Some Reflections on Interpreting the Book of Revelation in the 21st Century (Part 1)

Since the Second World War, biblical prophecy has driven Christian book sales, especially in the United States. With each new decade, a new best-seller promises to solve the puzzles and offer us a reliable countdown to the end of history. Moreover, the best seller of all best sellers in the 20th century was none other than The Late Great Planet Earth.[1] To be honest, in my early years in the faith I was captivated by the prophetic speculations of Hal Lindsey and others. Fortunately, my engagement with Christian theology leads to the rest of the story.

The book of Revelation is notoriously difficult to interpret and for 1,900 years Christians have been wrestling with how to make sense of the visions and dreams reported by John the Elder. This writer does not pretend to have the book figured out, not even close. Moreover, the more he reads and engages with the text, the more questions emerge. So these reflections are based on several recent readings of the text along with interaction with the work of Gordon Fee, N.T. Wright, John Stott and others.

As one who affirms the inspiration and inerrancy of Holy Scripture, this writer thinks that understanding the text must begin with trying to get at the author’s original intentions (something that is not as easy as it might seem).[2] What was John the Elder attempting to communicate to his audience, the church leaders and congregants of the seven Asia Minor congregations that the author lists in chapters 2 and 3. The entire book of Revelation was written to address their concerns, concerns rooted in the opposition and selective persecution they faced from Rome and its governing authorities. That reality must shape how we understand the book in our day and time. Revelation cannot be understood apart from its first-century context.

In the aftermath of the modern Enlightenment, several interpretive schools of thought have emerged concerning how to interpret the book and its content. While each has positive things to contribute to understanding Revelation, too often they lead us away from the text and what the author was attempting to communicate to his original listeners. The book of Revelation has at least three literary genres that shape its interpretation. The book is a prophecy (1:3), a declaring of the Word of God by John. Revelation is also an example of apocalyptic literature. The proper title is “The Apocalypse” and this form of Jewish literature was common in the first century and focused on conflict between God and the forces of evil (which Christians believe is rooted in Satan, the devil and the enemy of our faith) in language that describes a global and heavenly confrontation.[3] Finally, the book contains letters written to seven specific congregations which were written to be read during worship, probably with the contents of the entire book.

What does the text say?

While this cannot be an exhaustive exposition of the entire book, there are several keys that shape how we understand and interpret the book. First, while the author identifies the book as “the Revelation of Jesus Christ” (1:1), he does indicate that the book is written to the “seven churches in the province of Asia (1:4) that are identified in chapter 1, verse 11. John follows the same pattern as the Apostle Paul in his letters, and this tells us that the book of Revelation in its entirety is addressed to Christians in these seven congregations, not only the letters of chapters 2 and 3, but the visions of the 24 elders in chapters 4 and 5, the visions of the conflict described in chapters 6-18, and the return of Christ and the eternal kingdom articulated in chapters 19-22.

Second, more than any other New Testament document, the book of Revelation cites or alludes to images found in the Old Testament, especially from the books of Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and Zechariah. For example, John liberally uses the number “seven” and speaks of seven churches, seven lampstands, seven seals, seven trumpets, seven trumpets and so on. The allusion to Genesis 1:1-2:3 is apparent where “seven days” is used to indicate that all of creation is the result of God’s creative activity. Even in the seven seals, trumpets and bowls, we see a parallel to the seventh day in Genesis 2:1-3 where God rested. In the same way that the number seven alludes to the perfection of God’s creative activity, so the same number offers an indication of God’s consummation of his kingdom, or what N.T. Wright terms “new creation.”[4] Scripture offers a Christian understanding of human history through its sequencing of creation, fall, redemption and consummation (or “new creation”) and the book of Revelation is integral to that.

Moreover, understanding the text of Revelation means grasping the significance of the many Old Testament allusions found throughout the book. This reflects what evangelical New Testament scholar Ben Witherington sees as foundational to understanding New Testament teaching in its entirety.[5] Witherington remarks that the New Testament represents the efforts of its writers, indeed of all first century Christians, to come to grips with the significance of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and how all of the Old Testament is fulfilled in his life, death and resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus is so significant that for the New Testament writers, everything has changed. In the face of the first-century Roman religion of emperor worship, Christians can no longer say that “Caesar is Lord.” Now they proclaim that “Jesus is Lord” and this proclamation has deep implications for how they live in the midst of a hostile Roman society.[6]

Third, because all of the book of Revelation is addressed to hearers and readers in the seven Asia Minor congregations, they will naturally understand the images found throughout the book. For example, they will understand the use of gematria in Revelation 13:18 where John identifies the “beast” with the number “666” (more on this later, but this writer is convinced that they knew the meaning of this number in terms of the identity of the beast).[7] They will understand the significance of the number “144,000” found in Revelation 7 as representative of the people of God. They will grasp the meaning of the measurements of the New Jerusalem described in Revelation 21. The visions articulated by John are not meant to be mysterious to his readers. Instead they are to provide concrete hope to the people of God who face political and religious opposition from the Roman Empire. As strong as Rome now appeared, it was temporal. But God’s kingdom is eternal and will be fully revealed by Jesus Christ at the end of history when he returns to earth. In other words, God wins!

Finally, while in the eyes of John and his readers the book represents both present and future events, for those of us reading the book 1,900 years later, the book represents past, present and future. This is where the various schools of interpretation often lead us astray. Preterists often see the book as almost entirely taking place in the past (even for some the return of Christ). A number of historicists see the images of the book as representing specific historical events over the past 1,900 years.[8] Futurists see everything after Revelation 3 as located entirely future to our 21st century historical location.[9] None of these views do full justice to a historical, grammatical, literary and cultural reading of the text. Our goal in reading is not to adhere to a specific school of thought but to read the text on its own terms.

This writer suggests that a proper reading of the text leads to an interpretative schema that sees chapters 6-18 as having past, present, and future dimensions with its ultimate goal reflecting the bodily return of Jesus Christ to earth and the “already but not yet” kingdom of God being fully realized in a “new heaven and new earth,” i.e., “new creation.”

By Dr. Robert J. Mayer

(Robert J. Mayer is past-editor of the Advent Christian Witness and currently Senior Librarian and Associate Professor of Theological Bibliography at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary)

References

[1] Hal Lindsey, The Late Great Planet Earth (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1970). Ironically, the title was a take-off from Curt Gentry’s 1969 novel titled The Last Days of the Late Great State of California, a description of events that might occur if a massive earthquake destroyed everything west of the San Andreas fault.

[2] Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart make this this important point inHow to Read the Bible for All its Worth 3d.ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), 23-24; 249-50. David Bebbington in Patterns in History: A Christian Perspective on Historical Thought 4th.ed. (Waco, TX: Baylor UP, 2018) describes the impact of Postmodernism on historical and literary research and points out that characteristic to postmodern interpretation is the assertion that authorial intent is essentially undiscoverable and therefore, all interpretation is “reader-response” meaning that each reader “interprets” the text apart from any historical context. See 139-141 for discussion.

[3] For a description of this literary form, see Leon Morris, Apocalyptic (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1972).

[4] N.T. Wright uses the term “new creation” when he speaks of this fourfold movement of God in human history. See N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York: HarperOne, 2008), 67.

[5] Ben Witherington, New Testament History: A Narrative Approach (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007).

[6] The second-century text, The Martyrdom of Polycarp offers a dramatic illustration of Christian unwillingness to practice emperor worship. In 167 AD, when Polycarp is ushered into the stadium to either deny Christ or face certain death, he replies “For eighty-six years, I have been his servant, and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” cf. Michael W. Holmes, ed. The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, 3d.ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2007), 317.

[7] See G.B. Caird, The Revelation of St. John the Divine (New York: Harper and Row, 1966), 174-77.

[8] This is characteristic of the continuous historical school of interpretation. While the continuous historical school of thought has few modern-day adherents, a strong intellectually sound defense can be found in Oral C. Collins, The Final Prophecy of Jesus: An Introduction, Analysis, and Commentary on the Book of Revelation (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2007). Parallel historicists would disagree with the continuous historical interpretive schema though both schools argue that the seals, trumpets, and bowls describe the period of time between Jesus’s resurrection and his return to earth in the future.

[9] For a scholarly commentary written from a dispensationalist futurist point of view, see John Walvoord, The Revelation of Jesus Christ (Chicago, Moody Press, 1966).

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