Understanding the book of Revelation can be done by following the principles of hermeneutics (science interpretation) or Bible study that we apply to the other books of the Bible. The basic rule of hermeneutics is to understand what the author meant to his original audience and how the audience understood the book for their time. Then we apply its meaning to our time. Most people do not understand the book, because they overlook these basic principles of hermeneutics while they seek for some “code” to unlock the symbols. This approach will prove faulty.
I have read the book of Revelation several times for many years and I currently teach the book as a course to undergrad students. The formula that I present is not a “quick fix” for a person who has never read the book. But these are principles that are consistent with Bible study and will provide you with the keys you need to unlock the symbols over time.
To understand the book of Revelation, we need to understand the following:
1. The Literary Context – The type of literature
2. Basic Exegesis – what the Book meant to its original audience
3. Literary Structure of the book – How the author presents his arguments
4. Basic History of the Christian Church
Type of Literature
The book of Revelation falls within the category of Apocalyptic Prophecy. Apocalyptic prophecies are different from classical prophecies in the Bible. Classical prophets are those who were called by God to address the moral situations of their day. However, as they prophesy, they make statements that may have eschatological applications. For example, Jeremiah and Isaiah announced the Fall of Babylon (Isaiah 13:17-21; Jeremiah 51:31-49). This prophecy applies to their local situation because Babylon existed in their time. However, their prophecies are used to refer to Spiritual Babylon (Revelation 14:8; 17:1-5; 8). There is no connection in time, just simply a type and an antitype.
However, with Apocalyptic prophecies, including the books/prophecies of Daniel and Revelation, the prophet presents prophecies that cover a time extending from their time to the end with an unbroken time-sequence. For example, Daniel, in Daniel 2 presents the history of the nations that would rule the world, from the time of Daniel until the end. These are the types of prophecies that are contained in the book of Revelation for the most part.
Another characteristic of Apocalyptic prophecy is that they tend to present multiple prophecies that are parallel in time and events but presented in different ways and with different emphasis. For example, Daniel 2 and 7 are parallel in time and events but focuses on different aspects of God’s work.
The third characteristic of apocalyptic prophecy is that they usually deal with broader issues relating to the conflict between Christ and Satan than simply a local event or issue that classical prophets deal with.
Though some elements of the book of Revelation (chapters 2-3) deal with local situations, the rest of the book deals with the broader cosmic conflict (chapters 4-22).
Basic Exegesis – what the Book meant to its original audience
When we apply the basic principles of hermeneutics to the book of Revelation, we find out that the book was written to the seven (7) churches of Asia Minor in the First Century A.D (Revelation 1:9-20). It was written by the Apostle John around the time of emperor Domitian (96 A.D.), who severely persecuted the church (see Revelation 1). The book was written to assure God’s people that He is with them and that the kingdom of heaven will prevail in the conflict. It was also written to correct evil practices that existed within the church at that time (chapters 2-3).
When compared with other books of the Bible (outside of Daniel), we find that Revelation is highly symbolic, as stated in chapter 1, and that it was written to explain what will happen in the future (Revelation 4:1).
Let us deal with the second point first. The book of Revelation explicitly states that it contains two types of content—“the things that are” (those situations that existed within the church) and “the things which are to come” (those of the future). John was told in Revelation 4:1—“come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this” (ESV). Therefore, we are to expect that the content of Revelation, from chapters 4-22, relate to things that are future to the times of the Apostle John.
However, in relating future events, Jesus used symbols and icons that John and the church in Asia could relate to. In other words, according to Stefanovic, the people in John’s time would have no problems understanding the symbols of Revelation. They may not have been able to understand the actual events that they relate to, but they could understand the basic meaning behind the symbols that were used.
Therefore, our goal, is to understand what these symbols meant to the people in Asia Minor and we are in a better position to understand, interpret and apply them to the actual events in history and our time.
According to Stefanovic, there are four (4) sources from which John would have pulled symbols to represent the events that were shown to him:
1. Old Testament – Two-thirds of the verses in the book of Revelation references some type, event, personality, or concepts from the Old Testament. Therefore, a solid knowledge of Old Testament scripture is necessary to understand the book of Revelation.
2. Jewish Apocalyptic Literature – concepts in revelation can be found in Jewish Apocryphal writings. John would have been exposed to those writings as a Jew and would have employed symbols from these books.
3. Greco-Roman Culture of Asia Minor – This was the dominant culture of John’s time; therefore, it is easy to see that John would have taken concepts from the culture that the churches in Asia minor could have easily related to.
4. New Testament concepts – By this time, the churches would have been well established and conversant with the vocabulary and concepts of other New Testament figures. For example, a reference to Christ as the Word of God is also found in the gospel of John.
Literary Structure of the book – How the author presents his arguments
Understanding how the book is structured will help in our quest to unlock the message of the book of Revelation. By structure, I mean the method that the author used to relate the message. We can only discover these structures by reading through the book several times and identify clues. There are some basic structures that exist as follows:
1. Present and future. As mentioned before, the book is divided into two sections—those things that are (relating to present or local events) (chapters 1-3) and those after (future events) (chapters 4-22).
2. Historical and Eschatological. The future events of the book of Revelation contain two types of visions—those that are considered historical (chapters 3-11)—they relate to events beginning with the time of John and culminates with the Second Advent of Christ. Then, from chapter 12 onwards, we see those visions relate to eschatological (last day) events.
3. Parallel Visions. We also recognize that Revelation is divided into several visions that open and closes. Some visions are parallel, while others relate directly to the time of the end. For example, there are four (4) visions of seven (7)—1) vision of the 7 churches; 2) vision of the 7 seals; 3) vision of the 7 trumpets and 4) vision of the 7 last plagues. The first three visions are found in the historical section of the book and the 4th one relates to eschatological events.
4. Sanctuary structure. As mentioned before, the symbols of Revelation are embedded in the Old Testament. One prominent example of that is the use of Sanctuary language. If we observe carefully, we find that the book of Revelation introduces various sanctuary scenes that follow not only the structure of the sanctuary but the timing of the services. For example,
a. the book opens with a sanctuary scene –Jesus, our High Priest, walking amidst the 7 golden candlesticks (chapters 2-3).
b. The future scenes or the Seals (chapters 4-5) opens with the presentation of Jesus as the victorious Lamb of God. Some scholars see it as the inauguration of Jesus.
c. The trumpets are opened with a scene of intercession at the Altar of Incense (chapters 8:2-4).
d. The eschatological scenes open with a view of the Most Holy Place, where the Ark of the Covenant was (chapter 11:17-19).
e. By the time of chapter 15, intercession in the sanctuary is no more, suggesting that probation is closed, and the Second Advent is near.
f. Chapter 19-21 shows us that the service of the sanctuary is ended and there is no more need for a sanctuary because the Lord is the temple.
Basic History of the Christian Church
Since most of the content of the book of Revelation was future to John’s time, it means that quite a bit of what the book addressed have been fulfilled already. Therefore, a basic knowledge of the history of the church and nations will help us to understand how to apply some of the symbols that John used to represent future events.
It is obvious that the book of Revelation will not be understood by simply learning some code for unlocking the symbols. It will take the discipline of applying basic exegesis. This includes reading the book several times carefully while applying exegetical principles. We observe structures and the original intent of the author. After years of reading this book, I do not understand everything, but I understand enough to get the message—Jesus will conquer all His enemies and the church will triumph in this great controversy.
 Stefanovic, Ranko. Revelation of Jesus Christ: Commentary on the Book of Revelation. Second Edition. Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 2009, 15.
 Ibid, 17