Wednesday, June 20, 2018

A Survey Of How To Interpret The Book Of Revelation

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Revelation 1:19 "Therefore write the things which you have seen, and the things which are, and the things which will take place after these things."

Introduction: Some Opening Thoughts On Interpreting Scripture In General

When we begin to study any of the 66 books of the Bible, a four-step process is suggested:

1. Observation, seeing what the text          says.
2. Interpretation, explaining what the 
    text means.
3. Application, living out the text's 
4. Correlation, evaluating my 
    observation, interpretation and 
    application by whether I've captured 
    the intent of the Biblical author.

This four-step process encompasses a discipline of Biblical studies called: "hermeneutics". Hermeneutics concerns itself with the science and art of interpreting any text in general, and the Biblical text in particular. 

The Bible is both a Divine and human book. This author affirms the Bible's Divine inerrancy (i.e., "without error" or "totally true" as originally revealed by God) and infallibility (i.e., "incapable of leading astray") (see Proverbs 30:4-5; John 10:35; 2 Timothy 3:15-17; 2 Peter 1:20-21). The human aspect of the Biblical text has to do with the various writing styles employed by the 40 or so Biblical authors. Whenever we interpret the Bible, we are aiming to bridge four gaps":  geographical, literary, historical and cultural. 

Solving the interpretive challenges posed by the ancient world of scripture is possible by consulting  websites such as Such websites offer the Bible student access to Bible study tools like Bible dictionaries, encyclopedias and commentaries that equip the Bible student to close the gaps. As a final introductory thought, the Spirit of God makes clear or "illumines" the believer's understanding to grasp all the things freely given by God to them (again, 1 Corinthians 2:10-16; 1 John 2:20,27). 

With those thoughts in mind on Bible interpretation in general, we now come to the Book of Revelation in particular. 

What must be considered when interpreting the Book of Revelation?

We can answer this first question in four specific parts: Literary, Historical, Doctrinal and Outline.  

First of all, we must consider the Book of Revelation from a literary standpoint. The Book of Revelation is not just one uniform type of literature, but includes a variety of literary forms or genres. Revelation 1-3 features seven letters to seven different churches in a first century form of a letter we call an "epistle".1 However, there is a second type of literature that we see in Revelation that is termed "Apocalyptic" (or revelatory). Other books of the Bible such as Daniel and Ezekiel feature "apocalyptic" characteristics.2

In as much as Revelation contains elements of apocalyptic style, some distinguishing features of Revelation (and the other Biblical Books containing similar material), is the fact that it is directly revealed by the Lord. What this means then is that Revelation is predictive in nature. As a side-note, the parts of it that depict "things-yet-to-come" are tied to what Jesus achieved in His first coming. Sometimes, scholars like to use the phrase: "already/not-yet" to capture this trait of experiencing a foretaste in this present-age of what will take place in the age-to-come. The Book of Revelation expresses this feature to the fullest extent.3 

As stated already, the chief tone of John's Apocalyptic visions is that if predictive prophecy (especially in Revelation 4-22). John MacArthur in his commentary notes that noting Revelation's predictive character (also called "futurism") "takes the book's meaning as God gave it."  Prophetic books typically have three main features: warning, comfort and prediction.  The Book of Revelation without a doubt is a prophecy of the first order.

As a mixture of different types of literature, most would term Revelation 1-3 to be Epistles and Revelation 4-22 to be a combination of Apocalyptic and Prophecy. 

The Book of Revelation historical standpoint: it is either primarily historical, about the future or a little bit of both

With the literary standpoint considered, we now move to the second standpoint one must consider when approaching the Book of Revelation, namely the historical standpoint of the Book. This standpoint is important, since we can evaluate our own interpretation of Revelation by comparing how Christians of the past have approached it. Keeping in view how other Christians and Biblical scholarship have explored Revelation keeps us accountable. One question to ask ourselves is: how much of Revelation is speaking entirely of the future and how much of Revelation is speaking of history?  

According to most authors today, there are four approaches to the book of Revelation, all of which are defined by how much or how little they view Revelation as a work of history or work of prophecy.  It must be noted that in all four of these approaches, Christ's literal, bodily return is believed and cherished as the ultimate event looked forward to by Revelation. The following four schools of thought represent how various people have historically  approached the Book of Revelation. 

1. Preterist view of Revelation: "The Book of Revelation is prophecy that was fulfilled primarily in the first century".4 Conservative Bible teachers such as R.C Sproul espouse a moderate version of this position.5  The word "preterist" comes from a Latin word meaning "past" and is held by a strong minority of scholars. Those who espouse the "preterist" view claim Revelation was written before 70 A.D. Although this school of interpretation can aid greatly in understanding the background of some of Revelation's symbols, the idea of Revelation as hardly referring to the future is hardly convincing, at least to this author's mind. 

2. Idealist view of Revelation: The idealist or what is sometimes termed "spiritual" view of Revelation sees the book "as representing the ongoing conflict of good and evil, with no immediate historical connection to any social or political events."6 Although this viewpoint has initial promise in understanding the life-practical point of Revelation, it tends to breakdown when wrestling with some of the finer-grained details of the Book.

3. Historicist view of Revelation: The Book of Revelation is prophecy about church history from the time of John to the end of the world."7 A prime example of this approach would take the seven churches of Revelation 2-3 and view them as successive representations of seven stages of church history. This particular school of thought can aid somewhat in applying the first three chapters of John's Apocalypse. This author tends to find some merit in this viewpoint (although great caution needs exercised when tying details of Revelation 2-3 to particular historical eras).

4. Futurist view of Revelation: This approach is the most familiar to many readers and mainly embraced by this author. Futurist interpreters view Revelation as being almost entirely about the future. Numerous Bible teachers like Dr. John MacArthur and past Bible teachers and preachers such as Dr. W.A Criswell, Dr. C.I Scofield, Dr. Dwight J. Pentecost and Dr. John Walvoord were futurists in their approach to Revelation. 

These four historical approaches are also approaches we find to one degree or another throughout the history of the church among Bible believing teachers.  As far as this author knows, all four approaches exist in Southern Baptist life. So, whenever we approach the Book of Revelation, we must consider the literary and historical standpoints that provide insight into how we will work our way through its contents. In the next post, we will consider the two remaining standpoints: namely, the doctrinal standpoint and a suggested outline of the book. 

Closing thoughts:

Today's post attempted to introduce readers to what is typically considered when approaching the book of Revelation. How one interprets the Book will determine how it is applied to daily life. May this post prove helpful to those desiring to begin their study in the Book of Revelation. 

End Notes____________________

1. There are 21 examples of epistles in our New Testament which contain at least four features: A salutation or introductory greeting, a doctrinal section, a practical section and a closing section. Epistles are usually (but not always) personal and are as a general rule to be interpreted as literally as possible unless otherwise indicated. Revelation 1-3 and the last few verses of Revelation 22 have the tell-tale signs of the style we call "Epistle". 

2. Steve Gregg. Revelation Four View: A parallel commentary. Nelson. 1997. Pages 10-12. Steve Gregg in His Book: "Revelation Four Views - A Parallel Commentary", writes this about the genre or literary type called "apocalyptic".

*In both Revelation and other apocalyptic writings, angels commonly appear as tour guides and interpreters.

* Like most apocalyptic types of literature, Revelation was written during intense times of persecution

* We see the use of vivid symbols and imagery (monsters, dragons, symbolic numbers, names) in depicting the conflict between good and evil.

* In apocalyptic literature like Revelation, certain numbers carry with them certain meanings

3. William Klein, Craig Blomberg and Robert L. Hubbard. Introduction to Biblical Interpretation. Word Publishing. Page 371

Klein, Blomberg and Hubbard have pointed out one other additional feature of apocalyptic literature which we also see in Revelation:

"Apocalyptic types of literature include a description of events surrounding the end of world history, often said to have come from God by means of angelic or otherworldy intermediaries".

4. Dr. Timothy Paul Jones.  Rose Guide to End-Times Prophecy. 2011  Page 263

5. Dr. R.C Sproul.  The Last Days According to Jesus.  Baker Academic.  1998

6. Stanley N. Gundry, Series Editor; C. Marvin Pate, General Editor. "Four Views on the Book of Revelation.  Zondervan.  1998. Page 23. 

7. Dr. Timothy Paul Jones. Rose Guide to End-Times Prophecy. 2011 Page 263

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