It’s hard enough sometimes to understand what people are trying to say when they’re talking normally. Now imagine that they are talking to you in symbols, in fantastic imagery, of books, of a Lamb, a dragon, of beasts with seven heads and ten horns that come out of the water, of colored horses, and a myriad of other words that you recognize, but put together in ways that are very strange and foreign to you. How are you to make sense of what is being said?
If you are given a 5,000-piece puzzle, and are asked to put it together, could you do it? Now imagine that you’re just given the pieces, but you aren’t allowed to see the box that shows you what the picture is supposed to look like. How likely are you to stick with trying to piece the mystery puzzle together? Yet this is exactly what people try to do with the book of Revelation! They go about it, reading through without any real idea of what they are trying to figure out or what the big picture is. People do this every day, and it should come as no surprise that they soon quit in frustration, thinking they can never understand it.
It is important that we—if we are going to derive any benefit from the book of Revelation—have an idea of what the book is about, know what message it is teaching, and understand how to interpret it. God pronounces a blessing upon those who read, hear, and keep the things written in it (1:3). Can anyone keep the things written in it if they don’t know what it’s saying? Of course not. Now a more important question: would God have created a book that CANNOT be understood? My friends, it IS possible to understand the book of Revelation. Of course, in order to understand it, we have to know how to interpret the language in it.
But not all methods of interpreting this book are equal. In fact, some of the approaches are polar opposites of each other, and if one is right, that means the other one must be absolutely wrong. Though there are variations on each view, and some people take hybrid views (where they take parts of one view and parts of another), we can generally classify the methods of interpreting the book of Revelation into four categories: Futurist (all the events in Revelation are still in the future), Historical-Fulfillment (that the book records the complete history of the church from Pentecost to Judgment), Preterist (all the events in Revelation were fulfilled soon after the book was written), and Spiritual (the book describes no actual events, just symbolic language describing the battle between good and evil).
Next week, we will start taking a closer look at each of these four methods.
-Bradley S. Cobb