Understanding the Lord’s Interpretive Principles and Keys [Book of Revelation]


The following is an amalgamation of what the Holy Spirit has revealed concerning John’s vision–both to me personally–and through other saints.  Where we are right, it is to the Lord’s credit; and where we are wrong, it is our error.  The scriptures speak for themselves–but they are shut up to those without fruit–and those whose fruit is withering.  To be faithful to the scriptural record, we have to appeal to scripture to expound upon, clarify, and interpret other scripture.  Even then, the fullness of the message is reserved for those who partake of Christ’s sufferings, as faithful and profitable servants of God. 

Understanding the Lord’s Interpretive Principles and Keys

There are 3 interpretive principles that must be adhered to in obtaining a foundational understanding of the book of Revelation:    

  1. The interpretation must be consistent with the purpose of the vision, which is to spiritually prepare believers for a time of great testing unlike anything ever witnessed before, so that they may remain steadfast in the faith until Christ’s return or their physical death.  Consequently, its study is fruitful preparation for both those who endure the tribulations always associated with the world and also those who will endure great tribulation, such as the world has never seen before (Matthew 24:21).  While it contains a severe warning concerning our conduct during great tribulation (Revelation 14:9-11), it has much to offer in the way of present instruction and is principally a book of encouragement, revealing the glorious future of the redeemed and the coming, physical reign of the King of Kings in the new earth.

  2. The interpretation must remain consistent with the nature of the New Covenant [as typified by the Old Testament prophets and revealed by the New Testament apostles, most notably, Paul].  The major themes of the gospel message are revealed throughout the Revelation story:  God’s righteousness, man’s sin, the coming judgment, and the need of men everywhere to repent [trust in Christ’s sacrifice for eternal salvation].

  3. The interpretation must acknowledge both the literal and figurative aspects of the prophetic texts, ascribing meaning based upon the following rules:

    • It describes literal times, places, and people:  therefore, whenever the plain meaning makes sense, it should be accepted plainly; a sound interpretation will not fall short of fully trusting in what God has openly declared

    • Conversely, whenever a plain [literal] interpretation is nonsensical [such as a harlot sitting upon a scarlet-colored beast], it must be abandoned in favor of a figurative meaning and spiritual application

    • The symbolism and metaphorical language found in John’s vision must be defined in the following way:  

  • By examining similar symbolism and language found in other portions of scripture–for God is consistent in the meaning He applies to the symbols and words found in His text.  

  • By examining dreams and visions found in other portions of scripture and noting their chief characteristics and means of interpretation–for God is consistent in how He structures, conceals the meaning of, and reveals these communications.

There are also some keys of the heart, which are necessary to unlock the meaning of the vision.  The Holy Spirit is like a Painter adding brush strokes to the canvass of our mind until an image begins to form, and slowly over time, the major themes of the Revelation story become clear (John 16:13).  The principle at work seems to be this:  “For who hath known the mind of the Lord, that he may instruct him? But we have the mind of Christ,” (1 Corinthians 2:16).  To obtain this mind, we must spend much time in fellowship with the Holy Spirit. Therefore, self-control is a necessary aid to interpretation.     

Additionally, the Holy Spirit has given the vision in such a way that the temptation [natural tendency] of the reader is to see and add complexity where there is none.  In this way, the wisdom of the kingdom is hidden from the wicked:  for those who are proud of heart are forever lost in a never-ending web of increasing, intellectual complexity that can only result in vain and confusing interpretations.  Consequently, humility is necessary to receive the vision (Isaiah 57:15).  

In reality, the Revelation narrative is concise and simplistic, even as the wisdom of the Spirit is clear and simple.  The reader must understand that portions of the vision are retold multiple times from both an earthly and heavenly perspective; and at all points, these earthly events correspond to heavenly actions [divine intent].  Without consistent faith that it is God’s will for us to understand the vision, the language and structure of Revelation will frustrate and confuse the natural mind.  Faith in the principle that God must reveal enables us not only to receive the vision, but also to not go beyond it.  Without faith, humility, and self-control, the vision remains convoluted.

Although definite, chronological markers do exist in Revelation, much confusion has arisen as a result of saints’ attempts to decipher it as a chronological story, instead of as a vision, a thematic collage of sudden scene shifts detailing God’s relationship with man in the last days and throughout eternity.  The span of the vision covers the entirety of the church age:  however, much of it details a prophetic season of fairly synchronous events taking place within a relatively short space of time.  

Of course, while it has been granted for us to know certain signs that will precede His coming, the exact timing of His return remains a mystery (Mark 13:32):

  • “Watch therefore: for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come,” (Matthew 24:42).

  • “Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel?  And he said unto them, It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in his own power,” (Acts 1:6-7).

  • “God that made the world and all things therein … hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their [men’s] habitation,” (Acts 17:24-26).

Notice, the interpretation is unlocked [if we are led by the Spirit], but still bound [for it casts forth a limited amount of light].  The Holy Spirit has granted us enough light to prepare our hearts, but not so much that we have no need to walk by faith, as all these things come to pass.  

Finally, at the very beginning of the vision, God promises a blessing to those who heed its warnings:  

Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written therein: for the time is at hand.

–Revelation 1:3

Observe, the mystery of iniquity is already at work [the anti-christ spirit is already among us, inspiring evil men and preparing the way for the coming man of sin] and at any moment the restraining work of the Holy Spirit may cease and the anti-christ arise (2 Thessalonians 2:7-9). The vision is given, not merely to inform, but to transform. As with any of the scriptures, if we meditate upon them and take them to heart, they change the way we live our daily lives.  Whom the Holy Spirit warns, He also leads:   

By faith Noah, being warned of God of things not seen as yet, moved with fear, prepared an ark to the saving of his house; by the which he condemned the world, and became heir of the righteousness which is by faith.

–Hebrews 11:17

The great danger of the last days is spiritual deception (Matthew 24:4-5, 11; 2 Thessalonians 2:8-12). The vision has been given to protect us, but the preparatory work of the Holy Spirit only takes place as we keep [believe and act upon] those truths the vision reveals (Psalm 19:11; Proverbs 29:18).  At heart, Revelation is a pragmatic book, which unveils the suffering Servant as conquering Lord and vividly illustrates the means by which the church shall be presented to Him as a glorious bride without spot or blemish.  Its central theme is the Kingship and Lordship dominion of Jesus Christ.  It is intended to comfort us in our present afflictions and strengthen us to avoid deception in a time of coming trouble unlike anything the world has ever seen (Matthew 24:21).  It is a book of encouragement that teaches us many things:  

  • That God’s grace is sufficient.

  • That we have an eternal hope and reward.

  • That God seeks after justice.

  • That we can have peace in the midst of trials.

Book of Revelation Study NotesDownload Here

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