I have decided to “tackle” Revelation as the next step in my last days study. I do so as I keep in mind Alexander Pope’s famous epigram: “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” (This was misquoted by another great wordsmith—Ricky Nelson: “Fools rush in where wise men never go.”) I have observed that some people begin their presentations on Revelation by referring to 1:3, which pronounces a blessing on those who read and those who hear the prophecy. They take this as justification for entering into a study of the book. I do not dispute that, though I think the verse pronounces a blessing on simply reading and hearing the book and not necessarily on interpreting it. Nevertheless, some interpretation is probably going to happen.
A RICH BOOK
As I have worked on this book over the years (I have studied it over a period of about 15 years), I have noted that is a rich book. Sometimes, in our zeal to understand the intricacies of its organization, we miss much of its power. If you are planning to “walk” with me through this book, I hope that you will observe some of the following aspects of the book:
· The book has been important in shaping our spiritual imagination. The visions give us word pictures of angels, heaven, the Throne, hell (the Lake of Fire), the last judgment, the New Jerusalem, the glorified Christ, prayers of the saints, the intermediate state, and so forth.
· The book has given us vocabulary that shapes our language—the Apocalypse, the Lamb of God, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the 144,000, the Dragon, That Old Serpent, the Devil, the Beast, the False Prophet, the Grapes of Wrath, Armageddon, Babylon, the Hallelujah Chorus, the Rider on the White Horse, the Millennium, the Bottomless Pit, the Great White Throne Judgment, Hades, the Lake of Fire, the New Jerusalem, the River of Life, the Crystal Sea, the Alpha and Omega, Washed in the Blood of the Lamb, and Bright and Morning Star.
· The book can shape our understanding of what it is to be a Christian. There is mention of having a testimony of Jesus, of washing our robes in the blood of the Lamb, of having our prayers used as incense before the Lord, of fearing God, of not taking the mark of the Beast, of having our deeds follow us into eternity, and of staying awake and remaining clothed during the last days (spiritually).
· The book contrasts sharply the righteous and the unrighteous. See the previous item for something of what it is to be righteous. The unrighteous bear the mark of the Beast. They are unrepentant of worshiping demons and idols, committing murder, being involved in magic arts, committing sexual immorality, and stealing.
· The book features angels prominently. They are involved in spiritual warfare, in dispensing judgments, in pronouncing new developments in the program of God, in the worship of God and the Lamb, and in being instruments to convey the visions of John.
· The book gives us a vision of Jesus that is not found in detail in any other book. We see Him in His glorified state. He shares the throne with the Father. Yet, He is the Lamb who was slain.
· The book deals with the church in ways not found in other books. Jesus is seen to be the Lord of the church universal as well as the individual local churches. Each church that is addressed in chapters 2 and 3 is seen to have individual characteristics. The local churches are addressed as such and each church is held accountable for its behavior and attitudes.
· Though frightening images of enormous destruction are found in much of the book, it is still a book about victory. The saints overcome the devil by their testimony and determination. Jesus wins the victory over the Beast and the devil. In the final vision, there is tranquility and joy and life and healing.
One of the characteristics of the book is the fantastic imagery. The question for us is how do we interpret these images? Does a great star really fall into the rivers and springs throughout the earth (8:10)? We know that our sun is mediocre among stars of the universe and yet it is many times the size of the earth. So how could a star fall on even a river the size of the Amazon? I take such images to be word pictures of the visions that were seen by John. And I believe two things about such a vision. First, it depicts truth. By that I mean, it depicts an event that will really happen. Second, it depicts that truth in a way that conveys that truth with dramatic imagery. By that I mean, the image is not a videotape of the actual event, but rather it is an image that conveys the truth of that event.
For example, the following is the description of the event that I referred to, as John saw the vision:
The third angel blew his trumpet, and a great star fell from heaven, blazing like a torch, and it fell on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water. The name of the star is Wormwood. A third of the waters became wormwood, and many people died from the water, because it had been made bitter. (Revelation 8:11-12, English Standard Version (ESV); all quotes from ESV unless stated otherwise)
From this I would infer that one-third of the fresh water supplies of the world will be somehow contaminated. Moreover, although there may be a natural immediate cause for this contamination, the actual cause is from the heavens—possibly either an angelic or demonic intervention. This latter John saw as a great star from the “heaven” (NIV says “sky”—the two are indistinguishable in Greek). It is my belief that when this happens, no one will see the “great star” that John saw; they will only experience the contamination of the water. So, John saw a vision of the truth that this event will happen. His vision of it was not a videotape of that event, but rather it was a revelation of the event from a heavenly, spiritual perspective.
Thus, in the interpretation of a vision of John, we need to recognize what kind of “natural” event is being depicted. Then, we should recognize the spiritual dimension of that event, if that is also a feature of the vision. Beyond those features, we also may need to recognize the role that the event plays in the context of the narrative. We should do all this with caution and avoid extremes in any direction. We may try to be too “natural.” By that I mean, we may try to explain the vision in natural, cause-and-effect terms beyond what the text warrants. We also may go in the other direction and try to be so literal that we miss the message. In other words, we may try to explain how a star from the sky or heaven can enter every third stream and spring in the world.
In addition to dealing with the images in terms of natural versus spiritual, we also must be cautious in assigning modern-day terminology to components of the visions. For example, we cannot say that John was seeing modern tank or missile warfare and tried to explain what he saw in first century terms. We have no warrant for such conclusions. I believe that someday those visions will become reality and that reality will feature the technology that is extant when the visions come to pass. Considering how fast our technology changes today, I would be foolish to assign the technology of December, 2013, to those visions, since that technology will be obsolete in a matter of a few months or years.
One of the favorite references that scholars and wanna-be’s like to make is to the “apocalyptic” genre. To make the statement that Revelation is an “apocalypse” or that is written in the “apocalyptic genre” is a wave of the hand that is supposed to solve any problems. Some writers use this reference to imply that we can pretty much ignore all those fantastic images, because, after all, John was just using this genre to convey his message.
To “unpack” this term, I need to clarify two broad uses of the word “apocalypse.” First, “The Apocalypse” is often used as a synonym for “Revelation,” the last book in the Bible. This is a legitimate use of the word. “Apocalypse” is derived from the transliteration of the Greek apocalupsis, which is the first word of the book. The word means “revelation” or “unveiling.” The book begins: “Revelation of Jesus Christ…” Sometimes “The Apocalypse of John” is used to refer to the book. These uses of the term carry no weight of additional connotation. On the other hand, “apocalypse” or “apocalyptic” is often used in a way that implies a great deal about style and theology.
There were, during the period from somewhat before Christ to somewhat beyond the first century, a number of books written that had a particular style that is called “apocalyptic.” These include I Enoch, II Baruch, the Apocalypse of Peter, and the Ascension of Isaiah (Rist, 343). Many scholars assign Revelation to that group. According to Rist, writing in The Interpreter’s Bible, these books were not only written in a particular literary genre, but they also reflected a particular theology, which he calls “apocalypticism” and which he defines as follows:
[It] may be defined as the eschatological belief that the power of evil (Satan), who is now in control of this temporal and hopelessly evil age of human history in which the righteous are afflicted by his demonic and human agents, is soon to be overcome and his evil rule ended by the direct intervention of God, who is the power of good, and who thereupon will create an entirely new, perfect, and eternal age under his immediate control for the everlasting enjoyment of his righteous followers from among the living and the resurrected dead.” (Rist, 347)
He further elaborates on this definition with the following features (Rist, 347-351):
· It is always eschatological—concerned with last things.
· It is always dualistic—a dualism of two opposing supernatural powers.
· There are two distinct ages—the present under the control of Satan and the one to come, under God.
· It understood there are two distinct worlds.
· Righteousness is defined more in terms of loyalty than in terms of ethical and moral conduct.
· God is now transcendent on His throne, but He will soon come to rescue the righteous.
· This rescue will include a final cosmic struggle with Satan.
· It features a strong determinism.
· It is a simple pattern. However, complexity is added by including secondary features that are not essential to a work’s being classified as apocalyptic.
· Among the secondary features that are commonly used are visions, pseudonymity of the author, a Messiah, an Anti-Messiah or Antichrist, angels, demons, bizarre imagery, etc.
Rist categorizes Revelation as an apocalypse that reflects the apocalyptic theology and includes many secondary features common to other apocalypses. He distinguishes the book from Old Testament prophecies and from Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom of God. He maintains that the prophets and Jesus were not dualistic and believed that God had not abandoned the earth to Satan, but was very much in control (Rist, 348). He also maintains that the apocalyptic viewpoint is that the faithful are to be loyal to God and wait passively for God’s intervention, whereas the prophets and Jesus called for people to exhibit the highest moral and ethical behavior so that they can “assist in bringing the kingdom into realization here and now.” (Rist, 349)
Another viewpoint of Revelation and the apocalyptic is taken by Leon Morris. His definition of an apocalypse (Morris, 22) is similar to Rist’s view, with some differences. He notes that Revelation shares with other apocalypses symbolism, an expectation of the setting up of God’s kingdom, looking to a new heaven and a new earth, and the mention of angels. (Morris 23) He gives the following differences from the “typical apocalyptic” (Morris, 23-25):
· It’s claim to be a prophecy, in the Old Testament prophetic tradition
· Prophetic insistence on moral considerations
· Not written under a pseudonym of an ancient person
· Fundamentally optimistic; God has brought salvation in the present age; evil and Satanic activity are depicted realistically
· Not a recapitulation of history disguised as prophecy, but rather a prophecy of things to come
· Quotation from G. Eldon Ladd that highlights how the book holds in tension the present and eschatology—specifically, Rome’s evils are a forerunner of the evils of the Beast of the last days
· Apocalypses employ an angel or God to explain bizarre visions; Revelation does this sometimes, but often allows the vision to stand on its own.
· Apocalypses look forward to the Messiah, who will solve the problems by his intervention. Revelation understands that the Messiah has already come and won a decisive victory (the Lamb who was slain).
Ladd (Ladd, 10-11) summarizes the views of the Preterists (see below) who assign to Revelation the genre “apocalypse.” (He is referring to liberal Preterists rather than evangelical Preterists.) An apocalypse expressed “the hopes of the people whose culture produced them.” (emphasis added) Therefore, Revelation, as an apocalypse (in the Preterist view, according to Ladd), “expresses the hopes of the early Christians of Asia that they were about to be delivered from their troubles at the hands of Rome.” Though John predicted that God would intervene and Christ would come, this did not happen. “But prophetic prediction is not an element of the genre of the apocalyptic. The book fulfilled its purpose in strengthening and encouraging the first-century church. For those who accept the claim of Revelation to be a prophecy, this view is quite inadequate.” I agree with Ladd.
From this discussion, we draw some observations. First, some scholars, such as Rist, regard an apocalypse to be an expression of a theology that they believe is quite contrary to the theology of the Bible. When they assign Revelation among the apocalypses, they are dismissing it as an inadequate book for Christians. Read the conclusion of Rist’s article:
These distinctive ideas of the writer [of Revelation] created difficulties which would scarcely have arisen had Revelation remained outside the canon; for then it would have been understood and interpreted with reference to the historical situation which produced it and the purpose the author had in its composition. In other words, it would have been studied as objectively as uncanonical, nonscriptural apocalypses like I Enoch, II Baruch, the Apocalypse of Peter, or the Ascension of Isaiah are studied…But unfortunately, the canonical position of both Revelation and Daniel, has been largely responsible for the artificial, subjective, and arbitrary manner in which they have been treated, not only by Christians in general but also by the majority of scholars down through the centuries. (Rist, 353-354)
Others assign Revelation to the genre, apocalyptic, without the theological implications that Rist applies to the term. As Ladd explains, in this use of the term, the genre serves the purpose of expression of hopes without the power of a real promise from God (see above).
In other cases, there is a somewhat middle ground between these first two uses of “apocalyptic.” For example, Hanegraaff criticizes the “woodenly literal sense” in which Tim LaHaye interprets Revelation (Hanegraaff, 21-22). Instead, he advocates consideration of the genre that is used by John to convey meaning:
LaHaye’s failure to consider form or genre not only leads to unbridled speculation, but ultimately misses the underlying significance of Revelation’s apocalyptic imagery. Far from merely communicating that twenty-first-century Israel would be submerged in a literal river of blood, John is using the apocalyptic language of the Old Testament prophets to warn his hearers of the massive judgment and destruction of the land of Israel that “must soon take place.” As Isaiah and Joel used the language of sickles, winepresses, and blood to symbolize judgment against the enemies of Israel’s God, so John now uses the language of the prophets to signify the impending doom of apostate Israel. (Hanegraaff, 22)
Note that Hanegraaff is equating “extreme and bizarre imagery” or “fantasy imagery” (emphasis added) (Hanegraaff, 33) with “apocalyptic imagery.” This really ignores the full definition of “apocalyptic” that Rist uses. Rist, in fact, would resist equating the Old Testament prophets to Revelation, because he believes the apocalyptic theology is quite different from the theology of most of the Old Testament. Hanegraaff, moreover, does not understand “apocalyptic” as simply a vehicle to express hopes and dreams of an oppressed people (as Ladd describes). He believes that Revelation is a true prophecy. He interprets that prophecy in the Preterist manner. So, his objection to Dispensationalists is not in their recognition of Revelation as a prophecy. Rather, he rejects their interpretation of the book as a prophecy of the end of the present order of existence. In his critique of Dispensationalism (he focuses especially on LaHaye), he maintains that one of the reasons they fail in their interpretation is because they do not recognize John’s use of imagery.
SCHOOLS OF INTERPRETATION
Four standard methods, approaches, or schools of interpretation of Revelation are usually listed (see Morris, 16-18, and Ladd, 10-12).
Preterist or Preterism: There are two versions of Preterism.
One is the liberal version. This version considers Revelation to be an apocalypse that was written to encourage a group of Christians. Its description of the dramatic intervention of God—an intervention that did not happen—could be viewed in one of two ways. Either the prediction was an utter failure which must have disappointed its readers, or the book was simply written in the genre of the apocalyptic with no real promise of God’s intervention. In the latter case, the books value to its readers was its encouragement to remain faithful in the face of persecution (Ladd, 11).
The second version of Preterism is the evangelical approach. This approach does not believe that the book is a failure in its prediction of God’s intervention. Rather, these interpreters believe that the AD 70 destruction of Jerusalem is being predicted by Revelation (Sproul, 137, Hanegraaff, 27, 136—although Hanegraaff has a Futurist component to his interpretation). They believe Revelation was written before AD 70 and correctly predicted the destruction of Jerusalem.
Historical or Historicist: This approach assumes that Revelation is a prophecy of human history from the time it was written until the Second Coming of Christ. The two sources that I read concerning this view had little praise for the Historical approach. First of all, it has generally concentrated only on Western European history. Second, it has generally been anti-Catholic (to the point that it has been called the “Protestant view”). Third, it has no firm guidelines of interpretation so that there have been wide variations in the results. Fourth, generally interpreters use the method to prove their generation is the generation when Christ will return. (Morris, 17, and Ladd, 11)
Idealist: This approach understands Revelation to be a poetic means of presenting certain principles by which God operates in history (Morris, 18). Ladd understands the approach to be a “symbolic portrayal of the spiritual cosmic conflict between the Kingdom of God and the powers of satanic evil.” (Ladd, 11) Though this method certainly reflects some of the content of Revelation, both Morris and Ladd consider it unsatisfactory in its absence of specifics in human history, either of the first century or the end of the age.
Futurist: This view considers that most of Revelation is concerned with the end of the age. Ladd believes that Dispensationalism is an extreme Futurist approach and considers his own approach to be a moderate approach. (Morris, 17-18, and Ladd, 12)
Most interpreters employ more than one of these approaches. It seems to me that one is unwise not to be open to more than one approach. An example is chapter 12, which would appeal to the Idealist. Another example is the content of the seven letters to the seven churches in chapters 2 and 3. Dispensationalists actually employ a Historicist approach to interpret the letters as an outline of church history (Ladd, 12).
What seems most important is to allow the book to speak for itself. Nevertheless one most also recognize that it is a difficult book. I believe that consulting other commentators can open one up to other possibilities and give one scholarly insight. What I hope to resist is to be so strongly tied to a method of interpretation that I force an interpretation on a passage.
Crossway Bibles (2009-04-09). ESV Study Bible. Good News Publishers. Kindle Edition.
Hanegraaff, Hank. The Apocalypse Code. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publ., 2007.
Ladd, G. Eldon. A Commentary on the Revelation of John. Grand Rapids: William B.
Eerdmans Publ. Co., 1972.
Morris, Leon. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. Vol. 20. The Revelation of St. John.
Gen. ed. R. V. G. Tasker. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publ. Co., 1980.
Rist, Martin. “Introduction” to “The Revelation of St. John the Divine.” In The Interpreter’s
Bible. Vol. XII. Nashville: Abington Press, 1957.
Sproul, R. C. The Last Days According to Jesus. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998.
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