METHODS OF INTERPRETING THE BOOK OF REVELATION
The interpretation of the book of Revelation depends entirely upon the method of approach.
Some have approached the book with the idea that it reveals all the future of history from
the New Testament time to the consummation of the age.
Others have supposed it to reveal the history of the apostasy of the Roman Catholic Church.
Still others find nothing of abiding worth in the book and look upon it as a collection
of early Christian myth with no significance for our day.
Another group has sought to point out in the book principles of action on the basis
of which God deals with man through all ages.
Then some have sought to find the meaning that this book had in the day of its origin and to determine
by application of that meaning its significance for every other generation.
I. The Futurist Method
This method regards Revelation as almost wholly eschatological, dealing with the events
of the end of the world.
Such a view looks upon the cryptic symbols as a means of revealing the end of the age,
the coming of the Lord, the millennial reign with the saints on the earth, the loosing of Satan,
the second resurrection, and the final judgment.
They look upon the book as a volume of unfulfilled prophecy.
From chapter 4 to the end of the book, we have recorded events that are to be fulfilled
in the future and closely connected with the second coming of Christ.
Because of many natural desires to know the future, many have been far more interested
in the last things than in present conditions with God's plan and purpose in this age of need.
To some the book becomes largely a problem of celestial mathematics;
and they are more concerned with the calculating of time charts than they are of securing
social and economic and political righteousness for their immediate neighbors.
The futurists hold that the events from chapter 4 to 19 are to take place within the brief space of 7 years.
This period of tribulation is interpreted to be the 70th week mentioned in the familiar prophecy
of Daniel 9:24-27, which 70th week they regard to be separated by many centuries
from the other 69 and to come in at the close of the Christian era.
Most futurists are literalists in their interpretation of Revelation.
They stay as close as they can to literalism and see very little that is symbolical in the book.
Examples of this literalism:
In the 11th chapter the Temple is measured.
Futurists hold that this is the Temple in Jerusalem and that it will be rebuilt before the end of the age.
In the same chapter we find the symbols of two witnesses.
The futurists hold that this is not a symbol but a prophecy concerning two great prophets who will make
their appearance near the end of the world.
Futurists also hold that the numbers in Revelation have to do with mathematical values
and not symbolical representation.
Another distinguishing mark of the futurists is their belief in the coming of a personal Antichrist.
They interpret that the beast of Revelation is a personal wicked secular or ecclesiastical ruler
who will be in power in the last days.
This Antichrist is most often identified by this group with the man of sin of 2 Thessalonians 3.
Most of the futurists hold that after the Lord is revealed from heaven at his second coming,
the general judgment will not take place at once.
Rather there will be a resurrection of the righteous and after that a reign of Christ with His saints |
on the earth for one thousand years.
1. Objections to the Futuristic Method
(1) It is inconsistent with the statement made by John that the events predicted were
in the main to come to pass soon.
The revelation of Jesus Christ which God gave to him to show to his servants what things
it is necessary to come to pass shortly. (1:1)
- This literal translation includes two words which are of great importance at this place.
One is dei which is an impersonal Greek verb which involves a moral necessity.
It is morally necessary in order for a just end to be accomplished
that these come to pass shortly.
This is the same word which Jesus used when He said it was necessary for Him
to go to Jerusalem and to die.
It was morally necessary in order for the end in view to be accomplished.
In this passage in Revelation we find that it was morally necessary for the things
to be fulfilled shortly in order for God's oppressed people to see His arm revealed
and His comfort given in a time of seeming disaster.
- The second Greek term we are interested in is the phrase en taahiei which is translated
quickly or shortly.
The futurists hold that this is only a term which means certainty rather than having
any temporal idea connected. Paul hardly uses it this way when he says to Timothy,
Be diligent to come to me quickly (taohieoa).
We can almost hear him say, according to the futurists:
Timothy, I want you to come to me here in Rome. Bring the coat I left with Carpus.
I am cold and need it, but there is no hurry -- just so you get here in the next two or three thousand years!
I need those Scripture scrolls I left there. Bring them so I can read them.
There are some passages I want to brush up on in the next thousand years or so.
I want to see you. I don't know how long I can hold out, so come in the next
few thousand years (taohieoa) -- any time will be all right.
But this is no more absurd than to take the position that the phrase in Revelation 1:1 means
certainty of fulfillment rather than a speedy fulfillment.
Hear John saying to the beaten, broken, suffering, persecuted Christians of Asia Minor:
That's all right. Don't be disturbed.
After a few thousand years the nations will gather together for a great battle in the valley of Megiddo,
and when it is all over God will set up an earthly kingdom and reign with his saints,
and all the followers of the Antichrist will be destroyed.
Such a message would have had little meaning and less comfort to those in need.
They needed a revelation from God which would say:
Christ is alive. He is in the midst of his people.
He is going to see that his cause triumphs over those who are trying to stamp it out.
And he is going to do it now.
Therefore, be comforted and hold your own.
There was a moral necessity that these things be fulfilled quickly.
The need was an urgent one, and the message was one to meet the urgency.
It is beyond the bounds of any reasonable interpretation to consider nothing
of the book as yet fulfilled.
(2) One of the strongest objections to the futurist method is that it leaves Revelation altogether
out of relation to the needs of the churches to which it was addressed and which first received it.
One of the basic principles of prophecy is that it takes its start with the generation
to which it is addressed.
Its first purpose is to meet an immediate need -- to comfort, to instruct, to warn.
To say this is not to say that prophecy stops with its own generation.
Just so, Revelation begins with the people of its day and, having comforted them
in their immediate need, points the way to the final consummation of the kingdom in God's own time.
Its first purpose was to help those who first received it.
Certainly no interpretation can be regarded as the true one if it leaves the book
out of relation to the churches who first read and heard the message.
To know that Revelation is the answer to the cry of the Christians
of the Domitianic persecution is to know that it was never meant
to be a forecast of Roman Catholic apostasy or a chronology for the Lord's return.
(3) Much of the symbolism of the book of Revelation is compatible with the futurist method.
When the futurist comes to the 12th chapter, he has either to reverse his position
and hold that the symbolism speaks of a past event or to hold that the symbolism points
to some activity of the Israel of the end-time.
The symbolism very naturally speaks of the birth of Christ and of the devil's attempt
to destroy him, but the futurist denies this and makes the book a Jewish rather than
a Christian work at its very center.
(4) A final objection, one which may be more subjective than objective, is that the futurist method
is associated with a materialistic philosophy of the kingdom of God and a basis of triumph
for the cause of righteousness which appears to be unscriptural throughout.
Any system which turns from the purposes of grace and the cross of Christ to methods
of victory of any other description becomes repulsive to the sincere Christian mind.
Futurism does this very thing, whether it will admit it or not.
This dispensationalism is Jewish theology, largely of the apocryphal literature,
and not New Testament theology.
2. Strong Points (?) of Futurism
-- These will lead one to consider if there are any strong points of the futurists.
(1) The claim is made that the futurist method just takes the Bible at its word,
takes it literally without adding or subtracting anything.
This appears, at first glance, to be a noble aspiration.
However, sincere study reveals that the Bible is written in different styles
and with different methods of presenting its truth.
It must be interpreted in a way consistent with the method of presentation.
To interpret a parable literally or to interpret poetry as history is a false procedure.
In a similar way it is false procedure to interpret symbol as fact.
This results in a perversion of Scripture rather than loyalty to its true moaning.
(2) Futurists claim that their method is the only one which will keep alive an active hope
in the return of the Lord.
They claim that all the other methods dim this hope and turn the eyes of men to the earth
rather than to the clouds in which Christ is to come.
This is not a just claim.
There are many devout and sincere Christians who hold to other methods of interpretation
yet recognize and glory in all the New Testament truths relative to the glorious doctrine
of the Lord's return.
Besides this, to assume a false method of interpretation of a book just to stimulate
interest in some doctrine, even a true doctrine, cannot be viewed as a worthy motive.
There are many places in the New Testament where the second coming of Christ is taught
far more clearly than in the symbolism of Revelation.
(3) Futurists hold that to take any view of Revelation other than the one which holds to theirs
precludes any evangelistic fervor or endeavor.
This, too, is a false claim.