THE INTERPRETATION OF REVELATION
by Wayne S. Walker
"The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show His servants–things which must shortly take place. And He sent and signified it by His angel to His servant John" (Revelation 1:1). No, I am not trying to write a commentary on the book of Revelation. Others have done that, though good commentaries are not as numerous as they might be. My purpose in this article is to take a look at the general methods of interpreting the Apocalypse. Theologically speaking, there have been five major positions taken on the meaning of the context of this book.
The first is that the message of Revelation is completely past. This is called the preterist view. Preterists believe that the book was written only for the people of John’s day and was fulfilled in that time period. That is to say that the signs and symbols referred only to the events of the era in which it was written. The figurative coming of Christ in the destruction of Jerusalem (A. D. 70) is usually sometimes offered as the event in which the book finds its fulfillment. The logical conclusion to this view is that the book has no more than a literary interest and at the most a secondary lesson, if indeed it possesses any value at all, for us. It does not allow for a spiritual application to posterity. It also denies the commonly accepted date for the writing of Revelation which is around A. D. 96.
II. Continuous historical
A second view is that John wrote the book only for succeeding generations. This position is know as the continuous or historical interpretation. It presents the book as a forecast of the church, postulating an outline in symbolic form of the entire course of history of God’s people on earth from Pentecost when the church began to the second coming. This, if true, would mean that a part of the book refers to the rise of the papacy and development of the Roman Catholic Church, one part to the Dark Ages, another to the Mohammedan invasion, others to the Reformation, the colonization of the New World, and the rise of technology, etc. A certain portion of the book supposedly concerns the very age in which we live. Some brethren have even found the Restoration in it. However, this position affords absolutely no meaning to the Christians to whom it was written, and any interpretation that ignores this point is useless.
In his Cincinnati [OH] debate with John B. Purcell, an official in the Roman Catholic Church, Alexander Campbell expounded this view of Revelation. he indicated his belief that some of the imagery of this book referred directly to the Roman church. This opinion is probably the most widely accepted of those other than Catholics. Many New Testament Christinas, following Campbell, believe this also. They may reason, and correctly so, that Revelation must contain some comfort to all suffering Christians, such as those persecuted by the Roman church, even as it did to those who were persecuted by the Roman Empire. Therefore, they conclude that the book must have some form of "continuous" application. In this, I think they misunderstand the historical viewpoint. It does not propagage that the message applies "in some sense" to later times, but that it relates specifically to a distinct calendar of events in earth’s history. In view of what we know about the purpose of the book, it is simply not a workable theory.
Another interpretation propounds that the Apocalypse deals only with the future. This view is known as the futurist position and is held by dispensationalists and millennialists. These expositors teach that the letter was not for John’s day nor for the nearly two thousand years that have passed since then. Rather, to them it is a prophecy of the so-called "end time" or "last days" surrounding the second coming of Jesus. The explanation will vary with the exegete, but generally, the seven churches of Asia in chapters one through three are made to represent the seven "church ages" of time. Then chapters four through nineteen are placed just before the advent of Christ, if one is a postmillennialist, or just after the "invisible" descent, known as the "rapture" of the church and the "tribulation" for those left on the earth, if one is a premillennialist.
In 20:1-10 comes the literal millennial reign of Christ on earth, followed by the judgment in verses 11-15, and then the final state in chapters 21 and 22. Most millennialists view the final state as heaven, although materialists like the Watchtower and Armstrong’s organizations look at it as a paradise on a renewed earth. But this whole explanation again overlooks the needs of the first century Christian, and completely disregards John’s statement that these are "things which must shortly come to pass" (1:1). It is a figment of someone’s imagination having no support from the rest of the Bible nor from the book itself.
Fourthly, there is the position that Revelation is neither past, present, nor future, but allegorical in its nature. Such a position is referred to as the philosophical, spiritualistic, or idealist view. It states that the book has no reference to actual events or persons in any time, but is only the presentation of great principles or forces at work, in which the spiritual forces are victorious. These principles are illustrated in symbolic visions and are supposedly intended to guide and encourage the followers of Christ in all ages, so this view says. It calls for a "totally spiritual" outlook of Revelation, much as Christian Science regards the whole Bible, i.e., written in two languages–one the language of the written words; the other, the language of the eternal Spirit. But as understanding the book in this fashion would be totally subjective, this view,in fact, offers no real objective meaning for anybody.
The final view of Revelation, the alternative to all these other positions, is what I choose to call the revelational viewpoint. Simply stated, the book was written for past, present, and future. Homer Hailey called this the historical background interpretation. He wrote that the book was "written for the people of that day, fulfilled in the events of the first two centuries (some extend it longer), but in this background is seen a message for all time." Actually, this is the proper understanding of all God’s revelation. Divine revelation (in the aggregate sense, not just the particular book by that name) must be meaningful to Christians of every age. No one can deny that 1 Corinthians was written specifically to the church at Corinth to deal with actual problems in that congregation. But in God’s wisdom, Paul’s teaching concerning Corinthian troubles is applicable to the Lord’s kingdom today also. The same ist rue of John’s Apocalypse.
The words John wrote to the early Christians of New Testament days who were persecuted by the Roman Empire were also able to comfort those who were mistreated by the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages; they could offer hope to those abused for their faith by local chiefs in Africa during the nineteenth century; and they can be used to provide patience for believers today who are suffering under Communistic rule–even though none of these later situations are particularly described in the book. Reflecting upon the foregoing interpretations, I find myself concluding that the last position is the only one that projects a reasonable basis for understanding the book of Revelation in light of what we already know about God, His nature, the process of inspiration and revelation, and subsequent history. May we study John’s message from Patmos with open minds and a view to gleaning whatever application is available for us today.
Hailey, Homer. "The Book of Revelation" classnotes, Florida College.
Miller, James P. The Saints Victorious, Miller Publications.
Warnock, Weldon. Revelation: Message from Patmos, Cogdill Foundation.
(—taken from Torch Magazine; November, 1976; Vol. X, No. 11; pp. 16-19)