7 Things to Do Before You Read Revelation
As a kid growing up in church, Revelation was one of the first books of the Bible I read from start to finish. I had been told that Revelation was about the end of the world, and I was determined to find out how things were going to shake out.
I remember walking away rather disappointed and confused. There were a lot of numbers and big words and weird details. Something about a dragon eating a baby and some people on horses that seemed really mad about something. It was all a jumbled mess, not at all the clear explanation of the end of the world I had thought it would be.
Since then, I've read Revelation several more times, and I've spent the last few months studying the letter in depth as I preached it to my church.
To be honest, there is still a lot I don't understand. My head still hurts when I'm done studying sometimes. But I've learned some things that I believe can help you before you dive head first into Revelation. So in the spirit of the Apocalypse, here are 7:
1. Read the rest of the Bible first.
You're telling me I've got to read the entire Bible BEFORE I can read Revelation? You don't have to. It's not a requirement. Anyone can read Revelation, and I certainly believe God can speak through any part of His Word despite what you do or don't know.
I'm simply saying you should read the rest of the Bible first. I say this because I'm amazed how much of what John saw and wrote actually built upon the other 65 books of the Bible. It seems like every verse has some connection or allusion to another Old Testament or New Testament verse.
Having previously read these other verses will help you significantly as you interpret what Revelation is saying. Just to give you one example, in Revelation 10, John is commanded to eat a scroll. This would seem awfully strange unless you remember reading that God also commanded Ezekiel to eat a scroll in the Old Testament. This connection is intentional and helps make sense of what's happening.
Revelation isn't just the last book of the Bible because when it was written or what it's about. I think it's also because of how much it uses and builds on what comes before it.
2. Know the purpose.
This may shock you, but Revelation was not written to tell people how and when the world is going to end. If you go in thinking that, you are going to end up disappointed.
Yes, there is information about the last several years before the return of Christ. Yes, there is information about what things will be like for those alive during that time. But a neat and tidy timeline is nowhere to be found. And many of the details are symbolic and point to realities beyond comprehension.
This is why we need to know the purpose of the book. John was given this Revelation from Jesus to encourage a suffering and struggling church. We summed up the central message of the book in our sermon series like this: Fear not, Jesus is on his throne.
That's the purpose and message of the book. If you go in with the mindset that Jesus wants to encourage you to persevere, and with the understanding that God wants you to know He's in control, then the letter becomes much clearer.
3. Research the background.
I don't mean to imply that you've got to get a seminary degree or become a scholar in order to be blessed by the message of Revelation. I believe anyone could read this letter and walk away impacted by God's Word.
But there's no getting around the fact that the Bible is an ancient document written in another language to another culture. There are things we will simply miss unless we study. And I've learned that the more I study, the more I learn. And the more I learn, the more I grow.
This is all the more necessary with Revelation. Revelation was written to first century churches living under the threat of a hostile pagan culture and evil Roman Empire. With a little understanding of the book's setting, more of it comes alive.
The simplest way to research the background is with a good study Bible. I recommend the ESV Study Bible. And if you want to go even deeper, pick up a commentary that breaks down the book word by word, verse by verse. I've personally benefitted from Robert H. Mounce's and G. K. Beale's books.
4. Understand the genre.
This builds on the last point, but it's a big one. Revelation is not a history book or a narrative. Its genre is apocalypse. This is a fancy way of saying it concerns prophecies and visions of spiritual realities, primarily concerning the end.
This means that much of what you find in Revelation is symbolic, poetic, and prophetic. To read certain sections literally is to completely miss the point. Once again, a good study Bible will help you understand the genre and how it affects the text.
5. Plan to read it all starting at the beginning.
I recommend this point for all of your scripture reading. Always start at the beginning of a Bible book and study it through until the end. Books of the Bible are meant to be taken as a whole, and the chapters, verses, and headings were added later for organization.
Yes, you can jump into the middle of some books more easily, like Psalms and Proverbs. But even those books have overarching themes that might be missed without the big picture.
So if you want to read Revelation, start with 1:1 and don't skip ahead. You might be tempted to jump over the 7 letters that make up the first few chapters, but that would be a mistake. Those letters set the pace for the rest of the book.
You'll get to the fun stuff in time. 666, Armageddon, Heaven. It's all there down the line. But take it as it comes.
Again, Revelation is not a history book. Its purpose is not to impart knowledge or share information. It's the living and active Word of God, meant to speak to the heart. And if you don't go in with that mindset, you will miss what God wants to say to you.
Trust me when I say this: you will not understand this book without God's help. I believe this to be true of all scripture. We need the Holy Spirit to open our hearts. But boy how much more of God's help do we need for Revelation!
Pray for wisdom. Ask God to speak. Then read His words to you.
7. Trust in Jesus.
I cannot imagine reading the letter of Revelation without the comfort of knowing Christ. Some of the stuff in this book is downright terrifying. To see God's judgment coming on the world in all its fullness should cause all of us to run to Jesus.
Because without Christ, the scariest parts of Revelation become our story. But with Christ, there is no condemnation or judgment (Romans 8:1). It's already been paid for on the cross.
With an abiding trust in Jesus, the book of Revelation becomes a comfort. Despite all the chaos that is coming upon the world, God will protect and preserve his people until the end.
With an abiding trust in Jesus, the book of Revelation becomes a motivation. How can I read the truth about what's coming on the world and not go out and tell others about Jesus?
With an abiding trust in Jesus, the book of Revelation becomes a promise. One day, those who know Jesus will see him face to face. We will spend eternity with him in a perfect place, and all will be right again.
So let me encourage you, read Revelation. Read it more than once. Dig deep. Don't be afraid of it. It has much to say to us today.
But before you do, pack your bags and plan your journey. You'll be glad you did.