This Revelation Bible study page and free Bible study outlines and teacher guides present a uniquely balanced, scholarly, and common-sense approach to the Book. On this page I will answer questions that students have frequently asked in my three decades of teaching Revelation:
How does the message of the Book of Revelation relate to my Christian life and faith today?
What are the strengths and weaknesses of the various schools of interpretation of Revelation?
How do I obtain the special blessing promised for those who hear and keep the words of the Book of Revelation?
Seals, trumpets and plagues; beasts, horns and crowns; angels, thrones, and bowls of wrath - some believers have given up any attempt to understand the Book of Revelation, while others have fallen into bitter controversy about details of interpretation. Attitudes to Revelation Bible study range from the fearful who can’t get into the book, to the fanatical who can’t get out of it.
Human opinion of Revelation can be negative:
The result of “indigestion at best or insanity at worst."“As many riddles as there are words.”“A haphazard accumulation of weird symbols.”“It either finds a man mad or leaves him mad.”
The leading Protestant Reformers were less than enthusiastic about the Apocalypse. Martin Luther claimed that it is “neither apostolic nor prophetic…everyone thinks of the book whatever his spirit suggests…there are many nobler books to be retained…my spirit cannot acquiesce in this book.” John Calvin omitted it from his N.T. commentary. Ulrich Zwingli argued its testimony can be rejected because “it is not a book of the Bible.”
Positive comments affirm Revelation as “the only masterpiece or pure art in the New Testament.” It is described as “beautiful beyond description.” William Barclay insists that it is “infinitely worthwhile to wrestle with [Revelation] until it gives its blessings and opens its riches.”
However, divine opinion is distinctly positive affirming spiritual benefit of Revelation Bible study:
"Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it." (1:3)
"Behold, I am coming soon! Blessed is he who keeps the words of the prophecy in this book." (22:7)
Balanced, scholarly, common-sense printable materials for Revelation Bible study ready for free download and use in your Bible study group or church:
Revelation Bible study yields certain internal evidence of authorship. John identifies himself four times as the author (1:1, 4, 9; 22:8). The book itself indicates that the author was a Jew, well versed in the Hebrew Scriptures. A well known church leader among the seven churches in Asia Minor, he was a person with an unshakable conviction that the Church of Jesus Christ would ultimately triumph over all evil operating in the world.
External evidence includes the second century CE testimony of Justin Martyr, who held that the author of Revelation was the apostle John, the son of Zebedee. Modern scholars like G. E. Ladd have acknowledged "there are, admittedly, serious difficulties in recognizing the Revelation and the Fourth Gospel as coming from the same pen."
The style of the Greek is strikingly different. The language of the Gospel is smooth and fluent and couched in accurate simple Greek. The language of Revelation is rough and harsh, with many grammatical and syntactical irregularities. Ladd concludes: “Possibly a disciple of John actually penned the Gospel, while the Revelation reflects his own rough Hebraic Greek.”
Most scholars agree that the Revelation was written at a time when believers were entering a period of persecution, which was most likely that associated with the latter part of the Emperor Domitian's reign (81-96 CE); thus dating the book around 95 CE.
What is the Nature of Apocalyptic Writing?
Revelation is structured on the basis of an apocalyptic view of history, which insists that the world will get steadily worse, then suddenly better than it has ever been—and will stay that way.
This belief is shared by Jews, Christians, and Communists. Each got it from the same source: the Hebrew prophets (Karl Marx had a Jewish mother and a Lutheran father). The difference between them is what they believe will bring about the sharp change in direction. Communists insist it is by human revolution. Jews look for divine intervention, while Christians affirm it will be the return of the God-man Jesus to the planet...
Any valid Revelation Bible study must acknowledge the basic apocalyptic framework. After dealing with the present in its early chapters (1-5), the Book turns to the future course of history, which gets steadily worse (chapters 6-18), then suddenly better (chapters 20-22). The change coincides with the Second Advent of Jesus Christ (chapter 19).
Scholars note three common characteristics of apocalyptic writings. First, they are usually written in times of trouble. Second, Give promise of triumph of good over evil. Third, they convey their message by signs, symbols, dreams, and visions.
Although the visions in the Apocalypse often seem bizarre to the modern reader, the book does provide several clues for its own interpretation. Some the symbolism in Revelation is obvious in its meaning. The Dragon or serpent represents Satan; the "Lake of fire” is a metaphor for hell; the “Great white throne” depicts the Lord’s judgment seat.
Some of the symbols are explained in the text. We are told that the “stars” are angels or messengers. The “lamp stands” symbolize churches. The “seals”, “trumpets” and “bowls” unfold a series of judgments. The “incense” represents prayers ascending. We are told that the “ten horns” are kings, but we are not given any clue as to their identity, or whether they are human or spiritual rulers.
In Revelation Bible study we find that some symbols are paralleled elsewhere in Scripture, primarily in the Hebrew Tanakh. These includes such figures as the tree of life, the rainbow, the morning star, the rod of iron, horseman, and tyrannical regimes pictured as wild “beasts.”
A few symbols are obscure. For example, the “white stone,” for which scholars have offered a variety of interpretations. Is it a declaration of innocence, a sign of approval, or a badge of excellence? Maybe we won’t know what it signifies until we receive one!
Numbers are also used as symbols. Some of the more well known numbers are 666, 1,260 days, 1,000 years, 2 witnesses, and the 144,000.
How do we interpret the Revelation?
There are four methods of Interpretation in Revelation Bible study.
If you understand the Apocalypse entirely in terms of its first century CE setting and believe that most of its events have already taken place, you hold to the preterist interpretation.
If you believe that the book describes the long chain of events from the late first century CE to the close of this age, you would be a historicist.
You are a futurist if you place the book primarily in the so-called “end times.” An extreme futurists view is also known as dispensationalism. Most futurist scholars, however, reject this position in favor of a more moderate futurism.
If you view the book as symbolic pictures of such timeless truths as the victory of good over evil, you are an idealist.
It is clear to me that no one key unlocks the whole book. Each interpretative school has seen some valid insights, but none provides a complete and coherent interpretation of the whole book. When only one approach is used there is always manipulation of the text. This is particularly the case with the extreme futurist approach. In nearly three decades of teaching Revelation in churches, colleges, and universities, I have always urged students to use all the interpretative approaches in Revelation Bible study.
Why was the Apocalypse written and for whom?
Fruitful Revelation Bible study must take as its starting point the fact that the book was intended for believers in John’s day. The book owes its origin, at least in part, to contemporary conditions. The Roman authorities were beginning to enforce a cult of Emperor worship. Christians who declared that Christ, not Caesar, was Lord were facing mounting opposition.
In the Letters to the Seven Churches (chs. 2-3), the Church at Smyrna is told of coming opposition (2:10). The believers at Philadelphia are warned against an hour of trial coming on the world (3:10). Antipas has already been martyred (2:13) along with others (6:9). John had been exiled to the Roman penal colony on the island of Patmos because of his Christian witness and ministry (1:9). There were some in the Church proposing a compromise policy (2:14, 15, 20), which needed to be corrected before its subtle influence could undermine the resolve of the churches to stand fast in the perilous times which lay ahead.
John writes to encourage the saints to resist steadfastly the demands of emperor worship. He declares that the final confrontation between God and Satan is imminent. Though Satan may increase his pressure against the Church, she must stand fast, even to death. The saints are sealed against any spiritual harm and will soon be vindicated when Jesus returns, when evil is destroyed forever, and God’s people enter into an eternity of glory and blessing.
Revelation, then, in part is God’s answer to the prayers and tears of severely persecuted believers in the cities of late first century Asia Minor—nevertheless, we must also give equal prominence to the fact the book was not only intended for those who first read it, but for all believers throughout the entire Church Age.
Why should every believer read the Book of Revelation?
British Bible scholar J. David Pawson suggests ten reasons as the rationale for Revelation Bible study:
1. The Book represents the completion of Bible.
2. Revelation is a defense against heresy.
3. It offers an interpretation of history.
4. It provides a ground for hope.
5. Revelation produces a motive for evangelism.
6. It is a stimulus to worship.
7. The Apocalypse is an antidote to Worldliness.
8. It is an incentive to godliness.
9. It is a preparation for persecution.
10. Revelation presents a unique understanding of Christ.
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A myriad of commentaries and materials have been produced about the Book of Revelation. These range from the good to the bad, the ugly... and the very ugly!
I have listed the books and study materials reviewed or referred to in our article on Revelation Bible Study, as well as related resources that will enrich your understanding of and encounter with the Book of Revelation.
I have avoided those resources, of which there are a legion, that are little more than superficial, sensationalistic speculation. Rather, I have recommended materials based on sound scholarship and common sense by qualified academics and Bible teachers.
My recommendations cover the full spectrum of mainstream interpretive approaches, including Preterist, Historicist, Futurist, and Idealist. My two TOP PICKS?... the commentaries by W. J. Hendrickson and G. E. Ladd.
The books and resources listed do not represent the views of Free-Online-Bible-Study.Org or Teach the Nations, Inc.
Would you like to host an Unlocking the Book of Revelation seminar at your church, Bible school, or Bible study group?
The survey seminar requires 10 hours of class time. This is ideal for a weekend seminar, conference or retreat.
The full exegetical seminar taught directly from the Greek text requires between 20 and 30 hours of class time.
I am able to conduct an Unlocking the Book of Revelation seminar at your church, school, or study group throughout the United States and Canada. I am also available to facilitate seminars in other countries on a more limited basis.