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.


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