If ever a word was found that denoted the expectation of an imminent cosmic cataclysm, it is the word: apocalypse. It has been used as the title for books and movies, articles and sermons, always to achieve the same effect: disaster, destruction, disease and death. However, that is not what the word means. Apocalypse is derived from the Greek word: apokalypsis which simply means revelation, revealing, opening up!
So, when we find the last book of the New Testament entitled Revelation—that is what the word apocalypse means. It is the book, not of disaster, chaos or confusion; it is the book of revealing: the Book of Revelation. Unlike the Book of Daniel, in the Old Testament, where Daniel was told, “Go your way, Daniel, for the words are closed up and sealed till the time of the end” (Daniel 12:9), the Book of Revelation is not a sealed book. Even when, in Revelation 5:1, we find a scroll with “seven seals,” those seals are opened. Jesus opens the seals, one by one, to reveal what is to happen. Revelation is a book of revealing!
However, there are a few simple, yet significant, steps in understanding this seemingly mysterious book:
Read the book as it is written
We find a serious warning at the end of the Book of Revelation:
For I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds to these things, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the Book of Life, from the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book. (Revelation 22:18-19)
The warning to us is clear: Do not add any words to the book, nor take any words away from the book. Read it as it was written. Obviously, most of us will be reading the book in English (or whatever your language is) so we need to read a translation of it, not a paraphrase. A translation like the old King James Version or the New King James Version is excellent. In those translations, whenever an English word was added in order to correct the sentence structure, the word is typed in italics. That way you know that it was added by the translators without changing the intended meaning of the book. Use a translation, not a transliteration like the Good News Bible. Even the New International Version should be cross-referenced with the King James which is more accurate.
Read Revelation in the context of the rest of the Bible
The Book of Revelation cannot be read in isolation. It was given as the last book of the Bible, and, as you go through it, you will see how it continually refers back to the rest of the Bible. E. W. Bullinger makes the following interesting comment:
“In Matthew (the Hebrew gospel) are some 92 quotations from and references to the O.T. [Old Testament]. In Hebrews there are 102. In Revelation are found no fewer than 285” (Bullinger, The Companion Bible. Appendix 197, p. 216).
The Book of Revelation refers to the Old Testament an astounding 285 times! Unfortunately it has become out of fashion to read the Bible, or to read the Old Testament as a backdrop to the New. It has become the norm in far too many churches and in religious literature to quote a few verses from the Bible and try to build sermons, articles, and books around those few verses. You cannot do that with the Book of Revelation. You have to be willing to read every word of every chapter, and you have to be willing to go back to those places in the Bible referred to by Revelation. If you do that, this book becomes truly exciting.
You need some understanding of history
To say that many, today, are somewhat ignorant of history, especially the history of the Middle East and Europe, is to put it mildly. The Book of Revelation was given to the Apostle John at the time of the Roman Empire. That is its starting point. One needs to know something of what happened in the world from the time of the Roman Empire to our present day. Fortunately that is not very difficult to do if you use as guidance the revelation to John.
And remember not to add your own interpretation to this book
This is a reiteration of the first point, but vital in understanding Revelation. Virtually every mistake ever made in understanding the Book of Revelation has come from people inserting their own ideas or thoughts into this book. As soon as one says, “I think it means…” that is what you think. That is not what the book says.
The Book of Revelation is not only a book of prophecy; it is far more than that. It is also not just a book for the “end-time” as most tend to view the book. It was given as a book for all time and it has been that since it was given to the Apostle John in about AD 90. It was a message for the servants of God at that time, the time of the Roman Empire. It applied to the people of God who lived in the Middle Ages, to those who lived at the time of the Renaissance and the time of the invention of the printing press. It applied to those who saw the wars of Napoleon and Hitler, and it applies to the servants of God today. At this time, when many have religious freedom, enjoy health, wealth, and happiness, this book still applies, and it deals with our future and the future of our peoples. It is time to start reading this book slowly, carefully, verse by verse, and see what it says to you!