The Pressing Relevance of Revelation
I have decided to preach through the Revelation of Jesus Christ on account of my growing conviction of its pressing relevance for our times. I am not gripped by any “end times” mania – other than the grip that the Second Coming of our Lord has held upon believing hearts in every generation. I am not preaching through this portion of God’s holy word to push any particular school of interpretation upon you. I believe that the book was written primarily to encourage the first century church in the face of the fierce persecution fires lit by the apostate Jews of Jesus’ generation (1 Thess. 2:14-16). Jewish leadership in Jerusalem and in many of the local synagogues through Asia Minor and Europe stoked the fires of imperial persecution in the Roman provinces. Then, under Nero in the early-mid 60’s A.D. all hell broke loose. The fledgling church was in great danger of being completely swallowed up by the malice of Satan, as chapter 12 in Revelation so vividly anticipates. To impress us with the danger of those times, imagine an army of babies facing a bloodthirsty enemy. Satan did his utmost to destroy the Lamb’s Bride in the generation after she was born by the Spirit of God. This is the historical background of Revelation. It is the reason that the book breathes such a first-century spirit, an apostolic primitivism, in the Greek utilized, the Old Testament metaphors constantly employed, and the spirit of courage, endurance, and to-the-death faithfulness.
I have gleaned much over the years from believing students of Revelation. If you wanted to decide which way to interpret the book of Revelation based upon the godliness and integrity of the men holding to a particular school of thought, you would have to choose them all! Godly and intelligent men have viewed the book as a whole and its individual symbols differently. I have noticed, however, that the best interpreters hold three truths in common. First, they take seriously the first century context. God’s word is grounded in history and directed to a historical time period. Second, every faithful interpreter sees the central character of the book as the exalted Jesus Christ, enthroned at the Father’s right hand, ruling the nations by his power, and protecting his people from their enemies (Rev. 1:5; 19:11-15). This is the reason that I think Revelation preaches so well – it is about the exalted King, our blessed Savior. Third, the call of Revelation to each believer is to hold fast to Jesus Christ in the face of Satan’s malice and the world’s opposition (Rev. 2:7,17,26). The crown is before us, and the glory of Jesus Christ as King of kings drives us forward. Under his banner, move forward in faith, brave the wrath of man, and do not compromise God’s truth. These three points will guide our preaching through Revelation. We can thus be unified with the best interpreters of all schools, glean from the insights of all, and avoid unnecessary narrowness that breeds cult-like obsession with defending one’s particular school of interpretation.
Interpretation and Setting
Five Schools of Interpretation
I do not normally delve into deep interpretive weeds when preaching through God’s word. Preaching is not a theological lecture and should not referee debates between commentators. Yet, sometimes preaching must delve into interpretive specifics, and this is especially true of a book like Revelation. There are basically five views as to the way the book should be interpreted. The first and most popular is what we might call Futurism. This interpretive school that believes John is prophesying of events that will occur in conjunction with Christ’s Second Coming. All of Revelation after chapter 3 has a future orientation. Darby, Scofield, Ryrie, Walvoord, Lindsay are leading Dispensational advocates of this position, and Historic Premillennialists generally adopt this view of John’s writing, albeit with significant modifications and with much less speculation and “prophetic forecasting.” Futurists adopt this position because of their desire to take Revelation literally, i.e., there is a real beast that will arise from the sea, etc. There are three insurmountable weaknesses of a futurist approach to Revelation. (1) It is absolutely contrary to the expectation of immediate judgment and coming that characterizes the tone of the book. It will not do here to introduce the notion of “prophetic foreshortening,” for this is reading into the text to support an a priori eschatological view. (2) If futurism is the correct way to interpret Revelation, 90% of the book would have been irrelevant to the original audience, for whom the Lord Jesus clearly expresses an immediate concern. (3) It is utterly subjective. The future has not yet occurred. Futurist interpreters are virtually free to “make it up as they go.” The results are clear for all to see: faulty predictions, crass literalism, and confusion.
Historicism maintains that Revelation is a prophetic outline of the entirety of church history between the Ascension and Second Coming of Jesus Christ. Most of the Reformers, Jonathan Edwards, Whitefield, Spurgeon, Barnes and many other leading figures in church history support this interpretive model. Historicists seek to align leading events in church and world history with the symbols and sequences in the book. One notable feature of Reformation historicism was its identification of the Beast of Revelation with the Roman Papacy. There are significant problems with historicism. (1) It is subjective. A variety of divisions have been suggested so as to accommodate historical events and personages into the scheme. Historicism yields an uncertain interpretation of the book, which makes it very shaky to preach and weak in its comfort and motivation. Its message is made flexible enough to fix almost any reading of church history. (2) Its advocates cannot agree upon how the book and thus church history should be divided. It has been the disappointing tendency of virtually all Historicists to identify the events of their own day as the last period of church history. (3) As with Futurism, a Historicist approach to Revelation renders its message virtually useless to the first century readers, who needed immediate direction and encouragement in their great battle against the persecuting power of apostate Judaism and the imperial power of pagan Rome.
Sensing the weakness of the futurist and historicist views, Idealism interprets Revelation in a non-historical fashion. Its message is not directed to any specific period or events in history. Revelation portrays the battle of good against evil, gives believers encouragement to persevere, and vividly depicts this cosmic struggle in symbolic language in order to fire the imagination of God’s people to perseverance and faith. William Milligan, William Hendricksen, and Leon Morris are notable supporters of this school of interpretation. Its leading advantage is the removal of the need to harmonize history with the symbols of Revelation. Idealists believe that such efforts are futile and contrary to the purpose of the book. One chief weakness of Idealism is that John does utilize clear historical indicators throughout his visions. His prediction of immediate judgment and aid to the persecuted church speaks of a real historical visitation of Christ. Simply because it is difficult for us to identify historical events does not mean that John is suprahistorical.
The emerging and most popular approach to interpreting Revelation in Reformed circles is Redemptive-Historical Idealism. It is advocated by G.K. Beale in his 1999 commentary on Revelation and will undoubtedly become the favored view of evangelical and literary-critical interpreters of the book in the coming years. Beale recognizes the historical flavor of Revelation and believes that John is writing in that specific cultural milieu. It is not surprising if we find many historical parallels with Revelation and the events of world and church history in the first century A.D. However, with the Idealists, Beale believes that Revelation is not referring primarily to actual historical events, except perhaps for the final coming of Christ at the conclusion of world history. John made use of the events of his day to portray spiritual truths. The strength of this position is that it combines the benefits of historical grounding with the flexibility of contemporary application. One must humbly ask, however, is it consistent to maintain that Revelation is historically grounded in its presentation but that John was not referring primarily to actual historical events?
The fifth view is known as Preterism. This school of thought sees the vast majority of Revelation’s prophesies as having their fulfillment in the events of the first century A.D. Preterists believe that John’s repeated stress upon the immediacy of the divine visitation coupled with the clear historical parallels between the promised judgment and actual historical events indicate a fulfillment of Revelation in the first century A.D. The strength of this view is its willingness to accept John’s time and historical indicators, historical parallels, and agreement with Christ’s teaching in Matthew 23 and 24. The chief challenge to Preterism’s acceptance by Bible students and scholars is the seeming incompatibility of a 70 A.D. fulfillment with John’s description of universal judgment. The end of the Jewish temple and priesthood did have universal implications for the church of Jesus Christ. First-century Gentile believers were harassed by Judaizers within the church and by apostate Judaism from without. The end of the old Jewish order delivered them from this persecuting power and demonstrated historically that the church of Jesus Christ is Jew and Gentile together in one body. Sadly, some Preterists have fallen into the heresy of denying the bodily return of Jesus Christ at the end of history by equating his return with the judgment of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Orthodox Preterism believes that Jesus Christ came in judgment upon that generation, as he promised he would, and that he will bodily and visibly return to consummate all things, as he promised upon his ascension in glory (Acts 1:9).
Summary Evidence for a First Century Referent
Perhaps I should summarize my exegetical reasons for believing that the primary purpose of Revelation is to announce the judgment of the reigning Jesus Christ against apostate, persecuting Judaism, as well as to declare his warfare against all forms of statism, first in line being the Roman Empire. First, this way of approaching Revelation (1) takes our Lord’s warning to the Jewish high priest seriously. In Mark 14:62, he said in response to Caiaphas placing him under oath to answer if he was the Messiah: “I am: and you shall see the Son of Man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven.” Looking at those men, the leaders of the nations, Jesus said, “You will see.” See what? Read Revelation 1:7. Jesus Christ exalted at the right hand of power and coming on the clouds of judgment. Jesus’ word of judgment against that generation for rejecting him (Matt. 23:36-39) (2) matches the expectation of imminent judgment found throughout Revelation, including its opening verse. Jesus warned that generation that they would see Jerusalem surrounded with the Roman armies (Matt. 24:21-22,34; Luke 21:20). This is actually the “Great Tribulation” – the end of the old Jewish order, which had apostatized against God’s word and covenant (Matt. 21:43; John 5:47; 8:44). He announced his coming in judgment, and he came.
The deeply imbedded historical context is also learned from the fact that (3) Revelation was sent to seven actual churches. If you read a letter addressed to your spouse, you know how to interpret and apply the letter. The same is true of Revelation. It is not a book of ideas or broad historical time periods, but of a specific time and place, which is plainly given at the outset, with a detail found in no other piece of inspired literature. Let us all drop our systems and pay attention to the Spirit’s markers as to the context and therefore the reliable application of the contents of Revelation. It was a dreadful time period, the 60’s A.D. of the first century. (4) The ferocious persecution of apostate Judaism empowered by and “sitting on the beast,” Nero, was the occasion of our Savior’s coming from heaven on the clouds of judgment to deliver his church. In his Natural History, Pliny described Nero as the “destroyer of the human race” and “the poisoner of the world” (7:45; 22:92). The famous Roman historian Suetonius wrote of Nero: “he showed neither discrimination nor moderation in putting to death whomsoever he pleased on any pretext whatsoever” (Lives of the Caesars: Nero 6:37). In his Satires, Juvenal called Nero a “cruel and bloody tyrant” (7:225), and the fear long continued that Nero would rise again and continue his bloody reign: “Yet there were some who for a long time decorated his tomb with spring and summer flowers, and now produce his statues on the rostra in the fringed toga, and now his edicts, as if he were still alive and would shortly return and deal destruction to his enemies” (Suetonius, Lives of the Caesars 6:57).
As for his persecution of the church, Nero was unparalleled, past or present, with the exception of the Roman papacy. Deservedly he is the “Beast of Revelation.” Tacitus, speaking of Nero’s persecution against the Christians, wrote that Nero “afflicted unheard-of punishments on those who, detested for their abominable crimes, were vulgarly called Christians” (Annals 15:44). Clement recorded that Nero’s persecutions killed “a vast multitude of the elect...through many indignities and tortures” (1 Clement 6:1). Tertullian, Eusebius, Lactantius, Severus, and many other early Christian writers speak of the dreadful reign of terror Nero instituted against the church. The following is Schaff’s commentary on Tacitus’ account of the Church’s persecution under Nero: “Under this wanton charge of incendiarism, backed by the equally groundless charge of misanthropy and unnatural vice, there began a carnival of blood such as even heathen Rome never saw before or since. It was the answer of the powers of hell to the mighty preaching of the two chief apostles, which had shaken heathenism to its centre. A ‘vast multitude’ of Christians was put to death in the most shocking manner. Some were crucified, probably in mockery of the punishment of Christ, some sewed up in the skins of wild beats and exposed to the voracity of mad dogs in the arena. The satanic tragedy reached its climax at night in the imperial gardens on the slope of the Vatican (which it embraced, it is supposed, the present site of the place and church of St. Peter): Christian men and women, covered with pitch or oil of resin, and nailed to posts of pine, were lighted and burned as torches for the amusement of the mob; while Nero; in fantastical dress, figured in a horse race, and displayed his art as charioteer” (1:381,2). Later, Schaff wrote: “...Nero was the first, as well as the most wicked, of all imperial persecutors of Christianity, and eminently worthy of being characterized as the beast from the abyss...” (1:845).
Prologue: Title, Author, and Blessing (1:1-3)
1 The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show His servants -- things which must shortly take place. And He sent and signified it by His angel to His servant John, 2 who bore witness to the word of God, and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, to all things that he saw. 3 Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written in it; for the time is near.
The Revelation of Jesus Christ (v. 1)
“Revelation” is an unveiling. In this book, the Lord reveals to his people truths they otherwise could not have discovered. It is called the “revelation of Jesus Christ” because he is the revealer. The Father gave him this revelation to give to us – he is the living Word who has come down from heaven to reveal the Father (John 1:18). The Father mediates the truth to us through his Son. “Give” establishes a revelation chain of command. The Son of God has a name: Word of God (Rev. 19:16). The Lord Jesus gives his word to his apostles, so that “he who hears you hears me” (Luke 10:16; 1 Cor. 14:37). An “angel” is mentioned, who also closes the book (22:6). Some have said that this angel is Jesus Christ, but it seems that the Lord Jesus used an angel to guide John through this series of symbols. Angels are “ministering spirits” and are found through the book of Revelation. They guard over us, as they did the apostles (Acts 27:23), so that we will not “dash our foot against a stone” (Ps. 91:12). The book is said to be “signified,” or set forth in signs, which would incline us against literalism. Revelation is a book of signs and symbols by which the Lord Jesus set forth his truth for us.
The Timing of Revelation (v. 1)
John writes that the events of which he is prophesying are to occur soon. This is the first of several indicators of immediate, imminent judgment. Their collective importance cannot be ignored. As one has written, “This is the hinge and staple of the book. When the advent of Jesus is hailed as a relief, it is no consolation to say that the relief will come suddenly; sudden or not, it must come soon (v. 7), if it is to be of any service” (Expositor’s Greek New Testament 335). When used as a temporal adverb, ta,coj (tachos) is frequently translated “at hand” or “nigh” (John 2:13; 6:4; 7:2; 11:55; 22:10). The frequency of these time indicators in Revelation is one reason we should see Revelation setting forth our Lord’s coming in judgment upon apostate Jerusalem in 70 A.D. The latter three chapters pertain to his final coming at the end of history. The imminent expectation of judgment is incompatible with a futuristic interpretation. As Farrar wrote, “The Seer emphatically says that the future events which he has to foreshadow will occur speedily…and the recurrent burden of his whole book is the nearness of the Advent…Language is simply meaningless if it is to be so manipulated by every successive commentator as to make the words ‘speedily’ and ‘near’ imply any number of centuries of delay” (Farrar, The Early Days of Christianity 432-3).
Non-Preterist commentators respond that John could simply be saying that when the events begin, they will occur speedily (Walvoord). Others wish to take the time indicator in a straightforward manner, but insist that it must be measured according to God’s clock for history, for whom a thousand years is but a day (Morris, Mounce). Adherents of this latter view insist that John is engaged in what is sometimes called “prophetic foreshortening.” He saw the events so vividly that he could not but speak of them in the present. Ladd seeks support for this view by adding that biblical prophecy is two-dimensional. It is little concerned with the chronology of biblical events for “the future is viewed through the transparency of the immediate” (Commentary on the Revelation of John 22). This is reading into the text to support a particular eschatological scheme; it is not derived from the text itself. Moreover, it seems that John is concerned with the chronology of future events for he is told not to seal the prophecies, for the time is at hand (22:10): i.e., they are about to happen. These are events that must take place soon. There is a divine necessity behind their occurrence that sounds a note of urgency to the message and indicates a divine imperative upon John to communicate them to the Church. His prophecies are to occur quickly; the time is at hand.
The Witness of John the Apostle (v. 2)
John the beloved of Jesus is the servant of Jesus. His Gospel and Epistles overflow with this theme of “witness.” However much affection we have toward our Lord Jesus Christ, and cold hearts are unworthy of him, our love must be based upon concrete truth. John was a witness-bearer to God’s word and the testimony of Jesus Christ. He saw these things in life – the water and the blood flowing from his pierced side come to immediate mind (1 John 5:6). John was a witness to the piercing of the Lord Jesus (Zech. 12:10), and he will now be the herald of the unbelieving Jews beholding “him whom they pierced” (Rev. 1:7). This is not myth or wishful thinking. John heard these words and saw these visions. Jesus Christ gave them to him. As a witness, John has the required number of testimonies – the word of God, the testimony of Jesus, the things he saw. Joined with “soon,” we have the most solemn testimony against those who crucified the Lord of glory. Their nation is about to be taken away, as the Lord promised to them for rejecting him (Matt. 21:43).
The Blessing of Revelation (v. 3, 22:7)
Revelation begins and ends with a benediction, a blessing upon those who read, hear, and keep it. The reading and hearing likely refer to public services in the church, in which long passages of Scripture, including the writings of the apostles, were read (Col. 4:16; 1 Thess. 5:27). With the availability of reliable copies of Scripture, this blessing also applies to those who read it privately. The “hearing” should be interpreted in usual Bible fashion – “He who has hears to hear, let him hear.” It is a call to understand what is said, so that we may keep it. Keep Revelation? Obey Revelation. Yes, it is God’s word. To obey it, we must hear its message. We must ask the Lord to “open our eyes that we may understand wonderful things out of his word” (Ps. 119:18). As we begin, let this be our prayer. At the least, we can already see three things to hear and keep: the Lord Jesus rules over all and keeps his people. Each one of us must bow the knee to him and confess with the heart that he alone is Lord, not man and human authorities. Second, he reveals God’s word to us, and part of that word is judgment upon the persecutors of his church. Therefore, we must trust his word, abide in it, and live by it. This is the main practical way our lives and families show that we are in submission to the living Word and therefore enjoy protection and guidance as the King marches and makes war. Third, since we are in a great war and face a malicious enemy, we should expect hardship as good soldiers of Jesus Christ, and we must hold fast to our Savior. His promises are secure, and his word is eternal. We need nothing new to gain the victor’s crown, except a new and renewed commitment to walk as our Lord Jesus walked, in resolute obedience to the will of his Father, even with Satan tempting him on the one side, and wicked men on the other mocking him.