Some Reflections on Interpreting the Book of Revelation in the 21st Century (Part 2)

Click here to read “Some Reflections on Interpreting the Book of Revelation in the 21st Century (Part 1).”

Two interpretive issues

The brevity of this paper only permits time for exploration of two interpretive issues that shed light on how we read the text. The first is the tendency of some scholars to identify the second beast of Revelation 13 with the term “antichrist” identified in 1 John 2:18-23. The term “antichrist” is only used in 1 John, and he offers a clear biblical definition of the term. “Who is the liar? It is the man who denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a man is the antichrist — he denies the Father and the Son” (1 John 2:22). Earlier in the passage John indicates that his readers have heard that the antichrist is coming, but “even now many antichrists have come. This is how we know it is the last hour” (1 John 2:18). John seems to indicate that the term “antichrist” does not refer to a single individual but to multiple persons who deny Christ and who despite outward appearances have not gone out from the people of God (1 John 2:19).

This biblical understanding of antichrist as describing multiple individuals frames this writer’s interpretation of Revelation 6-18. Before we get there, we need to return to Revelation 13 and speak to the identity of the second beast in that chapter. Insight into that identification is actually found in Revelation 17 in the identification of “Mystery Babylon the Great.” Babylon is described as “the woman who was drunk with the blood of the saints, the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus” (17:6). That woman rode on “the beast which has seven heads and ten horns” (17:7).

This beast is identified in two ways. First, “the seven heads are seven hills on which the woman sits” (17:9). Rome has always been known as the city of seven hills, and this is an obvious reference to that city. Moreover, it is not surprising that John would equate Rome with Babylon. In Daniel 2 and Daniel 7, Babylon and Rome are two of the four great world empires, each of which stand in opposition to God and his purposes. The second way the beast is identified is through the curious phrase “who once was, now is not, and will come up out of the Abyss and go to his destruction” (17:8). This is a play on the phrase found in Revelation 1:8: “who is, and who was, and who is to come,” a phrase that clearly identifies Jesus Christ.

So if this identifies Jesus Christ, then who is identified by this strange phrase in chapter 17? Assuming that John wrote the book in AD 90-95, this writer suggests that it refers to Nero Caesar. Nero was probably the most feared emperor of the first century and most likely the man responsible for the deaths of the apostles Paul and Peter, as well as hundreds of Christians whom he blamed for the fires that swept Rome as part of his failed efforts at urban renewal (“who once was”). He had been dead for over 20 years at the time of John’s writing (“now is not”). Now a new Nero would return in the person of the current emperor Domitian and in future emperors who would bring opposition, even death, to those Christians who refuse to take the mark of the beast (which in my view simply means their refusal to confess that “Caesar is Lord”). So Revelation 17 helps us understand the gematria of Revelation 13:18 and make a primary (but not a sole) identification of the second beast as Nero Caesar.[1]

The second interpretive issue is that John’s intent is probably not to identify the second beast exclusively with Nero Caesar, but with the theological character of Roman state religion. In the first century B.C., Rome began to identify their emperors with deity at their death. But beginning with Nero, the identification of deity with the emperor happened while the emperor was still alive. Nero, Domitian and their successors were now seen as objects of patriotic worship. Anyone who attempted to force Christians to proclaim that “Caesar is Lord” is an antichrist because Christians could only claim that “Jesus is Lord.” And John shows why by linking Rome to Babylon and describing its destruction, while showing that the kingdom of God transcends all temporal empires. This fits nicely with John’s description of multiple antichrists that we noted earlier in 1 John 2, and suggests some fresh ways of interpreting the book of Revelation that are relevant to the people of God in the 21st century.

An interpretive schema

In thinking about interpretation, it is important to grasp the difference between exegesis and interpretation. Earlier, we described the importance of authorial intent for understanding the message of Scripture. Exegesis involves just that, in that we strive to determine what the author attempted to communicate to his original hearers. Only after that can we engage in hermeneutics, toward interpreting and applying Revelation (or any biblical text) for our contemporary context.

This is where the various schools of interpretation come into play. The various forms of preterism, historicism and futurism are mostly questions of hermeneutics as opposed to exegesis, in that they address how the text speaks to contemporary Christianity. The interpretations that draw around Reformed amillennialism, Dispensational premillennialism, parallel historicism, and other schools of thought speak primarily to how we interpret the text in our present day. But for any of those interpretations to be valid, they must be grounded in what the author desired to tell his readers and listeners.

This writer seeks to build his interpretive schema on the conviction that Revelation speaks to past, present and future. Some argue that properly interpreted, the New Testament must have been seen as teaching there are two distinct peoples of God. This is a complex argument that cannot be described here, but the point is that only chapters 1-3 are seen as applying to the church, while chapters 4-18 are viewed as applying only to a national Israel.[2] The fundamental problem with this viewpoint in this writer’s opinion is that it reads a theological schema on the biblical text that the author did not intend. In Revelation 1:10-11, John indicates that while he was “in the Spirit” he was commanded to “write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches.” Moreover, what he writes is “what is now and what will take place later” (1:19). From this passage, it is clear that the message of entire book is for those seven churches, not just one portion of it. Everything in the entire book of Revelation is written for Christians in those seven congregations (and by extension to us).

An important corollary to this conviction is that because the entire book is written for these followers of Jesus who face significant opposition from the Roman government, especially in the eastern provinces of the Empire, the apocalyptic images and references in chapters 4-18 speak of Rome as a political entity. In other words, the evil described in those chapters finds its initial fulfillment in the Roman Empire itself. As John weaves vision after vision, image after image, followers of Jesus knew exactly what he was speaking about. They faced incredible opposition from a powerful force about which they could do nothing. But as powerful as Rome was, a day would come when it would be smashed by the eternal God. Caesar thought he was god, and indeed Caesar was powerful. But like all human empires, Rome would fall in the face of the eternal God who was working out his purposes in human history.

Moreover, the sequencing of the seven seals, trumpets and bowls found in chapters 6-18 points toward an intensification of opposition. For example, notice that each of the sequences ends with activity in heaven. The opening of the seventh seal in Revelation 8 leads to silence in heaven followed by the inauguration of the seven trumpets. The blowing of the seventh trumpet in Revelation 11 is followed by worship in heaven followed by even more significant destruction on earth. The seventh bowl is poured out with the cry, “It is done” (Revelation 16:17) and followed with unprecedented destruction visited on Babylon/Rome. This intensification can be seen in the all of the seals-trumpets-bowls.[3]In terms of our exegesis, we discover that chapters 6-18 primarily reference first century Rome and that the beast (or “antichrist”) referenced is the office of the Roman Emperor. The question then becomes whether or not the seals-trumpets-bowls schema in Revelation speaks to future periods of Christian history as well.

Many preterists would answer “no” and argue that Revelation 19 speaks to something other than a literal return of Christ to earth. Historicists will see Revelation 6-18 as speaking to a progression in human history leading up to a future return of Christ. Futurists see everything from Revelation 6 on as referring to events still yet to take place.

What is John the Elder attempting to communicate in these texts? How should we read Revelation 6-18 as the people of God today? Can we make sure that our reading takes into account the intent of the author in terms of his historical and cultural context, and in terms of the grammar and literary forms found in the book?

I think the literary structure suggests good ways to read the text and make the following observations:

  1. The seven churches found in the first three chapters are real congregations and all of the book is addressed to them. Moreover, John has written to them in language that they would readily understand given their personal, political and cultural contexts.
  2. The heavenly scenes communicate the nearness of heaven and earth. Modern people are used to thinking of heaven as something far distant and ethereal and not connected to the reality of earth. But for John, heaven is a concrete reality that will be fully realized on earth at the return of Jesus Christ.
  3. John’s understanding of multiple antichrists in his first letter fits well with his identification of Babylon with Roman emperor worship. Even after the fall of Rome, antichrists will continue to appear in human history right up until the return of Jesus Christ. Mohammed, Charlemagne, Napoleon, Stalin, Hitler, Mao and others fill the bill, and historically the number of antichrists can be expected to grow and intensify leading up to the end of this age.
  4. The seals, trumpets and bowls convey an intensification of evil from the time of the resurrection until Christ’s return. They are parallel accounts of this intensification of evil, and while we cannot equate specific historical events with the pestilences described, they do demonstrate that evil will grow stronger as world history moves toward the return of Christ. This “parallel historical” description fits the intentions of the text better than the preterist, continuous historicist, idealist and futurist schools of interpretation.[4]
  5. This interpretative schema leaves open the possibility of a future singular antichrist who will dominate the political, cultural, and religious landscapes of the world. While the text does not require a future singular antichrist, it certainly leaves room for it but refuses to be dogmatic. This is a matter that well-meaning Christians can and should disagree over and it certainly is not central to the faith.
  6. A parallel historical schema reflects the entire New Testament teaching that the return of Jesus Christ will be personal, visible and not subject to any secret prophetic knowledge that some may claim. Too many people have argued about various prophetic interpretations, and attempted to make certain images and symbols fit with historical or future events to the point where the people of God have been distracted from their mission in the world. The reality is that only the Father knows the day and time of Christ’s return (Matthew 24:36-37) and useless speculation is harmful.

In no way do I pretend that this is the final word on understanding and interpreting the book of Revelation. I think this is the best way to understand the book in terms of reading the text on its own terms, but I recognize that well-meaning Christians will disagree. Our interpretation of Revelation should not be a test of Christian orthodoxy unless that interpretation denies the core of Christian faith and the Christian understanding of history in terms of creation, fall, redemption and consummation. I simply offer this as my understanding as I try to be faithful to the author’s original intent.

All of this to say that we can be confident that evil will continue to grow and expand during this age when the kingdom of God is “already but not yet.” Christians are not immune from suffering, persecution and death. Indeed, even today Christians are suffering and facing death for their faith in places throughout the world. Evil will continue to intensify. But we take courage in the same way that Christians did during John’s time. No matter how evil the times seem, no matter what happens, we have confidence that the triune God is present with us, and that we will see our Lord Jesus Christ face to face at his return. Amen. Come Lord Jesus Christ.

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] For a further explanation of gemetria and its usage in this passage, see Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, 2d.ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013), 757. Keener points out that the term translated as “mark” in 13:16 “is among other things, the regular term for the imperial stamp on documents and of the image of his head on coins.”

[2] Known as Dispensational-premillennialism, this school of thought originated with John Nelson Darby in the early to mid-19th century and had its ablest 20th century defenders in C.I. Schofield, John Walvoord, and Charles Ryrie. See, Charles Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today (Chicago: Moody Press, 1965). A more recent view called “Progressive Dispensationalism” offers a different reading of the kingdom of God and embraces the “already but not yet” idea of the kingdom of God while still holding for a distinct future for Israel as a political entity. See Craig Blaising and Darrell Bock, Progressive Dispensationalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Bridgepoint, 2000).

[3] J. Scott Duvall, Revelation, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014), 126.

[4] For a chart that demonstrates the interrelationship between the seals, trumpets, and bowls, see Duvall, 126. According to Duvall, “The three series of judgments cover much of the same ground but also increase in intensity…. Revelation moves forward in cycles of judgment rather than a neat, linear, sequential progression. Perhaps this slow movement hints at God’s patience in wanting people to repent.” In this writer’s view, this is the reading that is most literal because it allows the text itself to shape the interpretive schema and does not seek to impose a school of thought on the text.

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