The Interpretation of the Message of The Book of the Revelation
It is an established fact that the Book of the Revelation is the most difficult book in the Bible to understand. Most of the great leaders of Christianity, have confessed that they did not understand the book and only passed on the comments of others as possible meanings for this book. When John begins to write this strange book he tells us that his book is a revelation of Jesus Christ which God gave him to show to his servants what must soon take place”(1:1) and later Jesus says to John in chapter 1:19, “Now write what you see, what is and what is to take place hereafter.” It is obvious then that this book concerns itself with the present and the future.
But how much of the future does this book reveal? How much detail does it give about that future? There has been a multitude of opinions and very few of them are convincing. But one of the pleasant things about the entire matter is that all of the opinions can be summarized into four major schools of thought. Let me note them for you.
Four ways to interpret the Book of the Revelation.
- The Preterist view (deals with what is now past)
This is the view that says that the book of the revelation was written for the people who faced the terrible crisis of political persecution in the days of either Nero or Domitian. The church needed a message to encourage it to be faithful in the middle of its time of testing. The future that is termed “hereafter” then is really a rather short-range future. And this position say that the events that were to take place in the future would take place in the years that immediately followed the writing of the book.
This means that we should assume that the Roman emperor is the Beast, the emperor’s Cult Leader is the False Prophet. The seven hills are the seven hills of Ancient Rome. Rome is Babylon in this book
Though there were no great catastrophic events such as described in this book, in the next few years, it is true that the Roman Empire began its decline and fall. Its doom was sure, and the Christian church went out to win the confrontation with Caesar. Domitian dies at 44 years of age in AD 96. The saints proved to be victorious and the trajectory of history was substantially altered. The name of Jesus became the dominating name of the next two millennia. So, this position tells us that the book of the revelation has already been substantially fulfilled.
- The Historicist View
This is the position that tells us that the book of the revelation is a prophecy and a prediction of the major events of future church history. Beginning with the writer’s day and moving up through the centuries of the church until the very end of history, each symbol and each event tells us of great world events. For example; each seal, each trumpet and each bowl are allusions to events like the invasion of Europe by Attila the Hun, or the Moslem armies, or the Turkish conquests, or the Reformation, or the great missionary expansion of the church, or the rise of Nazi-ism, Communism & Global Terrorism.
The seven churches of the book of the revelation are often seen to be portraits of the church in different periods of history until we end up with today’s church, identified as the church of Laodicea. So this position tells us that the book of the revelation is a forecast of the entire history of the church for l900 plus years. Every major event then can be found in this book, if you have eyes to see it.
So the future is not just the time immediately following the writer’s day but a prediction of the events of every century from the first to the final one, until the Second Coming of Christ.
- The Futurist View
This view says that the book of the revelation has little or nothing to say about what has happened already in the world. It was not describing what would happen right after the book was written, nor what would happen throughout the history of the church, but it is all entirely future to our own day.
This position, however, is prepared to say that the first three chapters deal with the church that the writer ministered to, and that the 7 letters are to help the 7 churches of that day, or that the 7 letters are portrayals of the 7 ages of the church leading up to the church of the 21st century.
But beginning with chapter 4, verse l when John is called to come up to heaven, the rest is a description of what will take place in the last days of history. In fact it is usual to see John’s ascension to heaven as a symbol of the church being taken out of the world before God rains his judgment upon the world. So beginning with chapter 4 none of this book has been fulfilled yet. The book describes what will happen any day now. This position usually sees the descriptions then not as symbols but as realities. They insist that soon an anti-Christ will arise and deceive the world and great tribulation will come upon the world in which God will bring an end of all life as we know it.
- The Idealist Position.
This position says that the book of the revelation was fulfilled back in the years that followed the writing of the book, and was fulfilled again in the next century when the church faced other enemies to its life, and it has been fulfilled time and time again whenever truth was confronted with the lie, when love was confronted with hate. Whenever the state tried to erase the true faith, God’s people always come out winning.
This book then was written not only to help John’s congregations cope and win over their time of persecution, but it was also intended to strengthen all ages of the church when facing such foes. Good and evil will always be in conflict, and because God is the Sovereign Lord, goodness will always win given time and eternity.
So the book does not predict a specific future time, but it does predict that goodness will prevail. It is not then a blueprint of history, but a philosophy of history.
- A Combination View
My personal opinion says that I may need to combine at least two of these views to come up with what I believe to be the message of the revelation.
I prefer the preterist view that tells me that the first audience understood this book and found it very useful in the face of persecution by the Roman emperor. If the book was written in A.D. 95, then within a year or two of the writing of this book Domitian was dead and the church had rest from Roman tyranny for a while. I cannot believe that this book was so concerned with the future of the world 2000 years later that it ignored the great crisis in Asia Minor at the close of that first century.
But to presume that the entire book was fulfilled in the last years of the first century and early years of the second century would be to ignore the fact that this book speaks of Jesus Christ returning a second time. That obviously was not fulfilled in those early days, except in this sense: Jesus has returned, again and again, to strengthen his church, for “where two or three are met together in my name, there I will be in the midst of them.”
Yet I also lean towards the idealist view which tells me that what was true in the year 95 is also continually true, so that whenever the church faces great evil it has been guaranteed a victory in its own time, and not only in the end of the age.
A very relevant book
Relevant to the first readers.
It was very relevant to the Christian Church at the turn of that first century. They understood full well who was behind the evil of that age. They faced a demonic foe. They knew that the Roman Caesar was a rabid animal and not a god. They understood that the city of God would triumph over the imperial city of Rome called Babylon, Jerusalem and Sodom. They knew that Caesar’s day would be short and that the Christian Church would triumph. It is true that they expected the second coming of their Lord very quickly, and though He did not come then, they were confident that already he was winning for them the victory.
Relevant to all readers throughout history.
But the nourishing thing about all the books of the Bible is, that though they were written to a very specific person or group at a very specific time, they invariably had great value to all later generations. I Corinthians was obviously written by the Apostle Paul to one church in Greece, to answer various questions that they were asking him in a letter that they had sent to him. He answered them to help resolve the conflicts in this one congregation. But the rest of the church throughout history and throughout the entire geographic world has eavesdropped in on this conversation to their great good.
This is particularly true of the Revelation of St. John. In fact it may be more true of this book than many others. It is a book written in symbolism from beginning to end. The symbols fit very well the situation in Asia Minor at the end of the first century and we have no trouble seeing Rome and Caesar and the Roman magistrates behind the symbols. But it is also true that these same symbols would fit other times and places almost as easily.
Let me remind you of the painting by Picasso. Guernica is Picasso’s portrayal of the bombing of the town of Guernica in Spain in the Spanish Civil War. It is the portrayal of agony, despair, alarm, pain, confusion, and brokenness. He is saying that that specific war was terrible. He paints it, not from a general’s position, or that of a politician, but from the perspective of a family whose lives are shattered by disaster. It fits Guernica perfectly. But it also fits all of those previous and subsequent wars that create terrible carnage to the world and its people. It also fits Afghanistan and Syria in our day, as well as the wars we will start tomorrow.
This may be the reason that every generation of the church has seen the book of the Revelation coming to fulfillment in their age. It was not difficult in this century to see Hitler as the Anti-Christ in Europe, or to see Stalin and now Putin in that role in the Ukraine. It is because the book was written in the symbols of tyranny and hope that has proved useful to every age when the church struggles for its own existence and for the salvation of the world.
Relevant to our own age.
But this book is also relevant for our day. It offers you and I the very same message. Great evils still stalk the earth. There are yet many antichrists in the world. There are people who carry out programs of evil in our world who continue to be the enemy of God and His people and his world. For it has always been true “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Plagues like racism, disease, hunger, war and tyranny still have their hold over too many lives. The church is tempted to say, “What’s the use?” And we may resonate with those lines from Longfellow’s Christmas Carol:
And In despair I bowed my head
There is no peace on earth I said
For hate is strong and mocks the song
of peace on earth, goodwill to men.
But then Longfellow changes our perspective as he continues to write:
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep.
God is not dead, nor does he sleep
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
with peace on earth, goodwill to men
And the central message of the Book of the Revelation tells us that the wrong shall fail and right shall prevail, even in our age. Thanks be to God!
Brilliant! I feel like I am at a feast! Thanks for the thought provoking ways of looking at the book. I remember your course at Aldersgate College on Apocalyptic Literature, it has served me well over these 36 years. Your writing and teaching only gets better. David it it true my mentor turns 75 years old this year. I remember a 38, 39 yr old prof beating my butt in raquet ball at Aldersgate. Seems so long ago. Stephen