As I began this post, I intended to make it a two-post series. With all the discussion of the Revelation, I knew that two posts wouldn’t be enough really to understand the book, if that’s even possible before it’s all over and done with. I just wanted to lay a basic foundation. The first post was to be about the importance of the book and its interpretation. The second post was to be an overview of the contents of the book. The more I thought about it, though, and even wrote, the more I realized that I had two choices for the outline of the book. I could just give a bare outline of the book, sort of like its skeleton, but I don’t know that that would really say much about the book. In order to do any kind of justice to the subject, I needed more than that. For me, that would probably wind up being several thousands of words. For the time being, I’ve decided just to do the first post on how to interpret the book. I have done a couple other posts on the first chapters of the book. I am thinking tentatively of a series on the seven churches. There’s a lot there. For the rest, there’s really a lot there. I may or may not jump in.
I. The Importance of the Book.
A. It’s the only prophetic book in the New Testament. Nearly every other book in the New Testament has elements of prophecy, but Revelation is the only book called “a prophecy,” 1:3; 10:11; 22:7, 10, 18, 19, the climax of which will be the second coming of Christ, 1:7; 3:11; 16:15; 19:11; 22:7, 12, 20.
B. It’s necessary to complete the revelation of Pauline eschatology. Paul revealed many prophetic truths – the Revelation puts them all into perspective. Indeed, Revelation is the capstone of all Biblical prophecy.
C. It fully reveals Christ’s present relationship to His churches and His prospective relationship to the world. It’s the fulfillment of Philippians 2:9-11 and is the answer to the question in 1 Peter 4:17, 18.
D. It’s the only NT book in which is given a blessing for the fulfilling of our responsibilities toward it, 1:3; 22:7. This responsibility is three-fold: to read, to hear, and to keep. The Greek word translated, “keep,” doesn’t mean simply to possess, but in the words of Newell,
“Now the sense of the word ‘keep’ is its primary one of ‘watching over,’ ‘guarding as a treasure,’ as well as its secondary one, ‘to give heed to.” We cannot ‘keep’ a prophecy as men might ‘observe’ a law. The prophecy will be fulfilled whether we pay attention to it or not. But there is divine blessing if we give heed to it and jealously guard its very words!” (Revelation, p. 7, emphasis his.)
There are several Scriptures which build on the foundation of prophetic insight in their teachings as to is to be what our outlook on this present evil world, Galatians 1:4. Two of the more notable ones are 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10 and 2 Peter 3:11-14.
1 Thessalonians tells us that the Christian life is to be one of activity and anticipation. This “activity” is two-fold, to turn from idols and to serve the living and true God. Many rejoice in the fact, at least to their own minds, that they have fulfilled the first of these, that is, they “don’t drink or chew or have friends who do,” but fail to realize that the other side of the coin, as it were, is “serving the living and true God.” As Paul put it, presenting their bodies as living sacrifices to the Lord, Romans 12:1, 2..
The coupling of activity and anticipation also shows us what is to be our attitude toward the coming of the Lord. We’re not, as some have, to quit our jobs, sell all our possessions, put on white sheets, and go to live on a mountaintop, waiting for the Lord to come and pick us up. No, no, while waiting for Him, we’re to be productive in the things of God, leaving the fulfilling of His purpose to Him. We’ll have more to say about this shortly.
2 Peter also tells us what is to be our attitude in this life. It is to be, “as then, so now.” In other words, many Christians seem to have the attitude that, since we’ll be perfect only in heaven, there’s little need to be concerned about it before we get there. It is true that perfect and complete holiness won’t be ours until we get to heaven, but it is also true that God begins the work before we get there. He begins it in this life, as soon as we’re converted. Heaven will, as it were, reveal the unveiling of His masterpiece, but He begins the work in this life. The things that happen to us now are His brushstrokes as He makes us into the likeness of His Son.
The eternal world is described by Peter as one in which righteousness dwells, 2 Peter 3:13. There are two thoughts in this. First, there is “permanence.” Righteousness is very fleeting on this earth and is often covered up or done away with. Not so in eternity. Second, “dwells” carries the idea of “being at home.” Sin and evil are at home in this world, righteousness is often viewed as an unwelcome intruder. Not so in eternity. Therefore, wrote Peter, we’re to strive to be holy in this life, 2 Peter 3:11, 14. “Holiness” isn’t about some “experience,” or about belonging to a particular denomination or group. True Biblical holiness is about conformity to the will of God. It’s the demonstration of the character of God in the life of the believer. Imperfectly, to be sure, but something longed for by those who know the true God.
In 2 Peter 3:12, Peter tells us we’re also to be hasting unto the coming of the day of God. This doesn’t mean that we can do something to hasten it, or that we can delay it, for that matter, but rather that we’re eagerly to wait for it and to look forward to it, as a young child might to a promised treat, or on a long journey, wanting to know, “Are we there yet?”
This doesn’t mean that we’re supposed to set dates or anything foolish like that, but to realize, and to wish, that today might be the day when the Lord returns.
D. It’s the only NT book which includes a curse against those who tamper with its contents! For I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds to these things, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the Book of Life, from the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book, Revelation 22:18, 19.
Regardless of what one thinks about what these verses mean, or even what the book itself means, it’s a serious thing to approach the book with anything but the utmost reverence and respect. God will not have His Word to be meddled with, mocked, or misused! It’s neither to be sensationalized nor minimized.
II. Interpretation of the Book
It’s said that Satan especially hates three books of the Bible: Genesis, because it records God’s denunciation of him, Deuteronomy, because the Lord Jesus defeated him with it during Satan’s testings of Him in the wilderness, and Revelation, because it reveals his ultimate defeat and eternal doom.
This may or may not be true, but it’s certain that he has caused a great deal of controversy over how to interpret the book. Generally speaking, there are four main schools of thought about this.
According to this view, all the Revelation was fulfilled, except possibly the last two chapters, during the early history of the church. There are those who hold that even they have been fulfilled. Preterists believe the book to be, “A Tract for Troubled Times,” instructing the early believers to hold fast during the troubles they were facing, and would face, and encouraging them that these troubles would not be permanent.
This view teaches that all Revelation has a continuous fulfillment throughout the Christian era. In other words, the various things in the book, such as seals, trumpets, bowls, etc., don’t refer to specific events or details, but “to principles that are operating throughout the new dispensation,” (Wm. Hendriksen, More Than Conquerors, p. 54.) Thus we can understand the expression “a huge mountain all ablaze” that was “hurled into the sea,” as representing all maritime disasters happening during this age.
C. Allegorical or Spiritualizing.
According to this view, Revelation portrays through symbol the conflict between good and evil. John is said not to have expected a literal fulfillment of his words. We’re not supposed to, either. Wm. Ramsay states the following:
“In the figurative or symbolic language of the Apocalypse hardly anything is called by its ordinary and direct name, but things are indirectly alluded to under some other name, and words have to be understood as implying something else than their ordinary connotations….” (The Letters to the Seven Churches, p. 111.)
Then he goes so far as to assert that “the most dangerous kind of error that can be made about the Apocalypse is to regard it as a literal statement and prediction of events,” p.112.
We want to deal with this view a little more than with the others because it has had such an impact on Church history and on current views of The Revelation.
The allegorical method had its roots in the ancient Greek culture of Alexandria. It arose as the result of a dilemma the Alexandrian Greeks faced in reconciling the difference between their philosophical heritage and the often immoral and grotesque stories about their gods. This dilemma was resolved by treating the religious stories allegorically, that is, as not literally true, but as merely illustrating the virtues or as describing the struggle between good and evil.
The Alexandrian Jew also had two traditions to reconcile. His religion had come down from Moses and the prophets. Yet, in Alexandria’s cosmopolitan atmosphere, he soon learned of the great Greek philosophical tradition. How could he embrace both? It’s true that we can say that he shouldn’t have. He should have rejected Plato and clung to Moses, but we’re not talking about what should have happened, but about what did happen. The Alexandrian Jew did as the Alexandrian Greek had done before him; he interpreted Plato literally and interpreted Moses allegorically, thus making Moses teach the philosophy of Plato.
Jewish allegorism arose about 160 B.C. and, though not originating with him, was popularized by a Jew named Philo, who believed in the divine origin of Greek philosophy. He taught that every Scripture had both a literal and an allegorical meaning. The literal meaning was for the weak-minded, while the allegorical meaning was for the advanced.
About 180, the allegorical method was advanced in Christian circles by Pantaneus, then by Clement of Alexandria and by Origen,
The allegorical method
“owes its origin to the Alexandrine Fathers Clement and Origen, who applied it generally in the interpretation of Scripture. They applied it even more readily in this instance [the interpretation of The Revelation], as it furnished them with the possibility of denying the millennial reign of Christ, to which they were opposed. By this method all the prophecies in the book are deprived of any prophetic meaning, thus becoming general spiritual principles for the aid and comfort of the Christian in his unceasing fight against evil. This method was adopted by the rationalistic schools as being agreement with their aversion to the prophetic and, consequently, the supernatural character of the content of Scripture.” (George A. Hadjiantoniou, New Testament Introduction, p. 340.)
With regard to Ramsey’s comment above, I don’t think there is any more “dangerous” way to interpret any Scriptures than to say that it has “to be understood as implying something else than [its] ordinary connotations”! Certainly, there are difficulties in interpreting prophecy, but in the Scripture, prophecy is about predicting events, things which must…come to pass, not just laying down “principles.” And in the other Scriptures, if God didn’t mean what He said, why didn’t He say what He meant? That can be applied to prophecy very often, as well, especially in the Old Testament.
Having said that, we understand that “prophecy” sometimes refers simply to the preaching of the Word, without any predictive element. That’s not the case with The Revelation.
4. The Futurist View.
This view holds that most of Revelation is yet future, even to our own time. Futurists accept Revelation to employ language generally to be understood literally. This doesn’t deny the use of symbols; it does deny that everything is symbolic.
Premillennialism, or the doctrine of the Millennium and an earthly kingdom of our Lord, which is what all this is really about, is accused of being of recent origin, the 18th or 19th centuries. This isn’t true. Under the name “chiliasm” (from chilias – “thousand,” Revelation 20), it was the belief of the early church, though there are some differences. In his book, The Millennium, Loraine Boettner claims that this means nothing:
“As far as its presence in the early church is concerned, surely it can be argued with as much reason that it was one of those immature and unscriptural beliefs that flourished before the Church had time to work out the true system of Theology as that its presence at that time is an indication of purity of faith. In any event, so thoroughly did Augustine do his work in refuting it that it practically disappeared for a thousand years as an organized system of thought, and was not seriously put forth again until the time of the Protestant Reformation.” (p. 366.)
There are some interesting things here. The “thousand years” to which he refers from Augustine to the Reformation are known as “The Dark Ages,” a time in which the Scriptures themselves almost disappeared, let alone a difficult subject like prophecy. I believe the adoption of the allegorical method led directly to this dismal time in church and human history. I further believe that the Reformation itself would never have come, humanly speaking, if Luther and Calvin and others hadn’t restored a measure of literalism to their expositions of Scripture.
In his Bondage of the Will, written in 1525 to answer a volume written by the humanist scholar Erasmus on the subject of free-will, Luther had this to say:
“…let this be our conviction: that no “implication” or “figure” may be allowed to exist in any passage of Scripture unless such be required by some obvious feature of the words and the absurdity of their plain sense, as offending against an article of faith. Everywhere we should stick to just the simple, natural meaning of the words, as yielded by the rules of grammar and the habits of speech that God has created among men; for if anyone may devise “implications” and “figures” at his own pleasure, what will all Scripture be but a reed shaken with the wind, and as a sort of chameleon?” (p.192.)
In his commentary on Galatians, written about 1548, explaining Galatians 4:22-31, (the “allegory” of Sarah and Hagar,) Calvin had this to say:
“Again, as the history which he [Paul] quotes appeared to have no bearing on the question, he gives it an allegorical interpretation. But as the apostle declares that these things are “allegorized “(‘allegoroumena’), Origen, and many others with him, have seized the occasion of torturing the Scriptures, in every possible manner, away from the true sense. They concluded that the literal sense is too mean and poor, and that under the outer bark of the letter, there lurk deeper mysteries, which cannot be extracted but by beating out allegories. And this they had no difficulty in accomplishing; for speculations which appear to be ingenious have always been preferred, and always will be preferred by the world to solid doctrine.” (p. 135.)
This doesn’t mean that the Reformers themselves had any use for or agreement with chiliasm. They thought as little of it as had Augustine before them. Calvin classed chiliasts with Origen, no compliment to them. He never did a commentary on The Revelation. And Luther said, “My spirit cannot adjust itself to this book.”
Reformed scholars today, though willing to expound The Revelation, have about the same attitude toward premillennialism as their ancestors had toward chiliasts. I remember reading one author who sneered at such for having only a “Bible college” education, as opposed to those who had spent years studying in seminary. No wonder. If God doesn’t mean what He says, especially about the future, then, no doubt, it would take a considerable amount of “learning” to decipher what He does mean.
And I admit that many of those with whom I might otherwise agree have given them plenty of reason to dislike this viewpoint. In spite of the fact that, even after centuries of trying and failing, no one ever successfully giving the date on which the Lord will return, people will still insist on “setting dates.” History is littered with the wreckage of such attempts.
Nevertheless, we believe that the futurist interpretation is the only one which makes sense of the intent of God in giving us this book. No doubt, for those who received it originally, it was “a tract for troubled times.” But we believe that it is also a “testimony for terminal times.” That is, when the end times do come, the Revelation will testify by the unmistakable fulfillment of its predictions as to the truthfulness and authority of the Word of God, both the written word, and that personified in the Son of God: For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy, Revelation 19:10.
Even so, come, Lord Jesus, Revelation 22:20.