The Director’s cut of a movie is a feature that shows us how some of the scenes were shot, how special effects were produced or perhaps what the director had in mind for a particular scene. I love it. I love to see behind-the-scenes, as it were, in these things.
I’ve come to believe that the Book of Revelation is a Director’s cut of the future. It goes behind-the-scenes and shows us that human history isn’t just a jumbled chaos, but that there is purpose and direction behind it, even the worst of it, cf. 17:17. To me, this is a great comfort, especially as I look around and see the things going on in our society, things just a few years ago that would have been thought unimaginable.
Granted, there is a lot of difficulty and speculation involved in the study of this book. And many don’t think that prophecy is a worthy study, not a “fundamental of the faith.” And it’s true that it’s not a matter of “salvation.” At the same time, prophecy takes up a large portion of the Bible. If we believe in the authority and inspiration of Scripture, then we have an obligation to study that part of the Bible as well as the other parts.
Generally speaking, Revelation isn’t taught or studied in churches, except perhaps for a few verses or a topic or two, but one of the last things the Lord told John as He was finishing giving him the book was, “I, Jesus, have sent My angel to testify to you these things in the churches,” Revelation 22:16. I think He meant for us to know what “these things” are.
1. Importance of the Book.
Beside the fact that the Book comes to us from God, which, in itself, makes the Book important, there are some other things as well.
a. It’s the only book in the New Testament devoted to prophecy. Almost every other book in the New Testament has elements of prophecy, but Revelation is the only book called “a prophecy,” 1:3; 22:7, 10, 18, 19.
b. It’s necessary to complete Paul’s 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.
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 pay attention to, but “to watch over,” “to guard.” It’s the word used of the soldiers who “kept guard” over the tomb of Jesus. It says to me that there is supposed to be more than the casual attitude many professing Christians have, not only to this book, but to all Scripture.
e. It ends with 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, 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 not to be sensationalized, trivialized or minimized.
2. Interpretation of the book.
There are four basic approaches to interpreting Revelation.
According to this view, all the Revelation, except possibly the last two chapters, were fulfilled during the early history of the church, although there are some who believe that even they have been fulfilled. Preterists call the book “A Tract for Troubled Times,” teaching the early believers to hold fast during the troubles they were facing, and would face, and encouraging them that these trials were not to be permanent.
This view teaches that Revelation is continuously fulfilled through the Church age. The various things and events in the books, such as seals, trumpets, bowls, etc., don’t refer to specific happenings, but to “principles” or “processes” at work throughout history.
c. Allegorical or Spiritualizing.
This view says that, using symbols, Revelation portrays the ongoing conflict between good and evil. John is said not to have expected a “literal” fulfillment of his words. We’re not supposed to, either.
We want to deal with this view a little more than the others because it has had such an impact on Church history and on current views of The Revelation.
One author wrote,
“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 other than their ordinary connotations….”
(William M. Ramsey, The Letters to the Seven Churches, p. 111.)
Then he goes on 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).
The allegorical method had its roots in the ancient Greek culture of Alexandria. It arose as the result of the dilemma the Alexandrian Greeks faced in seeing the differences between their philosophical heritage and the often grotesque and immoral stories about their gods. They resolved this dilemma by treating the religious stories allegorically, that is, as not literally true, but as merely illustrating various virtues or as describing the struggle between good and evil.
The Alexandrian Jew had the same difficulty. Raised with the Mosaic viewpoint, he was surrounded by the great Greek philosophical tradition. Instead of holding faithfully to Moses, he did as the Alexandrian Greek had done before him, allegorizing Moses and interpreting Plato literally, thus making Moses teach the philosophy of Plato.
The best known advocates of the allegorical method in the early church were Clement of Alexandria and Origen:
They applied it generally in the interpretation of Scripture. They applied it even more readily in this instance [that is, in the interpretation of 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 of the book were deprived of any prophetic meaning, thus becoming 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 in 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, emphasis added.)
With regard to Ramsey’s statement above, I can’t think of a more “dangerous” way to interpret any Scripture than to say that it has to be “understood as implying something else than [its] ordinary connotations”! To be sure, interpreting prophecy can be difficult, but in Scripture, prophecy is about predicting events, things which must…come to pass, not just laying down “principles.” After all, if God didn’t mean what He said, why didn’t He say what He meant?
And perhaps it’s still true that the main bone of contention for the allegorist today, as it was with Clement and Origen centuries ago, is how to deal with the “1000 years” of Revelation 20.
d. The Futurist View.
As the name implies, this view holds that most of Revelation is future, even to our own time. Futurists accept Revelation to employ language generally to be understood literally. They don’t deny the use of symbols; they do deny that everything is symbolic, or that these symbols don’t teach actual, literal truth or portray actual events.
Premillennialism, which is what the debate is really all about, is accused of being of recent origin in 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 their view did differ in some details from the modern view. 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 not have happened, 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 rule 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, emphasis added).
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 declared 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 [common, ordinary] 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, emphasis added).
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 Revelation. And Luther said, “My spirit cannot adjust itself to this book.”
Reformed scholars today, though willing to expound Revelation, have about the same attitude toward premillennialists as their ancestors had toward chiliasm. 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.
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, and no one has ever successfully given the date on which the Lord will return, people still insist on “setting dates”. And there are ministries devoted, it seems like, every time someone sneezes in the Middle East, to rushing to Daniel and Revelation to see what prophecies were fulfilled. History is littered with the wreckage of such attempts.
Nevertheless, we believe the futurist interpretation is the only one which makes sense of the intent God had when He gave us this book.
Now, no doubt, for those who received it originally, it was indeed “a tract for troubled times.” It comforted and encouraged them. It gave them hope and assurance. But we believe that The Revelation is also “a testimony for terminal times”. That is, when the end times do come, whether in our lifetimes or centuries from now, 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. Amen, Revelation 22:20.