When was the last time you read Revelation? Beyond reading it, when was the last time you tried to study it? There’s a reason our churches are not doing Bible studies on Revelation all the time. The reason? It’s a hard book!
Saint John’s revelation is a hard letter to interpret. With all its bowls and trumpets and dragons, what are we to make of this book? It’s the last book of the New Testament canon and Jesus’s last message to His church. It can be very intimidating - but obviously it has use and value so we can’t neglect it in our study of the Scripture.
Without recommending one approach over the others, I’d like to offer five different approaches to interpreting Revelation. Maybe these five different “lenses” will help you see it as a layered and intricate book, but not a scary or intimidating one. Then you can read it and decide for yourself!
1. Preterist - The word “preterism” comes from the Latin for “past.” This approach interprets Revelation in the light of events that occurred in the past - most likely events that took place before the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD, or possibly events in the first few centuries before the destruction of the Roman Empire in the 400’s. In this approach, Revelation 1.1 tells us that the events will happen imminently, and have now since passed. Only chapters 21-22 (vision of new heaven and new earth) prophecy events to take place in the future.
2. Futurist - As the name implies, this approach takes the opposite stance from the Preterist. This approach interprets everything after chapter 3 to be events yet to take place. For the futurist, Revelation is a vision of events that will happen soon before Christ’s return and the end of the world.
3. Historicist - A bit of a mashup of the first two, this approach sees Revelation as symbolic of events that take place between the two advents of Christ. Revelation’s series of events began at Christ’s first coming, and stretch across the entire period of time until He returns. In this approach, the events correspond to actual events or people in God’s New Testament history of redemption.
4. Idealist - Reluctant to identify anything in Revelation with particular events or people, this approach is perhaps the most different. To the Idealist, John’s visions are symbolic of the all the struggles the church faces between Christ’s first and second comings. This approach allows the letter to have its impact on Christians struggling under political and religious persecution in the first century, but also holds that the visions describe circumstances the universal church will deal with until Jesus returns.
5. Eclectic - This last method is an incorporation of the strengths of the other four approaches. Acknowledging Revelation may be written about specific past and future events, but allowing that the interpretation of some events may apply to the church in all circumstances, this approach seems the easiest and most logical to take - however, the interpreter ends up being able to ascribe many different meanings to the same vision.
At the end of the day, one thing is for certain - Jesus wins! And if you don't get anything else out of this letter, be encouraged that victory belongs to God. The church is triumphant, and one day God will make everything perfect and new again. “He who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev. 22.20)