Interpreting Revelation

Few books of the Bible have been as controversial in their interpretation as Revelation. This article is a transcript of various sermons and lectures I’ve given over the years about how I approach the book. I’ve included it here essentially so I can link to it whenever Coffee with the King deals with a text from Revelation – to avoid having to justify the way I’m interpreting it each time. Enjoy!

Interpreting Revelation

Fifty years ago, one of the hot topics among evangelicals was the End Times. This was at least in part due to the times: a world still reeling from the horrors of WWII and living under the shadow of the Cold War and nuclear annihilation. But for some, a person’s end times views were a kind of litmus test for the rest of their theology. How someone read Revelation supposedly reflected whether they read Scripture “literally” or not.

In the present generation there seems to have been a reaction – even an overreaction – in the other direction. Many younger Christians are keen to ignore the debate altogether. Some describe themselves as being ‘pan-millenialists’ (it’ll all pan out in the end). This has meant that Revelation is often neglected in our churches, because no-one wants to go back to the often unhelpful focus it received in the past. Part of my motivation in posting this is to remind ourselves of its importance, and to rehabilitate some of the different ways in which people have read it as being consistent with a high view of Scripture.

LeftBehindThere are, by most counts, four main ways of reading Revelation. It’s important to be informed, because one of the four has the weight of American Christian marketing behind it (and a large proportion of Southern American Christianity in general). It finds its way into popular Christian novels and movies like the Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye. If we don’t look into it ourselves, we can drift into thinking that is the only truly Scriptural viewpoint.

Before we start, two ground rules so you’ll know what to expect:

  • This is not a systematic theology paper on end times. It’s on one book of the New Testament: Revelation. The focus will be on understanding Revelation on its own terms, not verse-hopping throughout bible.
  • I’d ask you to put aside preconceived ideas of the labels pre- a- or post-millennial, as I don’t think they’re particularly helpful at categorising ways of reading Revelation. For a start, the millennium is only mentioned in a few verses in Rev 20. And more importantly, what you believe about the millennium doesn’t necessarily correlate with how you read Revelation.

1. Overview of the major views on Revelation

At the risk of gross over-simplification, here’s a snapshot of the four main ways of understanding Revelation.

(a) The bulk of the events depicted in Revelation are yet to be fulfilled. That is, they lie in our future. This is normally referred to as a futurist position. The events described are specific, symbolic prophecies of what is yet to happen in the years leading up to the second coming.

There is a variant of the futurist position, often called dispensationalism. While this gets most of the popular North American press, it’s still a minority viewpoint. It includes the idea of a secret rapture of believers before a time of tribulation, and then Christ will return to reign for 1000 years on the earth. It’s the worldview which gave rise to things like the Left Behind novels, the bumper stickers that warn us that the driver may disappear at any moment, and much American foreign policy.

(However, dispensationalism goes beyond being an end-times view – it’s really a methodology of reading the entire bible. See the chapter on dispensationalism in Witherington, The Problem with Evangelical Theology, or a summary here.)

But just to be clear: you can see the events of Revelation as primarily in our future without holding to dispensational theology.

Futurism: Revelation contains specific, symbolic prophecies of what is yet to happen in the years leading up to the second coming.

(b) A similar view is one that was very popular throughout the middle years of church history: the historical reading. That is, Revelation was an outlining of the history of the church up until the second coming. Virtually no scholars accept this today, of any persuasion, other than a handful of popular writings. Problems with it include:

  • The difficulty of lining up the events in Revelation with specific events in church history. Everyone has a different schema – similar to the problem with futurism.
  • The relevance of this to the original audience in Asia Minor.
  • The Euro-centrism of such interpretations, which in the 20th century became obvious. Where is the African church? The Asian church? Etc.

Historicism: Revelation contains specific, symbolic prophecies of what would happen throughout the history of the church.

(c) A third view sees the events not as being in our future, or even in the distant future of the original readers, like the historical view. Instead, it refers to the immediate situation of the original readers. It’s usually called preterism. Much of Revelation, according to this view, refers to events around the fall of Jerusalem, persecution by Rome, and the eventual fall of Rome. Some extreme preterists see no reference to future events, a second coming of Christ, and final judgement. However, the majority see the final two chapters as still awaiting fulfilment.

Preterism: Revelation contains specific, symbolic depictions of society & events in the first century AD.

(d) The final major viewpoint doesn’t see the descriptions in Revelation as referring to any specific people or events. It’s often called the spiritual or idealist reading. It depicts a spiritual reality that lies behind our visible world. It proclaims God’s ultimate victory against the invisible forces of darkness.

Idealism: Revelation contains general, symbolic depictions about what has happened & will continue to happen until Jesus returns.

These are not the only positions. Some try to combine these views in various ways. And within each position, there are different ways of understanding what the various specifics refer to. But these four labels hopefully will help us to understand the debate.

Verse grenades

What do we do with these four views? Or three, if we discount the historical one. Obviously, they can’t all be correct!

The problem is that discussions often take the form of ‘verse grenades’ being tossed between the trenches. (‘You can’t possibly be right – this verse proves my view. Take that!’ <Grenade whistles across no-man’s land> ‘Oh yeah, I can dodge that one. But I bet you can’t dodge this one that proves my view…’) And so it goes on. Because there are some verses in Revelation that seem to lean one way, and some that lean the other way. Each side tries to build up the biggest pile of verse grenades that support its view, while perfecting the art of getting around the ones that seem contradictory on face value. But all this succeeds in doing is perpetuating the argument, and makes each person more convinced than before that they are the only ones who are right.

In fact, your view of the book of Revelation is decided long before you get to the level of individual verses. Iit’s much more fundamental than that. It all flows from what type of writing, or genre you think Rev is.

2. Genre of Revelation

How genre affects our understanding of a text

Take a look at the following texts. For each, answer these questions: (a) what sort of writing is this? (b) How do I know that? (c) How do I expect truth to be communicated?

Once upon a time…
A man walks into a bar…

Swan agrees to debate

October 23, 2007

Federal Treasurer Peter Costello and his Labor counterpart Wayne Swan will have their own face-to-face election campaign debate next week…

Roses are red

Violets are blue…

SELECT COUNT(ID) FROM PRODUCTS
WHERE CATEGORY IN (‘HOME’, ‘OFFICE’)
GROUP BY CATEGORY ORDER CATEGORY ASC;

For the first four examples above, we could see that they were a fairy tale, a joke, a news report, and a love poem. The reason we could tell quite easily is that as we’ve grown up we’ve observed hundreds of examples of each. We know the clues that tell us what type of communication it is.

We’re not going to be fooled that ‘roses are red, violets are blue’ comes from a biology textbook. So we won’t expect what comes next to be scientific fact, but a flowery expression of love. (Or if the context is a toilet door, it will probably be something rude.)

With the man walking into a bar, we got ready for a joke, not a factual story. Same with the opening formula ‘once upon a time’, which told us we were about to hear a fairy tale.

The problem is with the fifth one. Some of you will have understood it, some not. It’s actually in a database programming language called SQL, which has its own grammatical structure and ‘clue’ words like SELECT and FROM to tell us how to interpret it. But unless you’d seen this kind of statement before and worked with it like I have (nerd amission here) you wouldn’t know what it was, and any strategy you came up with to interpret it would most likely be wrong.

The Bible is made up of many different genres, which have to be interpreted in different ways. You don’t have the same expectations of poetry as you do for reported history. We understand that the Psalms are often quite figurative in their language; the gospels, however, are quite clearly intended by their authors to be an accurate reporting of what happened (see our discussion on Acts for Luke’s verbal clues that he’s writing in the genre of historiography.) Jesus told parables – stories he made up to illustrate a truth he was trying to teach. But we all understand the genre of a parable, so we don’t waste our time arguing if there was a “literal” good Samaritan!

What is the genre of Revelation?

The genre of Revelation will affect how we read it. And working out its genre is not simple, as it seems to have elements of a number of different types of writing – some of these styles are almost as foreign to us today as the SQL statement was to non-computer-nerds. But until we make a decision about genre, we can’t begin to interpret the detail of Revelation. And so we toss verse grenades at each other, and claim that we’re the only ones who are taking Revelation ‘literally’.

There are elements of three different genres in Revelation:

(a) A letter. This is the simplest to understand, as we have letters today. We don’t write letters the same way as they did in the first century, but thankfully there are plenty of other such letters in the New Testament (and Graeco-Roman sources). Revelation has an introduction and greeting, and is addressed to the seven churches in Asia.

1:4-5a John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.

(b) Apocalyptic. This is the most foreign to us, as we don’t write apocalyptic today. But it was big among Jews during the period 200BC-100AD. There was a similar genre (revelation through dreams, etc.) in Graeco-Roman culture. Apocalyptic used symbolism and vision, usually mediated by an angel, with bizarre images, expectation of divine judgement, and the new heavens and the new earth. The symbols drawn from all sorts of sources – Old Testament images, Graeco-Roman myths, etc.

‘Apocalypse’ means ‘revelation’. The aim was to reveal the spiritual forces and battles that lie behind what goes on in our physical world. It emphasises the inevitability of the outcome of history.

Apocalyptic was prevalent among minority groups, often as subversive literature against the oppressors. The message was often along the lines of: ‘oppressors bad; us good; one day they’re gonna get their butts kicked.’ Sometimes it was written in ‘code’ so outsiders wouldn’t understand it, otherwise they might destroy it, or persecute those who possessed it. But insiders who knew what the symbols meant could understand it. Other times the ‘code’ was quite transparent, but the very images used were designed to provoke thought / portray figures in a particular way.

Here’s one example of twentieth century apocalyptic. Note how the various characters are portrayed by the imagery: the Australian justice system is depicted as a dingo, eating the poor Chamberlains. It’s clearly making a political statement just in the way it’s drawn:

Apocalyptic_Chamberlain

It’s quite co-incidental that a few years ago I came across a 21st century apocalypse. (Just when you thought the genre had died out.) It’s similar to Revelation, in that the guy who’s written it claimed to have been in exile for a year too. I think his name was Kevin. See if you can make sense of it:

And then I looked and saw a beast with red hair, trying to ride a dead horse; or at least one that was pale and on life support. And out of her mouth came the words ‘moving forward’. Another beast rode on her back: it was green, with a little brown horn that spoke in a monotonous voice. And it was drunk with the balance of power.
But then I saw a rider on a white horse approach from the north, with what looked like a fatal wound that had healed. He rode on a groundswell of popular support, and did undermine the red beast at every opportunity. He made war against her with the sword of his mouth. Which was quite sharp and biting; just ask his speechwriter and Chinese embassy officials.
And he rose up and fought against the beast. He flung down a third of the stars from caucus. But that still left two thirds on the side of the beast, mainly because they, too, had felt the sword of his mouth and didn’t want to go back there again. And the smoke of his temper went up forever and ever.

That is what apocalyptic did. Just with things of far greater significance than Australian politics. It depicted current events and society in a particular way, using language and images in a way that pronounces judgement about what’s good and what’s bad. It peeled back the curtain to reveal the unseen spiritual reality behind that which is seen. (By the way, if you’re not from Australia, you probably have no idea what that was referring to. And that illustrates how “in house” apocalyptic is – outsiders tend not to get the references. Which, by and large, is how we approach Revelation 2000 years later – as outsiders who can only make educated guesses at what all the symbols mean.)

Witherington, Revelation, 38: ‘It cannot be stressed enough that one of the rhetorical functions of a work like Revelation is to give early Christians perspective, especially in regard to matters of good and evil, redemption, and judgment. Revelation seeks to reveal to the audience the supernatural forces at work behind the scenes that are affecting what is going on at the human level… The message is often, “though it appears that evil is triumphing, God is still in his heaven and all in due course will be right with the world.”’

(c) Prophecy. The book of Rev itself claims to be ‘prophecy’:

Rev 1:3a ‘Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of the prophecy’

But what is prophecy? The first thing that comes to mind is predicting the future. But if you look at the Old Testament prophets, they didn’t spend the majority of their time doing that – particularly not specifically. Their main ‘prophetic’ job was to point out to Israel where she was being disobedient to God’s law, and reminding them of what the consequences would be.

It’s not a great prediction for a mother to say to her kids: ‘if you don’t stop drawing on the walls and clean it up now, you’re going to be in big trouble when your father gets home.’ She’s not psychic. It’s merely a reminder of the consequences of their actions. Most of biblical prophecy is calling God’s people and surrounding nations to account over their behaviour, and reminding them of what God has said would happen if they disobeyed. Prophets were first and foremost social commentators on their generation, as well as predictors of the future.

How does genre affect our view of Revelation?

So Revelation is a complex book, and a good interpretation needs to take the presence of all these different types of writing into account. Each of the three main ways of reading Revelation tends to emphasise one genre over the others:

  • Futurists – (yet to occur) – tend to focus on Revelation’s prophetic characteristics, particularly predictive prophecy.
  • Idealists – (spiritual struggle) – tend to focus on its apocalyptic character.
  • Preterists – (C1) – at least begin with the fact that Rev is a letter written to a particular group of people in a particular place at a particular time.

3. A brief argument for the preterist view

As we interpret the detailed content of Revelation, we’ll do so from essentially a preterist-idealist view. One reason is practicality: we don’t have time to look at it from all viewpoints. And particularly in the case of the futurist perspective, the possibilities are almost limitless. The preterist approach at least limits the possibilities to ones that refer to the context of the original readers. And it also encompasses many of the concerns of the idealist approach, which see timeless realities depicted by imagery that makes sense in a first century context.

BarnettNote that this view would represent the majority of scholars outside North America. Those adopting this broad approach include figures from church history like Augustine and Calvin; North American scholars such as Ben Witherington and Craig Keener; and Australians Paul Barnett and John Dickson. (See especially Barnett, Apocalypse Now and Then, and Dickson & Clarke, 666 and all that.)

One of the first arguments for this view is that it takes seriously the claims of all three types of writing:

a. Epistle.

As an epistle, it must have relevance to the people who first received it, as with any other epistle in the New Testament. In fact, all scripture was written at a particular time, in a particular place, to a particular group of people, and must first and foremost be a message to them before it is by extension a message to us.

Scholars are generally agreed that Revelation was first written to a group of Christians undergoing (or under threat of) suffering and persecution. But what point would there be in sending them a letter that says, ‘I know you’re going through tough times at the moment, but hang in there – in 2000 years or so there’s going to be an even worse time, and then I’ll make things better.’

Revelation as a letter makes the most sense if bulk of events depicted in it are in its first readers’ immediate future. Isn’t that the simplest reading of the opening verse?

1:1a The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place;

It could plausibly be translated as ‘must take place quickly’, but two verses later:

1:3 Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and who keep what is written in it; for the time is near.

How can the first readers be blessed for keeping ‘what is written in it’ if it refers to the distant future? And the book is not to be sealed up:

22:10 And he said to me, ‘Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near.’

Contra Daniel’s vision:

Dan 12:9 He said, ‘Go your way, Daniel, for the words are to remain secret and sealed until the time of the end.’

What about the claim that these events would be seen by those who killed Jesus?

1:7 Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him;

How can that be ‘near’? However, ‘coming with/on the clouds’ was a frequent OT image for judgement, so this doesn’t necessarily refer to a personal appearance of Jesus. In the OT the context is God’s judgment within history on nations. See, for example:

Isa 19:1 ‘See, the LORD rides on a swift cloud and is coming to Egypt.’
Jer 4:11-13 ‘Look! He advances like the clouds, his chariots come like a whirlwind, his horses are swifter than eagles.’

This prophecy from Jeremiah was fulfilled in 587BC not by a physical appearance of Jesus, but by the army of the Babylonians destroying Jerusalem and carrying the people into exile.

In Revelation, a preterist view sees Jesus depicted as ‘coming with the clouds’ to judge unfaithful Jerusalem (in AD70) and/or the arrogant, self-aggrandisting, Christian-persecuting Rome.

b. Apocalypse

The opening verse also reminds us that Revelation is a revelation – an apocalypse. It reveals in symbolic language the spiritual battle behind the events of life. These are not just historical events, but social institutions and customs.

The Society for Biblical Literature defines apocalyptic as:

‘a genre of revelatory literature within a narrative framework, in which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial insofar as it involves another, supernatural world.’ (J.J. Collins, ed., “Apocalypse: The Morphology of a Genre,” Semeia 14 (1979), 9.)

Once again, what’s the point of addressing such an apocalypse to a first century audience if they have no hope of understanding the events or culture to which it refers? If it doesn’t refer to events in the first century, but to a later time, then we as the church have done a pretty lousy job in working out what it refers to. We can’t agree! For example, Hal Lindsey wrote The Late Great Planet Earth in the 1970s, specifically identified all the symbols in Revelation and other prophetic books. The evil nation that attacks Israel he saw as the Soviet Union. A small flaw in his schema – like the fall of the Berlin Wall – led him to revise his position during the 90s; it refers now to the forces of Islam, in nations like Iran. Many other predictions were revised in light of changing world events – even his timetable for Jesus to return by 1988!

Now he’s at the extreme end; most futurists aren’t quite like that. But there’s still no agreement among futurists on what these future events will be – making a futurist reading of Revelation not particularly helpful. Sure, the world may end after a whole lot of bad stuff, but which set of bad stuff we won’t know until it has already happened.

Michael Reddish, Revelation, 28: ‘Written to Christian communities in Asia Minor at the end of the first century, Revelation was intended to address the needs and concerns of those believers. To interpret Revelation as primarily concerned with end-time events is to divorce it from its first-century context. The work then becomes incomprehensible and meaningless to the very people to whom it was originally addressed.’

It’s clear that to understand Revelation you need some inside knowledge. Knowledge that the first readers had, because the symbolism was political and social satire of their time. We can piece some of the detail together from historical records; other details are probably forever lost, as we are so far removed in time and culture, and we no longer write or read apocalyptic literature.

Revelation is a first century apocalypse – it reveals the bigger picture behind life as a follower of Jesus in the first century.

c. Prophecy

(1) When are these prophecies fulfilled?

Revelation is a letter, so must have meant something to its first readers; it is an apocalypse, and so reveals the spiritual dimension of earthly events. But it is also prophecy. Futurists claim it is prophecy still to be fulfilled in our future. They do this for good reason, because the images of destruction in Revelation are so total it is hard to see them having been fulfilled in the past. E.g.

Rev 6:12-14 ‘There was a great earthquake. The sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red, and the stars in the sky fell to earth, as late figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind. The sky receded like a scroll, rolling up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.’

This sounds pretty much like the end of the world, doesn’t it? Last time we checked, the moon was still that greyish colour, not red, and still had plenty of stars hanging out with it! If we take it literally we can’t see it as already being fulfilled.

However this kind of exaggerated symbolism was the bread-and-butter of apocalyptic writings.

Witherington, Matthew, (451-2): ‘The question of course is how literally one should take this language since it is in most respects the traditional language used of a theophany… One must bear in mind that this same sort of language is used when describing the fall of Babylon, and we may be sure all the stars did not fall from the sky on that occasion…!’

What is a ‘literal’ fulfilment of an apocalyptic image anyway? Most of the images in Revelation are impossible to take completely literally. It’s only the degree that’s in dispute. For example: no-one takes the mother in chapter 12 as being literally clothed with the sun. (That would seriously burn.) It’s a poetic image.

Sometimes, Revelation even interprets its own imagery for us:

1:20 As for the mystery of the 7 stars that you saw in my right hand, and the 7 golden lampstands: the 7 stars are the angels of the 7 churches, and the 7 lampstands are the 7 churches.

So the decision as to whether to read Revelation as referring to the past or to the future is to some extent based on (a) the degree to which Revelation is apocalyptic prophecy and (b) the degree to which apocalyptic literature can use exaggerated images for effect.

(2) Are the prophecies primarily predictive?

This is particularly the case when we remember that prophecy in the OT wasn’t primarily about predicting things. It was about presenting reality from God’s point of view: foreign nations are powerless; idols are worthless false gods. And OT prophets called people to respond to that reality by being faithful to the one true God.
It’s the same with the prophecy of Revelation. It presents a God’s-eye view of the world. It shows the bad guys – the empire, the emperor, those opposed to God – for how bad they really are. And it also shows ultimately how powerless they are in comparison with an almighty God. They are idols; they are false gods; they are nothing.

Therefore, the prophetic message is this: be faithful to God. He is the one who is in control. He is the one who will win in the end. Don’t follow after the pale imitations of this world.

Conclusion

The approach I’ll be taking on Coffee with the King is essentially the preterist one. The key question we’ll be asking is: what did it mean to the original recipients? This will involve identifying first century events, which is unique to the preterist position. But it will also involve explaining the background and meaning of the symbolism and imagery, which is also integral to the idealist view, and many schools of futurism.

When it comes to application, I’ll be treating it like any other New Testament document. It has a meaning for the original recipients, and then by extension, to us. The end result is that the message for us is quite similar if we pursue a preterist or idealist reading. And if we take detailed future predictions out of the equation, a futurist reading could still yield similar application. No matter when the events occur, the message is all about the sovereignty of God, and an encouragement to endure until the end.

So here’s a summary of how I understand Revelation:

  • Using apocalyptic language, it depicts events that occurred in our past, in the first century AD.
  • Using apocalyptic imagery, it portrays first society the way God sees it.
  • Using the rhetoric of apocalyptic, it comforts persecuted first century Christians by depicting the world in a particular way: God is in complete control; those being persecuted are virtuous, and will soon be vindicated;
    those who persecute are evil, and will soon be destroyed.