How should we interpret the book of Revelation?

Q: I’ve heard that there are different ways of interpreting the book of Revelation. Could you tell us how we should interpret it?

The Book of Revelation is a most difficult book to interpret for most of us. As a result, many of us either do not touch the book, or read it without attempting to understand it at all. This is sad, because the book itself begins and ends with a promise of blessing to those who read or hear it (Rev 1:3, 22:7). But the question is how should we understand the book? This is not an easy question, or at least it is not easy to give a dogmatic answer. My own position has been very tentative and has changed not too long ago. Indeed, it could be said that I did not really have a personal conviction on how the book should be interpreted, but had thought of the book in a particular way only because the church that I was in was insistent that the book should be read in only one way and that anyone who holds to other views is liberal or divisive. In a certain sense, I had allowed my conscience to be held captive for fear of being rejected by the key leaders in the church.

Thus, as I answer this question, I would like to state that this is not the ‘official view’ of Pilgrim Covenant Church. We do not have an official view, in so far as our Constitution and Confession are silent about which view is correct, or even which eschatological position is correct, except that it is in my opinion impossible to marry Dispensational Premillennialism with the theology of the Westminster Standards without twisting the originally intended meaning of the words in it. But that is another issue which we will have to address on another occasion.

Now, back to the book of Revelation: four main ways of understanding the book have emerged in the Christian Church.

Firstly, there is the Preterist View. This view sees the book as describing the events and conditions of the Asian churches and the Roman Empire at the end of the first century A.D. In this view, Babylon and the Beasts refer to the Roman state, while the woman of chapter 12 refers to the persecuted church. The book, accordingly, served to encourage the suffering church with the assurance that God would intervene to bring about His sovereign will. This view was held in various forms in the early 16th century, and has seen some form of revival in recent days. The advantage of the view is that it would have been of tremendous encouragement to the believers alive when it was written. The disadvantage of this view is that it does not quite do justice to the predictive element that is contained in the book, and it has diminished relevance to Christians who live subsequent to the first century.

Secondly, there is the Historicist View. This view regards the book as setting forth, in one broad continuous sweep, a panoramic view of the entire course of Christian history from the first century to the Second Coming of Christ. Thus for example, the falling star in Revelation 9:1 is seen by some as referring to Pope Boniface III; others, as referring to Mohammed; and yet others, to a monk Sergius. But the blowing of the 7th Trumpet in Revelation 11:15ff is taken by most to refer to the French Revolution of 1789. Though Calvin and Luther did not comment on Revelation, it is known that most of the Reformers, up to the time of the Puritans, held to the Historicist View. It is the view which identifies papal Rome with the beast. While I agree with some of the resulting identifications from this view, such as the Pope being the Antichrist (which is supported by other passages in Scripture), I see overwhelming difficulties attending to it. In the first place, few historicists are agreed as to the precise episodes in history, which the various visions appear to symbolise. In the second place, most if not all historicists will only see in Revelation the development of the church in Western Europe, while ignoring Christianity in the rest of the world. In the third place, the book of Revelation would then largely be a closed book to the majority of Christendom throughout the ages, who do not have the advantage of historical or even current knowledge of the development of the church, to be able to appreciate the message in the book.

The third view is known as the Futurist View. This view maintains that from Revelation 4 onwards, the book deals with events that will take place in connection with the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. According to this view, none of the visions from Revelation 4 to Revelation 22 pertains to the days when the letter was written, nor to the days subsequent to it. In fact, most futurists will insist that Revelation 4–19 does not pertain to anything that the church will experience since the church would have been ‘raptured.’ The book therefore has to do with the Jews and those left behind during the “7 years Tribulation.” Advocates of this view claim, with little substantiation, that this is the unanimous view in the early church before the 3rd century. Actually, the modern futurist view is very much a development of the 19th century, and was promoted by the Plymouth Brethren, the dispensational Bible Conferences in the 19th and 20th centuries, and much of the Study Bibles available today, such as the Scofield Study Bible, the Ryrie Study Bible, the KJV Study Bible and the Parallel KJV Study Bible. Today, through these influences, many Christians will regard anyone who is not a futurist to be a liberal!

This was the view that I was taught from the time I first became a Christian. At first, I held to this view because it was the only view I knew. Subsequently, I continued to hold to this view out of fear of rejection. But today, I must admit that I find it a frustrating exercise to read any commentary which is written from this perspective. This view robs the letter of practically all significance for the original audience as well as the Christian Church through the ages. It removes the book entirely from its historical setting and has spawn innumerable fantastical predictions of future events. Almost all modern Christian cults—Christadelphians, Jehovah Witnesses, Seventh-Day Adventists, etc.—have found their niche in some unique futuristic interpretation. It does not prepare Christians for tribulations (You will be raptured! Why bother?), and have caused a generation of Christians to thrive on newspaper speculations rather than on careful study of Scriptures. Stuart Olyott is not unjustified to say that “this view is pernicious!” And I am compelled to agree with R.C.H. Lenski that,

Most of the chiliasts [or futurists] disregard the Analogy of Scripture and the Analogy of Faith. Tell them that their doctrine is novum [i.e., new], and you will find that this is the very feature that is so attractive to them.

Revelation in Commentary on the New Testament, [Hendrickson Publishers, 1998], 574

Most commentaries on Revelation, found in the ordinary Christian bookshops today, approach Revelation from the futuristic standpoint, but two notable commentaries are by: John F. Walvoord and Robert L. Thomas.

The final view is the Idealist (from idea, not ideal) View. This is also known as the Spiritual or Poetic View. This view insists that, for the most part of the book, it does not deal with actual events but with ideas or principles. The theme of the book is the victory of Christ and His church over Satan and the unbelieving world. One convincing treatment of Revelation based on this approach is More than Conqueror (Baker Book House, 1982 [1942]) by William Hendriksen. Hendriksen proposes that the book comprise seven parallel sections, each spanning the entire gospel age. The seven sections, with his subtitles, are: (1) Christ in the midst of the lampstands (1:1 to 3:22); (2) The vision of heaven and the seals (4:1 to 7:17); (3) The seven trumpets (8:1 to 11:19); (4) The persecuting dragon (12:1 to 14:20); (5) The seven bowls (15:1 to 16:21); (6) The fall of Babylon (17:1 to 19:21); and (7) The Great Consummation (20:1 to 22:21). The interpretation of the details of each of these cycles is guarded by cross-references from other parts of Scripture as well as knowledge of the historical context in which the letter was written. I am more and more inclined to believe that this view is correct. The advantage of this view is that it would be immediately relevant not only to the first century Christians who were suffering persecution, but to Christians throughout the entire gospel age. It also takes seriously the predictive element of the letter, since each of the cycle involves also things yet to come. For example, the cycle of the persecuting dragon clearly begins with the inception of the New Testament Church and ends with the final judgement. Similarly, the cycle of the Great Consummation begins with the gospel age and concludes with the final judgement and the eternal state. Other commentators who hold to this view are: R.C.H. Lenski, Herman Hoeksema, Geoffrey B. Wilson, Charles D. Alexander (being printed by Banner of Truth, I am told).