Common Errors When Interpreting Revelation

SYNOPSIS:  The real-life relevance of the book of Revelation is easily lost if we approach the book with incorrect presuppositions.

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By Joanna Kosinska on
The book of Revelation is a sweeping picture of the church age intended to explain the real “battles” being waged behind the scenes of history, daily struggles that play out in the lives of Christians and churches. Its visions show the people of God how He is implementing His final victory and working to bring His servants victoriously into New Jerusalem.

There are several common errors made when interpreting the visions of the book of Revelation, five in particular, specifically: 
  1. An insistence on “literal” interpretation.
  2. A failure to recognize how the book interprets and applies the Old Testament.
  3. The assumption that it is only concerned with history’s final generation.
  4. The assumption that Revelation is about national Israel.
  5. The assumption that the book is laid out in a neat chronological order.
In its first verse, the Revelation states that it discloses information through visionary symbolism. Jesus “signified” his revelation, a rendering into English of the Greek verb sémainō. The verb is related to the noun for “sign” and means, “to signify, to show by a sign” (Strong’s #G4591).

This method becomes apparent in the first vision when John is told the seven golden “lampstands” represent seven churches, and the seven “stars” symbolize “messengers” or angels. This is symbolic, not literal interpretation. Other examples demonstrate the same methodology (Revelation 1:19-20):

(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.”
(7:14) – “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation.”
(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. Again, this is a symbolical, not literal language. The horns and eyes of the Lamb represent the “seven spirits of God.” Likewise, the Two Witnesses in Chapter 11 are not “literal” individuals but expressly said to be “two lampstands.” If the book’s symbolism is consistent, then the two lampstands represent churches (Revelation 1:20).
Revelation includes more allusions and verbal links to the Old Testament than any other book in the New Testament. Careful attention must be paid to how it interprets and applies said passages, very often, in unexpected and creative ways.
For example, the calling for Israel to become a “kingdom of priests” is applied now to the churches of Asia. Language from Zechariah 12:10 that originally applied to the “tribes” of Israel is universalized and reapplied to “all the tribes of the earth” (Revelation 1:6, 5:10, 20:6, Exodus 19:6).

Revelation applies the prophecy of an invasion of Israel by “Gog and Magog” to the forces of Satan gathered from “the four corners of the earth.” This force ascends over the “breadth of the earth,” not just the tiny territory of Palestine, and does so in order to annihilate the “saints.” It consists of all nations united against the Lamb and his saints; again, language that applied originally to the nation of Israel and its situation is universalized (Revelation 19:17-21, 20:7-10, Ezekiel 38:1-6).

The book of Revelation does not simply cite Old Testament passages; it interprets and reapplies them. Failure to recognize how and when it does so can lead to erroneous interpretations. For example, the very first verse alludes to a passage from Daniel 2:28 when Daniel told Nebuchadnezzar that God had shown him “what things must come to pass in later days.” Revelation quotes this word-for-word from the Greek Septuagint version of the book of Daniel, however, it changes the chronological reference from “later days” to “SOON.” What was for Daniel in a remote future is now imminent for John and his audience.

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

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While its visions may not end with the seven churches, those congregations are included in them; the visions must be relevant to the needs and 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 are certainly included in them. Any interpretation that makes Revelation irrelevant to the original seven churches does not take seriously the self-presentation of the book as a message to the seven churches of Asia.

John describes 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 just 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 or the Jewish people. Its exhortations and promises are for the churches, for those who “follow the Lamb wherever he goes.” The people of God in the book consist of men and women redeemed by Christ’s death “from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation” (Revelation 5:9, 7:9-14).

Are Revelation’s chapters in neat chronological order? There are three major battle scenes that borrow language from Ezekiel’s vision of an invasion by “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).

Are there three final attacks by “Gog and Magog” that occur over several years, or is one final assault against the saints described from three different aspects? Are “Gog and Magog” defeated by God and the Lamb, only to rise repeatedly to attack the saints again and again? Considering the usage of language from Ezekiel and the repeated reference to “THE war,” the same battle must be in view in all three passages.

The book of Revelation is about future events, however, not exclusively so. Its visions are anchored in the past Death and Resurrection of Jesus, as is his authority to reign over the nations and the Cosmos. The book begins in the past, but it does culminate in the future consummation of the Kingdom in the New Creation. This means it is not primarily or exclusively about history’s final years.

Finally, the book of Revelation is as much an exhortation as it is a predictive prophecy. It is a call for the faithful endurance and witness of the saints - for the church to be the church in a hostile world.


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