Understanding the book of Revelation – How can I do it?

The book of Revelation is often difficult to understand. How can we better know what it means?

It is important to apply proper Bible study methods (also called hermeneutics) to understand Revelation. This can assist in determining which aspects are literal and which are figurative. In some cases, Revelation identifies figurative aspects in other parts of the book itself. For example, in the descriptions of the seven churches in chapters 2—3, many references are identified. Revelation 1:20 also explains some parts, noting, "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." The seven stars are the angels (or messengers) of the seven churches. The lampstands represent the churches.

Whenever possible, the self-identification in Revelation should be used. However, there are many other figures used that are not as clearly explained. For example, the woman attacked by a dragon in Revelation 12 has been identified in many different ways. The best understanding, however, can be found in other parts of Scripture. Similar imagery is used in Genesis 37 in Joseph's dream about his father Jacob (Israel), his mother, and his brothers (the tribes of Israel). Comparing Genesis 37 to Revelation 12 helps us identify the woman in Revelation 12 with the nation of Israel. It appears the best explanation in this case is that Jesus the "male child" (v. 5) was born from within Israel ("the woman") and was attacked by the dragon (Satan). The child is to rule the nations (Psalm 2:7-9; Revelation 20:4-6) and has been caught up to God and His throne (a reference to Jesus' ascension; Acts 1:9-11). The woman's flight into the wilderness to a place prepared for her by God and where God will nourish her for 1,260 days is thought to be a reference to God's protection of Israel during the great tribulation.

Other imagery is more difficult to determine. For example, the mark of the beast is noted as 666. Revelation 13:18 says, "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." Some have attempted to use this number in association with Roman emperors or evil leaders throughout history. The truth is that the identification of this number is uncertain and may not be clearly understood until the foretold future events happen. However, despite this lack of clarity, it is unnecessary to fear modern items such as microchips or bar codes as some form of the mark of the beast.

Prophecy scholars also note that descriptions should be taken literally unless there is a reason to think otherwise. For example, the descriptions of the millennium note the specific number 1,000 years on six occasions in Revelation 20. While it could potentially be possible this is figurative, it appears much more likely that the text indicates a literal 1,000-year period is the focus. The same is true regarding Revelation's description of the new heaven, new earth, and new heavenly city in chapters 21—22.

Revelation may be difficult to understand, but it is not impossible. Proper Bible study methods can help us know the main points and many of the events communicated.

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