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.


Interpreting the Book of Revelation — Part 1

This post began a series on the Book of Revelation. We start by explaining how the book will be interpreted.  This introduction to the study will take two posts to complete.

The Simple — Yet Daunting — Challenge

Understanding any type of literature involves interpreting that literature in light of its own nature. For example, when we read the word hit in the newspaper, it makes a big difference whether we are reading about an assault in the news section, a baseball struck by a bat in the sports section, or a popular new movie in the entertainment section.

However, we have made matters easy in our example by setting the word hit in a context of actual events whose nature is well known. Consider a different sentence: “Use your sharp sickle and gather the clusters of grapes off the vine of the earth” (Rev. 14:18). What are the grapes in this sentence? This word is both simple and familiar, but it occurs in a strange context that is plainly symbolic. Clearly, it will take a lot more effort to uncover the probable meaning of grapes in such an unfamiliar context.

Unlike the hit we read about in the newspaper, the grapes lie in the context of a God-given vision. In other words, the events being observed in the vision may or may not have already happened or may happen in the future. How can we tell which?

The First Question

In our initial example of the newspaper, you started out knowing it was a newspaper and which section of the paper the word hit occurred. Newspapers are not like novels or cook books or a procedure for installing floor tiles. So, a crucial question is: what kind of literature is the book of Revelation?

New Testament scholar G.K. Beale[1] says that commentators now generally agree that John used three types of literature in composing Revelation: apocalyptic {defined next], prophecy, and letter. Apocalyptic is an intensification of prophecy.

To highlight the difference between apocalyptic and prophecy, consider Samuel’s prophetic words to King Saul: “The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you this day and has given it to one of your colleagues who is better than you!” (1 Sam. 15:28). God could have used Samuel to reveal this same truth by means of a dramatic vision in which the crown is roughly stripped from Saul’s head and placed on the head of David. That would have been an apocalyptic vision — though somewhat mild— in that it is an intensification of the plain, prophetic prediction.

The letter part of Revelation is like one of the NT letters by John or Paul. See, for example, Rev. 1:4-6 and most of chapters 2-3. A typical prophetic part of Revelation would be Rev. 2:26 saying, “And to the one who conquers and who continues in my deeds until the end, I will give him authority over the nations.” But the next verse intensifies into the apocalyptic category: “he will rule them with an iron rod and like clay jars he will break them to pieces” (Rev. 2:27).

Since the bulk of Revelation is apocalyptic — indeed Revelation is also called the Apocalypse — we need some further insight into that type of literature. New Testament scholar Grant R. Osborne says, “A basic element in defining apocalyptic is its pessimism toward the present and the promise of restoration in a sovereignly controlled future.”[2] That is a simple sentence, but it bears careful thought since it provides a useful interpretive tool.

As a final summary of Revelation’s literary type, Beale[3] says that Revelation is a prophecy cast in an apocalyptic mold and written with a letter’s beginning and ending to motivate the audience to change their behavior in light of the book’s powerful message.

Osborne also has a helpful insight when he explains, “One of my definitions for apocalyptic is ‘the present addressed through parallels with the future.’”[4]

A Mistake to Avoid

The careful reader will have noticed that Revelation is not just about some far-distant day but has strong present-time implications. A big mistake some Christians make about prophecy is to focus on setting up future timelines for events and neglect the relevance of the truth to their own lives. Osborne says: “The message regarding God’s sovereignty over the future is intended to call the church in the present to perseverance, and many of the symbols in the Apocalypse are borrowed from the first-century situation.”[5]

While there is value in trying to fit revealed end-times events into a sensible sequence, setting dates is another matter. New Testament scholar Craig Keener says: “History is littered with such failed predictions from all segments of Christendom, perhaps most obviously in the twentieth century from popular evangelicalism. . . . Lest we think that evangelicals on the whole learned humility from early mistakes, plenty of examples provide warnings to the contrary.”[6]

Jesus told us, “But as for that day and hour no one knows it — not even the angels in heaven — except the Father alone” (Matt. 24:36). And moments later Jesus said, “Therefore stay alert, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come” (Matt. 24:42).

So, Revelation looks to the past and the future in order to bring change among believers in the present. Make it your objective not to become an end-times expert but rather to know what Jesus Christ, the coming King, wants from you today! He is coming back soon!

Ways of Approaching the Apocalypse

The variety of ways in which one may try to understand the Apocalypse has led to four major approaches to the biblical materials found in the book.

Historicist: This view says that the book of Revelation provides a detailed history of the events of the Western church between the time of the first century and the second coming of Christ. Protestant reformers Martin Luther (1483-1546) and John Calvin (1509-1564) held this view and considered the Pope to be the Antichrist.[7] Very few hold this view today due to the forced nature of the fit between Revelation and Western history.

Preterist: This view says that the book of Revelation relates to the then-present situation in which John lived rather than to a future period. While some commentators have held this view, it fails to fit the events presented in the final chapters of Revelation. Certainly we must say that chapters 2-3 fit the preterist model, although even they point to the future.

Idealist: This approach says that the book of Revelation does not relate to historical events but rather to timeless spiritual truths particularly relevant to the church between the first coming of Christ and the second. Distilling spiritual truths is certainly desirable, but the disconnection with actual history or future events presents serious problems. Is the final judgment (Rev. 20) useful only for deriving spiritual lessons or will there actually be a final judgment? This view has some value in defining applications, but its intentionally abstract analysis limits its usefulness.

Futurist: This view says that Revelation chapters 4-22 refer primarily to events that will take place at the end of history. However, recall Osborne’s remark “the present addressed through parallels with the future,” and understand that the entire book relates to Christians today at an applicational level. Some evangelical scholars hold the futurist position, and it is the perspective that will generally be taken in the commentary in this study guide. This viewpoint is probably the one most Christians have heard.  There is no question that chapters 1-3 spoke directly to both the named churches in John’s time as well as to believers in our day.

Eclectic: This approach mixes elements from the futurist, preterist and idealist approaches depending on which part of Revelation is being interpreted. Many commentators like that kind of flexibility, but it can be considered an abandonment of any attempt to find an approach that works for the largest part of the book of Revelation. Is this an anti-system of interpretation?

It is vital to read Part 2 of this Introduction to the coming posts about the Book of Revelation.

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

[1] G.K. Beale, The Book of Revelation, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999) 37.

[2] Grant R. Osborne, Revelation, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002) 1.

[3] Beale, Revelation, 39, citing D.A. Carson, Moo, D.J., and Morris, L., An Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992) 479.

[4] Osborne, Revelation, 22.

[5] Osborne, Revelation, 1.

[6] Craig S. Keener, Revelation, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000) 24.

[7] Osborne, Revelation, 18.