Interpreting Revelation

Revelation has proved one of the most controversial books in the New Testament. One reason for this is that different people have taken different approaches to interpreting it,

Different Approaches

Kistemaker helpfully lists the following different approaches.

Preterist

“that which has gone past”[1] to do with the time it was written -focusing on the events when John wrote.

Preterists often see Jesus’s words in Mark 13 as all being fulfilled in Ad 70. Revelation is all about the persecution the Church faced in either the 60s or 90s[2]

Problems

“Preterists either neglect or ignore the predicitive element, for their focus is entirely on historical events of the first century.”[3]

“Although, the preterists say that the message of Revelation can be applied to any age or generation, they fail to appreciate the progress in this book. The Apocalypse depicts progress in the predictive events that eventually culminate in the coming of the Judge with the attendant judgement on all people.” [4]

Historicist

Sees Revelation as continuous chronological prophecy of history from John’s day until the end.[5]

Often includes attempts to identify where we are in that chain -e.g. Calvin and reformers identified Pope as the antichrist. [6]

Tendency is to place your own time as at the end.

Problems

Kistemaker says “The text of the Apocalypse does not lend itself to a continuous historical presentation; history and apocalyptic literature are ill suited.”[7]

Also means “the early church and successive generations would have been unable to benefit from a message that did not apply to them.”[8]

Futurist

-after 4:1 belongs to the far future -end times

“Indeed, the writer of the Apocalypse points throughout this book to the day of Christ’s return.”[9]

Again “makes all but the first three chapters of Revelation irrelevant to the contemporary church.”[10] But “The book is filled with words of comfort for God’s people in every place and in all times.”[11]

Idealist

Principles that can be applied to all times and reflect God’s control over all history[12]

“Objections to the idealist school concern the lack of emphasis on history and prophecy.  These are legitimate concerns, for every careful exegete must see to it that no part of the Apocalypse is neglected. Indeed, God’s curse is resting on all those who omit parts of his revelation (Rev. 22:19). The idealist, however, acknowledges that many parts of the Apocalypse lend themselves to historical settings but these may be applied to many epochs in the history of the Christian church. John was able to assign a number of visions to his own day, but likewise believers who have suffered or are suffering persecution even today have been able to see their situation mirrored in Revelation.”[13]

Millennialism

This is another interpretation/hermeneutical factor  –how will the events of Christ’s return unfold

Pre-millennialism[14]

Jesus’ return on the clouds will inaugurate a 1000 year literal reign on earth before a last rebellion and the final judgement.

Variants include dispensationalism and emphasis on a secret rapture of the church prior to the tribulation and the coming of the anti-Christ.

It requires a futurist reading and makes much of Revelation irrelevant to the whole age of the church becoming a book of secret coded clues for those who live during the reign of the anti-Christ

Post Millenialism

That Christ will return at the end of a “1000” year reign of the Church that will see increased response to the Gospel and even the setting up of a Christian state as the whole world seeks to follow God’s law.

The 1000 year reign may not be literal

A-Millenialism[15]

This view sees the 1000 years as figurative and fits with an idealist approach. The Millennial reign is one perspective on history between Christ’s first and second coming as we see the Gospel advance. Alongside this is Tribulation as there is ongoing persecution and resistance.

Comments

Pre-millennialism  – especially the dispensational form tends to over-divide history -so that each dispensation involves a different way of responding to God. Those who live post the rapture relate differently to the Gospel of Grace. There is often an over distinction between a covenant of Law pre-Christ and Grace during the Church era.

It seems to lock Revelation off from applicability to the church today and turns it into a secret code book to be plundered for esoteric meaning.

Post-millennialism seems over presumptive to me about the Church’s power and risks an over-realised eschatology.

However, I think the big problem here is that we end up with a distorted hermeneutic where our whole reading of Revelation and other parts of Scripture that touch on the end (e.g. Peter’s letters, Daniel, Mark) on the basis of a disputed interpretation of on two verses

The key bit is Revelation 20:4-5

“4 Then I saw thrones, and the people sitting on them had been given the authority to judge. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their testimony about Jesus and for proclaiming the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or his statue, nor accepted his mark on their foreheads or their hands. They all came to life again, and they reigned with Christ for a thousand years. This is the first resurrection. (The rest of the dead did not come back to life until the thousand years had ended.)”[16]

The issue is that the word translated as lived, lived again or came to life is found in both v 4 to describe the martyrs who reign with Christ through the Millennium and the rest of the dead who stay dead until the end.

You can’t really have two different meanings that close together.  So does this mean that verse 4 must describe a physical resurrection as must verse 5?[17]

Kistemaker -does not see an issue here.

It’s the souls that live in verse 4 and this points to a heavenly reign with Christ  – suggesting a conscious existence after death and prior to Christ’s second coming. This is the first Resurrection[18]

The point in verse 5 is that the other dead (those outside of Christ do not live again) -they stay dead throughout the 1000 year reign -and are only raised to judgement. [19]

Conclusion

My preference for the above reasons is for an a-millennial approach to the 1000 years’ question.  Generally speaking I find the “Idealist” approach to interpretation the most helpful.

However, this approach should not ignore the strong prophetic flavour of Revelation as it shows the progression of history towards the final day when Christ returns.

I think that Revelation can best be described as follows.  It takes us to God’s throne room in order that we might see the whole sweep of history from the perspective of the last day. It does that so that we may make sense of what it means to live as God’s people now in our present context in the light of future hope.

[1] Simon J Kistemaker, Revelation, 38.

[2] See Kistemaker, Revelation, 38-39

[3] Kistemaker, Revelation, 39.

[4] Kistemaker, Revelation, 39.

[5] Kistemaker, Revelation, 40.

[6] Kistemaker, Revelation, 40.

[7] Kistemaker, Revelation, 41.

[8] Kistemaker, Revelation, 41.

[9] Kistemaker, Revelation, 41.

[10] Johnson, cited in Kistemaker, Revelation, 41.

[11] Kistemaker, Revelation, 42.

[12] Kistemaker, Revelation, 42-43.

[13] Kistemaker, Revelation, 43.

[14] See Kistemaker, Revelation, 44.

[15] See Kistemaker, Revelation, 45-47.

[16] NLT

[17] Mounce, Revelation, 366-367.

[18] Kistemaker, Revelation, 47-48 and 539-40.

[19] Kistemaker, Revelation,540.

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