This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
Revelation is a book which seems to fascinate, intrigue and frustrate in almost equal measure. It has been an inspiration for some wonderful art and some amazingly wacky ideas; from complicated explanations of the meaning of 666 to the glorious vision of the New Jerusalem. Most of us have some experience of the book, and that experience has not always been a happy one, perhaps. There are many aspects of the book which seem obscure and difficult to understand, yet it is the one book in the Bible which promises a blessing on those who read it (Rev 1:3). Its position at the end of the Bible is eminently suitable as it directs our gaze to the future in anticipation of the One who says “Surely I come quickly” (Rev 22:20). As literature, it is perhaps the most complex and sophisticated piece of writing the world has ever seen. As theology, it has been the inspiration of a wide range of ideologies... Through it all, it has been a source of strength for millions of believers as an assurance that ‘the Almighty reigns’.
Exploring the New Testament, 305
AUTHOR AND TIME
The book claims to have been written by John who describes himself as a servant of God, a brother to his readers and a prophet. Traditionally he has been identified with John the Apostle, but modern scholarship is much less certain of this. There is little evidence one way or the other, but we do have to recognise that the book is very different in style from the Gospel of John. Many writers refer to him as John of Patmos, to distinguish him from the John of the Gospel and of the letters. We should not allow this debate to concern us too much as our understanding of it is not dependent upon who John actually was. The debate over the date of composition is one that continues. Estimates vary from the time of Nero in 60s A.D. to the time of Domitian (81-96). Whichever of these is correct, Revelation is seemingly written to Christians who are beginning to suffer persecution and,
John argues, will suffer more persecution. It outlines the consummation of the human history and so stands as complementary to the first book of the Bible. Notice some of the contrasts: Genesis Heaven and earth Paradise lost Husband and wife Satan victorious Death entered Man banished from God’s presence Revelation New heaven and new earth Paradise regained The Lamb and the bride Satan defeated No more death God dwelling with man
Whenever the book was written, one thing is clear–it has a specific purpose, or purposes. First and foremost it is a pastoral document; a letter written to suffering and persecuted Christians in order to comfort and encourage them. The call to single-hearted worship of the one, true Lord over against the worship of Caesar is brought with the knowledge that this may mean suffering, but will ultimately result in vindication. John encourages us to look behind the curtain and see the events of this earth in a heavenly perspective and, thus, be encouraged and comforted. As a worshipping and witnessing community of Christ-followers, we know that behind the scenes God is in control. Seeming defeat, be that suffering or death, is to be reinterpreted in the light of Jesus’ sacrifice as victory. As one writer has put it, “The Lamb Wins”!
One of the difficulties we face when trying to understand Revelation is its genre. The opening of the book mentions three: apocalypse, prophecy and letter. In fact, the first nine verses of the book shift between four different genres! The one genre that gives the greatest difficulty is that of apocalypse. This way of using imagery is not one with which we are overly comfortable or familiar with in the 21st century. To understand it, then, needs some work.
What is Prophecy?
H.H. Rowley in his book The Relevance of Apocalyptic says this, “The obsession with the equation of the words of Scripture with the events of our day converts the [prophetical] books into intricate puzzles for the ingenious instead of spiritual messages for harassed souls.” While his comment is specifically about OT prophecy, it is relevant for the study of Revelation. In popular terms, prophecy is about ‘telling the future’ - about predicting events that are still to happen. While some of prophecy does exactly that, the vast majority of prophecy is not about predicting the future it is about applying God’s word to the present.
When we apply this to Revelation, we can see that it would have had immediate relevance to the churches of 1st century Asia Minor. Therefore, we have to find a way of reading the book that makes sense of the first readers’ situation.
What is Apocalyptic Literature?
The first word of Revelation in Greek is apokalupsiv (apokalypsis), a word which means a revealing or unveiling of something that was previously hidden.1 We should, therefore, understand Revelation as a book which draws back the curtain so we can see the spiritual realities behind the physical actions in the world. Apocalyptic literature 2 is a specific genre or type of literature which takes its name from the first word in Revelation but which appears in the centuries immediately before the birth of Christ. It had a real influence on the way that the Jews of Jesus time, and the early Christians, viewed the world. Perhaps the easiest way to look at this is to consider science fiction in television and films. For us to follow and enjoy Star Trek or Doctor Who, we have to be willing to accept the ‘rules’ of the genre. In this type of film, people can travel through time, they can be transported from one place to another without using vehicles, the ‘bad guys’ usually are portrayed in a stylised way. These are some of the markers of the genre and we need to recognise them. When the Enterprise meets the Borg, we don’t think it really happened or that the earth is about to be invaded by half-human-half-robot creatures; we recognise this as a picture of the de-humanising elements of modern society. We have to treat the imagery of apocalyptic literature in a similar way, reading what they stand for rather than attempting to understand them in a ‘literalistic’ way. The best known example of this type of literature in the Old Testament is found in the book of Daniel. However, there is a very real line linking OT prophecy with apocalyptic literature, and imagery used by Isaiah (e.g. chapters 65-66) is taken up by John in Revelation. Apocalyptic literature continues to be popular in both Jewish and Christian circles into the early 2nd century. There are one or two major characteristics of apocalyptic literature which are important and which help in our understanding of Revelation. While this list does not cover every aspect of apocalyptic literature, it is helpful.3 1. The temporal dualism of the age; 2. Radical discontinuity between this age and the next; 3. Division of history into segments reflecting a predetermined plan; 4. Expectation of the imminent arrival of the reign of God; 5. A cosmic perspective;
See Brown C (ed) 1992, The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology Volume 3, Carlisle: The Paternoster Press, p 309-16
For a good discussion on apocalyptic literature see Evans CA & Porter SE (eds), 2000, Dictionary of New Testament Background, Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, p 40-57
This list is adapted from Evans & Porter, 2000, p 48 3
6. God’s intervention is cataclysmic and will see the restoration of the condition of Eden/Paradise; 7. Angels and demons are used to explain historical and eschatological events; 8. Introduction of a new mediator with royal functions.
It is a revelation of Jesus Christ (1.1). In chapters 1-3, he controls, encourages and directs the churches. In chapters 4 and 5, he is receiving the worship of all the host of heaven. In chapter 19, he is seen riding on a white horse as the judge of men and victor over all the forces of evil. The book describes the age long struggle between good and evil, right and wrong, light and darkness, Christ and the Devil, and there is absolutely no doubt as to the final outcome, Christ will triumph. This then is the theme of the book, that no matter how dark may be the hour and how fierce the persecution, God is controlling the affairs of men and directing history to that day when Jesus Christ will be all in all. In our series we will be considering four major themes of the book: • Servanthood • Witness • Worship • Victory
INTERPRETATION OF THE BOOK4
There are four main schools of thought:
The Preterist View.
This view sees the book relating only to the church in the first century. The believers were being bitterly persecuted and John is writing to encourage them. The symbolism relates entirely to the Roman Empire as it was in John’s day. Thus the 7 kings of chapter 17:10 are identified with 7 emperors and the number of the beast - 666 - is a code name for the emperor Nero Strength - speaks to Christians of 1st century. Weakness - no real message for later Christians.
The Historicist View.
This view sees the book as an inspired forecast of the whole of human history. Thus the book contains a programme outlining the history and experience of the church from His ascension to His return. Dark ages, Reformation, French Revolution, World Wars all forecast. This view provided great stimulus to Reformers (Luther & Calvin both held it). Encouraged break with Rome (saw Babylon as Rome - Papacy finally overthrown - abhorrence by God).
See the major commentaries for a deeper discussion of these various views. Beale, 1999, is especially good. 4
Strength - speaks to Christians of every age. Weakness - those who promote view do not agree on details of symbolism and tend to interpret their own age as being the last.
The Futurist View
This is the interpretation that was popularised through the Scofield Bible and was predominant in many of the churches of our background; it is also the view which lies behind the popular Left Behind series of books. In this view there is a programme of church history outlined in chapters 2 and 3, but everything from chapter 4 onwards is yet future (as it infers that the church is raptured - 4:1,2) and relates to the second coming of Christ. The basis of this view is in the threefold division of the book found in Rev 1.19: Things seen Things which are Things which shall be hereafter Chapter 1 Chapters 2 and 3 Chapters 4 - 22
Strength - focuses attention on near return of Christ & His triumph. Weakness - not everything after chapter 4 is in the future - tends to treat symbols ‘literally’.
The Idealist View.
This view sees the book as a description of the way God always works in history. It is a book of principles expressed in symbolic language and therefore should not be interpreted literally or only in one historical period. Thus the book is relevant to every age since it simply sets out the principles on which God acts throughout human history. Strength - relevance to every age - embraces elements of views 1, 2, & 4. Weakness - tends to treat whole book as symbolic not literal e.g. takes numbers and times symbolically - therefore, can be subjective. It would only be fair to say that the Idealist view is the one which comes closest to my own position. However, no one view is totally adequate to give the full meaning of the book and it is better to combine the views and take that which is of value from each.
Tied in with the various ways of interpreting Revelation is the question of what the 1000 years’ rule mentioned in 20:1-10. There are three major views and a useful question to consider is how these various views of the millennium affect how we live our lives as God’s people and our attitudes towards evangelism and mission.
This says that Christ will come before the millennium which is understood as a literal rule of 1000 years. This has traditionally been the most widely accepted point of view in the Brethren.
All the commentaries have a section on the millennium and its meaning. The discussion in Gilbertson, 1997, p 9-13 is brief but good. 5
This says that Christ will come after the millennium which is seen in spiritual or sociopolitical terms. The Puritans held this view and it gave great impetus to missionary activity.
This says that the millennium is a symbolic period of time to describe the whole interval between Christ’s first coming and His second coming; in other words, what is sometimes described as the ‘Church Age’.
IMAGERY AND SYMBOLISM
As mentioned, imagery and symbolism are vitally important to Revelation. It would be impossible to go through every symbol and image in the letter but a brief look at one or two might be helpful.
It is easy to overdo the importance of numbers in Revelation, but there are some numbers that are worth taking note of. For example, there are four central words which occur fourteen times in Revelation: ‘Jesus’, ‘Spirit’, ‘saints’ and ‘servants’. Word frequency is important because it “reinforce[s] the surface meaning of the terms”. Fourteen is the “number of perfect witness, since it combines seven, the number signifying completeness, with two, the number of witness.”6 We, therefore, should pay special attention to words which have been used so carefully by John. The use of fourteen in such important words reminds us of the theme of ‘witness’ (2) and the fact that Revelation portrays the ‘completion’ (7) or culmination of God’s plans for his creation.
If we take one episode (chapter 12:1-13:18) we can begin to see how some of the symbolism might work.7 These chapters contain various images, the most important, with what they symbolise, are these: Woman clothed with the sun Ideal community of God’s people Red dragon Male child Caught up top the throne Michael Casting to earth Beast from the sea Beast from the earth Satan Jesus Ascension Heavenly patron of Israel Israel, Church Rev 12:9 Psalm 2:9 Heb 1:3 Dan 10:13, 21
Victory of the death and resurrection 1 Cor 15:50-57 of Jesus Roman Empire Paganism The deification of the Emperors Bogus religion
Paul 2003, p 18 This condensed and adapted from Metzger 1993, p 72-79. 6
John thus portrays in the Dragon and the two beasts a satanic trinity which sets itself up in opposition to the true Trinity.
THE STRUCTURE OF THE BOOK
We have already met one threefold division of the book (see the section on the ‘Futurist’ view above) Another method of dividing the book which commends itself as it takes seriously the role of various numbers (and specifically 7) in Revelation is as follows 8: 1. Vision 1, - The Church on Earth - The 7 Churches 2. Vision 2 - God’s Throne and The 7 Seals 3. Vision 3 - The 7 Trumpets 4. Vision 4 - Warfare and Salvation - The 7 Signs 5. Vision 5 - The 7 Bowls of Judgment 6. Vision 6 - Victory for Christ - The 7 Judgments chs 1 - 3 chs. 4 - 7 chs. 8 - 11 chs. 12 - 13 chs. 15 - 16 chs. 17 - 20
7. Vision 7 - New Heaven and Earth - The 7 New Things chs. 21 - 22 When discussing what structure the book has, we need to decide whether the book is progressive of cyclical9. In other words, whether John has put the book together chronologically or symbolically. If you hold to the first view then events recorded in chapter 18 necessarily follow in ‘time’ those which are recorded in chapter 7. However, it would be better to say that the events recorded in Revelation are recorded in an order which makes sense in terms of themes and principles rather than chronology. After all, the book is about revealing what happens ‘behind the scenes’ in God’s presence - by definition a ‘place’ which is outside of time.
As a book written to give comfort and encouragement; to bring hope amidst suffering, it is fitting that it ends with Jesus’ promise “Yes, I am coming soon”, to which the only reply of his people today must be. “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.” Surrounded by Your glory, what will my heart feel Will I dance for you Jesus or in awe of you be still Will I stand in your presence or to my knees will I fall Will I sing hallelujah, will I be able to speak at all I can only imagine.10
This is adapted from Drane J, 1999, Introducing the New Testament Oxford: Lion Hudson Plc p 442 and Kistemaker, 2001 pp 65-70
See Kistemaker, 2001, p 65f for a good discussion of this. “I Can Only Imagine”, Mercy Me, 1999 7
There are any number of books available discussing Revelation and its themes. I have chosen the ones below because they seem to me to deal with the issues in depth and in an accessible way. The best introduction to the book is a very short one by Ian Paul in the Grove Booklet series: Paul I, 2003, How to Read the Book of Revelation, Cambridge:Grove Books Limited A very accessible introduction to the letters and Revelation is: Marshall H, Travis S and Paul I, (2002) Exploring the New Testament Volume 2, London:SPCK
Good, accessible commentaries include: Ladd GE, 1972, A Commentary on the Revelation of John, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Morris L, 1984, Revelation, Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press Wilcock M, 1989, The Message of Revelation, Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press More advanced commentaries include (The Beale is excellent but presupposes some understanding of NT Greek): Beale GK, 1999, The Book of Revelation, Carlisle: The Paternoster Press Kistemaker SJ, 2001, Revelation, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic Mounce RH, 1998, The Book of Revelation, London: Marshall, Morgan and Scott Smalley SS, 2005, The Revelation to John, London: SPCK
There are many other books on Revelation which are not, strictly speaking, commentaries but which tackle issues of theme and theology. Below is merely a selection of those I have found useful: Alexander TD, 2008, From Eden to the New Jerusalem, Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press Bauckham R, 1993a, The Theology of the Book of Revelation, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press Bauckham R, 1993b, The Climax of Prophecy, London: T & T Clark Gilbertson M, 1997, The Meaning of the Millennium, Cambridge: Grove Books Limited
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
We've moved you to where you read on your other device.
Get the full title to continue reading from where you left off, or restart the preview.