HOW TO UNDERSTAND THE BOOK OF REVELATION
To understand Revelation one must read it. One will not understand it if he does not read it. What a meaningless, senseless thing it is to try to understand it without reading it. Nevertheless, this is what many Christians do! If one of them is asked, "Why don’t you read Revelation?"—the answer is: "Because I don’t understand it." How absurd! Does one understand it first and then read it? May the Lord give us more patience to read His Word and not give up the Word of God because of difficulties we may encounter, thus causing us to miss much blessing. Whoever reads Revelation should not use his own mental capacities. You must be prayerful, humble, and willing to receive the enlightening of the Holy Spirit. When the light of the Holy Spirit comes, you will instantaneously realize things that you could not have understood for years. However, those who read Revelation must have a pure motive. They should not try to read it out of a curious desire to know the future. You should read it because you want to understand more about God’s Word, to obey God’s will, and to receive from His Word what He intends to give us. If you want to understand Revelation only to satisfy your curiosity, God will not bless your reading and it will not benefit your spiritual life at all. As I see it, for you to understand Revelation, the first thing you must do is to read it thoroughly. Begin reading one chapter after another. Read until you can describe, after closing the book, what is in each chapter. Then read the verses in detail. Memorize the verses that you think are important. You should use all sorts of methods to study the book until you are thoroughly familiar with it, forward and backward, up and down. Once a person becomes thoroughly familiar with the content of Revelation, the Holy Spirit will be able to instruct him through his familiarity. When one studies this book thoroughly, the natural divisions will surely become apparent to him. He will know exactly how the book is structured, which parts constitute the main narration and which parts are parenthetical. He should connect the various parts of the main narrative in chronological order and should pay attention to the relationships between the parentheses and the main narrative. If one reads each verse carefully, he will see what things this book has explicitly explained and what things it only gives a hint of. Those things that are explained clearly will, of course, present no problems. For those things not fully explained, one will need to take notes so that he can compare them to the other parts of the Bible. As the conclusion of the whole Bible, Revelation gathers all the incomplete parts of the preceding books and concludes them. This being the case, one should examine all the previous books of the Bible to find out the connection between them and the book of Revelation. When we expound the Bible with the Bible in this way, we will have an accurate explanation and understanding of it. Our study of the Bible, however, must not be just for the gaining of knowledge but for the nourishment of our spiritual life. Therefore, in all those portions that we understand, we should seek the leading of the Holy Spirit to open up the spiritual significance of these passages to us so that we may receive the help.
THE TIME OF REVELATION
It is a great and crucial matter to know when the book of Revelation was written. Some theoretical teachers believe Revelation was written a long time ago, around the time of Nero’s reign. They set this as the time to support their idea. In their opinion, the solemn declarations in Revelation were completely fulfilled by the time of the burning of Rome. They think that Revelation did nothing more than to prophesy about the ancient Christians’ persecutions, the fall of Jerusalem, and other events taking place at that time. They saw the prophecy of the beast or Antichrist as referring only to the cruelty of Emperor Nero and all his evil deeds. According to their interpretation, the whole book of Revelation revealed the events taking place at the time of Nero and can therefore only be a book on fulfilled prophecy, which is of no spiritual benefit to us as Christians. It would thus become a particular book on Roman history or a history book of the ancient church. If this were the case, Revelation would be a meaningless book. Hence, we have to find out when Revelation was actually written so that we will have the ground to say whether or not their concept was right.
I myself believe that Revelation was written between A.D. 95 and 96, during the second half of the reign of Domitian, the last of the twelve Caesars. Most conservative contemporary Bible interpreters hold the same view as I do. I will now give you some evidence for your study.
The fact that Revelation was written during the time of Domitian can be seen from two kinds of evidence: external and internal. Let us discuss the external evidence first. Secular writers between the first and the third century admitted that it was near the end of the reign of Domitian when the apostle John was exiled to the island of Patmos and wrote Revelation. In other words, it was written around A.D. 95 to 96.
The apostle John had a disciple named Polycarp, who in turn had a disciple named Irenaeus. Irenaeus was, therefore, a disciple of John according to a direct lineage. Concerning the closing years of John’s life, he must have known more than any others and what he made known should be more reliable. Mr. G. H. Pember said, "When he [Irenaeus] mentioned the name of Antichrist or Titus he specifically testified as follows: `Regarding this matter we dare not be so definite as to say that he must have this name without the risk of error. Because if his name is to be announced now the one who saw the revelation [John] would have mentioned it, for the revelation was seen not long ago, but almost in our own age, at the end of the reign of Domitian.’"
Tertullian, contemporary of Irenaeus, said, "Blessed is the church upon which the apostles poured out all the truth and their blood. There Peter suffered as his Lord did; there Paul and John [the Baptist] died in the same way and gained the crown; there the apostle John was plunged into a cauldron of boiling oil, and, unhurt by this, was banished to an island." These few words tell us two facts: (1) John had been exiled, and (2) the place to which he was exiled was an island. After Tertullian mentioned the persecution of Nero, he said, "Domitian, too, a man of Nero’s type in cruelty, tried his hand at persecution; but as he had something of the human in him, he soon put an end to what he had begun, even restoring again those whom he had banished." Domitian’s method of persecuting Christians was by banishment; whereas Nero’s method was by killing. This is what history tells us.
(Collected Works of Watchman Nee, The (Set 1) Vol. 03, The Christian (1), Chapter 9, by Watchman Nee)