Understanding The Apocalypse

Revelation 1:1-20
Chapter 1

No other book in the canon of Holy Scripture seems so mysterious, so veiled in symbolism, so difficult to understand as the book of Revelation. Yet, the very word from which the book gets its name, means; "To disclose that which was previously hidden or unknown." This tells us the very purpose of the book is to make something known to us, not to hide things from us.

So we might ask: "Why do people often find The Revelation such a difficult book to understand?" Certainly, it would be impossible to define every reason this book is misunderstood, but some of the common ones are:

(1) A lack of knowledge of the fundamentals of faith.

As it would be futile for a math student to attempt calculus or trigonometry without learning the basic multiplication tables, it is also futile to embark on a study of Revelation without knowing the fundamentals of faith.

Hebrews 5:13-14 says,

"For everyone that useth milk is unskillful in the word of righteousness; for he is a babe. But solid food belongeth to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil."

The "strong meat" or "solid food" contained in the Scriptures is available to those who by reason of using those Scriptures, have their senses sharpened to discernment. The more one uses the Word of God the more tuned one becomes to the principles contained therein and just like a radio receiver, the better the tuning, the better the reception.

(2) The Revelation is sometimes difficult to understand because it requires work to do so.

According to 1 Corinthians 2:14, the Scriptures are understood by illumination of the Holy Spirit and there can be no legitimate disagreement with this premise but He reveals them through our intellect, directly proportional to our endeavors to understand and be obedient.

Jesus said, in Matthew 7:7, "Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock and it shall be opened unto you."

Ask, seek, knock--These are words of action that require we do something. The Christian who expects the preacher or the Sunday School teacher to do all the study and research will benefit little, because it is required that we each ask, seek, and knock for ourselves. A good admonition is: Do not believe something solely because the preacher said it, believe it because it's true and know it's true, because you've confirmed it for yourself in the Word of God.

Not only must we ask, seek and knock for the truths of God's Word, after the Holy Spirit has illumined our minds so that we have understanding, it is incumbent upon us to be obedient. The Christian who is not obedient to God's Word is simply put, carnal.

Because this carnal condition existed in Corinth, Paul wrote the following in 1 Corinthians 3:1-3.

"And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ. I have fed you with milk, and not with solid food; for to this time ye were not able to bear it, neither yet now are ye able. For ye are yet carnal; for whereas there is among you envying, and strife, and divisions, are ye not carnal, and walk as men?"

Clearly, the Corinthians could not understand the meat of the Scriptures, because of their ungodly living. Make no mistake; sin in one's life separates that person from God and from the understanding of His Holy Word.

So then, the work involved in understanding the Scriptures is; to ask, seek, knock and then to be obedient to what the Holy Spirit has revealed. If we will do this work, the Lord Himself, in the Person of the Holy Spirit, will continue to illumine our hearts and minds to His Word.

(3) The study of Revelation is inhibited by the symbolism used in the book.

There is an old saying about someone not being able to see the forest for the trees. Often, this is the case with the Revelation. It is easy to get so caught in the symbolism of the Revelation that we ignore the message. For example, the streets of gold are not described to indicate the wealth of heaven's occupants. Rather, they demonstrate the purity of the city and all who dwell there, as well as the fact that it is everlasting.

Also, it is not unusual for the interpretations of the symbols to be taken from the imaginations of one's mind, rather than from the prior revelations of God or from the context of the written passage.

Therefore, in consideration of the possibilities for misunderstanding, there are five basics that we should always keep in mind when studying the Revelation or any other portion of the Word of God:

(1) Look to the other Scriptures--The Bible is its own best commentary. The symbolism of Scripture is consistent, the prophecies are dependable and God's program through the ages has not changed.

(2) Look to the context of the passage--Someone has said, "A text out of context, is a pretext." The Scriptures do not ramble aimlessly. They are focused and specific and always in contextual harmony.

(3) Examine the historical situation--While there are many different applications possible for many portions of God's Word, there is only one historical situation. Frequently, an understanding of the historical context reveals the literal meaning of the text.

(4) Check the translation--Often an archaic or inaccurate translation will cause difficulties in interpretation. Do not hesitate to check other translations, but remember that a translation may be influenced by the translator's personal theology.

(5) Keep in mind that the bulk of the book is written literally and one should first seek to understand it literally.

Now that we have seen some of the reasons that the Revelation is difficult to understand and looked at five basics to help avoid errors in understanding, we turn our attention to Revelation 1:19, which is the key to understanding the entire book.

"Write the things which thou hast seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter."

The question that naturally follows is, "What are the things about which John was to write?" First, John wrote concerning the three distinct periods involved in the Revelation of Jesus Christ to mankind, as Savior and Lord.

These "things" or periods are:

(1) "Things which thou hast seen" - This is the subject of Revelation 1:5, that includes the life of Christ from His human birth through His resurrection. In this period, John describes Jesus as the "Faithful Witness" who kept the whole law and who demonstrated the Love of God by washing away our sins with His own blood and then became the "first begotten of the dead."

In Revelation 1:4-8, John gives clear testimony of the "things that he has seen" and knows to be true. Everything John says about our Lord Jesus Christ is truth, personally revealed to him.

(2) "Things which are" - Revelation 1:6, covers this period from Christ's ascension into heaven through the present Church Age, wherein Jesus makes Believers "a kingdom of priests unto God."

Also, in Revelation 2 and 3, John describes in a series of letters the "things which are," better known as the Church Age. C. I. Scofield, identified a fourfold application of these letters:

[1] They are addressed to the local churches in Asia Minor that are named.

[2] They are admonitions to all churches in all times, by which, they may discern their true spiritual state in the sight of God.

[3] They are written to individuals in the church who have an ear to hear and who overcome.

[4] They are prophetic as concerning the spiritual state of the church through the age.

In addition to these applications, the history and future of the church universal is revealed in the letters:

[1] Ephesus is the church at the end of the Apostolic age.

[2] Smyrna is the church under the ten great persecutions that occurred between 60 and 316 A. D., which ended with the conversion of Constantine.

[3] Pergamum is the church involved in worldliness after embracing the influence of Constantine.

[4] Thyatira is the church in idolatry after the full development of Romanism.

[5] Sardis is the church, dead, except for a believing remnant that began the Protestant reformation.

[6] Philadelphia is the church in revival.

[7] Laodicea is the apostate church in its final stages before the return of the Lord.

(3) "Things which shall be hereafter." - These events in the life of Jesus follow the consummation of the Church Age. "Behold He cometh in the clouds" (Revelation 1:7), to be "The prince (or ruler) of the kings of the earth" (Revelation 1:5).

John discloses "the things which shall be hereafter" or the period which follows the consummation of the Church Age in Revelation 4:1 through 22:5.

Though we may encounter difficulties in understanding portions of it, the Revelation is a book written for our edification and understanding. Notice the promise in Revelation 1:3, "Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written in it; for the time is at hand."

God promises a blessing: For those who read the Book of Revelation; For those who understand the Book; For those who obey the Book.

Therefore, it makes sense that if God promises a blessing based on the reading, understanding and obeying of the book; we should be able to do these things--read, understand, obey.

From "Understanding The Apocalypse"
A book of sermons by Pastor Jim McColloch, Th.M., Th.D.
© Copyright 1994, 1999, 2006