The Big Picture

4 Ways of Understanding Revelation

Understanding Revelation is tricky. But it doesn’t have to be. There are several ways typically used to interpret or figure out Revelation. How do we know which way is the best way? Let’s look at some of those ways and break them down.

Looking at the past (Preterism)

This method holds that most events in Revelation happened a long, long time ago and it doesn’t really apply to us anymore. Most of the prophesies have already been fulfilled. This is a viewpoint held by many christians including Catholics. They say these messages were mainly for the first century christian church.

Looking at the future (Futurism)

Belief that most events in Revelation (especially chapters 4-22) will happen in the future and that Revelation is mostly for the last generation of Christians living in the time of the end. This is very popular in evangelical christianity today.

Looking through the ongoing eyes of history (Historicism)

Belief that the events in Revelation started unfolding in the early christian church at the time of John’s writing and cover all of earth’s history through to Christ’s second coming and on to the new heaven and earth. This was a common interpretation during the protestant reformation. Most of the early protestant denominations interpreted Revelation using this method. There are still a few christians that hold to this view of Revelation today, but not the majority.

Looking at symbolism and spiritual application (Idealism)

Belief that Revelation is a completely symbolic book and is for spiritual application only. The focus is on timeless truths. Teaches that Revelation doesn’t refer to any real events in history. This is also a very popular way to interpret Revelation.


Which way is best?

upset-534103_1280How do we decide which way to read and understand Revelation. Do we go with the most popular method? Do we go with the way that seems most logical to us? Which way is best? Did it all happen in the past, will it all happen it the future, is it a broad look at history? Or is it just a bunch of symbols and spiritual lessons?

Let Truth Lead

God’s word is truth. How about letting the Bible tell us which method to use.  Let’s follow the text and the clues in other parts of scripture to mold our understanding. Sometimes the text indicates that several methods can be applied on top of each other. We can learn important truths from each method of interpretation.

For example: The letters to the seven churches

  • (Preterism) The Christians in John’s time would certainly find that those letters gave them just the advice they needed at that time. Now they are dead and gone, so it doesn’t apply to them anymore. 
  • (Futurism) While the text does not seem to fit the idea that the messages to the seven churches apply only to a future time, the messages are certainly important for us today and will continue to be useful for teaching every christian church and person until Jesus comes.
  • (Historicism) Digging into history we find that the state of the church through different periods of history match quite well with order of the seven churches. These messages did have prophetic meaning about how the church would fall away from truth through the centuries.
  • (Idealism) There are many spiritual lessons taught in the seven messages to the churches. We would not grow spiritually if we ignored these instructions and did not apply them to our own lives.

If we stick only to one method of interpreting Revelation, we may miss important pieces of the puzzle. Every method contains some bits of truth.

Does that mean every method of looking at Revelation will apply to every chapter and verse? No.

When the New Jerusalem comes down out of heaven in chapter 22, it is clearly an event that will happen in the future. At the same time, if we say, “Well, that prophecy in Revelation already happened. We already know about that!” With that attitude, we may miss important lessons. History has a funny way of repeating itself. 

The best way to understand Revelation is to read the text and let the words tell us if this is a prediction for the future, something about the past, or something we can apply to our own lives. It could be all three in some instances. There are many layers of interpretation to uncover in this wonderful book.

4 Ways to Understand Revelation

Here are the 4 principles I use to study the book of Revelation.

  1. Remember that the Bible is a divine Revelation and can only be understood with spiritual eyes. Always pray for the Holy Spirit to guide your understanding while studying the Bible. (1 Cor. 2:12-13)
  2. Revelation was written for the church, God’s people – past, present and future. This includes historical events, prophecies about the future, as well as spiritual insights. Again, without the Holy Spirit guiding our thoughts, we would not be able to understand the truths in Revelation. (John 16:13)
  3. The Bible is the best interpreter of Revelation. Old Testament and New Testament references and stories will give us keys to unlock Revelation mysteries, especially when dealing with symbols and prophecies. Jesus often turned to scripture and taught with scripture (Matt. 21:42; Mark 12:24; Luke 24:27).
  4. Jesus is the center of Revelation and prophecy. “He was, and is, and is to come” (Rev. 1:8). Likewise Revelation’s messages are for the past, the present and the future and all of it is about Jesus. Try to look for Jesus in every chapter and see how he has rescued, is rescuing, and will rescue his people. 

God bless you as you continue to study more about Jesus in the book of Revelation and share it with your kids!

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Download “Lessons from the Book of Revelation: An Introduction” below! It’s a great place to start teaching kids about God’s great love found in the book of Revelation.

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