Interpreting “Revelation”


The final book of the Bible, entitled The Apocalypse or The Book of Revelation, is a written record in the form of a letter (an epistle), in which future events were revealed to the writer in visions and portrayed through symbolic language. This unique genre of revelatory written works in which future events are revealed through dreams or visions is known as apocalyptic literature and includes portions of the Old Testament books of Ezekiel and Daniel.

The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who testifies to everything he saw – that is, the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ. Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.

Revelation 1:1-3

The title, The Apocalypse, comes from the Greek word Apokalypsis, meaning – the removing of a veil. The Book of Revelation gets its title from the Latin word Revelatio, which means – an unveiling. The revelation of Jesus Christ is a disclosure to the saints (his servants) of the nature and will of God the Father given to God the Son. The Word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ were revealed to John the apostle through an angelic mediator. The Book of Revelation is an unveiling of the person and work of the Son of God. It is a consummation of biblical prophecy disclosing the future of the Jew, the Gentile and the Church. John bore testimony to what he saw and wrote a letter to be read aloud to seven local churches in western Asia.

Many Christians are reluctant to read the Book of Revelation because they are intimidated by the symbolic language, yet those in the congregation who have ears to hear (not only listen to the message but take it to heart), are promised a special blessing.

In order to best interpret the meaning of the visions and the symbolic language of the Book of Revelation, it is essential to have both a good working knowledge of the rest of the Bible and possess an understanding of the culture and customs of biblical times. Since the Bible is its own best interpreter, it is crucial to have a Spirit led understanding of the Torah (Five Books of Moses or Pentateuch), the messianic Psalms and the Major Prophets in the Old Testament, as well as, having studied the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), 1Corinthians and 2 Thessalonians in the New Testament.

When studying any portion of the Bible, one’s hermeneutics comes into play. Hermeneutics is defined as the theory and methodology of interpretation, especially of scriptural text. The way scholars interpret the Book of Revelation is determined by the theologian’s preconceived concepts or type of hermeneutics used. A person’s denominational affiliation often influences their method of interpretation. A person who holds to Reformed Doctrine will have a very different eschatological view (how they see the last days) than the way a Dispensationalist will interpret the same text.

Over the centuries, four major traditions developed in the way the Book of Revelation is interpreted. These are popularly known as the Preterist view, Idealist view, Historicist view and Futurist view. These four traditional interpretations automatically resulted from extrapolating from established doctrines. In other words, how literally or symbolically passages are interpreted is based upon a person’s denomination or brand of theology.

Reformed or Covenant theologians espouse the teachings of Calvin and other leaders of the Protestant Reformation. Reformed theology adheres to the doctrines of grace and emphasizes the concept of election. Reformed seminaries and the pastors that they train have also adopted a belief system which includes Christian Replacement Theology. By holding to this preconceived notion that the Church has replaced Israel, they will automatically spiritualize any reference to Israel in the New Testament as meaning the Church. The biblical passage from James 1:1 is often quoted to bolster their position that the term twelve tribes no longer refers to ethnic Jews but is a reference to the church.

James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations: Greetings. James 1:1

Wayne Grudem, the author of Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, offers the following as evidence to support this doctrine of replacement of Israel with the Church:

“…, James can write a general letter to many early Christian churches and say that he is writing to the twelve tribes in the Dispersion (James 1:1). This indicates that he is evidently viewing the New Testament Christians as the successors to and fulfillment of the twelve tribes of Israel.

Evidently, James was writing to the New Testament Christians — but these were ethnically Jewish Christians. James was the Bishop of Jerusalem. After Stephen was martyred, the members of the Jerusalem church fled from Judea. This letter was obviously of a Jewish nature (e.g., the use of the Hebrew title for God, kyrios sabbaoth,  “Lord Almighty,” James 5:4). When James wrote to the twelve tribes, he was not viewing the New Testament Christians as successors to and fulfillment of the twelve tribes of Israel; evidently he was identifying the early church as primarily comprised of Jews who accepted Jesus as the Messiah of Israel.

The Historicist or Panhistoric (across history) view claims that each generation has its own fulfillment of prophecy. The book of Revelation basically deals with all of human history. The meaning of the symbols is to be found in the events of history. Some hold that the book deals more with the period prior to the present, some see it as unfolding in the present, and some emphasize the future more. The entire book is a symbolic account of the whole scope of world history, with the “beast” identified with various historical figures or peoples, therefore Nero, Napoleon or Hitler could have been the Antichrist.

There are major problems with this method of interpretation. It becomes totally subjective and even adherents to this view disagree as to which persons, places and events have fulfilled prophecy. This view arose in the Middle Ages, and was adopted by most of the Reformers in the 16th century, including Martin Luther who popularized the idea that the “beast” was the Roman Catholic Pope. In turn, Catholic theologians were convinced that Luther was the “beast.”

The Preterist view of prophetic interpretation was developed by Luis de Alcazar (1554-1613), as part of the Counter Reformation. It was developed to take the heat off the Pope, who was feeling some discomfort from the Reformers’ talk that the Papacy was the Antichrist.

Preterist means past in fulfillment. The Preterist or Contemporary Historical view claims that most or all Biblical prophecy has been fulfilled in the first century, up to the year AD 70. This year saw the desolation and destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Roman Empire. And this all happened within Jesus’ generation’s lifetime, within a Biblical generation, 40 years later. Although Jewish and Old Testament expectations are of a literal earthly reign of the Messiah, based upon their belief that God has finished with corporate national Israel, Preterists believe that there is no need for a future literal Millennial Kingdom on earth.

There are several problems with the belief that most or all of Biblical prophecy has been fulfilled by the year 70 A.D. After seven hundred years of Gentile domination followed by eighteen centuries of the Diaspora, the nation of Israel was rebirthed in a single day (May 14th, 1948). The Hebrew language has been revived as the national tongue and the fate of Jerusalem is the focus of international concern. These events are literal fulfillments of Isaiah 66:8, Ezekiel 37:1-14 and Zechariah 12:2.

If all biblical prophecy is fulfilled by 70 A.D., it is necessary to date the writing of the Book of Revelation prior to the Fall of Jerusalem. Therefore, the Roman Emperor Nero is interpreted to be the Antichrist and Jerusalem is Babylon.

There are several arguments which prove that the Book of Revelation was written in 95 or 96 A.D., a quarter of a century after the Fall of Jerusalem:

The persecution of Christians during the reign of Nero was centered in Rome (A.D.64). According to Revelation 2:13, Antipas was martyred in Pergamum, which was located in Western Asia (modern-day Turkey). The persecution of Christians who failed to worship the reigning emperor (the emperor cult), did not reach Western Asia until the reign of Domitian (A.D. 81-96).

Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way, for (that day will not come) until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction. He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God.

2 Thessalonians 2:3-4

Nero never even visited the temple in Jerusalem.  When revolts broke out in Judea and Jerusalem; Emperor Nero went to Greece on a pleasure trip, while Vespasian campaigned in Judea against the Jews.

The term a synagogue of Satan is used in Revelation 2:9 and 3:9. While followers of Christ were still considered a sect of Judaism by the Romans, they enjoyed freedom to worship under Roman rule. During the siege of Jerusalem, Jewish Christians heeding the warnings of Jesus escaped from Judea when the Roman generals Vespasian and Titus withdrew to Rome after Emperor Nero’s suicide. After the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., non-believing Jews who were angered that the Jewish Christians fled from the Holy City, took the names of Jewish followers of Christ off of their synagogue rolls and turned the names into the Roman authorities. The Christian Jews were no longer protected from observing emperor worship and many were martyred. The synagogues of Satan did not arise until after the Fall of Jerusalem.

In the year 95 A.D., John the Apostle was apprehended by the proconsul of Asia and sent to Rome. Emperor Domitian banished John to the isle of Patmos. The tyrant Domitian was slain in September of A.D. 96. All of his edicts and public acts were declared void by a decree of the Roman Senate on account of his excessive cruelty; and his successor, Nerva, recalled all those whom he had banished. The Apostle John returned to Ephesus in A.D. 97 where he became bishop.

The Fall of Jerusalem was prophesied by Jesus and did come to pass within one generation of his prediction. Yet, the prophetic passages of the Book of Revelation were penned after its destruction. Therefore, we can logically conclude that there is biblical prophecy yet to be fulfilled.

The Idealist or Timeless Symbolic view is also a non-literal approach to interpreting the Book of Revelation. The Idealist holds to the view that the visions in Revelation do not point to any particular period in history nor do the visions describe any particular set of events. The book, while rooted in the social and historical setting of the first century church, contains a message that transcends that setting. It illustrates, in the struggles of the early church, abiding spiritual principles that are applicable to all of human experience throughout history.

Although the Book of Daniel contains many visions and dreams, all of the events prophesied related to particular periods in history and particular events including the rebuilding of Jerusalem, the coming of Christ and the destruction of the Second Temple. When apocalyptic language of Daniel was used in it did denote actual times, places and events. Therefore, I believe, so does the apocalyptic language of the Book of Revelation.

The Futurist view is that the book predicts events which will accompany the end of the world. Chapters 1-3 generally are seen to refer to the events of the interpreters’ own time, and the rest of the book is of future or end time events. Dispensationalists hold to this view.

The dispensational position is built upon the hermeneutic that we should recognize that biblical history (revelation) should be rightly divided into approximately seven distinct dispensations:

(1) Innocence – from the creation of Adam and Eve until the fall

(2) Conscience – from the fall to Noah’s flood

(3) Human Government – from Noah to Abraham

(4) Promise – Abraham’s time to Moses

(5) Law – from Moses to Christ

(6) Grace – from the death of Christ to the rapture of the church

(7) Millennium – the future 1,000 year reign of Christ on earth

Most dispensationalists agree that a dispensation is a period of time during which man is tested in respect of obedience to some specific revelation of the will of God. There is variance over how many dispensations there are, for example, Dallas Seminary officially holds to three, others hold four, some eight Dake claims nine, however; the basics are the same.

The acknowledged father of dispensationalism is John Nelson Darby, an Irish lawyer who left his successful practice to become an Anglican priest. For Darby the church formed a parenthesis between the dispensation of the Gentiles (before Christ) and the coming dispensation of the Kingdom. We currently live in this dispensation of the church, which began during the ministry of the Apostle Paul. It is an era of grace in which the rejected Messiah is building up his heavenly people, the Christians. Meanwhile God’s real issue in human history is with his earthly people, the Israelites. The Rapture will be the necessary removal of the heavenly people from the world so that God’s work with the earthly people might be finished.

The person most responsible for the rather widespread acceptance of Pretribulationalism and Dispensationalism among Evangelicals is Cyrus Ingerson Scofield (1843-1921). C. I. Scofield published his Scofield Reference Bible in 1909. This Bible, which espoused the doctrines of Darby in its notes, became very popular in Fundamentalist circles. In the minds of many a Bible teacher, fundamentalist pastor and multitudes of professing Christians, Scofield’s notes were practically equated with the word of God itself.

One of the major flaws of dispensational doctrine is the failure to recognize that grace is not confined to a period of dispensation.

Genesis 6:8

But Noah found grace in the eyes of the LORD.

Genesis 19:19

Behold now, thy servant hath found grace in thy sight, and thou hast magnified thy mercy, which thou hast shewed unto me in saving my life; and I cannot escape to the mountain, lest some evil take me, and I die… (Lot found grace)

Genesis 33:10

And Jacob said, Nay, I pray thee, if now I have found grace in thy sight, then receive my present at my hand: for therefore I have seen thy face, as though I had seen the face of God, and thou wast pleased with me. (Jacob found grace)

Exodus 33:12

And Moses said unto the LORD, See, thou sayest unto me, Bring up this people: and thou hast not let me know whom thou wilt send with me. Yet thou hast said, I know thee by name, and thou hast also found grace in my sight.

According to Scripture not only did Noah, Lot and Jacob find grace during the so-called dispensations of “Human Government” and “Promise” but even Moses, who is uniquely identified with the Books of the Law, was unable to fulfill his calling apart from the grace of God.

Another problem with dispensational doctrine is that arbitrary spans of dates have been attached to the seven churches of Revelation:

First Church Period


33 – 270 AD

Second Church Period


270 – 530 AD

Third Church Period


530-1530 AD

Fourth Church Period


1530-1730 AD

Fifth Church Period


1730-1880 AD

Sixth Church Period


1880-1967 AD

Seventh Church Period


1967-Jesus’ Return

These periods of time are based upon a western colonial view and completely discount the history of the Eastern Church. These churches were in existence at the time of the writing of the Book of Revelation. There is no biblical precept to validate that they are symbolic of subsequent and chronological fulfillment. They were listed according to the delivery of John’s epistle, since they were located on a circuitous mail route.

Is the persecution and faithfulness of the church of Communist China less than that of the Thessalonians? Is the liberality of the churches of today that ordain gay ministers much different from those in Sardis who had soiled their garments of righteousness? Is there anything new under the sun? A much better case can be made for the churches of Revelation symbolizing the problems churches have had throughout the past two millennia.

When a dispensationalist seeks to interpret the future events prophesied in the Book of Revelation, he has already determined that the true church would need to be removed from the earth in order to make way for the completion of God’s dealings with the Jews. One of the most popular teachings today in Evangelical and Charismatic churches is this doctrine of the pretribulation rapture. This doctrine was a natural outcome formulated from dispensational presuppositions and Scofield’s commentary.

In much the same way that Reformed theologians refuse to see national corporate Israel in the pages of the Book of Revelation, Charismatics and other dispensationalists refuse to see the Church on earth along with Israel during the final seven years of this present evil age.

An unprejudiced interpretation of the Book of Revelation would allow for the Bible to act as its own interpreter and be free from doctrinal presuppositions that insist that God has done away with Israel or that the Church must be removed from the earth prior to the Tribulation. Instead, let us first examine the Scriptures guided by the Holy Spirit to see what a natural reading of the text says and with the understanding that the interpretation of symbolic visions can be culled from the Bible itself.

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