Understanding the Book of Revelation

Marko Joensuu         No comments

The Book of Revelation itself provides a consistent interpretive framework for itself, which, with some help of knowing history and trust in the validity of biblical prophecy, manages to explain itself rather well.

Following hermeneutical principles, I would suggest following these interpretive guidelines when you study Revelation.

1. Revelation gives plenty of guidance on how to interpret itself. 

It is the first place to look when explaining it. For example, in Revelation 10:2, a mighty angel comes down from heaven and holds a little scroll in his hand. It should be clear to a careful reader that a little scroll begins a new prophecy.

Revelation 1:8 says that God is the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. This implies that Revelation majors in beginnings and endings.

Revelation 1:1 says that the book is about what “must soon take place.” Then in Revelation 4:1, a voice says to John: “Come up here, and I will show you things which must take place after this.”

So, Revelation is not just about beginning and endings, but also about things that will happen soon after John has seen the visions.

But in Revelation 1:19 Jesus says to John: “Now write what you have seen, what is, and what is to take place after this.”

Putting this all together, it seems clear that part of Revelation concerns of things which had already happened at the time John saw the visions. These belong to the things which are.

So, Revelation interprets the past and how we got where John was at the time of seeing the visions.

Revelation tells about events that were happening at the time John saw the visions. These also belong to the things which are.

Revelation predicts what is about to happen. And then it predicts what will happen after what is about to happen. These belong to things that will take place after the time of seeing the vision. And then it predicts events which will happen in the end-times.

Based on this, much of Revelation would already have taken place within John’s lifetime, and some of it quite soon after that. This might challenge your understanding of Revelation, but that is what Jesus says Himself in Revelation.

For some, a thought that a book of prophecy might explain the past might seem contradictory. But it is not. Revelation gives us God’s perspective on the purpose of all time. God is the Great Storyteller, and He knows that for us to understand what will happen, we need to understand what has already taken place, and how we got where we are.

But we should not lose sight of Revelation 1:1, which says that the book concerns of what must soon take place. This means that the main emphasis of the book is prophetic and not simply reinterpreting the past or the present, and that many developments shown should begin shortly after John seeing the visions.

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2. The first reference point outside Revelation is the Old Testament. 

Scholars have counted over two hundred references in Revelation to the Old Testament texts (Lo 1999, 2-3). Most of these are references to the Old Testament’s prophetic books. Altogether, there might be over five hundred allusions to the Old Testament.

This means that it would be foolish to study Revelation without also studying the Old Testament. With so many references to the Old Testament, Revelation clearly invites us to study the Jewish Bible. It is the Old Testament, rather than the New Testament, which functions as the main reference point. The reason for this is clear: the New Testament canon had not been compiled at the time of writing. Although most books and letters ending up as part of the New Testament would already have been written, they would not have been widely available.

But Revelation goes a lot further than that. It is evident that John sees Revelation as a continuation of the work of the Old Testament prophets, even the summary and the explainer of it. Revelation contains new predictive prophecies, but it also explains the Old Testament prophecies.

Revelation makes references to nearly all prophetic books in the Old Testament, and each reference is an invitation to read not just the exact reference but also the surrounding verses. These references function much like hyperlinks, so that we should read Revelation by going back and forth from Revelation to the Old Testament books if we need more clarity.

By and large, Revelation is a book that expands, explains, and continues the Old Testament prophecy. For example, when it comes to the beast, Revelation continues from where Daniel ends.

As Revelation relies so heavily on the Old Testament prophetic books, a sensible approach would be to assess whether it also follows their structure. For example, Jeremiah is structured cyclically as a series of gradually developing wailings about Jerusalem’s impending destruction, so its prophecies are not sequenced chronologically but hermeneutically, as Jeremiah seeks to understand the first shocking revelation and his own call, which leads him to a deeper understanding. So, it would be a mistake to read Jeremiah as a singular chronologically structured prophecy. The same applies to Revelation.

3. Symbolism in Revelation follows the conventions developed by the Old Testament prophetic books.

Revelation is a profoundly symbolic book, but there are no randomly chosen symbols. There is very little in the book that is literal, and at the same time, it does refer to real historical events.

Revelation is not one chronological account of world events. In fact, it contains multiple visions of the past, present, and future, looked at from different perspectives. To understand Revelation, you must seek to understand prophetic language, principles, and visionary symbolism. Here my approach is not entirely scholarly, as my ministry and gifting in this area have somewhat directed my interpretation. But unless you understand the language of dreams and visions, it is very hard to understand a book full of visions. But this does not entitle us to haphazard interpretations.

These interpretations must still be supported by the Scriptures, reasonability, and history.

According to Bailey, prophetic literature can use forms such as step parallelism, inverted parallelism, and ring composition (2011, 40-42) in short passages of Scripture. We do not need to get too technical here; the main point is that prophetic writing is not always written chronologically, but the following verses can reinforce the message of the previous verses rather than account events in linear or chronological fashion.

As a journalist, I am used to writing articles that do not outline the narrative in chronological order but move back and forth temporally to reinforce an argument, with the headline often working both as a premise and a conclusion. So, non-chronological ordering of texts should not be unfamiliar to anyone who reads the news.

4. Interpretation of symbols should be consistent and not haphazard. 

The symbolic system of Revelation is not haphazard but precise. Yet many scholars and Bible teachers interpret the symbols haphazardly.

For example, when Revelation 7:3 refers to the seal of God on the forehead of His servants, most readers would interpret this to be an invisible seal. Yet, when Revelation 13:16-18 speaks about the mark of the beast, many expect this mark to be a physical mark. That is not consistent but haphazard interpretation of symbols. It does not conform with the symbolic system of Revelation. In fact, from the beginning to the end of the book, Revelation is painstakingly building a complex but consistent symbolic system, and this system is meant to guide a reader’s interpretation of the book.

5. The next reference point after the Old Testament prophets should be the rest of the Old Testament and the New Testament. 

For example, when in Revelation 15:3 the saints sing the Song of Moses, it refers to the Song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32. To establish the meaning of the Song of Moses in Revelation, the most sensible thing to do is to read Deuteronomy 32 first.

But John is also writing to congregations that would have been at least reasonably familiar with Paul’s teaching, as Paul established the church of Ephesus. Hence Paul’s letters to Asia Minor can often give us useful contextual information and clues. This referencing to the Old Testament is deeply ingrained in Revelation. As early as in the third century, Dionysius of Alexandria complained about John’s poor use of Greek, saying that he employed barbarous idioms. But many irregularities occur because Revelation carries over the exact grammatical form of the Old Testament wording, with this intended dissonance being used as a literary technique to get the reader to see the Old Testament connection more clearly. (Beale 1999, 318-321)

6. You cannot understand Revelation without some knowledge of history. 

If Revelation is the book of the Alpha and the Omega, the beginnings and the endings, and what happens between, you will not be able to understand it without at least some understanding of history. How do you separate what has already happened from what is yet to happen, unless you know what has already happened?

As the Old Testament prophecies about the destruction of Israel and Judah demonstrate, God cares deeply about every generation, and not just about ours. Not every Bible prophecy is a prophecy about the end-times, with many Bible prophecies already being fulfilled in the time of Jesus.

7. You cannot understand Revelation unless you acknowledge that at least some of its content is prophecy. 

Revelation is a profoundly prophetic book. Much of the historical study of it assumes that there is no actual prophecy in it with scholars perceiving it merely as symbolic commentary of John’s own time. But although our understanding of the first century history is extremely useful, it fails to explain the whole of Revelation.


Bailey, Kenneth E. Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthians. S.l.: SPCK Publishing, 2011.

Lo, Wei, and Wei Luo. Ezekiel in Revelation: Literary and Hermeneutic Aspects. University of Edinburgh, 1999.

Understanding Revelation is out as Kindle ebook and available as paperback from April 2021.

You can connect with Marko on Twitter @markojoensuu and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/mpjoensuu/ or by visiting markojoensuu.com. 
Published by Marko Joensuu

Marko Joensuu has worked for over sixteen years in the publishing and media ministries of Kensington Temple. He is an author, publisher and screenwriter.
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