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An Introduction to the Book of Revelation - Part II

D. Schools or Methods of Interpretation


1. The Preterist View


The word “preterist” comes from the Latin word praeteritus which means “gone by” or “past”. Proponents of this view thus contend that “the closer we get to the year 2000, the farther we get from the events of Revelation” (Gentry, Four Views, 37). The major prophecies of the book, so they argue, were fulfilled either in the fall of Jerusalem in 70 a.d. (which would, of course, necessitate the earlier date of composition) or in the fall of Rome in 476 a.d. In his short commentary, The Time is at Hand, Jay Adams writes:


“The view of the Apocalypse which this book asserts to be true is that all of the prophecy in the first nineteen chapters, and part of that in the twentieth, has been fulfilled. Furthermore, their fulfillment took place in the lifetime of those to whom John wrote (or shortly thereafter), and not throughout the entire church age” (46).


Gentry contends that Revelation has two fundamental purposes relative to its original audience:


“In the first place, it was designed to steel the first century Church against the gathering storm of persecution, which was reaching an unnerving crescendo of theretofore unknown proportions and intensity. A new and major feature of that persecution was the entrance of imperial Rome onto the scene. The first historical persecution of the Church by imperial Rome was by Nero Caesar from a.d. 64 to a.d. 68. In the second place, it was to brace the Church for a major and fundamental re-orientation in the course of redemptive history, a re-orientation necessitating the destruction of Jerusalem (the center not only of Old Covenant Israel, but of Apostolic Christianity [cp. Ac. 1:8; 2:1ff.; 15:2] and the Temple [cp. Mt. 24:1-34 with Rev. 11])” (Before Jerusalem Fell, 15-16).


Preterists appeal to four primary arguments.


First, they point to John’s repeated declaration that the time of the fulfillment of Revelation’s prophecies is near. “Near” and “shortly”, they contend, mean precisely that; not 1,900 years later.


“ . . . to show to His bond-servants the things which must shortly take place” (Rev. 1:1).


“Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of the prophecy, and heed the things which are written in it; for the time is near” (Rev. 1:3).


“ . . . to show to His bond-servants the things which must shortly take place” (Rev.22:6).


“And he said to me, ‘Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near’” (Rev. 22:10).


Second, there are allusions throughout Revelation to Nero as the current Roman emperor (see 6:2; 13:1-18; 17:1-13).


Third, preterists argue that the conditions in the seven churches (Rev. 2-3) best correlate with what we know to have been true of pre-70 a.d. Jewish Christianity.


Fourth, they argue that Rev. 11 portrays the Temple as still standing, thereby demanding a pre-70 date.


2. The Historical View


This view is almost non-existent today, although an array of historical luminaries from the past embraced it in one form or another: e.g., John Wycliffe, John Knox, William Tyndale, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, Philip Melancthon, John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, Charles Finney, and C. H. Spurgeon, just to mention a few. This view understands the Revelation as a symbolic prophecy of the entire history of the church from John’s day to the return of Christ and the end of the age. The symbols of the book, especially the seal, trumpet, and bowl judgments, are intended to portray the various historical movements, men and events in the western world. For example, E. B. Elliott contends that the trumpets (8:6-9:21) cover the period from 395 a.d. to 1453 a.d., beginning with the attacks on the western Roman empire by the Goths and concluding with the fall of the eastern empire to the Turks (see Horae Apocalypticae, 3rd ed.; London: Seely, Burnside, and Seely, 1847, I:343-501).


Generally speaking, the interpretation of the book depends on the time and place in history of the commentator. That is to say, each assumes that the events predicted in the Apocalypse were reaching a climax in his own time. Joachim of Fiore (1135-1202) believed the fifth head of the Beast was the emperor Henry IV (1050-1106) and the sixth was Saladin (1137-93), the Muslim leader who recaptured Jerusalem from the crusaders. A common feature among advocates of the historical school is identification of the Beast of Rev. 13 with the papacy of Rome. The Waldensian sect insisted that papal Rome was the whole of Babylon whereas Jacopone da Todi (1230-1306) associated the papacy with the dragon of Rev. 12. The Anglican bishop John Bale (1495-1563) argued that “the beast of the bottomlesse pitte is the cruell, craftye, and cursed generacion of Antichrist, the pope with his bishoppes, prelates, priestes, and religiouse in Europa, Mahomete with his dottinge doucepers [i.e., knights] in Affrica, and so forth in Asia and India” (quoted in Wainwright, 59-60). Bale believed that one of the beast’s heads was wounded at the Reformation but was healed when Queen Bloody Mary restored Catholicism in England.


Roman Catholics had their own unique interpretations. For example, “Bertold Purstinger, bishop of Chiemsee, explained that the locusts of the sixth trumpet vision were Lutherans[!]. Serafino da Fermo described Luther as the star falling from heaven and the beast from the land” (Wainwright, 61).


The historicist view is regarded by most as being “too parochial, failing to take the development of the church throughout the world into consideration” (Gregg, 37). Merrill Tenney has observed that “the Historicist view which attempts to interpret the Apocalypse by the development of the church in the last nineteen centuries, seldom if ever takes cognizance of the church outside Europe. It is concerned mainly with the period of the Middle Ages and the Reformation and has relatively little to say of developments after a.d. 1500” (“Revelation,” in Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, 5:96).


3. The Futurist View


Generally speaking, those who hold this view understand the Revelation as a prophecy of yet future events, concentrated in a short period of time (perhaps 7 years), which lead up to and accompany the end of the world and the inauguration of the eternal state. The futurist believes that all of the visions from Rev. 4:1 to the end of the book are yet to be fulfilled in the period immediately preceding and following the second coming of Christ. Within this school of thought are two somewhat variant positions.


a. Classical Pre-tribulational Dispensational Premillennialism


Not only is the whole of 4:1-22:21 seen as yet future, even the 7 letters of chapters 2 and 3 are understood to portray seven successive eras of church history. In a sense, then, this school does to chps. 2-3 what the historicist school does to the entire book. The basic traits of each church depict the chief characteristics of the 7 periods of church history, the last of which will be a time of apostasy (Laodicea). For a detailed exposition of this view, see J. Dwight Pentecost, Things to Come (149-55).


b. Progressive Dispensational Premillennialism


This view is held both by pre- and post-tribulationists. They reject the identification of the 7 letters with 7 successive periods of history and find in 4:1 no reference to the rapture of the church (as do many of the former school). While agreeing with the former view that the purpose of the book is to describe the consummation of God’s redemptive plan and the end of the age, this view makes a concerted effort to find within these prophecies of the end time points of application for first-century Christians. George Ladd explains:


“Thus, while the Revelation was primarily concerned to assure the churches of Asia of the final eschatological salvation at the end of the age, together with the judgment of the evil world powers, this had immediate relevance to the first century. For the demonic powers which will be manifested at the end in the great tribulation were also to be seen in the historical hatred of Rome for God’s people and the persecution they were to suffer at Rome’s hand. Therefore, we conclude that the correct method of interpreting the Revelation is a blending of the preterist and the futurist methods. The beast is both Rome and the eschatological Antichrist – and, we might add, any demonic power which the church must face in her entire history. The great tribulation is primarily an eschatological event, but it includes all tribulation which the church may experience at the hands of the world, whether by first-century Rome or by later evil powers” (13-14).


Robert Mounce takes a similar approach:


“It will be better to hold that the predictions of John, while expressed in terms reflecting his own culture, will find their final and complete fulfillment in the last days of history. Although John saw the Roman Empire as the great beast which threatened the extinction of the church, there will be in the last days an eschatological beast which will sustain the same relationship with the church of the great tribulation. It is this eschatological beast, portrayed in type by Rome, that the Apocalypse describes. Otto Piper notes that many modern interpreters overlook the distinction between the historical fulfillment of prophecy and its eschatological fulfillment. The pattern of imperceptible transition from type to antitype was already established by the Olivet Discourse in which the fall of Jerusalem becomes in its complete fulfillment the end of the age” (44-45).


An interesting historical factor is that the futurist view became extremely popular in one form or another among Roman Catholic interpreters in the late middle ages and into the time of the Reformation. It provided them with an answer to their critics and the Protestant Reformers who identified the Beast and/or the Whore of Revelation with the papacy. If the prophecies of Revelation were yet future, then no one could legitimately charge the pope (at least not the one then in power) with being the oppressor of the true church.


4. The Idealist View


This view contends that Revelation is not concerned with any specific period, event, or series of events in church history. Rather, its primary purpose is to describe symbolically the conflict of good and evil throughout history and the principles on which God acts at all times. It is a timeless portrayal, therefore, of this ethical struggle. Milligan (The Revelation of St. John [1886], 153-54) wrote: “We are not to look in the Apocalypse for special events, but for an exhibition of the principles which govern the history both of the world and the Church.”


My view of the book is a mixture of these various schools and is best represented in the commentary by Beale:


“Accordingly, no specific prophesied historical events are discerned in the book, except for the final coming of Christ to deliver and judge and to establish the final form of the kingdom in a consummated new creation – though there are a few exceptions to this rule. The Apocalypse symbolically portrays events throughout history, which is understood to be under the sovereignty of the Lamb as a result of his death and resurrection. . . . [Thus] the majority of the symbols in the book are transtemporal in the sense that they are applicable to events throughout the ‘church age’” (48).


I cannot be more specific at this stage until we undertake an actual exegesis of the many texts in Revelation itself.


E. Structure and Outline of Revelation


Revelation has a prologue (1:1-8) and an epilogue (22:6-21). The whole of the book between the two “is recounted as a single visionary experience which took place on Patmos on the Lord’s Day (1:9)” (Bauckham, Climax, 3). I will resist the temptation to elaborate further on the structure of the book, reserving that for our inaugural study of the relationship between the seal, trumpet, and bowl judgments that begins with chapter 6. Here I set forth the simplest of outlines.


A. Prologue – 1:1-8

B. Vision of the risen Christ – 1:9-20

C. Letters to the Seven Churches – 2:1-3:22

D. Vision of the Throne, Scroll, and Sovereign Lord – 4:1-5:14


1. The throne of the Lord God Almighty – 4:1-11

2. The scroll of the Lion of the Tribe of Judah – 5:1-14


E. The Seven Seal Judgments – 6:1-8:1


1. The first seal – 6:1-2

2. The second seal – 6:3-4

3. The third seal – 6:5-6

4. The fourth seal – 6:7-8

5. The fifth seal – 6:9-11

6. The sixth seal – 6:12-17


(Interlude: The 144,000 and the Innumerable Multitude – 7:1-17)


7. The seventh seal – 8:1,3-5


F. The Seven Trumpet Judgments – 8:2,6-11:19


1. The first trumpet – 8:2,6-7

2. The second trumpet – 8:8-9

3. The third trumpet – 8:10-11

4. The fourth trumpet – 8:12-13

5. The fifth trumpet –9:1-12

6. The sixth trumpet – 9:13-21


(Interlude: The Little Scroll and the Two Witnesses – 10:1-11:13)


7. The seventh trumpet – 11:14-19


(Interlude: The Woman and the War – 12:1-18)


(Interlude: The Two Beasts – 13:1-18)


(Interlude: The 144,000, Three Angels, and the Harvest and Vintage – 14:1-20)


G. The Seven Bowl Judgments – 15:1-19:5


1. Introduction – 15:1-16:1

2. The first bowl – 16:2

3. The second bowl – 16:3

4. The third bowl – 16:4-7

5. The fourth bowl – 16:8-9

6. The fifth bowl - 16:10-11

7. The sixth bowl – 16:12-16

8. The seventh bowl – 16:17-21


H. The Great Whore – 17:1-18

I. The Great City – 18:1-19:5

J. The Great Supper – 19:6-10

K. The Great Coming – 19:11-21

L. The Millennium – 20:1-15

M. The New Heaven and the New Earth – 21:1-22:5

N. Epilogue – 22:6-21


The critical question we will face concerns the chronological relationship among the various visions that John experienced. Are they historically sequential, unfolding in time one after the other leading up to the end of the age. Or are they historically synchronous (i.e., simultaneous) visions, each in some way repeating or recapitulating the others? This will be our task upon reaching chapter 6.