Common Errors in Interpretation

OVERVIEW - The real-life relevance of Revelation for today is lost if we begin to interpret it with incorrect presuppositions

Photo by Yannick Pulver on Unsplash
The book of Revelation provides a sweeping picture of the church age that explains the real “wars” that are waged behind the scenes of history, set piece “battles” that manifest in the daily struggles of Christians and churches. Its visions show the people of God how God works through the “Lamb” to implement His final victory and bring His servants into New Jerusalem. But it all begins with the “seven churches of Asia.” - [Photo by Yannick Pulver on Unsplash].

There are several common errors and assumptions made when interpreting its visions, including:
  • The insistence on “literal” interpretation.
  • The failure to recognize how the book interprets and reapplies Old Testament passages.
  • The assumption it is only concerned with history’s “final generation.”
  • That Revelation is focused primarily on national Israel.
  • Assuming the book is laid out in a neat chronological order.
In its very first verse, the book states how it discloses information - Through visionary symbolism. Jesus “signified” his “revelation” to “his servants,” a rendering of the Greek verb sémainō, a verb related to the noun for “sign.” It means “to signify, to show by a sign” - (Strong’s - #G4591).

This method becomes apparent in the first vision. John was told the “seven golden lampstands” represented “seven churches,” and the “seven stars” symbolized “seven messengers” or “angels”. This is symbolic interpretation, not literal. Other examples demonstrate the same methodology. For example:
  • (4:5) – “And before the throne seven torches of fire, which are the seven spirits of God.”
  • (5:6) – “I saw a Lamb standing…with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God.”
  • (11:4) – “The two witnesses are the two olive trees and the two lampstands which stand before the Lord of the earth.”
  • (17:9) – “This calls for a mind with wisdom: the seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman is seated.”
Jesus is not a “lamb with seven eyes and seven horns,” nor is Satan is a giant “red dragon.” The “seven horns and eyes” represent the “seven spirits of God.” Similarly, the “two witnesses” are not two actual individual human beings. They are identified as the “two lampstands.” And if the book’s symbolism is consistent, then they, in turn, represent churches - (Revelation 1:20).

The book includes more allusions and verbal links to Old Testament passages than any other New Testament book. Careful attention must be paid to how Revelation applies them, and very often, in unexpected ways.

For example, the original summons to Israel to become a “kingdom of priests” is reapplied to the “churches of Asia.” Language from Zechariah 12:10 that originally applied to the “tribes” of Israel is universalized and becomes “all the tribes of the earth” - (Revelation 1:6, 5:10, 20:6, Exodus 19:6).

Revelation applies the prophecy of “Gog and Magog” to the “nations from the four corners of the earth” gathered by Satan after the “thousand years” to destroy the “saints.” This force ascends over the entire “breadth of the earth,” not just the tiny territory of Palestine. Once again, language that applied originally to Israel has been universalized and reapplied - (Revelation 19:17-21, 20:7-10, Ezekiel 38:1-6).

The book does not simply cite verses from the Hebrew Bible; it interprets and reapplies them. Failure to recognize this can lead to erroneous interpretations. For example, the very first verse alludes to a passage from the book of Daniel when the prophet told Nebuchadnezzar that God had revealed “what things must come to pass in later days.” Revelation quotes this word-for-word from the Greek Septuagint version of Daniel. However, it changes the last term from “later days” to “SOON.” What for Daniel was in a remote future became imminent for John and his original audience.

The assumption that Revelation is about history’s final period ignores its historical setting. In its entirety, the book is addressed to seven churches located in the Roman province of Asia. Its contents are about “things that must soon come to pass,” and “soon” means from the perspective of the intended recipients of the book - (Revelation 1:1-4, 1:11, 4:1-3, 22:10).

While its visions may not end with the “seven churches of Asia,” those congregations are included in them, and therefore, they must have relevance for the situations of those ancient churches. But the seven churches are also a representative group. They may not exhaust the meaning of the visions, but they certainly begin with them.
Any interpretation that makes the book of Revelation irrelevant to the “seven churches of Asia” does not take seriously the historical context of the book.
John described himself as a “fellow participant with you in the tribulation and kingdom and endurance in Jesus.” That declaration is problematic to any interpretation that insists the book is only or primarily about the final period of history prior to the coming of Jesus - (Revelation 1:9).

In its entirety, the book of Revelation is addressed to the “seven churches of Asia,” not to Israel. Its exhortations and promises are for those who “follow the Lamb wherever he goes.” The “saints” consist of men and women redeemed by Christ’s death “from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation” - (Revelation 5:9, 7:9-14).

Are the chapters laid out in a neat chronological order? There are three major battle scenes in the book, each of which borrows language from Ezekiel’s vision of “Gog and Magog.” Each describes a “gathering together” of hostile forces to “the war,” singular - (Revelation 16:12-16, 19:17-21, 20:8-10).

So, are there three separate final attacks by “Gog and Magog” that occur over several or even hundreds of years, or is the one final assault against the saints described from three different aspects? Is this satanic force defeated by the “Lamb,” only to reappear multiple times to attack the “saints” again and again?

The book of Revelation is about future events, but not exclusively so. Its visions are anchored in the past Death and Resurrection of Jesus. The book begins in the past and culminates in the New Creation. This means it is not primarily or exclusively about history’s final years.

Finally, the book is as much exhortation as it is prophecy. It is a summons to the churches for faithfulness in tribulations - for the church to be the church in a hostile world.


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