Unlocking Revelation (WEEK 2)
I mentioned last week that there are a number of different approaches to understanding the Book of Revelation. The conclusions that come up with are because they are wearing particular lens.
Depending on which lens you use it will influence how you understand what is written in the book.
The 4 different approaches to understanding the Book of Revelation are:
- The Futurist
- The Historicist
- The Spiritual (also know as the or Idealist)
- The Partial or Full Preterist
The Futurist believes that the majority of the prophecies in Revelation still await a future, literal fulfillment. The Futurist viewpoint divides Revelation into three sections: The past, the present and the future (see Revelation 1:19).
Revelation 1 contains John’s vision of the risen Christ and represents the past (“what you have seen”). Chapters 2 and 3, which contain the letters to the seven churches, describe the present (“what is now”). Finally, chapters 4–22 describe events in the future (“what will take place later”).
The Futurist approach is the predominant view point in North America and much of Europe. The books on the Left Behind series and the Late Great Planet Earth where written from this perspective.
The Historicist teaches that Revelation is a symbolic representation that presents a panoramic view of church history from the the Apostle John’s life through to the end of the age.
For example people who hold this position believe that the letters to the seven churches in chapters 1-3 are the seven chronological periods/season of the church until the return of Christ.
The rest of the book is systematically being fulfilled by specific events that occur throughout history from John’s day to ours (the papacy, the rise of Islam, the Reformation, etc).
Many of the great leaders of the Reformation held to this view: Wycliffe, Knox, Tyndale, Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Wesley, Edwards, Whitfield and Finney.
The Spiritual (also know as the or Idealist) uses an allegorical methodology to interpret the Book of Revelation. According to this view, the events of Revelation is a timeless depiction of the ongoing cosmic struggle between the forces of good and evil, which are meant to be interpreted much like a poem would be.
In this view, the book contains neither historical allusions nor predictive prophecy. The main message they believe John represents is the ongoing struggle between the Christians and the forces of evil. In the end, though God and His people emerge victoriously.
The obvious advantage of this view is that there is no need to match events described in the book to real events.
The Partial or Full Preterist view point holds that the Book of Revelation was a prophecy written about contemporary events that were either occurring or soon to occur in the life of Christians in John’s day. John primarily only had these situations in mind when writing.
The Book of Revelation was, therefore, a letter written to encourage the saints in John’s day to persevere under the present and coming persecution of the Roman Empire.
The term “Preterist” comes from the Latin word Preter, which means “past.” Full Preterism holds that all the events described in Revelation (including the Second Coming) have happened already. Partial Preterism differs from Full Preterism in that it believes that whilst most of the prophecy of Reveatlion and the other books of the Bible have been fulfilled history still awaits the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.
We all hold mostly to one of these approaches even if we sometime draw from another approach.
Author and teacher Jonathan Welten explains that we need to approach Revelation like an art critic.
In his book The Art of Revelation Jonathan Welton uses the illustration of an art critic to demonstrate how each of these views changes what we read in the Book of Revelation.
Welton shows how each view answers these 4 questions:
- Who painted it?
- How was it painted?
- When was it painted and connected with this what was happening at the time it was painted?
- And most importantly why was it painted?
All four critics agree that the author of the Book of Revelation is a person called “John”. Apparently, John was well known enough amongst his audience on the basis of his first name alone.
In fact all four critics believe that the author John of the Book of Revelation is the same John who was the originator of the Gospel of John.
The first critic to speak up is the Preterist. He says tells you that the pallet John uses to paint with are the same pallet that the prophets Ezekiel, Jeremiah and Isaiah did with their prophetic books.
Welton goes on to say that John used this format of writing because it would have clearly shown his audience that something very similar was about to happen that happened in these prophetic books.
And what was it that happened in Ezekiel, Jeremiah and Isaiah? They all prophesied that Jerusalem was to be destroyed as a result of their sin, which indeed did happen in 586 BC.
The pallet John uses to paint his story is the story of God’s dealings with Israel. There are 348 clear OT allusions in Revelation. Of these OT references, the biggest ‘colour’ that John uses to paint with comes from the Book of Ezekiel.
There are 130 separate illusions to Ezekiel in Revelation. That’s nearly 40% of the entire Book of Revelation’s OT references.
John therefore chose his style of writing in Revelation because he was showing his audience that Jerusalem was once again about to be destroyed (as it was in fact in 70 AD at the hands of Romans).
The other three critics, the Futurist, Historicist and Idealist nod in general agreement but begin to voice their differences. They say that whilst they do agree that Revelation is full of Old Testament symbolism and imagery John didn’t choose to paint it because of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD.
The Futurist says that the symbols and Old Testament references in Revelation will all make sense one day when these events begin.
The Idealist however says, “John chose these symbols because they point to the ongoing cosmic battle between the Kingdom of Light and the Kingdom of Darkness, which Light eventually wins; and as to when it happens, this doesn’t really matter.”
Other “How” features
There are some other “how” features which also add to our picture:
Another feature of how John writes the Book of Revelation is that he writes it in a chiastic fashion.
When we read a novel book we read it chronologically from page one through to the last page. The story builds as you work through the pages of the book. Revelation, however, is not written in a linear chronological fashion. This means you cannot skip to Chapter 22 to find out the end of the story!
A chiasm is a literary device commonly used in ancient times which builds towards a central idea.
In the above example point “C”, the middle point of the sequence is the central idea. Each idea of the “story” (A1 & B1) builds towards “C” and builds away from it (B2, A2) in reverse order. The result is a “mirror” effect as the ideas are “reflected” back in a passage. The mirrored corresponding points (A1 & A2, and B1 & B2) are all referenced through the central point.
There is a great example of a chasm in Genesis’ creation account. Days 1, 2, and 3 correspond and are related to days 4, 5 and 6. The two halves can be divided into two main aspects of the creative act. The first part of the Creation act are days of separation: Light and darkness are separated, then Sky and water, and finally land and sea.
The next half of the Creation act by God is to fill what has just been separated. The Light and darkness which has just been separated is filled with the sun, moon and stars. Then the sky and water which has been separated are filled with the birds and fish. And then finally the Land and sea which where separated are filled with animals and humans.
And what’s the author’s point of this? We are told the on Day 7 God rests. God is the common demonimator in all the days. His resting in Day 7 is a way of expressing that He not only is the Creator but the ruler of Creation. The chiasm structure helps to emphasize the point that God is the Creator of all and the everything orginates through Him and finds His purpose in Him.
Days of Separation Days of Filling
John, in the Book of Revelation uses a chiastic structure but uses the central chapters of the story, the battle between the woman, dragon and the woman’s male child to make his central point.
The battle between the Woman, Dragon, and Male Child in these central chapters is actually the story of the incarnation. Jesus, the Son of God, is born as a man. This “child” of the woman (Israel) defeats the dragon (Satan).
The defeated dragon is removed from his place of authority and begins to fight against the woman’s other children (The Church). These children of God are the first generation Christians in John’s day who were under extreme persecution which was about to intensify.
John’s main point he is making is that Jesus is victor, and we the Church are victorious in Him but are embroiled in a battle which is the result of Christ’s victory over Satan. The hostilities are in fact a result of principalities and powers being dislodged and the tectonic shifts resulting from the victory of the Cross and Ascension.
WHEN was Revelation painted
The “when” question is important because it gives us an understanding of why the painting looks like it does.
Paintings are contemporary to the period they are painted in. The style they painted in are therefore a product of their times.
The “when” question to the Book of Revelation is important for a similar reason. It will help us answer the “why” it was written question because it informs us what was going on at the time when John wrote his book.
We have seen already that the Preterist believes that the Book of Revelation was written sometime just prior to the Destruction of Jerusalem in AD70 by the Romans in the time of Nero.
The Futurist , Historicist and Idealist all respond the same by saying, “Actually it doesn’t matter when it was painted because the content is prophetic or poetic, and that the symbols are probably about distant future events.
Actually there are 2 main perspectives amongst scholars of when the Book of Revelation is written:
- 1. Just prior to 70AD in around 65AD.
- 2. 96AD, 26 years after Jerusalem’s fall
The modern and most popular position is to date it later. This is primarily because one of the early Church Theologians Irenaeus writing in 120AD dates Revelation to being written to Domitian’s reign.
However, although Irenaeus was a good theologian in some areas he got some historical facts wrong eg. He also wrote that Jesus was in ministry not for 3 1/2 years but 20 years form aged 30 to 50 years old.
John also notes in Revelation chapter 1 that he is writing from Patmos where he has been exiled to. There is some historical evidence that John was exiled under the reign of Domitian between 81 and 96AD.
In reality though there are also historical documents that tell us that John was exiled at a much earlier date.
A. Early Church Theologians
Tertullian, another early theologian of the second century and contemporary of Irenaeus ties the fate of Peter and Paul’s martyrdom and John’s exile as happen together amidst the same persecution.
He declares that Rome is “where Peter had a like Passion with the Lord; where Paul hath for his crown the same death with John; where the Apostle John was plunged into boiling oil, and suffered nothing, and was afterwards banished to an island.”
Jerome another prominent early Church Theologian understood Tertullian meant John was banished under Nero. Jerome in another of his writings explains that a very old and infirm John was seen in AD96 and was so old and incapacitated that had to be carried to the church, with great difficulty to the church gathering where he was only able to speak a few words. It seems unlikely given this that he would have been able to fulfil the instruction of Revelation 10:11 where John is instructed to prophesy to kings and nations.
Epiphanius (c 315-403) and other church father indicates John was imprisoned first under Claudius who ruled until AD54.
B. The Syriac
The Syriac was one of the easiest versions of the NT in the 4th Century. The title page of the Book of Revelation states that “John the Evangelist from God was on the island of Patmos where he was thrown by the emperor Nero.”
Nero ruled over the Roman Empire from AD 54 – 68.
Though written 300 years after the actual events the Syriac is considered early writings indicative of the early understanding of the day.
C. Revelation 17:10
Internal features within Revelation also help us to date the book.
and they are seven kings; five have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come; and when he comes, he must remain a little while.
5 have fallen:
- Julius Casear (49 – 44 BC)
- Augustus (27 BC – AD 14)
- Tiberius (AD 14 -37)
- Caligula (AD 37 – 41)
- Claudius (AD 41 – 54)
The one is, is therefore: 6. Nero (AD 54 – 68)
“the other has not yet come; and when he comes, he must remain a little while.”
7. Galba (June AD 68 – January AD 69 = 6 months)
D. Existence of Jerusalem and the Temple
In Revelation 11 John is instructed to measure the Temple in Jerusalem. History is conclusive the the Temple was destroyed in AD70.
It would be really surprising if John failed to mention the massacre of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in indeed it was written at a later date because of its historical and eschatological importance.
E. Time related passages
In Revelation 1:1, 1:3, 22:10 and 22:20 these verses all state internal time indicators, the “time is near”, it is “shortly to come to pass,” “He is coming quickly.” Judgement was imminent. If so what Judgement? It has to be the Judgement on Jerusalem as there was no significant other event that happen in AD96 or thereabouts.
The Book of Daniel prophesies about the events that would happen hundreds of years later, he was told to “roll up and seal the words of the scroll until the end of time.” Why? Because what Daniel saw was 500 years away.
By contrast John was told not to seal up the prophecy because it was about to come to pass:
“Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near.”
It would be inconceivable that John would mock the persecution of Christians of his time with dark parables of distant ages?
F. Only 7 Churches
John addresses the 7 churches of Asia Minor. After AD 70 there was a much bigger expansion of Christianity into the region.
So where was the Book of Revelation written?
The Idealist (which if you remember thinks that Revelation is like a poem with its use of symbols and allusions) says that the Book represents the heavenliness and is painted with spiritual pictures and components which would be expected about a story depicting a battle between light and darkness.
The Futurist though steps in and says that he totally disagrees. Revelation’s location is planet earth or what will be the “Late Great Planet Earth”. This is about how the world will end.
The Historicist adds that it actually isn’t that important where Revelation is written. Whilst he thinks the city with the seven hills in Revelation 17:9 is probably Rome and Babylon the Harlot is probably the Catholic Church, the location isn’t that important as it has all be unfolding and will continue to do so.
The Preterist though says that whilst many have been trained to read Revelation as if it were written about a global catastrophe. Revelation is much more local in its focus. And what’s more to John’s original audience all the numbers symbols would have made perfect sense to his original audience.
He says that for example, the number of the Beast being 666, (Revelation 13:15-18) would have easily been able to be identified as Nero to a Jewish audience who were well familiar with Hebrew numerology.
The numerical values of the Hebrew letters in Neron Kesar (Nero Caesar) are:
So why was the Book of Revelation written?
The Historicist responds firstly by saying the the Book of Revelation was written in advance of all major events because ultimately this is the nature of prophecy.
The Futurist responds by saying that he disagrees with this. John was transported in his vision into a distant future and when he returned he painted all that he was shown about the end of human history.
The Idealist says that he disagrees with both of these views and says that John was a very mystical man. We know this because when you look at the Gospel of John his Gospel is so different from the synoptic gospels. John in the Book of Revelation is wanting to show the cosmic struggle and Jesus’ victory.
The Preterist replies finally and says that from AD30-70 the church was suffering terrible persecution at the hands of Jewish leaders. Between 64-68 under Nero, this intensified. Nero made it his goal to annihilate Christianity.
When John wrote Revelation, many of his fellow apostles had been killed by the Romans and betrayed by the Jewish leaders.
The church was in a desperate spot. It would have felt anything like Jesus was victorious.
Because they were being persecuted, the early Christians could be tempted to fear that the world was getting out of hand and that Jesus was not really Lord.
Revelation shows them that Jesus was returning as judge soon to deal with the Church’s persecutors: Israel and the Romans.
By showing them that their sufferings were connected to Jesus’ victory, that the persecutions were the enemies’ of God death rolls. prophet judgement of the destruction of Jerusalem in AD70.
John writes it to encourage and give hope to Christians in his day who were undergoing brutal persecution to show them Jesus is Lord and the events of the day are in fact the result of the powers of Darkness being defeated.
Other Sermons In This Series
September 16, 2018
August 21, 2018
November 14, 2018