The intent of the book of Revelation is provided by the very first word of the first verse: ʼΑποκάλυψις [Apokalypsis] 1 which Strong defines as 1 a laying bare, making naked. 2 a disclosure of truth, instruction. 2A concerning things before unknown. 2B used of events by which things or states or persons hitherto withdrawn from view are made visible to all. 3 manifestation, appearance.2 The emphasis shared by all these varied meanings is making known or revealing things which previously were not known and is rendered by our English word revelation which has a similar meaning: 1.a. The act of revealing or disclosing. b. Something revealed, especially a dramatic disclosure of something not previously known or realized.3 That it is Gods intent to reveal information is made plain later in the same verse where it is said that God gave the Revelation to Jesus to show His servants. Clearly, the book of Revelation is not meant to obscure, but to reveal! Yet many would admit to finding the last book of the Bible difficult to understand, even puzzlingalmost as if written to frustrate the very goal stated in the first verse. 4
It is our belief that this tension between Gods desire to reveal and the fact that many are unable to understand the book of Revelation stems from a principle which Jesus spoke about. Like many of Jesus teachings, it is a disturbing teaching which is very important to grasp.
After Jesus had been rejected by the religious leaders of the Jews, Matthew records:
On the same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the sea. And great multitudes were gathered together to Him, so that He got into a boat and sat; and the whole multitude stood on the shore. Then He spoke many things to them in parables, saying. . . (Mtt. Mat. 13:1-3)This is the first mention of the word parable by Matthew and underscores an essential shift in the teaching ministry of Jesus.5 Previously, Jesus had not relied heavily upon the use of parables for teaching. Matthew identifies this shift for the reader:
All these things Jesus spoke to the multitude in parables; and without a parable He did not speak to them (Mtt. Mat. 13:34) [emphasis added]At first, one might be tempted to interpret this change in teaching style to Jesus desire to impart deep truths through simple illustrations. Such an understanding is partly true, but there is another more ominous aspect of the use of parables which is more germane to our topic at handunderstanding the book of Revelation. Toussaint explains:
According to the etymology of the word parable παραβολή [parabolē] is the act of placing one thing beside another so that a comparison may be made between them. As a result the word came to mean a comparison, illustration, or figure. [Henry Barkclay Swete, The Parables of the Kingdom , p. 1.] . . . The key to the purpose of these parables is found in the Lords own explanation (Mtt. Mat. 13:11-18). He says that He uses parables at this juncture for two purposesto reveal truth and to conceal it. To the ones who accept the Messiah the truth and interpretation of the parables is revealed (Mtt. Mat. 11:25-26; Mat. 13:11-16). On the other hand, to those who have hardened their hearts the truth is veiled by the parables (Mtt. Mat. 11:25-26; Mat. 13:11-15). [emphasis added]6Here then is a principle which all who seek to understand Gods Word must come to grips with: the Word of God is like a two-sided coin. One side reveals His truth to those who seek Him. The other side hides that same truth from those who have hardened their heart against Him. Jesus Himself explained it best:
He answered and said to them, Because it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For whoever has, to him more will be given, and he will have abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him. Therefore I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. And in them the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled, which says: Hearing you will hear and shall not understand, and seeing you will see and not perceive. (Mtt. Mat. 13:11-14 cf. Isa. Isa. 6:9-10)The surprising and rather difficult aspect of this teaching of Jesus is to some it has not been given. Jesus spoke of this need for spiritual regeneration to receive revelation when Nicodemus came visiting one night. Jesus told Nicodemus, Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born-again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. (John John 3:3). This need to be born-again reflects the fact that those who have not come to faith in Christ are unable to understand the things of God. Paul also wrote of it: But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned [emphasis added] (1Cor. 1Cor. 2:14).
Isaiah related the same principle. Unless men have the proper attitude and heart toward God, He will keep things hidden from them and frustrate their attempts at understanding:
Pause and wonder! Blind yourselves and be blind! They are drunk, but not with wine; they stagger, but not with intoxicating drink. For the LORD has poured out on you the spirit of deep sleep, and has closed your eyes, namely, the prophets; and He has covered your heads, namely, the seers. The whole vision has become to you like the words of a book that is sealed, which men deliver to one who is literate, saying, Read this, please. And he says, I cannot, for it is sealed. Then the book is delivered to one who is illiterate, saying, Read this, please. And he says, I am not literate. Therefore the Lord said: Inasmuch as these people draw near with their mouths and honor Me with their lips, but have removed their hearts far from Me, and their fear toward Me is taught by the commandment of men, therefore, behold, I will again do a marvelous work among this people, a marvelous work and a wonder; for the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the understanding of their prudent men shall be hidden. (Isa. Isa. 29:9-14) [emphasis added]Here we meet with the first of several caveats which must be considered when attempting to understand the book of Revelation. Unless you, the reader, are born-again, you will not understand Gods Wordincluding that which is recorded in the book of Revelation. Even if you are born-again, commentaries and study aids produced by those who have not experienced regeneration are of very limited, even negative, value. This alone eliminates massive volumes of verbiage by those who lack the illumination of the Holy Spirit.7 For how can those who lack the essential means of spiritual understanding ever hope to teach spiritual truth to others? The very symbols and allusions within Gods Word are intended by design to conceal spiritual truth from the unregenerate. Yet many commentators throughout history have continued in this vain attempt to rely on purely natural insight to explain this spiritual book. The fruitlessness of such attempts are perhaps no more evident than in prophetic portions of Scripture which employ symbols like those found in the book of Revelation. Prophecy therefore must be expressed in symbolic language in order that only the faithful and the spiritually discerning might know. Symbols confuse unbelieving skeptics without unnecessarily frustrating believing Christians.8 Although there is clearly an intent by God to hide truth from those without eyes to see, Tan notes this is not the primary purpose of prophecy: Prophecy is given more primarily to reveal the future to believers than to veil it from unbelievers.9
Another source of difficulty is the variety of interpretations which result from those who undertake to study the book and explain it to others. It is doubtless true that no other book, whether in sacred or profane literature, has received in whole or in part so many different interpretations.10 Many of these interpretations are more enigmatic than the book itself. The literary genius G.K. Chesterson once quipped, Though St. John the Evangelist saw many strange monsters in his vision, he saw no creatures so wild as one of his own commentators. 11 This variety of interpretive results has been damaging to the cause of Christ and was certainly not His intention when He first gave it to His servant John.12
This diversity of interpretive results serves to obscure rather than reveal the message which God intended His saints to understand and receive a blessing from (Rev. Rev. 1:3+; Rev. 22:7+, Rev. 22:14+). If God Who created language also created the human brain, surely He did so having in mind the sufficiency of communication between His creature and Himself and from creature to creature. If language and mans intellect is sufficient and Gods revealed Word is Holy and perfect, what accounts for the wide variations in understanding attributed to the book of Revelation? In a word: hermeneutics!
Although we treat the issues in more depth in our discussion of Interpreting Symbols, here we will simply note that unless a uniform approach to interpretation based on the normal rules of communication is extended to every part of Gods Word, then the perspicuity of Scripture is greatly compromised. This can be seen in the huge variation of interpretive results by those who depart from these rules of grammatical historical interpretation. The large variety of meanings attributed to the book of Revelation are the result of using a faulty hermeneutic. This is one of the many tools used by the enemy of God to undermine the understanding of His Word. When one restricts the interpretive variations to those who employ a literal hermeneutic, the range of possibilities dwindles significantly resulting in much agreement and thus, the perspicuity of the Scriptures is preserved. One can only wonder why those who employ techniques which yield hugely varying interpretations fail to see the variance in their results as irrefutable evidence of the faultiness of their approach!
No, it is Gods intent that we understand the message He has given. Although we may never understand all that He has revealed, it is not His purpose to frustrate or confuse (1Cor. 1Cor. 14:33). While it is our firm conviction that much may be known with confidence, it would be foolhardy to lay claim to a complete understanding. As Pink has observed:
To speculate about any of the truths of Holy Writ is the height of irreverence: better far to humbly acknowledge our ignorance when God has not made known His mind to us. Only in His light do we see light. Secret things belong unto the Lord, but the things which are revealed (in Scripture) belong unto us and to our children. . . . As the time of the manifestation of the Man of Sin draws near, God may be pleased to vouchsafe a fuller and better understanding of those parts of His Word which make known the things which must shortly come to pass.13
1 The definite article (the) does not appear within the Greek text.
4 Even Luther admitted: Even if it were a blessed thing to believe what is contained in it, no man knows what that is.Alva J. McClain, The Greatness Of The Kingdom (Winona Lake, IN: BMH Books, 1959), 6.
12 No other part of Scripture has proved so fascinating to expositors, and no other part has suffered so much at their hands.Merrill C. Tenney, Interpreting Revelation (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1957), 13.