Having looked at some basic principles and definitions for prophecy as a whole, we now want to look at some points of introduction to the book of Revelation itself.
Title of the Book
Our Bibles carry the title of the book as “The Revelation of John,” or “The Revelation to John” which means it is a revelation given to the Apostle John, but the proper name is found in the first words of 1:1, “The Revelation of Jesus Christ.” Revelation is from the Greek word apokalupsis meaning “a disclosure, an unveiling.” The name “revelation” (note that it is singular) is derived from its use in 1:1, “The Revelation of Jesus Christ.”
“Of Jesus Christ” is a genitive construction which can mean “about Jesus Christ” or “from Jesus Christ.” This is what some grammarians call a “plenary genitive,” i.e., a genitive doing double duty since both aspects are true.
(1) It is the revelation that comes from Christ (cf. the second clause in 1:1, “which God gave Him to show to His bondservants,” and 22:16 make this point clear). Jesus Christ, being God Himself, gave this revelation to His servant.
(2) But Jesus Christ is also the center of the book. The book is supremely the revelation about the Savior who has overcome and will return to defeat all evil (1:7, 13 [Note that each message to the seven churches begins with some aspect of the vision of Christ in 1:13-16]; 5:5-14).
Let’s note one more thing about the title. While this book contains several visions and unveilings, it is one book and one total revelation centered around one person and His literal return to earth—the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is not the Book of Revelations (pl). The noun Revelation in verse one is singular and is so in the Greek text.
Theme of the Book
The prominent theme of the book certainly concerns the conflict with evil in the form of human personalities energized by Satan and his world-wide system, and the Lord’s triumphant victory to overthrow these enemies to establish His kingdom both in the millennium (the 1,000 years of Revelation 20) and in eternity.
This is accomplished by taking the reader and hearers (1:3) behind the scenes through the visions given to John to see the demonic nature and source of the awful evil in the world along with the conquering power which rests in the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, who is also the Lamb standing, as if slain, but very much alive, angry, and bringing the judgment of God’s awesome holiness against a sinful and rebellious world.
Importance and Purpose of the Book
I suppose there is no book in the New Testament which has been as neglected and as controversial as this book, at least in some quarters. Some assert that Revelation is impossible to interpret. Others claim it should not even be in the New Testament much less studied and read. An illustration of this can be found in Martin Luther’s attitude and remarks. For Luther, Revelation was “neither apostolic nor prophetic” and because of its overuse of visions and symbols, Christ was neither taught nor accepted in this book. Luther was offended by this book. Some seminaries avoid it almost entirely or give it very little attention, and many people and schools dismiss it as a hopeless conglomeration of visions and dreams.
The point is man has attempted to do precisely what God has told him not to do. Revelation 22:10 says, “seal not the sayings of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near.” God does not intend for the truth of this book to be sealed to man. He intended the church to study and understand the message of Revelation. Why is that?
First, because blessing, not confusion is promised to those who will read it (1:3). Though filled with horror, it ends in the triumph of righteousness and faith.
Second, the Bible says “all Scripture is profitable,” meaning every book of the Bible. But Revelation has a unique and very important place as it is the consummation and climax of God’s revelation and redemptive history. As the final book of the Bible, Revelation brings together a number of lines of prophetic truth which run parallel throughout the Old and New Testaments, but, apart from the book of Revelation, they find no complete prophetic fulfillment.
I remember reading about a young believer who, at the conclusion of reading Revelation for the first time, jumped up and shouted, “We Win! We Win! The point is that without the book of Revelation, the Bible would be incomplete. Other Old and New Testament books add new dimensions and give added information and details of prophetic truth regarding the end times, but only Revelation draws them all together into a final conclusion.
This forms one of the arguments for the Bible as a completed canon. All the themes of Scripture are fulfilled and find their culmination in Revelation. There is no need for more revelation from this standpoint. With this book, we truly have “a faith once and for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).
Third, this book is also important because it deals with “things which must shortly come to pass.” It is the only major prophetic book in the New Testament that deals in an in-depth way with the events of the Day of the Lord. Many other passages deal with this period of time like Matthew 24 and 1 Thessalonians 5, but not to the extent Revelation does.
Fourth, it is also important because of the way it reveals the Lord Jesus. It reveals Him as the Lamb of God and King of kings who, in the consummation of His program of salvation, restores to man what was lost by the fall and much more. All of Scripture ultimately speaks of the Lord, it points men to Him, but it is Revelation which thoroughly demonstrates the culmination of God’s complete salvation in Christ.
Fifth, Revelation is also important because of its unique warnings and challenges to the church in the section spoken of as “things present” (2-3). But even beyond this, the rest of the book also has a very pertinent message for us today for two reasons:
On the one hand, it provides us with an extended commentary on the spiritual warfare described in Ephesians 6:12. What we see revealed in this book is but the culmination of the warfare with rulers, principalities, and powers of evil under the control of Satan. As such, it calls us to walk carefully and to understand that what is happening around us is not merely a struggle with flesh and blood, but with supernatural entities that are as real as we are.
On the other hand, it gives us light concerning things to come, of things that have not as yet occurred in history, but will. It thereby comforts and encourages us to carry on in the light of the sure and final judgment on evil and consummation of God’s kingdom in time and eternity.
Sixth, it is important because it discloses conditions that will be present in the end-time system of the beast and the final world empire, politically, religiously, economically, and internationally. Such conditions, one would think, would naturally begin to come together to set the stage, as props are prepared for the world stage, before this end-time drama would actually unfold. Thus, while Christ’s return for the church is imminent, those members of the body of Christ who will be living in this moment of history can know that His return must be even more imminent, i.e., just around the corner.
Author and Date
According to the book itself, the author’s name was John (1:4,9; 22:8). He was a prophet (22:9), and a leader who was known in the churches of Asia Minor to whom he writes the book of Revelation (1:4).
Traditionally, this John has been identified as John the Apostle, one of the disciples of our Lord. That the style is different from the style of the Gospel of John stems only from the difference in the nature of this book as apocalyptic literature.
An early church father, Irenaeus, states that John first settled in Ephesus, that he was later arrested and banished to the Isle of Patmos in the Agean Sea to work in the mines, and that this occurred during the reign of the Roman emperor, Domitian. This supports the author’s own claim to have written from Patmos because of his witness for Christ (1:9).
Domitian reigned in Rome from 81-96 A.D. Since Irenaeus tells us that John wrote from Patmos during the reign of Domitian, and since this is confirmed by other early church writers, such as Clement of Alexander and Eusebius, most conservative scholars believe the book was written between 81-96 A.D. This would make it the last book of the New Testament, just shortly after John’s gospel and his epistles (1, 2, and 3 John). Others conservative scholars believe it was written much earlier, around 68, or before Jerusalem was destroyed.
Interpretation of the Book
(1) This book is a part of the canon—a part of that which God has spoken. It belongs in the Bible.
Early church history supports the Apostle John as the author. So it was written by an apostle and this is one of the requirements or tests for inclusion into the canon of Scripture.
The book refers to the human author simply as John without further identification. This would imply the author was well known to the readers of Asia Minor, as would be the case with the apostle John who we know lived in Ephesus. This further supports the Apostle John as the author.
This book was widely circulated and received as inspired Scripture by the beginning of the third century, the early 200’s.
There were a few small groups who did not accept it as Scripture, but this was primarily from opposition to the thousand year reign so clearly taught in chapter 20. Much of this came from heretical groups, but on the whole, the early church accepted it as inspired Scripture.
(2) As a part of the Bible, this book is what God has spoken through the Apostle, the human author. The principle is that God is its author and Scripture emphatically declares that God is not the author of confusion (1 Cor. 14:33). If we accept it as Scripture, as did the early church and the majority of the church historically, we must approach the book as a book intended to be understood, not as a book to mystify and confuse. It is as Moses wrote: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God; but those things which are revealed belong unto us and our children forever” (Deut. 29:29).
(3) The uncertainty and confusion that this book has been accused of creating is not the fault of the book nor the fault of God. Rather, the confusion is the product of the way men have tried to approach this book. A great deal of confusion has been caused because of a bias against such things as: (a) a literal 1,000 year reign, (b) the coming of the terrible judgments depicted, and (c) a desire to spiritualize prophecy in general. The confusion has come from those who have tried to spiritualize or allegorize prophecy and especially this book.
In allegory, words are not taken in their literal or normal meaning. They are spiritualized which means that the interpreter looks behind the literal, plain meaning of the text for a hidden and more profound meaning. This turns exegesis or Bible study into an artful play of human ingenuity and fanciful imagination.
The result of this approach is a potpourri, a mixed bag of interpretations. One man sees one thing and another sees something else because when the normal method of interpretation is abandoned (which includes the proper use of symbols) you have no objective controls to your interpretation and no control over human imagination.
SCHOOLS OF INTERPRETATION USED WITH REVELATION
THE PRETERIST SCHOOL
Preterist is from a Latin word meaning “past.” This school of thought sees Revelation as already fulfilled in the early history of the church by 312 A.D. with the conversion of Constantine. Note the spiritualizing nature of their interpretations: Revelation 5-11 is a record of the church’s victory over Judaism; Revelation 12-19 is record of her victory over Rome; and Revelation 20-22 is record of the glory of the church. The persecutions of Revelation, it is claimed, are those of Nero and Domitian and all was fulfilled by the time of Constantine (312 A.D.).
Revelation for the Preterist is purely symbolic history rather than prophetic of coming events in history. This not only does total injustice to the nature of the book as prophecy, but to the normal meaning of words.
THE HISTORICAL APPROACH
This approach sees Revelation as a symbolic presentation and a panorama of the total period of church history from John’s day to the end of the age or Christ’s second advent. In this view, Revelation does not just deal with a future time, but covers all of history from the time of John. The problems is most adherents of this view see the book culminating in their day and as many as 50 interpretations have evolved. Why? Because the literal, normal approach of interpretation has been abandoned. Further, such a view must ignore the imminent return of the Lord.
THE IDEALIST APPROACH
This approach sees the book as portraying in symbolic terms the age-old conflict of the principles of good and evil with no historic elements whether past or future.
THE FUTURISTIC APPROACH
The term “futurist” comes from the fact this interpretation sees the book from chapter 4 on as yet to be fulfilled. This is the approach taken in this study, though I do believe it is also an extended commentary on Paul’s statement in Ephesians 6:12.6 The futurist approach follows the principle of interpretation known as the literal, plain or normal method of interpretation. This method which will be defined below recognizes the use of symbols, but understands them in their plain, customary, and normal meaning just as we do in our language. The term star, for instance, can refer to a star in the heavens, or it can refer to a famous athlete, someone who excels in athletics. It depends of the context.
There are several reasons for the futuristic approach. The prophecies found in this book have simply not taken place. There is nothing in history that comes close to the events of the majority of the book. For instance: (a) No judgments in history have ever equaled those depicted in chapters 6, 8, 9, and 16, but in these chapters, these judgments are presented as things that will occur. (b) The resurrection and judgment of chapter 20 have never occurred, but are clearly presented as future facts. (c) Obviously, the great anticipation of the book, Christ’s visible return as portrayed in chapter 20, has also not taken place.
Only the futuristic approach which is based on a literal or plain method of interpretation has any objectivity about the contents of the book.
STRUCTURE OF THE BOOK
The contents of Revelation are given in terms of a series of sevens, some explicit and some implied: seven churches (chap. 2-3); seven seals (chap. 6-7); seven trumpets (chap. 8-11); seven signs (chap. 12-14); seven bowls (chap. 16-18); seven last things (chap. 19-22).
Some divide the contents of the book around four key visions: (a) The vision of the Son of man among the seven churches (chap. 1-3); (b) The vision of the seven-sealed scroll, the seven trumpets, the seven signs, and the seven bowls (4:1-19:10; (c) The vision of the return of Christ and the consummation of the age (19:11-20:15); and (d) The vision of the new heaven and new earth (chap. 21-22).
The contents may also be divided up based on the division of 1:19: (a) “the things which you have seen,” The Things Past (chap. 1:1-20); (b) “the things which are,” The Things Present (chap. 2-3); and (c) “the things which shall take place after these things,” The Things Future (chap. 4-22). Some look at 1:19 differently, but the most natural way to take this verse is as it is translated in the KJV, the NAS, and the NIV.
METHOD OF INTERPRETATION AND USE OF SYMBOLISM
One’s method of interpretation is crucial to a correct interpretation of Scripture because without a correct method, the Bible becomes putty in the hands of the interpreter. You often hear the complaint that you can prove anything you want to with the Bible. And the implication is simply that everyone comes up with a different interpretation, especially with the Book of Revelation. A further implication is that we simply cannot have a sound and objective system of doctrine. But this is incorrect on several points:
(1) The commands of Scripture to know the Word and maintain a system of sound doctrine show us that God expects us to know and come to an objective understanding of the Bible and that this is to become the foundation for sound theology in all categories of truth or doctrine, prophecy included (1 Tim 1:3, 7, 10; 4:6; 6:3; 2 Tim 1:13; 4:3; Tit 1:9, 13).
(2) Without a sound system of doctrine derived from the Bible as our authority, men are left to the shifting sands of their own experience and imaginations. We are invariably left with some form of mysticism and neo-orthodox theology in which the Bible only becomes the Word of God when it speaks to you [or receiving a “Rhema” (ῥῆμα in Greek) word about it,] and a passage of Scripture may do this not only in different ways with different people, but in ways that are completely contradictory.
(3) You cannot prove anything you want to with Scripture if you follow the rules of sound hermeneutics. Hermeneutics means the science and art of Biblical interpretation and it is this that provides controls over the imagination and ideas of man.
(4) Hermeneutics is called a science because it follows rules that guide and control the interpreter. It is called an art because it requires skill and practice to apply the rules correctly as in any skill. This is evident in Paul’s words to Timothy and the context for the words, “accurately handling the Word of truth” in 2 Timothy 2:15. Without an accurate handling of the Bible, we end up with error, not truth. We must, then, using the science of hermeneutics, seek to ground interpretation in fact or the objective data of Scripture—context, grammar, historical setting, meaning and use of words, literary style, etc.
Some passages of Scripture and areas of doctrine are more difficult and hard to be dogmatic on, but this does not mean that they are beyond our grasp or that we should ignore them. We should continue to study these areas being careful to apply ourselves to a careful study of the Word as the inspired Word of God always examining our position as objectively as we can (Acts 17:11; 2 Tim 2:15).
It is also true that no one comes to Scripture without certain preconceived ideas. No one is completely objective (though we must strive to be so) and this is why our method of interpretation is so important as a check (Acts 17:11). But even with that there is also the need to humbly ask God to help us deal with our preconceived notions and prejudices. We need the humble attitude and prayer of the Psalmist who prayed, “Open my eyes that I may behold wonderful things from your Law” (Ps. 119:19).
It is also obvious that men will vary in their skill and knowledge of exegesis (one’s personal examination of the text to determine its meaning in its historical and literary context) and this will affect their ability to accurately interpret the Bible. But again, the responsibility is not to give up, or ignore Scripture, or to treat it as a mystic would do. Instead, our responsibility is to be careful students, ever seeking to be as objective as possible, to be willing to say I am not sure, or I may be wrong, and to continue to grow in the art and science of the study of the Bible as our only objective guide for truth.
As Ramm so aptly put it, “That God has spoken in Holy Scripture is the very heart of our faith and without this certainty we should be left to the relativity and dubiousness of human knowledge. God has spoken! But what has He said?” (italics his). “This is our primary and basic need in hermeneutics: to ascertain what God has said in Sacred Scripture; to determine the meaning of the Word of God.” (italics his). The Bible is no profit to us at all if we do not know what God has said, what it means, or if we think we know, but are wrong.
We must know and have the correct method of interpretation, a correct hermeneutic, so that we do not confuse the voice of God with the voice of man. The false methods of men are what make the Bible a source of confusion rather than a source of light and truth, not the Bible itself.
We must have a method that provides: a check on the imaginations, feelings, background, prejudices of men, a protection against the delusions and misuse of Scripture by Satan, and one that enables us to bridge the gap between the minds of the biblical writers and our minds, the minds of interpreters who live many years later, even hundreds of years later, in a different time, usually in a different place, and with a different language. This is the tremendous gap created by differences of culture, history, geography, and language.
The only method of interpretation or hermeneutic that brings such controls and that moves us toward objectivity is the literal or normal and plain method of interpretation. This is the method that I will be employing in this study of Revelation. But what does this mean?
THE LITERAL METHOD OF INTERPRETATION
To interpret means to explain the original sense of a speaker or writer versus imposing our ideas on the text. To interpret literally means to explain the original sense of the speaker or writer according to the normal, customary, and proper usage of words and language. “The literal or normal interpretation of the Bible simply means to explain the original sense of the Bible according to the normal and customary usages of its language.”
The Control: The literal or normal method operates by rules which help us to ground interpretation in fact. These are the rules of context, grammar, the analogy of Scripture, cultural and historical background, and the normal meaning of words according to their use in various contexts.
“Allegorism is the method of interpreting a literary text that regards the literal sense as the vehicle for a secondary, more spiritual and more profound sense.” The spiritual or allegorical method sees the literal sense as well figures of speech as a symbol to convey some secondary or mystical, metaphorical, or spiritual idea that is hidden, but the hidden meaning is developed and controlled by the interpreter’s own ideas or ingenuity rather than by the rules and guidelines of context, grammar, the analogy of Scripture, cultural and historical background, and the normal meaning of words.
Clearly there are dangers to the allegorical method of interpretation.
(1) The allegorical method does not interpret Scripture. It ignores the common meaning of words and gives rise to all manner of speculation ignoring what the author really intended to say.
(2) In the allegorical method, the authority in interpretation is the imagination of the interpreter or his mind rather than the Scripture itself. In the final analysis, in the allegorical method one is left without any means by which the conclusions of the interpreter may be tested.
(3) The allegorical method results in shear nonsense because “To understand a speaker or writer, one must assume that the speaker or writer is using words normally and without multiple meanings. This is what the literal method of interpretation assumes of God in Scriptural revelation. It believes the Bible to be revelation, not riddle.” Again we remember Deut. 29:29.
The word “literal” is sometimes taken to mean non-figurative. The literal approach, however, recognizes the fact and use of symbolism, or figures, but attempts to understand them, as with any other literary method, on the basis of their normal and plain meaning as dictated by the normal rules of interpretation. This provides a check on our imagination or prejudice.
Let’s look at several illustrations:
PSALM 22: Verse 18 speaks of the casting of lots. This is a literal statement and is a prophecy of a literal happening, one that did happen when Christ was crucified, but verses 12-13 depict the fierce enemies of the Lord as strong bulls and ravenous lions. These are obviously figures or symbols, but with a very plain and literal meaning which is derived by the rules of the literal method—context, usage, culture and history. It important to realize that a symbol only has meaning when we understand how or what it previously meant literally in the historical and cultural setting of the time.
The Bulls of Bashan. By studying the historical background, the geography, the culture, and Scripture itself, we find that the area of Bashan lying northeast of the Sea of Galilee was a place where bulls became fat and strong. In the Bible, then, the phrase, “the rams or bulls of Bashan,” at times served as figures or symbols of Israel and especially as symbols of her leaders. It was used to portray those who had become luxurious, proud, and full of their own prosperity and importance. So this symbol pictures Christ’s enemies like the bulls of Bashan, with a full feeling of power and strength, ill natured, self satisfied and bullish in their attitude.
The Lion symbolizes Christ’s enemies as those who stand and gap with open mouths like a lion roaring over its killed prey. They weren’t literally lions, but they acted like lions based on our knowledge of how lions behave when standing over their prey.
JOHN 1:29: “Behold the lamb of God” is obviously another symbol, but it too has a plain meaning based on historical and Scriptural facts. In the light of Old Testament teaching and Israel’s sacrificial history, it points to Christ as God’s sacrifice, the one who would die for our sin as God’s innocent substitute.
JOHN 6:25-59: In this passage John records Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand. This is an historical event, but it contains a number of spiritual truths and applications. For instance, Christ refers to Himself as “the bread of life.” The literal method understands this is symbolic but its meaning is derived from the significance of bread for our daily food for sustenance.
REVELATION 8:12: This passage speaks of judgment that will affect the sun, moon, and stars. Here there is no indication of symbolism other than one’s own bias against such catastrophes. The stars are literal because there is nothing in the context to indicate otherwise. We are imposing our imaginations on the text if we say, this is symbolical of world rulers or the loss of spiritual light in the world. Why? Because there is nothing in the passage or context to suggest this. We must let the passage speak for itself.
REVELATION 9:1-12: Here John records seeing a star fall from heaven. But in this passage, by context and the analogy of Scripture, this is plainly a symbol. Why? How can we know this? The following are some important keys and helps:
We should always read a passage literally and assume that the literal meaning is the prophet’s meaning unless there is adequate reason from context to read it otherwise.
But we should always note carefully words like “as,” “like,” “as it were,” and similar expressions (cf. 6:1; 9:7). Why do we do this? Because words like “as” normally indicate a figure or symbol by way of a comparison or an analogy and not an identification. Compare Revelation 8:13. The text here does not say, “I heard one flying like an eagle in mid-heaven …” Some would make this refer to perhaps an angel, but I think we should take it literally. If God made a donkey speak to Balaam, why could and would He not, in this tremendous hour, not use an eagle as a voice of woe to stress His sovereignty over creation.
Always, where a figure of speech is suggested by the context, interpret by the analogy of Scripture. Allow Scripture to interpret Scripture while always bearing in mind the context and other rules of interpretation.
Look for interpretive clues and identifications within the text itself which indicate a figure is being used. Note the following three examples:
REVELATION 9:1: All the English translations rightly view the star as a person rather than as a fragment of a star. This is indicated by the personal pronouns, “to him” in verse 1 and “he” in verse 2. Some would say the keys were given to the fifth angel, but word order would suggest the “him” looks back to the star who fell from heaven and not the fifth angel who sounded his trumpet. The star, who is further identified as a king in verse 11, is the subject of the passage, not the angel who simply announces this judgment by blowing his trumpet.
The star is also connected with the Abyss which is a demonic abode according to the analogy of Scripture (cf. Luke 8:30-31; Jude 6; 2 Pet. 2:4).
Further, he is identified as the angel of the Abyss, the king of demons and this identifies him as Satan which also perfectly fits with the analogy of Scripture which in other places refers to angels as stars (Matt. 9:34; 12:25-28; John 12:31; Eph. 2:2; 6:12: Rev. 12:7f).
ISAIAH 14:12-16: Though this a taunt taken up against the king of Babylon, most believe, due to the strong language of the passage, that it must look beyond any human being. Ultimately it must refer to Satan who Scripture portrays as the prince of this world and the power behind many of the world rulers (Eph. 2:2; 6:12). This speaks of Satan who controlled the king of Babylon and the Babylonian system of the past and will control the system of the future. In Isaiah 14:12-14, Satan is called “star of the morning,” lit. “bright, or shining one” which refers to him as a bright morning star.
LUKE 10:18: In Luke 10:18 the Lord refers to Satan as falling from heaven, like a star, and this all fits with the context and emphasis of Revelation 9 and 12. This is totally in keeping the natural use of words in language and is even found in our own English idiom. We likewise use the term “star” in both a literal and symbolical sense. We speak of the stars in heaven, but we also speak symbolically of the star of the game, of the stars in Hollywood because, like a star, they stand out among others in some particular way. It has a symbolical meaning, but it depends on the context and its normal use for its true meaning.
The literal method of approach that will be used in this study will recognize the presence of symbols, but they will be interpreted by the normal and plain meaning of the symbol derived by historical background, context, grammar, the analogy of Scripture, and general usage.