jQuery Slider

You are here

THE BOOK OF REVELATION: INTRODUCTORY CONSIDERATIONS

THE BOOK OF REVELATION: INTRODUCTORY CONSIDERATIONS

By Jeff Williams
Special to Virtueonline
www.virtueonline.org
October 22, 2020

"The researches of many commentators have already thrown much darkness on this subject, and it is probable that, if they continue, we shall soon know nothing at all about it." --Mark Twain

I. A/K/A:

The Revelation is also called The Apocalypse, or "unveiling." It is a common error to call the book Revelations. The field of interpreting and studying end-time events is called eschatology.

II. Who wrote The Revelation?

Almost all the Church Fathers agree that The Revelation was written by John the Apostle, who also wrote the Gospel of John, and I, II, and III John. However, two later writers in the 300's, Dionysius and Eusebius (who was persuaded in this by Dionysius), attribute the book to someone called "the presbyter John," and deny its canonicity! Many modern and virtually all liberal commentators agree that The Revelation was written by another John, some referring to this author as "John the Revelator" to supposedly distinguish him from John the Apostle.

The main argument of those who think the book was written by another John is that The Revelation is written in a less polished form of Greek. One answer to this is that John was unschooled- Acts 4:13, "when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were unlearned and ignorant men . . ." It is thought that when John wrote his Gospel and I, II and III John, he used an amanuensis (skilled writer/secretary), as Paul and other Biblical writers sometimes did, or perhaps wrote with the assistance of well-educated elders of the Ephesian church; but when he wrote The Revelation, he was in exile on the isle of Patmos, where there were no writing assistants available. Or, he may have written in haste to record the visions faithfully as they occurred, perhaps in an excited mental state.

All the other arguments against John the Apostle having written The Revelation are very weak, or are merely arguments from silence, and are not worth recounting here.

III. Common methods of interpreting The Revelation

1. Preterist -- Like the Epistles, almost all of the book deals with issues current in the time when it was written; like the Epistles, it is all instructive and authoritative today. Preterists point out that The Revelation specifically says the events therein "must shortly come to pass" (1:1), for "the time is at hand" (1:1). It deals with seven churches then existing in Asia Minor, and then the coming destruction of Jerusalem and the Jewish Temple, and Roman persecution of the church. Some Preterists are Postmillennial, some are Amillennial. (More about these terms later.) This is the view favored by most
consistent scholars.

2. Futurist -- Most or all of the book, except for the letters to the seven churches then existing in Asia Minor, deals with horrific events involving the end of time, a "Great Tribulation," and the final con summation, and must be taken very literally. Today, Futurists are almost invariably Premillennial/ Dispensational, and usually believe in a pretribulation rapture. This is currently the most popular view with the masses, and the most heavily merchandised.

3. Historicist -- The book is a historical account of the conflict between a Satan-energized world and the Church, covering actual future conquerors and their failure. Some Historicists say The Revelation deals with the next few centuries after it was written. Other Historicists say The Revelation predicts
events from the end of the Apostolic age until the end of time, with the different visions and events representing the wars with Islam, the corrupt Papacy, the Reformation, the conflict with Communism, a future world government allied with a successful apostate Ecumenical movement, etc..

Some Historicists say the Messages to the Seven Churches really refer to seven ages or phases of Church history, from the Apostolic Age to the end of time. The various historicist factions disagree greatly in their opinions as to which vision represents which entity.

4. Spiritualist (also called Idealist or Ethicist) -- The book is almost entirely symbolic, consisting mainly of a series of visions of the ongoing conflict between good and evil, assuring readers that, whether on earth or in Heaven, righteousness will eventually win out, despite periods of persecution.

This position holds that, although there may be contemporary applications, the book does not refer solely to any actual particular historical or social events. It holds that the primary value of The Revelation lies in such things as its summonses to heroic Godly living, appeals to endurance, and assurances that God is in control and evil is marked for overthrow sooner or later.

Most commentators try to cram the entire book into one of these four systems or another. Some of the best commentators include elements of more than one of these methods in their interpretations; for example, William Hendricksen's More Than Conquerors: An Interpretation of the Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1939).

IV. When was The Revelation written?

The Revelation has many portions which indicate it was written partly to comfort Christians who were being persecuted. They, like their master Christ, were persecuted by the Jews. The Jews, unlike all other captive peoples in the Roman empire, were not required to sacrifice to the Emperor, but rather were allowed to worship as the Jewish authorities decreed. When Christians were thrown out of the synagogues and disowned by the Jews, therefore, they were no longer exempted from Roman emperor worship demands, and hence were persecuted by the Roman authorities as well.

The two time periods of Roman persecution during the life of John during which The Revelation may have been written in were during Nero's reign (AD 54 -- 68) or during Domitian's reign (AD 81 -- 96).

Nero's persecution began in AD 64.

Almost all Church Fathers say John wrote during Nero's reign, including all those who met John
personally. However, Irenaeus (c. AD 190) wrote in an ambiguous, poorly-worded statement that "that was seen . . . towards the end of Domitian's reign," where "that," which may well be a corruption of an original version which said instead "he," could be taken to mean either that John was seen or that John's vision in The Revelation was seen. (Translators complain of the "poor condition of the manuscript evidence for his [Irenaeus'] work," and tell us that copies of Irenaeus' text are "often most uncertain.") Hence, John was alive during the reign of Domitian, but The Revelation was written either during the reign of Nero, or Domitian, depending on which way you read Irenaeus. A minority of other Church Fathers accepted the later date based on Irenaeus' writings. But keep in mind, this was the same Irenaeus who said in his writings that Christ lived to at least the upper 40's, possibly 50 years of age (He actually was crucified at age 33 1/2), so Irenaeus' reliability as a witness may well be questioned, especially considering that he wrote from probably at least 90 years (if you accept the later date) to perhaps as much as 135 years (if you accept the earlier date) later than The Revelation was written. In any case, The Revelation was written well before Irenaeus was born in AD 130.

Internal evidences indicate that The Revelation was written during the Neronian persecution, AD 64 to 68:
1. The Temple, destroyed in AD 70, was still standing when it was written. (Rev. 11:1-2)
2. The Jews were still in power, which they were not after AD 70. (Rev. 2:9, 3:9)
3. Rev. 13:18 says, "Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the
beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is Six hundred threescore and six." Nero was nicknamed "The Beast" in his day, and his name in Hebrew, which many Christians of that day knew, pronounced Neron Kaiser, has the numerical value of 666.
4. Rev. 17:10 says, "And there are seven kings: five are fallen, and one is, and the other is not yet come; and when he cometh, he must continue a short space." The first Roman ruler to be a true Emperor/dictator was Julius Caesar. Therefore, five kings have died (Julius Caesar, Caesar
Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, and Claudius), the sixth is reigning when The Revelation is written
(Nero), and the seventh is predicted in The Revelation to only reign a short time. The next Emperor after Nero, named Galba, only reigned a few months.

Futurists are strongly in favor of a late Domitian date for The Revelation, because if it was written well after AD 70, it cannot refer to the fall of Jerusalem and the Temple in AD 70, and another interpretation must be found. Preterists, as you might expect, favor an earlier pre -- AD 70 Neronian date, probably AD 65 to 68. By far the best and most exhaustive study of the dating of The Revelation ever written, which I heartily recommend, is Kenneth Gentry's Before Jerusalem Fell: The Dating of the Book of Revelation (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1989 / Victorious Hope Publishing, 2010). I believe it conclusively proves the pre -- AD 70 position.

V. The time element: when does The Revelation itself say it will be fulfilled?

Both the introduction and the conclusion of The Revelation contain words which specifically say it predicts, or largely predicts, events which will happen soon. Rev. 1:1, "The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him, to shew unto his servants things which must shortly [in Greek,   = shortly, without delay, quickly, speedily, soon] come to pass." Rev. 1:3, "Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written therein: for the time is at hand [in Greek, s = near (in time), at hand, nigh, ready; not 'thousands of years from now']." Rev. 22:6, ". . . the Lord God of the holy prophets sent his angel to shew unto his servants the things which must shortly [Gr.  ] be done." Rev. 22:10, "And he saith unto me, Seal not the sayings of the prophecy of this book: for the time is at hand [Gr. s]. Rev. 22:7, "Behold, I come quickly [in Greek   shortly, without delay, soon]. (This does not mean "suddenly" -- a different Greek word would have been used if that were what is meant.) This would seem to indicate that this verse is not talking about His Second Coming (which will happen at the end of time), but rather his "coming" in judgment (as is often used in the Old Testament) to destroy Jerusalem. For example, Micah 1:3--5 predicted God "coming" in judgment, which was fulfilled by the Assyrian conquest of 722 BC.; Isaiah 19:1 predicted God would "come" in judgment to Egypt; etc..

Many competent scholars say that some of the latter parts of The Revelation refer to events connected with the Second Coming at the end of time, but much or most of the rest of the book refers to the soonto-come destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple,1
and the persecution of the Church under Nero, who was called "The Beast" when he was alive, and whose name in Hebrew equals 666. Rev. 22:20 (the last verse of The Revelation) says, "He which testifieth these things saith, Surely I come quickly [Gr.  Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus." If The Revelation was written between 64 and 68 AD, and indeed the end of the Jewish rule and temple were predicted therein, then Jesus did indeed "come quickly," in judgment. If not, then certain atheists are right when they point out that Jesus' numerous predictions of coming "soon/quickly/shortly" (in both The Revelation and the Gospels) never came
true.

VI. The Old Testament background of The Revelation

278 verses out of the total of 404 verses in The Revelation have imagery or reference to the Old
Testament, especially Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Psalms, Exodus, and Deuteronomy, while not necessarily quoting the Old Testament directly. As is true with the rest of the New Testament, you are greatly handicapped in understanding, interpreting, and appreciating The Revelation fully without a thorough knowledge of the Old Testament.

VII. The Content Types of The Revelation

The Revelation has content from three genres:
1. Prophetic- The book has several direct statements that it is prophetic:
Rev. 1:3, Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy,
Rev. 22: 7, Behold, I come quickly: blessed is he that keepeth the sayings of the prophecy of
this book.
Rev. 22:10, And he saith unto me, Seal not the sayings of the prophecy of this book: for the
time is at hand.
Rev. 22: 18-19, For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this
book, If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are
written in this book: And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this
prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and
from the things which are written in this book.

The question is, does it primarily prophesy far-distant future events, or soon-to-come events, or both?

1 As predicted by Christ in Matthew 24 and Luke 21: "This [not 'that'] generation [the one to whom He was speaking] shall not pass away till all these things be fulfilled."

2. Apocalyptic- There is a body of about twenty Jewish, and later, Christian, writings called
"Apocalyptic," written from about 200 BC to about 200 AD. These are writings which contain vivid images, symbolic visions, a strong emphasis on the righteous judgments of God, and an emphasis on the rule or Kingdom of God. Some would include in this category the Biblical books of Ezekiel and Daniel, written in the sixth century BC, since they also contain bizarre visions and images. But unlike non-canonical apocalyptic writings, The Revelation also claims to be prophetic, and does not refer to past events as though they were yet future.

3. Epistolary (or Epistolatory)- like all the rest of the New Testament except for the Gospels and
Acts, The Revelation contains specific instructions, exhortations, and encouragements to specific churches then existing.

VIII. Brief summaries of The Revelation

In his Introduction in Four Views on the Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), C.
Marvin Pate gives the following excellent brief outline:
The Content of The Revelation
A. Introductory chapter (Ch. 1)
B. Four series of seven
a) Seven letters to the seven Churches (Ch. 2 & 3)
b) Seven seals (4:1-8:1)
c) Seven trumpets (8:2-11:19)
d) Seven bowels (15:1-16:21
C. Three major interludes interrupting the four series of seven
a) 7:1-17
b) 10:1-11:13
c) 12:1-14:20

D. The judgment of "Babylon," widespread apostasy, and the final triumph of God's kingdom (Ch. 17-21)

He also describes The Literary Structure of The Revelation as consisting of four visions, in each of which John sees the plan of God unveiled, beginning in 1:19, 4:1, 17:1, and 21:9, followed by an Epilogue in 22:6-21.

IX. Millennial Views

Rev. 20:2-7 has several references to a "thousand years." This is the only place in the entire Bible that specifically refers to this time period, other than Psalm 90:14 ("For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night") and II Peter 3:8 ("But, beloved, be not ignorant of this one thing, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day") -- both, obviously, symbolic or metaphorical; is 1,001 years in His sight not as yesterday? Is 2,000 years not as one day in His sight? Of course, even though it is the only specific mention of "1,000 years," all Scripture is authoritative and inspired ("God-breathed"), and must be taken seriously. The question is, how is this passage to be understood?

It is important to remember that The Revelation is a very symbolic book, referring to seven seals, seven lampstands, a seven-headed beast, 144,000 virgins, etc.. Many futurists who have no problem asserting the seven-headed beast is a symbol of one thing or the other become very literal and demand that the 1,000 years be interpreted literally.

This is very significant, because how you interpret this passage (Rev. 20:2-7) usually determines how you interpret the entire Book of Revelation, and all prophecy in general. The word "Millennium" comes from the Latin, meaning "1,000 years." There are three major ways of understanding Rev. 20:2- 7 that have been advocated over the years:

1. The Premillennial view This very popular current view asserts that the 1,000 years must be understood as a literal time span. This view is held by virtually all Futurists. Most modern futurists say Christ will come for the believers and "rapture" (not a Biblical term) or "snatch them away" from this world, followed by a seven year "Tribulation" period. Then, according to them, Christ will come again in glory, and set up a literal 1,000-year reign in Jerusalem, complete with another Jewish temple and renewed sacrifices (which God Himself did away with in AD 70!) and then after the Millennium the eternal state will begin. In essence, they think the Second Coming has two phases -- actually, a Second Coming and a Third Coming, though they never refer to it by these terms. Some think there will be a literal Battle of Armageddon at the end of the 1,000 years; other premillennialists insist that this battle
occurs at the Second Coming, before the Millennium. This modern kind of Premillenialism is called "Dispensationalism" or "Pretribulational Rapturism."

Some (but not all) believers in the early church held to the ancient historical Premillennial view, and back then were usually called "Chiliasts" (Greek "Chiliasm" = Latin "Millennialism"). They believed in a literal Millenium, but not the "Great Tribulation" and a "Rapture" seven years before the Second Coming. This historical Premillennialism has academically respectable advocates.

The modern two-phase second coming view originated in (or soon before) 1830 among the Irvingite pentecostal cult in Britain, when a 20-year-old Scottish woman named Margaret McDonald had a "vision" that Jesus will return for the Church seven years before the Second Coming, and hence the Church would not go through the Tribulation, and started the whole "pre-tribulation rapture" teaching, which was spread by J.N. Darby, Gabelien, and others in the Plymouth Brethren movement, and eventually popularized in America by the printing of the very unscholarly Scofield Reference Bible.

All premillennialists before 1830 (the claims of a very few authors to the contrary) believed that Christ would come at the end of time, with no "pretribulational rapture," and set up His millennial Kingdom on earth. This modern "pretribulational rapture" type of Premillenialism has no properly interpreted Biblical proof-texts, and no reliable Biblical foundation of true scholarship -- only the thoroughly discredited arguments of Walvoord, Ryrie, et al.

2. The Postmillennial View This view holds that, as the Gospel spreads and changes society, a golden age of enlightenment called the Millenium, whether understood as a literal 1,000 years or allegorically (usually the latter), precedes and leads up to the Second Coming of Christ, followed by the eternal state. Many of the Puritans, and the top American theologian Jonathan Edwards, held to this view. It fell out of favor as the 20th century unfolded, which seemed to include a great reversal of Christian civilization -- WWI, WWII, Communism advancing, etc.- but it has some scholarly proponents currently, and is growing.

3. The Amillennial View This view holds that the "1,000 years" in Rev. 20 refers symbolically or allegorically to the Kingdom of Christ during this present Church Age. Most amillennialists believe the world gets worse and worse until the end of the world; a minority hold that Christian culture and worship continue, overall, to grow and prosper. During this age, Satan is unable to deceive faithful seeking Christians, and Christ rules in the hearts of all true believers. Amillennialists point to Acts 2:29-31, where it specifically says that Christ began ruling from the Davidic throne beginning at the Resurrection, not thousands of years later after a Tribulation:

. . . David . . . is both dead and buried, and his sepulchre is with us unto this day. Therefore being a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him, that of the fruit of his loins, according to the flesh, he would raise up Christ to sit on his throne; He seeing this before
spake of the resurrection of Christ, that his soul was not left in hell, neither his flesh did see corruption. (Acts 2:29-31)

In Rev. 20:5-8, it says the righteous . . . lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years. But the rest of the dead lived not again until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection: on such the second death hath no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with him a thousand years.

Notice that the passage refers to refers to two resurrections, and two deaths. Many Amillennialists say that here we have one physical resurrection and one spiritual resurrection, and likewise, one physical death and one spiritual death. The "first resurrection" refers allegorically to being converted -- i.e., becoming a Christian -- raised from spiritual death to walk in newness of life; the second resurrection is the Resurrection of the Dead at the end of time. These people may experience a first death, a physical death, but they need not fear the "second death," spiritual death, as mentioned in Rev. 20:14, i.e. being cast into Hell for eternity. Those who are not saved were not partakers in the spiritual "first resurrection" of conversion; therefore, although they may have lived their life physically before dying, they had no spiritual life- like dead mean walking (I Timothy 5:6, Jude 12, Colossians 2:13, Ephesians 2:1, 5:14). They must face being cast into hell, the "second death," at the physical "second resurrection" at the last day.

X. A Concluding Thought

There are faithful and dedicated true Christians who hold to each of the above-mentioned positions.

Nevertheless, many futurist pretribulational rapture proponents seem to doubt the faithfulness of those who disagree with them, as though they were rejecting the doctrine of the Trinity or the Virgin Birth.

Some Dispensationalist schools and churches even make pretrib doctrine a test of fellowship, and will not have a speaker, or even graduate a student, who is not pretrib. This means that they could not welcome Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Tyndale, Stott, Spurgeon, Whitefield, Bunyan, Wycliffe, Cranmer, Ryle, C. S. Lewis, J. I. Packer, etc. to their pulpits! Let us be charitable, and not judgmental, when dealing with those of differing views on eschatology.

END

Subscribe
Get a bi-weekly summary of Anglican news from around the world.
comments powered by Disqus
Trinity School for Ministry
Prayer Book Alliance

Land of a Thousand Hills Coffee

Drink Coffee

Do Good

Sustainable Ministry

Coffee, Community, Social Justice

DrinkCoffeeDoGood.com

Go To Top