exegesis is with provisional reconstruction of the situation that it was written. Try to read it all in one sitting, reading it for the big picture. As you read take notes on the main points, the author and his readers. Understanding that John wrote this book while in exile is crucial in understanding the occasion of the letter.

The main themes are abundantly clear. Church and state are on a collision course; and the initial victory will appear to belong to the state. But the prophetic word is one of encouragement; for God is in control of all things. God will finally pour out his wrath upon those who caused suffering and death and bring eternal rest to those who remain faithful.

It is also important to understand the distinction that John makes between tribulation and wrath. Tribulation (suffering and death) is clearly part of what the church was enduring and was yet to endure. God’s wrath on the other hand, is his judgment that is to be poured out upon those who have afflicted God’s people.

The Literary Context: To understand any one of the specific visions on the Revelation it is especially important not only to wrestle with the background and meaning of the images (the content questions) but also to ask how a particular vision functions in the book as a whole. One must think paragraphs because every paragraph is a building block for the whole argument. The book is creatively structured whole, and each vision is an integral part of that whole.

The Hermeneutical Questions: The hermeneutical difficulties with the Revelation are much like those of the prophetic books. As with all other genres, God’s Word to us is to be found first of all in his Word to them. But in contrast the Prophets the Revelation often speaks about things yet to be.

Our difficulties do not lie with understanding God’s Word of warning and comfort. Our difficulties lie with that other phenomenon of prophecy, namely that the temporal world is often so closely tied to the final eschatological realities.

1. We need to learn that pictures of the future are just that—pictures. Thus when the four trumpets proclaim calamities on nature as a part of God’s judgment, we must not necessarily expect a literal fulfillment of those pictures.

2. Some of the pictures that were intended primarily to express the certainty of God’s judgment must not also be interpreted to mean soon-ness, at least from our limited perspective.

3. The pictures where the temporal is closely tied to the eschatological should not be viewed as simultaneous. The eschatological dimension of the judgments and of the salvation should alert us to the possibility of a not-yet dimension to many of the pictures.

4. Although there are probably many instances where there is a second, yet to be fulfilled, dimension to the pictures, we have been given no keys as to how we are to pin these down.

5. The pictures that were intended to be totally eschatological are still to be taken so. This we should affirm as God’s Word yet to be fulfilled. But even these are pictures; the fulfillment will be in God’s own time, in his own way.

Just as the opening word of Scripture speaks of God and creation, so the concluding words speak of God and consummation. If there are some ambiguities for us as to how all the details are to work out, there is no ambiguity as to the certainty that God will work it all out—in his time and in his way. Such certainty should serve for us, as for them, to warn and to encourage.

(This post is a summary and partial abridgement of Fee And Stuart’s book “How To Read The Bible For All It’s Worth.” It is based solely on Fee And Stuart’s work and any help that this content gives should be credited to God’s grace through their effort. In other words, give God glory, thank Fee and Stuart and buy the book.)