Our Approach to Revelation

To begin a study of a book like Revelation, we must address some fundamental questions. In this case, the most fundamental of questions is whether or not it is intended to be understood literally. If we decide it should be understood literally, then we must next decide whether or not it is intended to be chronological in nature. If we determine that it is both literal and chronological, then we will have a story, a narrative about something. Since the internal structure of the book is set forth by Revelation 1:19, there are two elements in play: What is now, and will come later:

Write, therefore, what you have seen, what is now and what will take place later.

In chapters 2-3, Jesus dictates letters to seven churches that existed at the time of John that he would have been familiar with; these chapters would seem to be the “now”. So then, chapters 4-22 must be the “later” and since “later” ends with the New Jerusalem, and it is literal and chronological, then 4-22 must tell a narrative of how the world ends. Yep, that’s where that idea comes from.  If you wish to take the literal approach, then you will find that Revelation is a very difficult book, because in these visions, there are some bizarre things. Take chapters 12-13 for instance. In chapter 12 there is a woman and a dragon. Literally, a woman is a female human being, and a dragon is dragon; literally speaking, they are what they are. So let’s take a look at 12:3-4:

Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads. Its tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born.

How exactly are you planning on handling this one literally: An enormous dragon with seven heads and seven horns with seven crowns? It is so big that it seeps stars out of the sky with its tail: Literally. And you wonder why the atheists ridicule us! Shall we begin with the obvious? There is no such thing as a dragon. This dragon is so big that it has a tail many light years long and it can sweep stars out of the sky?  OK, I had astronomy in college; even I’m laughing now.

But wait!  What about verse 1?

A great sign appeared in heaven (12:1a)

This story isn’t a literal event at all; it’s a sign. If we keep on reading, the dragon becomes a serpent that becomes the Devil. Those stars are representing fallen angels and there’s a war going on in heaven. Those beasts in the next chapter are part of the sign. None of this is literal!

Revelation has literally dozens of examples like this, as you will see in this study, and there is very little in the book that can accurately be understood using the literal method of interpretation, because it does not provide for “cherry picking” what is literal and what is not. If the text is not literal, then it also can’t be chronological, and it isn’t quite telling the same story that many presuppose. Yet it reveals a great deal that applies to us every single day!

The name for this type of writing is “Apocalyptic” for it reveals things through the use of figurative language that cannot be revealed any other way. (Thus the name of the book, by the way)

To be fair to commentators who advocate a literal approach, they don’t really use the literal method in Revelation (or the OT prophets for that matter). If you read their writings, you will see that “this” is representing “that” all day long. Yet the approach is claimed in order to impose the context of the text’s being both literal and chronological, for then it must of necessity be about the end of the world. In other words, the premise (end of the world) requires the claim of the method; if the premise turns out to be false, the whole thing will crash and burn.

Needless to say, as we go forward, I will approach the text with the assumption that it is intended to be understood figuratively. Next time, a brief description of “Apocalyptic” writing, see you then!

About Don Merritt

A long time teacher and writer, Don hopes to share his varied life's experiences in a different way with a Christian perspective.
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22 Responses to Our Approach to Revelation

  1. With the literal approach, you have 100-pound hail, only Jews going to heaven (the breakdown of the 144,000), only about ten people per year dying and going to heaven, the wall of Jerusalem being several miles high, etc. I think I’d have nightmares over it if I took it literally. Oh, and on the radio one time a long time ago, I heard a preacher say that the River of Life flowing out of the throne of God and coming down to us creates a beautiful waterfall from heaven to earth.

  2. The Bible teaches of itself that ‘scripture interprets scripture’ and ‘the scriptures are spiritually discerned’. That’s a good enough approach for me and the only one that works. To understand The Book of the of the Revelation of Jesus Christ, one needs to understand the OT prophecies. It also, requires the insight of the Holy Spirit. Knowing Jesus is revelation and developing an understanding of what the revelation of Jesus Christ means for the future of the world, is revelation also. One that takes time.

  3. Citizen Tom says:

    Definitely curious to see where you go with this.

    I liked the fact you did not denigrate those who advocate a more literal interpretation. Very few, I think, actually interpret what Revelation clearly presents as symbol as anything other than a symbol.

    Growing up I read gobs of science fiction. As an adult I have worked as a scientist/military officer/engineer, hardly a genius at any of these pursuits or I would not have switched so much. Nevertheless, what I have seen over the years has shown me that truth really is stranger than fiction. Does that observation make me special? No. That’s an observation I expect almost anyone would make.

    When we try to understand the world around us, our own limitations force us to use conceptual models of reality that are often far simpler than what we find when we compare those models with reality. Thus, what we think of as reasonable is usually the simpler, less complicated alternative. We even have a name for this rationale, Occam’s razor.

    Is the choice dictated by Occam’s razor always the correct choice? No. Occam’s razor is just a rule of thumb. God is an infinite being. We are just His finite little creations. He has always surprised us with what He can do, and we continue to be surprised.

    That said, is there a dragon big enough to sweep the stars from heaven? I have no idea what Satan can do, but let’s hope not. Yet I think about how what we do believe.

    Jesus Messiah came, and Satan opposed Him with everything at his disposal, and finally was able to have Him killed, and in so doing, Old Satan stepped right into a trap. I would imagine that round about the time of the resurrection, or at the latest at Pentecost, he recognized that Christ’s Kingdom, indwelt by the Holy Spirit spreading across the planet was his worst nightmare, and thus almost immediately, he launched an all out frontal attack against it. (from => https://lifereference.wordpress.com/tag/religion-and-spirituality/)

    The Bible tells us a fantastic story, but the evidence piles up. So on this occassion we must set aside Occam’s razor and consider what the evidence tells us it is true.

    So what good is Occam’s razor to us? Occam’s razor suggests is that God inspired Revelation to speak to the Christians in the early church using symbols they could understand, symbols that 2,000 years latter we have more difficulty understanding.

    We have the Bible, but it take work to understand it. Thank you for your help with that.

    • Don Merritt says:

      Thank you so much, Tom, for your thoughtfulness in these remarks. Of course, you’ve identified the fact that the little bit you quoted is apploed Revelation. It’s a blessing to have you along for the trip!

  4. Planting Potatoes says:

    good read – well written – look forward to more!

  5. Lee says:

    Not sure I agree with all symbolic. Our pastor is preaching on Revelations currently. He just explained the 144,000 as Jewish witnesses for Christ. Not the ones several denominations claim as theirs.

  6. Mel Wild says:

    You are brave. 🙂
    On whether to take it literally or figuratively, historically, Futurists (premillennial, pre-trib, etc.) tend to take Revelation somewhat literally; Preterists (amillennial, postmillennial) take it symbolically. I would agree with you that it’s more likely the latter, more like a vision that must be interpreted. Look forward to what you have to say. Blessings.

  7. There’s another approach that you did not reference. That it is a veiled historical commentary on the times that John was living through, the persecution of the church by Nero, concluding with a prophetic end of the persecution. Thought?

    • Don Merritt says:

      I think that may well provide the setting, although Nero was long gone by that time having died in 68 ad. John wrote in the 90’s so it would have been Titus or Nerva… and they were bad enough. Even so, in that setting, what is described in the book, particularly chs. 4-22 would make a lot of sense to the recipients because of their situation.

  8. bcaudle77 says:

    I got my pencil ready Don!

  9. So far I’m with u Don. Lol.

  10. Greg says:

    I’m behind on this series; long week! LOL

    I’m with you and in agreement so far and eagerly awaiting catching up.

  11. gretahartmann says:

    Hi Don! Your teaching is so much fun!

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