Traditionally, there have been four basic approaches to interpretation of the book. The first approach is to look at it as symbolic of the cosmic conflict between good and evil. The second approach called preterist looks at the book as symbolizing events that took place in the first century church. The third approach called historicist looks at the writings as an overview of the history of Christianity. The final approach called futurist looks at the book as being a prophesy of things to come. We will look at the writings as a combination of all four approaches meaning that parts of the writings happened in the early history of the church, some are unfolding today, and some are going to take place in the future.
Though the book contains many symbols, it is possible to understand them through an in depth study that is led by the Holy Spirit.
Revelation 1:1 & 2
"The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who testifies to everything he saw- that is, the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ." NIV translation
The first two verses answer the basic questions that a journalist would ask if they were investigating something. Those questions are who, what, where, when, why, and how. It is simply telling us that God (who) sent through his angel (how) to John (where) during his exile (when) the revelation (what) to show his servants what must soon take place (why).
"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, because the time is near." NIV translation
The third verse explains that those who read and heed what is written will be blessed. In the Greek, the word for heed is "terountes" and it means "while holding fast". The Greek word used for "blessed" is makarias and it gives the sense of someone who is secure and does not need to worry about anything. So, this verse speaks to the fact that, if we hold fast to the grace of Jesus Christ, we do not have to fear or worry about what is contained in this book. This is the first of seven beatitudes (blessings) in this book.
In the early church, most people did not have the scriptures and so, when they met, someone would read them aloud for everyone. We see, here, that those who read them as well as those who hold fast to the comfort that is contained in them will be blessed. There are many Christians who do not want to read or study this book because they find it scary but, as we see here, it is not scary for those who are in Christ. This book is meant to comfort the Christian as we wait for its completion.
"John, To the seven churches in the province of Asia: Grace and peace to you from him who is, and who was, and who is to come, and from the seven spirits before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father- to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen." NIV translation
This passage is a personal greeting from John to the seven churches in Asia. These are the churches where he had previously ministered. They are located in what is known as Turkey today. The passage reminds the churches that what is to come in the letter is from God. It also serves to remind them of what Jesus had done for them.
"Look, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and all the peoples of the earth will mourn because of him. So shall it be! Amen" NIV translation
John tells us here that, when Jesus returns, everyone on the earth will see Jesus coming. He also tells us that, because of Jesus' return, the people will mourn. That may strike us, as Christians, as strange because we are going to rejoice. But, for those that have not accepted him, they will see the end of the world that they love.
You see, we all have to decide whether we love Jesus or this world because we can't love both. For those that have loved the things of this world, Jesus' return will truly be a time of mourning. They will see that the things they had put their hope in were only temporary and the end has come. Have you chosen Jesus or the things of this world? That is what we must each ask ourselves before that day.
"'I am the Alpha and the Omega', says the Lord God, 'who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.'" NIV translation
Here, God reminds us that he has always been in control. He is the beginning and the end as well as everything in between. Sometimes, we can forget that our God is a jealous God and he must be first.
We also have a great promise from this verse as we see that God says that he is "who is to come". We can take comfort that God is coming back to earth to get us and our struggles here will end.
"I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom, and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus, was on the Island of Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus." NIV translation
John now introduces himself to the readers. At this time in the history of the church, there is widespread persecution of Christians. The Apostle John, in his introduction of himself, reminds the readers that they are not alone. We too can take comfort from this as we see persecution of Christians today.
Revelation 1:10 & 11
"On the Lord's day I was in the Spirit, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet, which said: 'Write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches: to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea.'" NIV translation
In the first part of this passage, we see that this revelation was given to the apostle on the first day of the week. The first day of the week was the day that Jesus was resurrected and it became a day for worship and taking up collections. Many use this tradition as the basis for "going to church on Sunday" but, in the early church, they did not just worship one or two days a week. We are called to worship God in our lives every day and to share our lives with fellow believers as often as we can. That is what the early church did!
John says that he was "in the Spirit". This tells us that he was praying by listening to what God would say and that God was using a vision to speak to him. This is when God gave him this entire book and told him to give it to the seven churches.
Many people see this and then say that it was written just for these seven churches during this period of time. But, to really understand it, we must remember that, throughout the Bible, God uses the number seven as a symbol of completeness. With that in mind, we can see that this prophecy was given to the entire church for all of time.
Revelation 1:12 & 13
"I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands, and among the lampstands was someone 'like a son of man', dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest." NIV translation
Now, the introduction is over and John begins to describe what he has seen. The seven golden lampstands represent the churches (remember that seven refers to the complete church) and John tells us that Jesus is among them.
The "like a son of man" quote that John uses comes from the book of Daniel and refers to the dream that he had (see Daniel 7). John begins to describe Jesus and we notice the golden sash which symbolizes royalty.
We also see that Jesus wears a full-length robe which is what the high priests wore in the Old Testament times. We are reminded of the fact that only the high priest was able to make atonement for the sins of the people.
"His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and out of his mouth came a sharp double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance." NIV translation
John describes Jesus' head and hair as being white which usually symbolizes purity. A pure mind is one that is constantly focused on God and the things of His kingdom. The eyes are described as like a blazing fire. We should remember that fire is used to symbolize refining (removing impurities from something). This can help us to remember that Jesus sees the real us and not what others may see and think. In the end, what will matter is if Jesus sees us as one of his sheep or not (whether we have been refined by him or not). The next two verses give us a picture of the power of Jesus and a reminder of the very glory of God.
Revelation 1:17 & 18
"When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said: 'Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.'" NIV translation
John's reaction to seeing Jesus is very simple as he fell at his feet in worship and could not speak. Then, Jesus spoke to him and eased his fear as well as reminding John of his resurrection.
You see, if we are Jesus' disciples, we do not have to be afraid as he says that he has the keys to death and hell. This revelation is not given to scare us but to prepare us for the coming of our Lord and Savior. We can rejoice that Jesus has overcome death for us!
Revelation 1:19 & 20
"'Write, therefore, what you have seen, what is now and what will take place later. The mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand and of the seven golden lampstands is this: The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.'" NIV translation
This is still Jesus talking to John and he tells him to write this book. Jesus explained that some of the things that John was shown were happening at that time in the early church while other things are yet to come. There are some people who do not believe that the things described later in this book are yet to come but here Jesus is telling John that some will take place later.
Then, Jesus explains the meaning of the seven stars and seven lampstands. We must also continue to remember that the number seven stands for complete and Jesus is referring to all of the church and not just the seven churches listed in the next chapters.