Revelation: Guidelines for Interpretation


By: Duncan McKenzie
His book can be purchased here:

Well, volume II of my book (The Antichrist and the Second Coming: A Preterist Examination) is finally out. Volume I looked at Daniel and 2 Thessalonians. Volume II focuses on the book of Revelation. It is 640 pages (540 pages if you don’t read the endnotes ;-) and is essentially a commentary on the second half of Revelation (chapters 10-22) and is very readable. I argue against both the two comings theory of partial preterism and the AD 30-70 millennial notion of full preterism (I see the millennium as beginning at AD 70, cf. Dan. 7:21-22).

Here is the table of contents.

I. Introduction to Volume II
II. The Date of Revelation
III. The Subject of Revelation
IV. How to Interpret Revelation
V. The Beast From the Sea (Revelation 13:1-10)
VI. The Land Beast/False Prophet (Revelation 13:11-18)
VII. The Beast and the Harlot (Revelation 17)
VIII. The Beast and the Destruction of Babylon (Revelation 18)
IX. The Marriage of the Lamb and Destruction of the Beast at the Second Coming (Revelation 19)
X. The Millennium I: Preliminary Considerations
XI. The Millennium II (Revelation 20)
XII. The New Heaven and New Earth (Revelation 21-22)
XIII. Israel and the Gog and Magog Invasion
XIV. Where Are We Now?

Here is something from the book on how to interpret the book of Revelation.
I propose the following guidelines for the interpretation of Revelation:

1. The events of Revelation were about to happen when the book was written: The events described in Revelation would “shortly take place” (Rev. 1:1); the time was “near” when John wrote (Rev. 1:3). This nearness applied not just to the first three chapters, but to the prophecies of the book (Rev. 22:6-10).

2. Revelation was written around AD 65 under Nero—the sixth Caesar of Rome (Rev. 17:10): The historical context of Revelation is as follows: In early AD 67 Nero would send Vespasian and Titus to Judea to subdue the rebelling Jewish nation (cf. Rev. 6:1-2). This was the beginning of the end for Israel. Titus was the prince to come (Dan. 9:26); he would bring the covenant curses and fulfill God’s promise to destroy the Jewish nation for not keeping the covenant (cf. Deut. 28:49-53, 63-64). In June of AD 68 Nero would commit suicide and the whole Roman Empire would be thrown into crisis; the empire would be like a ship without a rudder for the next year and a half (Rev. 16:10-11). Rome would recover from its death throes in December of 69 (Rev. 13:3). At that time, Vespasian would go to sit on the throne at Rome while Titus returned to Judea (from Egypt, cf. Dan. 11:40-45) to finish his three-and-a-half-year destruction of the Jewish nation. The forty-two-month period (March/April of AD 67 to August/September of AD 70) that it took Titus to destroy the Jewish nation (Rev. 13:5) is the historical context of Revelation (Rev. 11:2; cf. Dan. 7:25; 12:7).

3. Revelation is a tale of two cities (Babylon and New Jerusalem) who are two wives (the harlot and the bride). It is obvious that the bride is a wife, as she is about to become married. Notice, however, that the harlot is also a wife—a widowed wife (Rev. 18:7). Unfaithful Israel went from a queen to a widow when she had her husband killed (cf. Matt. 21:5). These two women/cities represent the two covenants and those who were part of them. (Galatians 4:21-31 provides the basic narrative of Revelation.) The old covenant harlot (centered in Jerusalem, cf. Ezek. 16) is destroyed at the time that the new covenant bride (New Jerusalem) becomes married (Rev. 19:1-9; cf. Matt. 22:1-10). The covenant curses spoken of in Leviticus (26) and Deuteronomy (28-32) were about to come on the unfaithful Jewish nation as a result of their ultimate breaking of the covenant when they had Jesus killed (cf. Matt. 21:33-45). The four references in Revelation to sevenfold judgments (the seven seals, trumpets, thunders, and bowls) are based on the four sevenfold judgments that were to be Israel’s punishment for breaking the covenant (Lev. 26:18, 21, 24, 27-28). These covenant punishments culminate in the beast’s destruction of the harlot in Revelation 17-19. As God had said, the children of Israel would “rise and play the harlot” in the last days (of the old covenant) and be destroyed (Deut. 31:16-17, 29).

4. The Greek word gē—commonly translated as “earth” in Revelation—is often better translated as “land”: The symbol of the land usually refers to the land of Israel, although it also carries the wider meaning of the domain of God’s covenant people (cf. Rev. 5:10). The covenant curses in Revelation would focus on Israel—the unfaithful dwellers on the land. The great tribulation that was about to happen would come upon the whole world (the Roman Empire would almost collapse in AD 69), but it would be focused on those who dwelt on the land (Rev. 3:10; cf. Dan. 11:40-12:7; Matt. 24:15-21). With the AD 70 full establishment of the kingdom of God (Rev. 11:15-18) the whole world would become the land—the domain of God’s new covenant people (Rev. 21:1-2; see Isa. 65:1-19 where the new heaven and new earth speaks of the full establishment of God’s new covenant people at the AD 70 destruction of Israel, cf. Rom. 10:20-21).

5. The book of Revelation is an unveiling of the spiritual realm: Revelation is making the invisible realm of the spirit visible by way of symbols (Rev. 1:1). Although the images in Revelation are symbolic, they often contain physical referents to help one identify the historical events they are associated with (e.g., the merchandise of Babylon is the merchandise of the Temple, Rev. 18:12-13). The eight kings of Revelation 17:9-11 are ultimately spiritual rulers (cf. the kings and princes of Greece and Persia in Dan. 10:13, 20-21). The fact that the eighth of these kings comes out of the abyss confirms this (Rev. 11:7; 17:8). What was destroyed in the lake of fire at AD 70 (Rev. 19:20) was not a man, nor the Roman Empire, but the demonic beast from the abyss that worked through Titus in his destruction of the Jewish nation (cf. Dan. 9:26).

6. Symbolism is the primary means of communication of Revelation: If one analyzes the way Jesus is revealed in Revelation, it is always by way of symbols. Jesus does not have white hair, nor seven literal stars in his hand, nor a sword coming out of his mouth (Rev. 1:12-16). No one will ever see him as a lamb with seven eyes and horns (Rev. 5:6). No one will see him as a male child on the throne of God (Rev. 12:5). No one will see him on a flying white horse (Rev. 19:11-21). One should expect the images in Revelation to be symbolic. The less absurd images in Revelation (e.g., the two witnesses) are just as symbolic as the more absurd images (e.g., the beast with seven heads and ten horns). This is in contrast to the so-called literal interpretive approach to Revelation. The “literal” approach relies on absurdity as the main criterion for what is literal and what is symbolic. This literal approach is inadequate. Although the mode of communication of Revelation is by way of symbols, the spiritual events and truths that the symbols represent are profoundly real.

7. To find the meaning of the symbols used in Revelation one has to examine Scripture (especially the OT)—allow Scripture to interpret Scripture. Below are examples of this that relate to the interpretation of harlot Babylon:

a. Examine how a given symbol is used in the book of Revelation: Some symbols are defined in the passage in which they occur; other symbols are defined in other places in the book. In Revelation 17:1 we are told that the harlot “sits on many waters.” This is explained in verse 15 where we are told that the waters are symbolic of “peoples, multitudes, nations and tongues.” For Jews, Jerusalem and the Temple were the spiritual center of the world. Jews from every nation of the world congregated there (cf. Acts 2:5).
Some symbols are not defined in their immediate context but in other places in Revelation. In Revelation 17:18 and 18:21 we are told that harlot Babylon is “the great city.” We have already been told in Revelation 11:8 that “the great city” is where Jesus was crucified. One has to pay close attention to connections such as this. Many interpreters discount this connection, acknowledging that the great city in 11:8 is Jerusalem but saying the great city in chapters 17-18 refers to something else.

b. Examine how a given symbol is used in the NT: In Revelation 18:24 harlot Babylon is said to be guilty of the blood of the “prophets and saints.” In Matthew 23:35 Jesus said all the righteous blood shed on the earth would be required of the generation that rejected him. It was Jerusalem and her leadership that was responsible for the death of the prophets and saints (Matt. 23:34-37).
The subject of Revelation (two women/cities that are two wives) is shown in Galatians 4:21-31. There we are told that “these things are symbolic” of the two covenants and those who are part of them. The Jerusalem above in Galatians equates with the New Jerusalem in Revelation (which comes out of heaven, Rev. 21:2). Similarly, physical Jerusalem in Galatians equates with the “great city” of Babylon in Revelation (Rev. 18:21)—the city where Jesus was crucified (Rev. 11:8).

c. Examine how a given symbol is used in the OT: This is especially important. The meaning of many of Revelation’s symbols is found in the OT. Probably the biggest reason that Christians have difficulty in understanding Revelation is because we do not know our OT as we should. For example, the image of the harlot (Rev. 17:1) is not found in the NT outside of Revelation (although the concept of spiritual unfaithfulness is briefly touched on in a few places, e.g., James 4:4). While the NT does not use the image of the harlot, the OT often does; with two minor exceptions it always refers to God’s unfaithful old covenant people (e.g., Deut. 31:16-17; Ezek. 16, 23; the book of Hosea, etc.). Deciphering the meaning of OT passages is not always an easy task. Revelation usually makes allusions to OT passages, not direct references—often condensing and/or making reference to more than one passage at a time. I find the following from Beale on the relationship between Revelation and the OT to be helpful:

. . . the place of the OT in the formation of thought in the Apocalypse is that of both a servant and a guide: for John the Christ-event is the key to understanding the OT, and yet reflection on the OT context leads the way to further comprehension of this event and provides the redemptive-historical background against which the apocalyptic visions are better understood; the New Testament interprets the Old and the Old interprets the New.1

Being mindful of the subject of Revelation (the destruction of God’s unfaithful old covenant people and the full establishment of his new covenant people) provides a useful guide in evaluating how OT references are used in the book. While there is some universalization of the OT images used in Revelation, most retain an essential connection with their OT usage. As Beale notes, “John uses OT references with significant degrees of awareness of OT context.” 2

d. Often one has to go through these steps (a-c) to get the full depth of meaning of a given symbol or group of symbols in Revelation.

1. Beale, Book of Revelation, 1999, 97.
2. Ibid., 51.


By: Duncan McKenzie
His book can be purchased here: