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

John the Apostle on Patmos by Jacopo Vignali

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?


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.”


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


  1. Excellent post! Reading Revelation is what got me saved. My believing friends kept encouraging me to read the Gospel of John, but the Holy Spirit sent me straight to Revelation. It was the first book of the Bible I read, and the one that led to my salvation.


  2. I think most of the problem is that it's not taught, I don't remember Revelation ever being taught in sunday school, bible study or from the pulpit. However in September the Bible Study Fellowship is studying Revelation for the first time ever. BSF is an international, interdenominational Bible study. Every BSF class studies the same thing at the same time, which is going to be interesting. I would like to sit in on the kids class to see how revelation is taught to the youngsters.

  3. I especially like point #3. It seems obvious, now that you have said it, but I'd never thought of it that way before!


  4. Tbh, Revelation is pretty straightforward, even if you read it with wooden literalism (meaning that you see the symbolism as being literal), as I initially did when I was 11 or 12. I certainly didn't make much sense of it, but I definitely remembered the parts that I read. At such a young age, it would actually have been the books of Leviticus-Deuteronomy that were the most confusing, because it's difficult to understand why they emphasize religious ritual and genealogies so much. Only when you appreciate the significance of symbolism (Matthew Henry's commentary was pivotal to help me realize that many of the Mosaic Law's aspects were intended to be typographical of the salvation to come in Jesus Christ) and the importance of keeping track of lineages (since there were various promises made to, or prophecies made about, the descendants of Abraham, of Judah, and of David, it was important to be able to prove that such and such a person really was a descendant of Judah or David (e.g. the Messiah)), then you begin to understand the otherwise seemingly confusing subject matter.

    It's like that with much of the book of Isaiah (and others) if you don't understand who the different countries are that are being named, or what the historical background is. But the bottom line is that it's only difficult to understand because of one's ignorance. Further study will always elucidate why God's pronouncing judgments on Egypt, Assyria, etc.

    If something that is perfect is hard to understand, then the flaw must not lie with its presentation, but with your own reasoning. So we should seek to find what the root of our misunderstanding is, and change our mind about it. If only more people held that attitude when approaching Scripture.

  5. I've always had a hard time with the 7 assemblies. It seems like such a Jewish book. There seems to be no mention of grace as far as the assemblies go and the message seems to be what the OT said about having ears to hear. I thought that believers were already over comers.
    Then I thought maybe it was to the assemblies in the Tribulation since the letters seem to cover Jewish history.
    I've read several commentaries but just can't quite figure it out. I understand the rest of it, though.
    I'm sure it's just me......

    1. Pam, what are the "7 assemblies"?

    2. If I can offer a few possible helps to your questions or concerns?

      --There ar enot many mentions of grace becuase Revelation is prophesied to take place post the age of Grace. Though the Lord has som commendations for some of the churches, especially Smyrna and Philadephia, when the rapture happens, the age of grace concludes and His long stored-up wrath is unleashed in whole, untempered fury

      --Believers are overcomers, but there are different kinds of believers, each living in a different age with different futures ahead. OT saints will inherit the Millennial kingdom, the time when Jesus promised He would rule among them and they dwell safely in their land. Believers of the church age will inherit New Jerusalem and rule and reign with Jesus forever as kings and priests. Tribulation saints, the ones mentioned in Revelation, will serve the Messiah night and day int he temple, but not as priests. Rev. 7:15-17

      -the letters to 7 churches were actual letters to actual churches in the cities and areas so named. Some of these churches were started by Paul, and he ministered in and to many of them either personally or via letter or designated overseer.
      --Calvin's commentary on what ears to hear means: "He that hath ears to hear, let him hear. These words were intended partly to show that all were not endued with true understanding to comprehend what he said, and partly to arouse his disciples to consider attentively that doctrine which is not readily and easily understood by all. Indeed, he makes a distinction among the hearers, by pronouncing some to have ears, and others to be deaf. If it is next inquired, how it comes to pass that the former have ears, Scripture testifies in other passages, that it is the Lord who pierces the ears, (Psalm 40:7,)and that no man obtains or accomplishes this by his own industry."

      does any of this help?

    3. Rereading your response here!
      I get it! There are wheat and chaff in every church and those who are the chosen hear and do what is talked about in the letters and they ARE the overcomers. Those who can't hear don't. The Spirit determines who hears.
      And I agree that having come out of Judaism these would be examples of the past. That's why I thought it sounded Jewish and was to Israel.
      I think I've got it!!!
      Thanks, Elizabeth!
      Hope I just made sense. Hard to do these things in a text and make sense sometimes.

  6. The word church is ecclesia and translates assembly.

  7. Have studied revelation quite a few times and have read good commentaries and have studied the Bible for 25 years. I just get stuck on that. Of course, I know the traditional view but wonder if, since we won't be here during the tribulation, if it could be for the learning of those who that time frame relates to. Just a thought. And you know I read and listen a lot to john MacArthur so I'm in line with what is traditional pre-trib, pre-mill.
    Oh well, it doesn't really matter and one day I'll know, right?

    1. Anonymous, what do you get stuck on?

    2. The letters to the seven churches sound like they are written to Israel.
      I can't reconcile them with the Body ofChrist. I thought we were already overcomers.
      I read E.W. Bullingers commentary on Revelation and he had some interesting things to say about who the 7 churches were.
      I know he is controversial but it made a lot of sense.
      Thanks for the help.
      By the way that was also my comment above.

    3. Pam, it doesn't matter what they "sound like" to you. The plain text states they are written to the churches, which are named. (Rev 1:4, 1:11).

      If you choose to listen to an iffy and controversial writer who over the plain text of the Bible, you have more concerns to worry about than thinking the churches are Israel... Sorry.

    4. Elizabeth,
      Nothing to be sorry for. And I am looking at plain text of the Bible, not listening to one person. Just trying to understand why things like worshipping Balaam, tolerating Jezebel etc. would be things that the true church would be doing. Maybe it is the description of the wheat and tares before the Rapture. I don't know. I'm staunchly against replacement theology so not saying church is Israel.
      I think you have misunderstood me.

    5. I think you were clear in saying the letters were intended for Israel and this confused you.

      I DO listen to one person: Jesus.

      The Balaam and Jezebel mentioned are references to OT figures. Just as elsewhere in the NT the Sodom is mentioned, like the ark, the Exodus...does not mean the letters are sent to first century synagogues or are intended for Israel. Revelation was sent to Age of Grace, New Testament, believing churches.

      These mentions are references to types, and it is fairly clear that this is what is meant. For example Balaam is mentioned three times in the NT, 2 Peter, Jude and Revelation. None of these three references are specifically mentioning an actual, living Balaam at that time, but referring back either to history or as an example. As a matter of fact, since scripture explains scripture,

      For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. Romans 15:4

      Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. 1 Cor 10:11

      So the Jezebel and Balaam and other OT mentions are hearkening back to raise the memory of these things as an example to the churches, many of whom were still emerging from Judaism and would know what Jesus was referring to and the lesson to be gained from these past examples.

      My advice to you, if you will receive it, is to first let scripture interpret scripture as I showed in one example above, let the Spirit knit an understanding of the book of Revelation in your mind by prayer and being receptive to Him, and then find a cache of trustworthy commenters you can trust and use them too. I recommend John MacArthur, S. Lewis Johnson, and John Gill.

      James 1:5 says, If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.

      The Holy Spirit will untangle the spaghetti understanding you have in mind at present, and clear it up, as seen in the James verse. It is His delight to do so because this will give you a clearer picture of Jesus, and this is the Spirit's ministry.

      Good luck!

    6. Rereading john MacArthur right now! Have read the others as well.
      Thanks for the insight!

  8. I loved what our Pastor says when teaching through Revelation, " The book of revelation is not a hard book to understand, it comes with its own Devine outline Chapter 1 vs 19 " record the things that were, that are and are to come.... chapter 1 what John has seen, the vision of Jesus, chpt 2-3 the letters to the churches, what are, cht 5-20 God's wrath poured out upon a sinful, Christ rejecting world. worldCpt 21&22 And they all live happily ever after... OKAY! I know, that's not a bible study, =) but I can almost memorized that little saying (I'm sure I don't have it spot on) and it reminds me that there IS a clear flow to the whole book. Mac Arthur did not that chpt 1 vs 19 is like an out line of the whole book.. see study bible notes, anyway, great list EP. We all should read and get to know this book! (BTW I didn't leave out chpt 4, which can be constued as an interlude that shows the rapture, before judgement, but I'm not sure if that... ) best!! Barbara L

  9. I'm not sure anyone can understand Revelation without a good basic knowledge of the Old Testament.

    Craig Giddens


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