There are traditionally four different ways of interpreting revelation:
The preterist approach takes the historical context of Revelation seriously and attempts to understand the book the way John’s audience would have understood it. Many of the events are seen as having been fulfilled in the first century.
The historicist approach views Revelation as a map or outline of what has happened throughout church history from the first century until the return of Christ.
The futurist approach views most of the book as related to future events immediately preceding the end of history.
The idealist approach does not understand Revelation in terms of any particular reference to time, but rather relates to the ongoing struggle between good and evil.
However, the best way to interpret Revelation is to use an approach that seeks to combine the strengths of those approaches. Revelation certainly seems to address the first Christians directly. We should read Revelation the same way we read every other book of the Bible—by taking its historical context seriously. Revelation also presents timeless truths for surviving the struggle between good and evil. The visions of Revelation challenge us to forsake our complacency and stay faithful during times of persecution. And this book certainly has something to say about events still to come.
In the midst of those general approaches, there are seven specific principles we need to apply when interpreting Revelation.
1. Read Revelation with humility.
Reading with a humble mind means that we are willing to admit that our interpretation could be wrong and to change our view when the biblical evidence points in a different direction.
2. Try to discover the message to the original readers.
We must understand what it meant in John’s day in order to understand what it means today.
3. Don’t try to discover a strict chronological map of future events.
Rather than searching for a chronological map of future events, it is better to grasp the main message in each vision about living in the here and now.
4. Take Revelation seriously, but don’t always take it literally.
When interpreting much of the Bible, the general rule is to interpret literally except where the context clearly calls for a symbolic reading. The general rule for Revelation is just the reverse: Interpret symbolically unless the context calls for a literal reading.
5. Pay attention when John identifies an image.
In Revelation 1:20, John identifies the lampstands as churches, so when John uses the image again (i.e., 11:3-4), we should assume that it refers to a church again. But we must be careful in doing this, because there are times when John uses the same image to refer to different things. The seven stars in Revelation 1 are the seven churches. However, John also uses the image of a star to refer to God’s agents of judgment (8:10-12) and even Jesus himself (22:16). Also, the image of a woman is used for a false prophetess (2:20), the messianic community (12), the harlot city or empire (17), and the bride of Christ (19:7; 21:9).
6. Look to the Old Testament and historical context when interpreting images and symbols.
One of the most difficult aspects of reading Revelation is knowing what the images and symbols refer to. In other words, we usually know what Revelation is saying, but we are often not sure what it is talking about.
An example of the Old Testament parallels can be seen in comparing Daniel 7:9, 13-14; 10:5-6 and Revelation 1:7, 12-15.
7. Above all, focus on the main idea and don’t press all the details.
In other words, start with the big picture and work toward an understanding of the details. So when reading Revelation, the main thing is to make the main thing the main thing!
How Does Revelation Unfold?
Vision of God and the Lamb (4:1-5:14)
Opening of the Seven Seals (6:1-8:1)
Sounding of the Seven Trumpets (8:2-11:19)
The People of God versus the Powers of Evil (12:1-14:20)
Pouring Out of the Seven Bowls (15:1-16:21)
The Judgment of Babylon (17:1-19:5)
God’s Ultimate Victory (19:6-22:5)