Interpreting the Book of Revelation

This blog post is in response to a request for a pamphlet that once introduced a sermon series on the Book of Revelation by briefly describing the various popular approaches. I have reproduced that content here, more or less.

Jesus Christ spent three years carefully instructing his twelve disciples. After his resurrection, he led them in an amazing 40 day seminar to round out their instruction. But during the aging years of his last apostle, he initiated personal contact from Paradise to emphasize one last point to John.

The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw.

Revelation 1:1-2

Jesus’ last teaching concerned “what must soon take place.” Later, John is told of “what must take place after this.” (Revelation 4:1) The phrases serve as a convenient focal point to appreciate various interpretive approaches to this book.

Over the last century and a half, one popular interpretation takes “what must soon take place” to refer only to the first vision directed to the seven churches, and “what must take place after this” to imply that everything else in the book is a vision of the distant future, at this point thousands of years after John—the final few years of human history before the return of Christ. This approach is called futurist because it believes that most of Revelation is prophecy about things which are in our future, unless we happen to be the last generation before the second coming. Since every Christian hopes that Christ will return in his or her lifetime, futurists characteristically attempt to interpret the prophecies of Revelation by mapping them onto major world events of their own era. Futurists in the 1930’s believed Hitler was the Antichrist. Futurists in the ’60’s thought it was the Soviet Union, or Red China. Futurists today might assign that role to radical Islamic leaders, or political leaders on either the extreme right or extreme left, and so on.

Other good Christians look at the phrase “what must soon take place” and “what must take place after this” as describing events which both begin and end within a few years of when the visions were originally given. These preterists (technically, partial preterists, since they understand Jesus’ return as still future) believe that most of the Revelation prophecies deal with the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD and the fall of Rome in the years that follow. Preterists understand that these visions described the future from John’s perspective, but, like so many genuine prophecies of the Old Testament, they have long since been fulfilled. For them, the Antichrist was someone the early church had to deal with.

The other main view is sometimes called the idealist view. The idealist view looks at those two phrases as both marking the beginning of an age which has not yet ended. This view sees the Book of Revelation describing the entire age in which we now live. Note, for example, how 1 John 2:18 claims that several antichrists already existed in John’s day, and warns us that more will arise.

This introduction is written to explain that I teach Revelation from an idealist perspective. I believe Revelation was written for all Christians, not just for our ancestors in the first century, and not only for the last generation before Christ’s return. The reason I believe this is because of the relationship of Revelation to the Book of Daniel.

It is obvious even to the casual reader that the imagery in the Book of Revelation is reminiscent of the Old Testament Book of Daniel. They are, in fact, intimately connected. Daniel prophesied that the Messiah’s expanding kingdom would come in what would be, for him, the distant future. The terrible beasts of Daniel’s remarkable visions were identified as his own Babylonian Empire, followed by the Medes and Persians, followed by the rise of Alexander the Great, followed by the rise of what would be called Rome. Then, in the middle of the Roman empire, Daniel saw the coming of God’s Messiah. The visions included a tantalizing glimpse of a period of history when the Messiah’s kingdom would grow from meager beginnings, gaining strength upon strength, until one day it crushes the kingdoms of this world in a great and final judgment.

Those visions were described to Daniel as “what will take place in the future.” (Daniel 2:45) That future was so distant from Daniel’s own day, that at the end of his book he was instructed to “close up and seal the words of the scroll until the time of the end.” (Daniel 12:4) The scrolls containing these prophecies literally had to be sealed in jars to preserve them through the centuries until the time of their distant fulfillment. Contrast that command with what we find in Revelation …

In the Book of Revelation, the Apostle John prophesied about the same rise of Messiah’s expanding kingdom. But whereas that kingdom had been far in the future with respect to Daniel, it was beginning to actually come to pass for John. What was distant from Daniel’s perspective, was for John immediately at hand. The Medes and Persians had come and gone. Alexander had come and gone. John found himself in the middle of the Roman Empire. Daniel’s “son of man” had come, and it was time for his kingdom to spread out from Israel to all nations. That is why, at the very end of John’s prophetic book, he was commanded, “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, because the time is near.” (Revelation 22:10)

Daniel’s visions of the rise of Christ’s kingdom in the midst of spiritually rebellious nations is repeated in even more graphic detail in the Book of Revelation. The first vision of the seven churches lays out the message of the book, which is that Christ’s church must persevere and overcome during this new gospel age of immense tribulation and turmoil. This is the final thing Jesus wished to personally emphasize before he took up the worldwide spread of the gospel in earnest.

Why was this so important? Because during the difficult Babylonian exile, the reason Daniel knew that God was still in control was that God’s prophets proclaimed ahead of time that this grueling experience was part of God’s plan, along with a promise that in time, God’s people would come home. Revelation serves exactly the same purpose for us. The Four Horsemen, the Great Prostitute of culture, the Beast of power-hungry government, the second Beast of self-serving churches, and the Dragon that pulls all their strings are graphic depictions of this age, and therefore of the world in which we live. We will remain faithful to our calling as we remember that the Lord Jesus proclaimed ahead of time that our endurance is part of his plan, and stay strengthened by his promise to return to take us home. The signs of tribulation are the signs of this age, signs that the world needs a Savior. As long as the signs of sinful alienation are clear, we can be sure that Christ is saving and Christ will return. And the time of his return is always near, since those same signs remind us of his promise to return.

The visions and scenes of Revelation (seals, bowls, trumpets, the dragon, Babylon, etc.) do not follow each other in chronological order, any more that the four Gospels follow each other chronologically. The Gospels use different perspectives to portray how Christ accomplished our redemption. Similarly, the scenes in Revelation are different perspectives on the birth pangs of the Kingdom as it emerges around the world. These visions do not apply only to 70 AD or only to the final few years before Christ’s return. They apply to the entire age which began in John’s day and extends into our own, when Christ’s followers deliver his gospel to a world painfully broken and in spiritual rebellion.

Revelation is not only about history. Revelation is not only about the future. The last book of the Bible calls all Christians to live as faithful witnesses to Christ, no matter what, as his kingdom expands right now.

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

Revelation 1:3

I developed these themes in depth in my books, A Larger Faith, the Book of Daniel, and Tapestry, the Book of Revelation.

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