Is Revelation the most difficult book in the Bible to understand?

John the Apostle on Patmos by Jacopo Vignali

No.

The Book of Revelation is not the most difficult book in the Bible to understand.

Is it possible to be dogmatic about this? So certain?

Yes.

First, some background. The Book of Revelation is the last book in the Bible. Chronologically it’s the last book as well because it is devoted almost exclusively of what is to come at the end of time. It is also the last book to be written, being finished by about 96AD by the last of the eyewitness Apostles to have walked with Jesus: John son of Zebedee, the Beloved Apostle. John had been exiled to the rocky, barren isle of Patmos off Greece,

“I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus, (Revelation 1:9).

He had come onto the bad side of Emperor Domitian for the word of God, and the Emperor had exiled John, a common punishment.

Patmos is part of the Greek chain, sitting in the Aegean Sea but closer to Turkey than Greece. It is small, just 7.5 miles tall by 6 miles wide. Today, Forbes magazine voted Patmos as “Europe’s Most Idyllic Places To Live.” Back in 96AD it was barren, rocky, treeless, and hot.

John was an old man by 96AD. Perhaps he had thought his usefulness to the Lord was concluded. Perhaps he wondered why he had been kept alive long after his fellow disciples had been privileged to die a martyr’s death. And then one Lord’s day when John was in prayer and reverie, Jesus spoke to him.

Just as Paul said in 2 Corinthians 12:2 that he was caught up to the third heaven but whether in the body or out of the body he knows not. John described the circumstances of his surroundings and activities upon receiving the visions, said he was in the Spirit, but then simply begins to record when he was given to see without saying if he was actually in heaven or how he it was possible to hear Jesus and see these things.

What amazing, wonderful and terrible things John was given to see. Daniel was given a vision of the end and afterward he was sick many days. (Daniel 8:27). John concludes chapter 1 with a description of Jesus, the appearance of whom caused John to fall at his feet as though dead. So did Daniel (Dan 8:18).

Chapter two and three encompass personal messages Jesus wanted John to write and send to the 7 churches of Asia (Province of Rome, not the entire continent). These were Pergamum, Thyatira, Philadelphia, Smyrna, Sardis, Laodicea, Ephesus.

Wikipedia summarizes the flow of these early chapters in Revelation,

The letters follow a common pattern. For example: the Lord first addresses each church and identifies himself, then defines things that he knows about the church in question. After this a challenge or reproach is given, followed by a promise. In all seven cases the admonition is included, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches”, although sometimes this comes before the promise and sometimes after.

What is interesting, and what would require study, is how Jesus identified Himself to each church. In one He says He is the Amen, to another, the Holy One, to another, the One who walks among the 7 lampstands, to another Him who has the sharp two-edged sword. It would take study, prayer, and thought to determine why Jesus identified Himself in these unique ways to certain churches and why this name matched the message He gave them. But that is regular Bible study, just like in any other book of the Bible. Revelation chapter 4 has John receiving a vision of heaven! This includes seeing those majestic, strange creatures with six wings and four faces and eyes all around. That’s deep! Yet Isaiah and Ezekiel also saw the throne room, these creatures, the rainbow, and flashes of fire and peals of thunder as John did We can compare those prophets’ previous texts and John’s text so scripture can interpret scripture. Just like we do for any book. Though the creatures are strange and the throne of God awesome in the word’s truest sense, these things are hard to comprehend, but not especially difficult to interpret. Especially when there are two other texts to help us.

Patmos. Wikimedia Commons

So why do people say Revelation is hard? Marginalize it? Ignore it? Dismiss it?

In his sermon “How to Study Your Bible” John MacArthur writes,

Perhaps if we asked people who have some familiarity with the Bible, “What would be the most difficult book in the Bible? What would be the hardest book of the Bible to understand?” they would probably say Revelation. Probably most people would say that the book of Revelation is hard to understand. I know many preachers, who throughout the life of their ministry, would never preach on the book of Revelation because they don’t think they can understand it. And that’s because they have abandoned the proper hermeneutics to interpret it. Because if they interpret it with the right hermeneutics they have to interpret it literally, and if they interpret it literally it goes against their historic theology. And they really don’t want to do that so they just don’t know what to do with the book of Revelation and they leave it out.

Actually, in my opinion, the book of Zechariah is theologically dense, and pound for pound contains more prophecy and symbolism than Revelation does. Revelation is pretty clear. MacArthur again:

Now I believe that the book of Revelation can be understood. It can be understood if you just read it; it’s very clear what it says. It’s only when people get mystical about it that it becomes confusing. Obviously there are some elements of the prophecies there that we will never understand until they actually come to pass, but that’s true of all prophecy. But the message of the book, exalting Jesus Christ, speaking about the glorification of the saints and the judgment of the ungodly is very clear in the book of Revelation.

I’d opened with a dogmatic statement that the book of Revelation can be understood, at least as much as any other book of the bible and as much as any prophecy can be before it is fulfilled. I say this for two reasons.

Reason #1: The book is called The revelation. Revealed. It is not the book of Confusion. It isn’t the book of Mystery. It isn’t called The Really Hard Book We Should Stay Away From. The first line in the book, Revelation 1:1, says

The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place.

Jesus chose to reveal things, for the purpose of showing us. Rather than being cloaked in mystery, the statement about itself is one of understanding.

Reason #2: “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near.” (Revelation 1:3)

It is the only book of the Bible in which His servants are promised a blessing just for reading it. THAT is how important this book is to Jesus, and thus to all of us. He did not choose to reveal, to show, and to bless, and then do a takes-back by cloaking it in mystery, hide, and curse.

Now, in one sense, of course the entire bible is the revelation of Jesus Christ. Matthew Henry says in his commentary,

This book is the Revelation of Jesus Christ; the whole Bible is so; for all revelation comes through Christ, and all relates to him. Its principal subject is to discover the purposes of God concerning the affairs of the church, and of the nations as connected therewith, to the end of the world. … This blessing seems to be pronounced with a design to encourage us to study this book, and not be weary of looking into it upon account of the obscurity of many things in it; it will repay the labour of the careful and attentive reader.

Reason #3: If Revelation is the only book in which the reader will receive a blessing for reading, what is the one book satan is going to concentrate on getting us NOT to read? Of course. He has done a good job in getting Seminary Professors not to teach it, and a generation of pastors coming up have not learned it well. Satan has spent a good deal of time getting pastors, teachers, and lay people to doubt their ability to understand it. That old serpent has done a good job of clouding our judgment when it comes to the Book of Revelation. The devil has been successful in getting to see this book almost as a curse, not a blessing. So reason #3 in which we can say with certainty is that we are not unaware of the devil’s schemes (2 Corinthians 2:11).

With that encouragement, I do encourage you to read Revelation, study it, enjoy it. It is magnificent book, relating to us the things of our end, the final state of this present age. Eden will be restored! The Holy City will have none to defile it! Wow! Blessing is pronounced, not just the one in chapter 1 but another in chapter 22:7

“And behold, I am coming soon. Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book.”

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Further Reading

Overview: The Book of Revelation, Got Questions?

Book: Because the Time is Near, by John MacArthur

Sermon: The Revelation of Jesus Christ, S. Lewis Johnson