How to Read Revelation

Remember that down through the centuries, Christians have taken three basic approaches.

Historical

The writer was referencing their own place and time, disclosing the truth about what was happening then, using symbolical language.

Idealistic

The writer was speaking about themes and truths that transcend time and place, seeking to convey spiritual truth that would encourage believers in every era.

Futuristic

The writer’s main purpose was to write of what will come, and to encourage especially those believers who will find themselves living in that cataclysmic time.

But what does that look like, really? Well, here are three examples.

The Seven Letters.

We find out, at the beginning of Revelation, that John is transcribing (as it were) messages from Jesus to seven churches in Asia Minor.

I, John, your brother who share with you in Jesus the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. I was in the spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet saying,

“Write in a book what you see and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamum, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea.”

Revelation 1:9-11 (NRSV)

But how would scholars—how would you and I—understand these letters today? It really depends on which hermeneutic we use.

(I know, a fancy word, I learned it in grad school, and realized it actually is pretty useful shorthand that means, “a method or theory of interpretation.”)

Historical Hermeneutic

If we were to take the historical approach, then we would understand these to be actual letters written with the target audience of those assembled in that named church in the late first, early second century. To that end, we would endeavor to study the archaeological excavations in those cities, looking for evidence that could document as well as shed light on the issues and topics of each letter. For example,

  1. Where were each of these cities located, and what were they like?
  2. Who was Antipas, and how did he die?
  3. Who were the Nicolaitans, and what was their work?
  4. Who was the woman named Jezebel, and how broad was her movement?

Idealist Hermeneutic

If we study these letters from an idealist point of view, then we expect the author to have written in a comprehensive manner, giving warning, blessing, and counsel in a general way that would be appropriate for any group of believers. Those who read or hear the letter would recognize which area they themselves needed to learn from. Perhaps they are in a Thyatiran category, because they are given to corruption, or a Laodician category, because they have lost their zeal.

Or, in an even more all-embracing way, these letters might simply be meant as generic counsel and encouragement across the board. Universal truths for all people everywhere, in every culture and era.

Futurist Hermeneutic

From a futuristic point of view, these letters would be Jesus’ prophetic utterances for a time still future to the original audience in the first-century church. This is how the Scofield Bible, published in 1909, understood each of the seven letters—a timeline of eras, all of which have now come to pass, these two thousand years later … meaning the events described in Revelation are poised to transpire.

Scofield Bible Futurist Understanding of the Letters to the Churches in Revelation
RevelationChurchEraTimeframe, Years C.E.
2:1-7EphesusApostolic Era33-64
2:8-11SmyrnaPeriod of Persecution64-313
2:12-17PergamumEra of Official Patronage313-606
2:18-29ThyatiraMiddle Ages606-1520
3:1-6SardisProtestant Reformation1520-1750
3:7-13PhiladelphiaMissionary Era1750-1900
3:14-22LaodiceaModern Period1900 to present

The Number of the Beast

This is a Really Big One, right? This number has gotten quite a bit written about it, with many conflicting ideas. And all this hypothesizing is launched by one single verse.

This calls for wisdom: let anyone with understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a person. Its number is six hundred sixty-six.

Revelation 13:18 (NRSV)

Translators give us a footnote stating that number could also be read as “six hundred sixteen”

So, already, we have a situation. Is it “666” or “616,” and why would there be such a seemingly huge difference in how to even, literally, read those numbers? (Some manuscripts say “616,” But most say “666.”)

Gematria

It all boils down to Gematria, assigning numerical values to either words or phrases by adding together the values of each of the letters. Hebrew, Greek, and Latin alphabets all did double duty as numbers, and it was a common—greatly enjoyed and appreciated—device to use Gematria embedded in a text for riddles, jokes, games, and symbolism.

H. Churchyard, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
ABCDEFGHI
123456789
KLMNOPQRS
102030405060708090
TUXYZJVHiW
100200300400500600700800900
The Agrippa Key for Latin and English Gematria (“Hi” is an obsolete letter)

For example, some Christian in antiquity found it significant that the Greek letters of Jesus’ name, Ἰησοῦς, add up to 888. Eight surpasses seven, and three times eight (think “Holy, Holy, Holy”) would be supremely supreme. To these ancient believers, the Gematria of Jesus’ name signified Jesus was bringing in the new creation, the new world that would surpass the one God created in seven days.

Historical Hermeneutic

So then, with the use of Gematria in a historical perspective, we would look for someone who had the Beast’s basic traits and power and whose name could add up to either 666 or 616, and scholars do not have to search long before they find him—Nero! Written in Hebrew, his name comes to 666 if “Neron Caesar,” as it was sometimes written, or 616 as “Nero Caesar.”

Idealist Hermeneutic

From the Idealist’s point of view, this becomes the number of supreme evil. If seven is perfection, and eight surpasses perfection, then six would represent imperfection, or impurity, Three times imperfection would be supremely bad.

Futurist Hermeneutic

However, the Futurist would presume the Gematria value as a code for someone who will be the predicted Beast, then sift through the data (beginning with the names) of those who already, at least in part, seem to be candidates.

So how do we proceed, then, with such different perspectives?

Balanced Reading

In the academic world, scholars try to ascertain the style of writing first in order to decide which hermeneutic will best suit as an interpretive tool.

Remember that Revelation is written as a letter, but also as prophecy, but also as apocalypse. Each genre has its own focus and method, and each genre requires a particular lens to understand it.

Letter

To the extent that Revelation is written like a letter, it needs to be read as a letter, primarily as communication to an historical audience. Whereas universal truths are certainly found in letters, at least some part of it will be dealing with the issues specific to those people in that time and place.

Prophecy

Throughout the scriptures, prophecy was given to a particular people in a certain time and place in order to encourage them, or to exhort them. There was always a relatively near-term fulfillment of that prophecy as proof of the prophet’s validity and of God’s word to the people. There are also far-term fulfillments, as is seen in the birth, life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Messiah, the Lord Jesus. In fact, Jesus Himself gave near-term prophecy that many believe carries far-term portent as well.

Apocalypse

Finally, to the extent Revelation is an apocalypse, it is necessary to understand the symbology to understand the message, which will be all-encompassing truth about God, and about the world.


I again turned to Mark Allen Powell’s Introducing the New Testament: A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey as a resource for this post.

Matthias Gerung, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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