I remember reading the book of Revelation for the first time when I was in seventh grade. The weird imagery just didn't seem to make any sense. Until I read some stuff my Hal Lindsey and the Left Behind series. I allowed them to dictate my understand of Revelation for years. I figured it took a mind greater than mine to understand what this book meant and what it was saying, so I allowed someone else to interpret Revelation for me. However, things have changed in recent years. I discovered that Revelation was not meant for the few to interpret for others, but for everyone to understand upon their reading it. John wrote to the masses and they understood what he was saying. They didn't need to rely on a few who had it all figured out.
So, what's the key to understanding Revelation? Genre. Genre is rarely mentioned in most modern commentaries on Revelation, but it is THE key in understanding the text. John's contemporaries would have understood this, and therefore would have understood what the book of Revelation meant.
The genre of Revelation is apocalypse. Apocalypses were common throughout the ancient world. There were both Jewish and Christian Apocalypses that John's audience was familiar with, including: Daniel 7-12, 1 Enoch, Ascention of Isaiah, the War Scroll, the Sibilene Oracles, the Shepard of Hermas, and others. John drew on imagery from these apocalypses in Revelation, but he is addressing different issues than these other works. In other words, John uses the symbols in these apocalypses, but he is not talking about he same things they are.
Revelation CANNOT be read literally, because it is an apocalypse. Apocalypses are, by definition, works made up of symbolic meaning. But how are we supposed to interpret these symbols? Well, John clearly means for his audience to understand what he's written: so he either explains what the symbols mean (7 lampstands = 7 churches) or he assumes he audience will understand the symbols based on their knowledge of these other apocalypses. We are not simply to make up the meaning of these symbols out of thin air. If read in context with other ancient apocalypses, Revelation's symbols are no longer mysterious. I am not "spiritualizing" Revelation by reading it symbolically, as some have charged. Reading Revelation symbolically is doing what the genre demands, if we are to understand it. John was clearly aware he was writing in the Apocalyptic tradition (1.1). And in writing an apocalypse, John wrote symbolically.
When read in the light of other apocalypses, Revelation is not a book of hidden meaning, it is a call for Christians to resist assimilation into a larger pagan culture and remain faithful to only God.
Also in this series
THE NATURE OF PROPHECY