Common Mistakes People Make When Reading Revelation.
Are you ready to improve your understanding of this “complex” book?
The book of Revelation is either the most exciting or the most frustrating book of the Bible to read. It can be exciting when you’re looking at prophecy fulfilled or frustrating when you’re confused about what is literal, what is symbolic, what is future and what is past. It can also be the most divisive book of the Bible because of differing views on interpretation.
Yet John, the writer of the Revelation of Jesus Christ, said “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near” (Revelation 1:3, ESV).
Most Christians have trouble understanding the Book of Revelation. If you’re confused about this complicated book, you’re not alone. One of the reasons is because of the apocalyptic language that is not commonly used today. Even though Revelation is confusing, it is still important to understand the meaning behind the book.
How can you be blessed or happy when reading Revelation? When you avoid the common mistakes most people make when reading it – mistakes that can lead to confusion, fear, inaccurate predictions, disillusionment, paranoia, or end-of-the-world hype.
Here are 14 common mistakes people make when reading Revelation.
1. Failing to Start at the Beginning
When you read a story, would you start with the last chapter first? Yet this is what many people do when they read Revelation. They start at the back of the book, instead of starting at the beginning. The Bible is one book of 66 smaller books and the first part of the book (the Old Testament) sets the stage, introduces the characters, lays down the Law and provides the reasoning behind God’s judgment – and His deliverance – at the very end of the book. It’s common for readers of Revelation to ignore the cross references and not look at the context of the Old Testament passages that are quoted throughout Revelation. But there is a reason Revelation is filled with footnotes directing you to the beginning of the book – passages in Exodus, Deuteronomy, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel, just to name a few.
As you read Revelation, ask yourself “Why is John quoting Deuteronomy 32:43 in Revelation 6:10 and 19:2 when he talks about avenging the blood of His servants? Why is Jeremiah 3:1 quoted when John talks of the Prostitute or Great Harlot of Revelation 17:5-6? By going back to the beginning of the book and looking up passages quoted from the Old Testament you can arrive at Scriptural answers, rather than conjecture, when it comes to questions like “Who is the Harlot?” and other hotly-debated points.
2. They don’t realize it was written in apocalyptic language.
Too many Christians don’t know that Revelation is an apocalyptic prophecy. Most scholars will say that Revelation’s structure is apocalyptic. Writings written with an apocalyptic framework generally detail the author’s visions of the end times, which is often revealed by a heavenly messenger. This prophecy revealed through dreams and visions generally blends fantasy and reality. There is usually a divine interpreter present to help readers understand the complex nature of what they are reading.
In Revelation, John uses end-of-the-world language, which we commonly see in apocalyptic literature. The words used in the book speak to the people of biblical times but often go over our heads because we don’t understand who the book was originally written for. The language used by John was done in a way that would get a reaction. The book is also poetic, aiming to persuade the audience.
3. Forgetting the Original Audience
We tend to read the book of Revelation as if it’s written to Christians of 21st Century America so we can know what our future holds. Yet, the Revelation of Jesus Christ was a letter written “to the seven churches that are in Asia” (Revelation 1:4) to provide for them comfort in the midst of the persecution they were enduring and to strengthen them, as well as give them hope for what was soon to come.
So, every time you see the word “you” in a narrative, you must realize that “you” is not literally you. This letter written from prison to persecuted Christians in the First Century and delivered through the Roman Postal System used veiled language, at times (Revelation 13:18), that its direct recipients would fully understand. So, be a history buff. Brush up on what was happening in the First Century and why these words would be a comfort to them and why certain codes would be significant to them and quit trying to put yourself into the picture. There is room for application of God’s Word after you have first looked at what the text says by its original author to its original audience. The basic model of hermeneutics is to first ask What does the text say? Secondly, ask What does it mean, in light of who it was written to and the time at which it was written? The third and final question to ask is What does this mean to me and how I should live? Application is important, but keep first things first. Remember to whom it was written and read it through the eyes of a First Century persecuted Christian.
4. They don’t know the background of the book.
Many Christians have trouble understanding the complicated background of Revelation. While many people think the book is the Revelation of John, that isn’t exactly the case. Revelation 1:1 says, “The Revelation [is] from Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show His servants what must soon occur. He made it known by sending His angel to His servant John.” It is true that God talked to John in his dream, which gave him the revelations he wrote down, but the true author of Revelation is God. Jesus is the real author of the book, and He helped John record this message. One of the reasons John was perfect for this role was because of his close relationship with Jesus. As Jesus’ beloved disciple, He walked with Him for three years and truly believed in what Jesus said.
5. Misunderstanding the Term “Last Days”
Christians today read about the “last days” and they get excited. They think in terms of Jenkins/LaHaye novels and Hollywood movies and immediately think “last days of the earth.” Again, if you start in the Old Testament, you will understand that most of the references to the “last days” – also referred to as “latter days” (KJV and NASB), and “days to come” (ESV, NIV and NASB) – are referring to the last days of the Old Covenant, not the last days of the world.
For example, in Acts 2:14-40, Peter starts his powerful sermon on the day the first Church was established by quoting Joel 2:28-32 in which he says “In the last days it shall be….” That wouldn’t exactly be a relevant sermon on Opening Day of the First Christian Church, if Peter was talking about the last days of the earth some 2,000 + years hence, would it? But when you realize that sermon is talking about the last days of the Old Covenant that God made with Israel, it suddenly makes sense that Peter would be letting the first Christians know that, indeed, the ending of the Old Covenant was finally upon them and the New Covenant was being ushered in. The New Covenant was with Jesus – the long-awaited Messiah – who had been killed and then raised from the dead and “God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you (remember the audience relevance?) crucified” (Acts 2:36). By the way, the term Old Testament and New Testament is another way of saying Old Covenant and New Covenant. Understand the meaning of the various uses of “last days” throughout the Bible and you’ll better understand Revelation.
6. Comparing Scripture with Headlines, Tweets, or Traditions
If you read Revelation and compare it with headlines on the evening news or in social media, you will have a completely skewed idea about what the book is about. Likewise, if you read it with the latest apocalyptic movie in mind, or the images in your head from the Left Behind series of novels, you will be reading into it what isn’t there.
Don’t compare Scripture with headlines or movies or even long-held beliefs going back to what you heard in Sunday School as a child. Compare Scripture with Scripture (both Old and New Testament Scriptures) and you will discover what is actually Scripture and what is merely conjecture, tradition, or hype from current events.
7. We can learn the truth about Jesus’ return.
Revelation should be read as an apocalyptic letter. It ultimately depends on symbols, visions, and Old Testament references that reveal God’s promise of fulfillment promised t us by Abraham in Genesis. People often try to pinpoint the date and time of Jesus’ return by going through Revelation, but we know from Scripture that we shouldn’t be doing this. Anyone who tries to figure out the date will fail. Matthew 24:36 reminds us of this truth, “No one knows about the day or the hour,” so it is impossible to pinpoint the exact day or time of his return. However, we are told by Jesus that we will know when His return is near.” What readers should ultimately take away from Revelation is that Jesus will return one day as King, and we should repent.
8. They forget about the message of hope.
What too many believers miss is the hope that is found in Revelation. It is a book about God’s victory. Throughout passages, you will read about the sufferings that we will experience. If you only think of it as a book about the dark days to come or the end times, you miss the whole point of the book. It is a symbol of hope. We can find assurance through its message that God will save us and that the enemy has no dominion over God. Revelation 1:3 says, “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it because the time is near.” The book may be difficult to understand, but this wasn’t John’s intention.
9. Taking the Symbolic as Literal
Yes, you believe the Bible is literal. So do I. But certain portions of Revelation (and the Bible, for that matter) are meant to be symbolic, not literal. When John says “I saw a star fallen from heaven to earth, and he was given the key to the shaft of the bottomless pit” (Revelation 9:1) he obviously is not talking about a literal star falling from heaven and being handed a set of keys. That is a symbolic reference to Satan from Ezekiel 28.
Likewise, when John says in Revelation 9:16-17 that 200 million horsemen with heads like lions and fire and smoke and sulfur coming out of their mouths will line up in the Valley of Megiddo to kill a third of mankind, this is also symbolic of a massive battle but most likely not a literal 200 million horse-mounted demon-like soldiers akin to the machines in Terminator or Transformers! Know the difference between narrative, which is to be read literally, and portions of prophesy and apocalyptic language, which is to be read symbolically.
10. Taking the Literal as Symbolic
You’re right, this process goes both ways. Some phrases are meant to be symbolic and not taken literally and some of the prophesy is meant to be read literally and not symbolically. For instance, the churches in Asia that John is writing to in Revelation 1:4 are seven real churches that existed at the time the letter was written. That doesn’t mean it was written to the seven “ages” of the church through the past two thousand years. Nor does it mean it was written to and about the seven “types” of churches or the different conditions of the church that exist in America or around the world today. While practical application can be made from the condition of the seven churches (such as the lukewarm Laodiceans), don’t make the mistake of making something literal completely symbolic.
Another example of this is in terms of numbers. When Revelation refers to a “thousand-year reign” is that a literal 1,000 years or is it symbolic of a very long time? Likewise, when John says the time is near (Revelation 1:3), and the events he has described “must soon take place” (Revelation 22:6), is that literally near and soon or symbolic for a distant date in the future? Know the difference between literal and symbolic and simile and metaphor when you read Revelation.
11. They don’t understand the significance of certain numbers.
There is a reason that the number six is used in the Book of Revelation. Many people don’t even realize that the number 666 is the name of the coming antichrist. We know this from reading Revelation 13:8, “Let the One with understanding reckon the meaning of the number of the beast, for it is the number of man. His number is 666.” This is not the only place that number six shows up. We also see the number six as the number of man. Think about it, man was created on the 6th day, and man only works six days.
In contrast, the number seven represents perfection and completion. The number six is imperfect because it can never be seven. John never intended for 666 to be the devil’s number even though it has become popular.
12. Ignoring the Time References
This also becomes a literal vs. symbolic question. But it is significant that there are more than 100 time statements in the New Testament. Do you know the different Greek words/phrases used for “time” in each of these references? It takes research to demonstrate the differences and when you compare Scripture with Scripture, you will find that they progressively become more imminent the closer you get to the Book of Revelation. Since the letter was written to the First Century Church undergoing persecution, and they are being told the events are “near” and Jesus is quoted as saying “I am coming soon” (Revelation 20:20), there is an undeniable sense of imminence.
Again, in reading the time references, refer to the Old Testament cross references. For instance, in Daniel 8:26, the Prophet Daniel is told to “seal up the vision, for it refers to many days from now” and in Daniel 12:4 he is again told “shut up the words and seal the book, until the time of the end.” Daniel was to seal his prophecy because it wouldn’t come about for another 400-600 years. Yet in Revelation 22:10, John is told “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near.” Did God think 400-600 years for Daniel was further away than 2,000-plus years for John? Or does “near” actually mean “near” and “far” actually mean “far”? The Bible doesn’t contradict itself, so that problem can be solved through a proper understanding of time references.
13. Trying to Put “America” into the Scriptures
If you’re like me, you might have grown up looking at the Bible egocentrically, believing we (and this country) are at the core of everything God is doing. That type of approach to Scripture causes us to scour Revelation to find out where America fits into all of it and that can cause people to inaccurately – and repeatedly — predict the “next date” the rapture will happen, and attribute national storms and disasters to fulfilled apocalyptic prophecy. But the United States wasn’t around when John wrote this vision to the First Century churches. So, you’re not going to find your President, your political party, or your country in the Book of Revelation. Taking into account audience relevance, it would’ve been meaningless to the First Century church for John to tell them what would happen a couple thousand years hence to all of us here in the USA. So, don’t waste your time trying to find out which president or world leader is “the Anti-Christ”– a term not even used in Revelation, but according to 1 John 4:3 is a spirit of rejection of Christ and was “in the world already” at the time John wrote the Book of Revelation.
We so want to believe we are “in the mix” and we will see these events in our lifetime that we convince ourselves we’re in there somewhere. In doing so, we fail to see Christ in the book and the vision of His glory.
14. Forgetting it is a Vision of Christ, Not a ‘Topic of Debate’
Imagine having a dream or vision so vivid, so inexplicably glorious that you have a difficult time describing it in detail to others. John’s vision of the Revelation of Jesus Christ was something unlike anything he’d ever seen or imagined. He was no doubt at a loss for words in how to describe the glorified Christ’s presence as evidenced in phrases like “His eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters” Revelation 1: 14-15, emphasis added). John was given a peek into the spiritual realm to see what no man has seen before. Thus, in his limited vocabulary and human existence, he did his best, with the inspiration of God, to give us a glimpse of heaven.
If you don’t fully understand the Book of Revelation, you’re certainly not alone. Its interpretation has been debated by Bible scholars for centuries. But rather than allow it to become a book of divisiveness, ask the Holy Spirit for His guidance as you look at Scripture and read the book for what it is – a book of worship and the Revelation of Jesus Christ – rather than a book of argument or debate. Whether you find yourself an amillenialist, premillennialist, or post-millenialist, and whether or not you subscribe to the pre-trib, mid-trib or post-trib view, make sure what you believe is grounded in what Scripture says, not what everyone else is saying or guessing.
Revelation may be a confusing book, but if you take time to read it and understand the themes of the book, it will reveal information that will help you in a profound way on your Christian journey. Trust in God’s Word and you will never be forsaken.
The Bible can provide us with truth, but it can also be difficult to decipher! Whether you’re looking for some biblical direction, stumped on scriptural questions, or just want to confirm that you’re already on the right track, continue following us for more biblical interpretations.
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