Interpreting the Book of Revelation — Part 2

If you have not already done so, it is vital to read Part 1 of this Introduction to the coming posts about the Book of Revelation.

Interpreting the Symbolic Language of Revelation

To provide the reader an example of Revelation’s symbolic language, consider Revelation 5:6, which says: “Then I saw standing in the middle of the throne and of the four living creatures, and in the middle of the elders, a Lamb that appeared to have been killed. He had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth.” (Rev. 5:6).

Are we to believe that John saw an actual young sheep on the throne? No, the thoughtful reader knows the Lamb is Jesus, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29b). Notice too that the seven horns are not interpreted by John, but John does explain the seven eyes as representing the “seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth” (Rev. 5:6b). So, we also find that some symbols in Revelation are immediately interpreted by the author and some are not.

Keener describes the first source for interpreting the symbols:

But the clear and primary background against which to read the book’s prophecies, a background shared with other Jewish apocalyptic works, is the Old Testament. Revelation, like the Fourth Gospel, is full of implicit allusions to the Old Testament; indeed, it contains more biblical allusions than any other early Christian work, which some estimate appear in nearly 70 percent of Revelation’s verses.[1]

The Bible shows its God-given authenticity by its self-referential nature. In other words, Scripture is an interlocking whole, and the best source for interpreting a difficult biblical text may be the remainder of God’s revelation.

So, we who sail above the landscape of Revelation are not free to go wherever our imagination takes us; rather we must navigate by the landmarks provided by the Old Testament prophets and the conceptual world of the original readers. Even still, the landscape will not be totally clear to our understanding.

The Intended Effect on Readers

Why would God use so many symbols in communicating this vision to John? While we can only speculate, Osborne cites some convincing arguments from previous scholars: “The symbols have a special communicative function in addressing the social world of the original readers, thus opening up a new symbolic world for them.”[2] Their social world was apparently one of persecution and conflict with an unbelieving society. So, how would a new symbolic world help these early Christians reframe their experiences?

Osborne answers:

The visions guide readers into a [surpassing] reality that takes precedence over the current situation and encourages readers to persevere in the midst of their trials.  The visions reverse normal experience by making the heavenly mysteries the real world and depicting the present crisis as a temporary, illusory situation.[3]

So, God is shaping our thinking through glimpses into his awesome and frightening plans for judging a world in rebellion and replacing it with an amazing new creation designed for those who trust in Jesus Christ, the King of the Ages.

Two Views of the Future

Any discussion of the Apocalypse will bring out some terminology that is familiar to prophecy fanatics and baffling to the uninitiated. Four events are involved: (1) the thousand-year reign of Christ known as the Millennium (Rev. 20:4); (2) the seven-year period known as the Tribulation (Matt. 24:21); (3) the second coming of Christ to the earth (Rev. 19 and Matt. 24:30); and (4) the snatching away of the church to Jesus in an event known as the rapture (1 Thess. 4:16–17).

The first two events may reliably be put in sequence with the tribulation coming before the Millennium; that is the sequence found in both Matthew 24 and Revelation 4–19. The best question to ask next is where to place the second coming of Christ in relation to the tribulation-Millennium pair. Those who place the second coming of Christ before the Millennium and after the tribulation are called premillennialists. This premillennial view is the most commonly known and accepted position among Protestant evangelicals, and it is the view adopted in this series of posts.

The only other view worth mention believes that the second coming of Christ takes place at the end of the Millennium; those conservative Christians who hold this view are called amillennialists. The word amillennial means “no millennium,” and those who hold this view accept no future Millennium since they believe it is occurring right now. In other words, they believe our current experience as Christians is the kingdom of God promised in Scripture. I do not agree!

The sequence I accept is rapture — tribulation — second coming — Millennium. The rapture is the hardest event to sequence, and my positioning makes me pretribulational.

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from material created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.

[1] Craig S. Keener, Revelation, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000) 33.

[2] Grant R. Osborne, Revelation, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002) 15.

[3] Osborne, Revelation, 14.


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