The book of Revelation: Guidelines for responsible and meaningful preaching
Many Christians have a negative attitude toward the book of Revelation. The evidence shows that this is mainly due to what has been presented from the pulpit and written in popular books. Revelation’s prophecies have been the subject of speculative and sensationalistic interpretations inspired by media headline news and current events intended to excite the public.
The prologue of Revelation promises great blessings to individuals in the church, making its messages understandable to the congregation (Rev. 1:3). The text talks about a person (singular) reading aloud the messages of Revelation to the assembled audience (plural). When the listening audience hears, with understanding, the words of the prophecy and responds by heeding them, great blessings are promised (Rev. 1:3; 22:7).
Cautious preachers will be aware that their exposition of Revelation has far-reaching effects on the listeners, whether for blessing or eternal loss. Therefore, it is of primary importance for preachers to acquaint themselves with the principles of prophetic interpretation so that they may be sure that their exposition of Revelation’s messages matches the intention of the inspired author who wrote down and organized theologically what had been shown to him in vision.
This article provides several practical guidelines for responsible and meaningful preaching of Revelation. This is a product of my own pilgrimage and many years of personal experience.1 The focus here will be on the preparation of the sermon rather than on its delivery.
Have a healthy approach to Revelation’s prophecies
The prophecies of Revelation have often been obscured by biased and subjective interpretative approaches. While, on the one hand, many preachers try to match every detail of the prophetic text to events in history (whether past or future), on the other, there are those who deny the book its prophetic character and limit its prophecies to Christians of the first century in Asia Minor. Both approaches are equally detrimental to the prophetic character of the book.
Responsible preaching of Revelation precludes any biased approach. It avoids the pitfall of preterism, which, together with idealism, deprive Revelation of its prophetic character and limits the relevance of its messages exclusively to the Christians of John’s day in the Roman Empire. Similarly, it avoids futurism, which limits Revelation’s prophecies exclusively to the last generation of Christians. These methods seem to be deficient because they imply that Revelation has nothing to offer to the generations between John’s time and the time of the end.
Revelation claims to be a book of prophecy (Rev. 1:3; 22:7), with its stated purpose being to show us what will take place in the future (Rev. 1:1; 22:6). Any interpretative method that denies the predictive nature of the prophecies of Revelation does not do justice to the claimed intention of the book. This sets historicism as the adequate approach for prophetic interpretation. Historicism, as an interpretative method, recognizes that Revelation contains predictive prophecies describing the movements and events in Christian history from the first century up to and including the end time. This method also recognizes the spiritual relevance of the book to all Christians, regardless of time or place. By using this method, the preacher will present to the audience the full spectrum of the meaning of Revelation’s prophecies as intended by its divine Author.
At this point, a caution would be in place. Historicism has often been misused in varied attempts to fit every detail of the text into a historical fulfillment. Much preaching of Revelation’s prophecies by historicist interpreters has been based on allegorical interpretation of symbols, with headline news and newspaper articles. A responsible exposition of Revelation’s prophecy must be faithful to the text, rather than to what the preacher wants the text to say, as it relates to current events.
Revelation, itself, gives a warning against adding to or removing from the words of the book (Rev. 22:18, 19). Tampering with the prophecies of Revelation carries far-reaching consequences. On the one hand, to those who add to the prophetic words, God will add the plagues described in the book. This warning does not deal with tampering with the actual words of Revelation but rather with distorting and misinterpreting the prophecies of Revelation to suit one’s own purposes. It also has to do with enforcing speculative ideas and views promoted by popular doomsday preachers. We must stay with what is clearly stated in the text and shun all speculative interpretations. On the other hand, taking away from the words of the book’s prophecies may be done by deliberately undermining their divine origin and prophetic character because it might look unpopular or not be widely accepted. Such a person would be as equally guilty of tampering with the book’s prophecies as the one who adds to it.
Do your own study
Much preaching of Revelation today proves to be nothing but stale repetition of well-known sensationalistic expositions of prophecy based on headlines, media news, and current events. This is done mainly by copying and preaching somebody else’s ideas and views. There are at least two possible reasons for this: first, a lack of adequate training in biblical exegesis and in the use of biblical tools and second, intellectual laziness, leading to a neglect of engaging in personal interaction with the text.
Such preaching obviously does not offer a fresh exposition of Revelation’s messages. In most cases, those in the audience do not expect to hear anything new that would address their current situation and needs. All that they expect to hear would be what they have heard numerous times before articulated with different rhetoric. But, in truth, how much can they get?
For one thing, there is nothing wrong in consulting the interpretation and textual analyses of others, especially those who have more experience and are better qualified in studying the book of Revelation. However, a “sin” would be to neglect one’s own study. Preaching is both science and art. Revelation must be studied with all scholarly robustness by using the hermeneutical tools available today. Like the rest of the Bible, Revelation must be studied in humility and with prayer and a willingness to let the book speak. Such preaching will be both educational and inspirational, and will result in the congregation confessionally responding, “Amen! Come Lord Jesus.” This will, in turn, prompt them with a desire to reach with the gospel those who are still unreached for Christ.
Dealing with the text
An exposition of Revelation’s prophecies goes through three stages: (a) exposition of the text itself; (b) interpretation of the prophetic text; and (c) application of the prophecy.
a. Exposition of the text. Preparation of a sermon on Revelation starts with an exposition of the text for the purpose of establishing its meaning. This means bringing out of the text what is there. We are not in control of the text but, rather, the text and the context defines the meaning. Expository preaching will protect us from imposing an interpretation that is not warranted by the text.
The first step involves an exegetical analysis of the text. It necessitates an understanding of the etymological and syntactical meaning of the key words and phrases. Like the whole New Testament, Revelation was originally written in Greek. An effective exposition of Revelation’s text requires knowledge of the Greek language on at least a basic level. True, the listeners in the pew will find the Bible in their own language to be enough for their practical spiritual needs. However, those who are called to explain the messages of Revelation to others—particularly from the pulpit—are mandated to consult the text in the original language. (Those who do not have training in Greek should secure several different translations in order to compare the differences and similarities in the translations.)
An understanding of the words implies both lexical and grammatical meaning as well as the relation of the words toward each other. Once the meaning of the key words and phrases is established, it is necessary to consider the text within its immediate and broader context. Finally, a determination needs to be made as to how the understanding of the text fits into the overall structure of the book as well as the Bible as a whole.
An exposition of the text requires basic tools. No preacher can be so knowledgeable and hope to expound the Bible so effectively that he or she can afford to ignore the help offered in scholarly books. Books are to the preacher what tools are to any profession. On the other hand, we must remember that books are just tools for unlocking the full spectrum of the meaning of a biblical text and not a substitute for the exposition of the text itself. Neither are books to take the place of prayer and personal involvement in studying the Bible.
b. Interpretation of the prophetic text. Once the meaning of the text is established, we turn to its interpretation. The preacher must be on guard not to impose on the text an interpretation just because it appears attractive. Interpretation of the prophetic text must not be controlled by popular interpretation, media headline news, or past and current events—a common practice among many preachers. Such preaching is commonly advertised to attract the public’s attention with popular apocalyptic titles such as, “Armageddon at the Door” or “Revelation and the End of the World.”
By this type of preaching, historical data and Revelation’s texts are put together and creatively intertwined to support preconceived ideas derived from current events. Such interpretations are speculative and can hardly be supported by textual evidence. They are usually based on allegorical interpretations and are superimposed upon the text. Any interpretation that is intended to stir up popular excitement is speculative and fictitious. This never results in the strengthening of faith in prophecy; in actuality, it weakens our confidence in biblical prophecy. In dealing with Revelation’s prophecies, we must stay with what is clearly stated in the text and let the Bible interpret itself. Ellen White warns Adventist preachers: “We want not to move the people’s passions to get up a stir, where feelings are moved and principle does not control. I feel that we need to be guarded on every side, because Satan is at work to do his uttermost to insinuate his arts and devices that shall be a power to do harm. Anything that will make a stir, create an excitement on a wrong basis, is to be dreaded, for the reaction will surely come.”2
c. Application of the prophecy. As a final step, the preacher will wish to suggest how the prophetic text applies historically. In dealing with the prophecies that have been fulfilled in the past, we may try to locate their fulfillment in certain historical time periods. However, in dealing with the prophecies that are yet to be fulfilled, caution is necessary. In these prophecies, God reveals to us what will happen in the world at the time of the end, so that we may not be surprised. However, these prophecies do not tell us exactly when and how end-time events will take place. Some pastors see in these prophecies a constant temptation to speculate regarding their fulfillment. Books have been written and Web pages have been created predicting exactly when and how these prophecies will be fulfilled. However, most of the ideas expressed are fanciful and misleading, for they are drawn from imaginings based on allegorical interpretations or headline news rather than from the Bible.
The preacher must keep in mind that the timing and manner of the unfolding of the final events are secrets God has reserved only for Himself (Matt. 24:36; Acts 1:7). The full understanding of the end-time prophecies will be ultimately possible at the time of their fulfillment, not before. We must be careful, therefore, not to speculate on what the prophecy means or how and when it will be fulfilled. The purpose of the prophecies of Revelation is not to satisfy our sheer curiosity about the future but to move us to readiness as this world’s history nears its end.
Study the structural organization of the book
It is of central importance for the interpretation of Revelation’s prophecies to understand the book’s basic structure. Apart from the prologue (Rev. 1:1–8) and the epilogue (Rev. 22:6–21), the main body of the book appears to fall into two distinct parts. In Revelation 1:19, John the Revelator states that what he has recorded in the book consists of (a) “the things which are” (which refers to the messages to the seven churches that are described in chapters 2 and 3) and (b) “the things which will take place after these things” (NASB; which refers to the things that are described in chapters 4 through 22 that will take place after the seven churches; cf. Rev. 4:1). These divisions are related to the three periods of history from the book’s perspective:
a. “The things which are” (1:9–3:22, NASB). The seven messages were originally sent as a circular letter to the Christian congregations located in seven cities of the Roman province of Asia at the end of the first century (Rev. 1:11). That only seven churches were chosen suggests their symbolic significance—seven being a number of fullness. The seven messages sent to them are applicable on three levels:
1. Historical application. In exploring these messages, it is of primary importance to discover how they applied to the historical situations of the seven churches in Asia at the time of John.
2. Universal application. While those seven messages were originally written to the Christians of John’s day, they were not written only for them; they also contain timeless messages for subsequent generations of Christians regardless of time or place.
3. Prophetic application. The fact that Revelation is a prophetic book (Rev. 1:3; 22:10) points also to the prophetic significance of those messages. The spiritual conditions of the seven churches correspond to the spiritual conditions of Christianity in different historical periods. The seven messages were thus intended to provide, from heaven’s perspective, a panoramic survey of Christianity from the first century until the time of the end.
In a systematic preaching plan, a preacher can create a series of sermons on the messages to those seven churches. Good reference books render much information about the cities in which those churches were located as well as the challenges those Christians faced in their pagan environment. The preacher will be able to take a closer look at each message to discover the valuable lessons they provided for the Christians in John’s day. Finally, it is necessary to show how each message applies to individual Christians today. \\
b. “The things which will take place after these things” (Rev. 4:1–22:5). Revelation 4:1 begins the prophetic section of the book. At this point, the scene shifts from earth to heaven and from John’s time to the future. Careful analysis shows that chapters 4–11 describe the movements in Christian history and the spiritual struggles of the church in a hostile world from the first century until the time of the end. The focus of chapters 12–22 is the time of the end and the events leading to the coming of Christ. The book closes with God’s triumph over the forces of evil and the establishment of His everlasting kingdom.
With Revelation 4:1, there is also a shift in language. In contrast to the first three chapters that employ straightforward language and symbols and images generally not hard to understand, chapters 4–22 employ complex symbolic language reminiscent of Jewish apocalyptic literature, which is not easy to interpret.
Dealing with the symbolism of Revelation
The book of Revelation belongs to the genre of apocalyptic literature, characterized by complex symbolic language. The opening statement of Revelation tells us that the visions of Revelation were “signified” to John (Rev. 1:1, KJV). The Greek word semainō means “to show by symbolic signs.” By using this word, John the revelator tells us that the scenes and events to take place in the world were shown to him in vision in symbolic presentations. As a safeguard, the things that John states were shown to him in vision presuppose their symbolic understanding. The events predicted are real; they are, however, portrayed in symbols. What had been shown to him in the vision, he faithfully recorded in the book (verse 2).
Biblical prophecies were often communicated in the language of the time and place of the inspired author. One might observe, for instance, in the book of Daniel, how in revealing the future to King Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians (chapters 2 and 7), God used the Aramaic language (the lingua franca of the Babylonian empire) and symbols that they could understand (e.g., an idol in chapter 2 and the wild beasts in chapter 7, symbols familiar to the Babylonians). However, in revealing the future to the Jews (chapter 8), the sacrificial animals from the Hebrew sanctuary rituals were used as symbols.
In the same way, the prophecies of Revelation were revealed to John in symbols understandable to him and the original readers. In interpreting those symbols today, preachers must be on guard against imposing on the text the current meaning of the symbol or a meaning derived by allegorical interpretation. Our understanding of Revelation’s symbols must be guided by the intention of the inspired author and the meaning those symbols conveyed to the readers of Revelation of John’s day. Therefore, it is important to know where those symbols were taken from.
To adequately interpret the symbols of Revelation, a preacher must understand where those symbols have originated from. Many studies have shown that most of the symbolic language of Revelation was derived from the history and experience of God’s people in Old Testament times. The last book of the Bible is saturated with images and scenes from the Old Testament. In describing the events to take place in the future, Inspiration uses the language of the past. It is almost impossible to understand the symbolic language of Revelation without the Old Testament.
In addition to the Old Testament, the language of Revelation also reflects the language of Jewish apocalyptic literature, the first-century world of Asia Minor, and many sayings of Jesus and the apostles as recorded in the New Testament. To decode the meaning of those symbols, the preacher should equip himself or herself with good reference tools.
Effective preaching of Revelation is Christ-centered
The opening words of Revelation are, “The Revelation of Jesus Christ” (Rev. 1:1). While this phrase shows that Revelation comes from Jesus Christ (subjective genitive), it also shows that the book is about Jesus Christ, the One revealed (objective genitive). While Christ would be the One who revealed the messages of the book to John, the book focuses on His self-revelation and post-Calvary ministry in heaven. He is the central object of the entire book. The book begins and concludes with Him.
As the name of the book shows, Jesus Christ is the main focus of Revelation. He is the key that unlocks the true meaning of the book’s content. Any exposition of Revelation’s prophecies that focuses on events or people (whether past or future) at the expense of Christ and His relationship with His people entirely misses the central focus of the book.
On the other hand, the following clause states that the purpose of the book is to show God’s servant what will take place in the future (verse 1b). At this point, a question arises: how can a book titled “Revelation of Jesus Christ” be written with the purpose to unveil events that will occur in the future? For one thing, although future events occupy much of the book, these are seemingly not the book’s primary focus. Revelation was not intended to be a collection of predictions written to satisfy our obsessive curiosity about the future. The primary purpose of the predicted events that are recorded— whether those already fulfilled or those yet to happen—is to assure us of Jesus’s presence with His people throughout history and its final events.
Effective preaching of Revelation must be focused on Christ, not on events. Ellen White states: “Let Daniel speak, let the Revelation speak, and tell what is truth. But whatever phase of the subject is presented, uplift Jesus as the center of all hope.”3
In conclusion, preaching Revelation is complex yet fulfilling and rewarding. When understood properly, the prophecies of Revelation have practical purposes. Studying them will, first, move us to soul-searching and help us understand how we should live today while waiting for the future hope. Then, it will motivate us to take seriously our eternal destiny and to find our place in this world as we reach people around us with the gospel message. This should be the primary focus of preaching the last book of the Bible.
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1 Ranko Stefanovic is also the author of Revelation of Jesus Christ: Commentary on the Book of Revelation, 2nd ed. (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 2009).
2 Ellen G. White, Letter 34, 1887.
3 Ellen G. White, Testimonies to Ministers and Gospel Workers (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1962), 118.