How Should We Read Revelation?
To begin with, I acknowledge (and would encourage others to acknowledge) the complexity of Revelation. Amidst the varieties of interpretations, the worst in my mind would be the kind that oversimplifies and overlooks the complexities of Revelation. If we claim to understand every image or symbol without any qualification, then maybe our hubris is preceding our exegesis.
That being said, neither do I think that Revelation is beyond comprehension for the average reader — especially the average reader in the time of the Apostle John. He was not writing a “code book” with codes that could only be deciphered by religious elites in a closed room. Nor was he writing a book that a single individual in the 21st century would “decode” somehow. Neither of those options fit with the biblical version of Christianity that I know, and they sound more like gnosticism than orthodoxy.
Based on those underlying principles, my primary approach to Revelation is to ask, “What was John communicating to his original audience?” before asking, “What does this say about the future?” Of course, the two questions are interrelated, but the if we limit ourselves to future questions, then John’s text would have been nearly useless to his contemporaries. Thus, questions of the “present day” (i.e., John’s day) should remain at the fore as we read what John was saying about the future.
This leads me to read Revelation as thus: How do these texts encourage, correct, or instruct believers in light of John’s vision of the future? Or in other words, how does the apocalypse affect readers in a personal, practical, and proximate way? In answering those questions, I see Revelation as presenting the following argument: Eagerly anticipate the Coming King because certain and decisive victory awaits His faithful ones.
While there are warning passages throughout the book, the overall message is one of confidence and encouragement. No one — not the Jews, not the Romans, not the Babylonians, not Satan himself — can defeat the King of all Kings. By looking to the end, believers can be confident, avoiding temptation and remaining strong in the present age — even in the face of brutal enemies and potential martyrdom.