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Interpreting The Book of Revelation

Dennis Bratcher

I. The Nature of Scripture

George Ladd: “The Bible is the word of God given in the words of men in history.”
Dennis Bratcher: “The Bible is God’s word in human words.”

A.  Because it is God’s word, the Bible has: (a) ongoing relevance, (b) authority, (c) testimony to the nature of God.  These cannot be investigated or proven; they are accepted by faith as a given, so we cannot study the Revelation from any of these perspectives.   

B.  Because it is in human words, the Bible has: (a) historical and cultural particularity, (b) features of human creativity and expression, (c) concerns common with human existence today.  These can be investigated with various tools; this is the starting point of study. The process of doing so is described by two terms: exegesis and hermeneutics.  

1) exegesis: using various methods of studying the Scripture for historical, cultural, and religious background; methods of writing; use of language and features of the Bible as literature; use in the ancient community of faith; development of the canon of Scripture for later use; etc. The purpose here is to understand, as much as possible, what the text would have communicated in the context of the time and culture that produced and used it, while still understanding that our questions are conditioned by our own language, culture, and history and so provide only one angle of vision into the text.

2) hermeneutics: taking that understanding of the text and hearing what that community tells us about God, about us, and about how we should relate to God. The purpose here is to understand how we can or should apply that witness to our modern culture and spiritual lives.  Here also we realize that while the communication of the text may be established within certain parameters, it may be applied in different ways in different contexts.

C.  Understanding what a text intended to communicate in the community (or communities) that produced and used it is the only proper context for understanding what a text "means." A text cannot mean what it never could have meant to its original authors or hearers (Fee & Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All It's Worth). It can be re-interpreted in light of new historical events, so it may come to have more meaning than it had originally in a specific historical context. But that new meaning always lies along a historical and theological track that is connected to and includes the original meaning (the technical term here is theological vector).

[There are several other articles available on biblical interpretation; they can be found from the menu page Issues in Biblical Interpretation]

II. The Nature of The Book of Revelation

A. The book as apocalypse:  An apocalypse is a very specific kind of literature with no modern equivalent. While there is only one Old Testament apocalyptic book (Daniel) and one New Testament book that demonstrates some features of this type (Revelation), it was a common form of writing in the two centuries before and after the birth of Christ. There are several distinct features of apocalyptic writing.

1) It arises out of a historical context of great turmoil, persecution, and oppression. The prophets looked forward to God balancing the scales of justice within history; apocalyptic has given up on history and has become so pessimistic of change that it can only see God acting by bringing a radical end to history, destroying all evil, and beginning again with a new world.

2) It is carefully crafted literature. It was not spoken (like prophetic sermons), but was composed. That means it exhibits certain features of normal writing, such as structure, form, flow of thought, creative use of language, etc.

3) It is presented in the form of visions, dreams, and other worldly journeys. Several features intend to communicate a sense of mystery, the revealing of secrets long hidden in the mists of the past. Therefore, most apocalyptic writing is written under the name of a long dead person of some reputation (Abraham, Moses, Enoch) who is instructed to keep the book for the "latter days," which, of course, would be the time the book was actually being written. Also, there is often a guide to reveal the secrets or mysteries.

4) Its images and symbols are forms of fantasy rather than reality, and its language is cryptic, metaphorical, and highly symbolic. These symbols are not drawn from our modern world, but from the language, experience, and cultural "pool" of the ancient world.  The assumptions that underlie those symbols are likewise not those of a modern scientific world view of the 21st century Western world, but those of the Ancient Near East of 2,000 years ago. Strange multiheaded beasts, weird creatures, dragons, and odd combinations of normal images (locusts with scorpion’s tails and human heads) are common ways of writing. It purposely presents a world that does not exist except as a means of communication.

5) It is a highly stylized and schematized way of writing. There are neat packages of time and event, all moving in a very ordered way. Sequences of numbers, people, or events are common. Numbers, especially, take on symbolic value, even to the point of ciphering (certain numbers standing for certain letters of the alphabet). There are frequent uses of certain numbers, such as 3, 7, and 12 (and multiples, such as 144,000).

6)  However, simply because a writing exhibits some of the features of an apocalypse does not necessarily mean that its message or theology must conform to that genre.  That would be to ignore both the dynamic of inspiration (God's word) and  the creativity of the author/community of faith (in human words).   While the book of Revelation is obviously modeled in some ways on the classic form of apocalyptic writings, the message of the book implies something far different than "traditional" apocalyptic writings. 

B. The book as prophecy:  Because the Book of Revelation is written in John’s own name, it is related to Old Testament prophecy, perhaps more closely than it is to apocalyptic. But it is not prophecy in the popular (and incorrect) modern sense of "predicting the future."  Old Testament prophecy was overwhelmingly concerned with speaking God’s message to people of the prophet’s own time, interpreting God’s will for them in light of then current historical events. The prophets were primarily "covenant mediators," calling the people to be faithful to God in the midst of the ups and downs of history.

1) In this sense, Revelation is a message, not for the far future, but for the first century Church whose very existence was being threatened by persecution from both Romans and Jews.  But as a message to the first century church, since we accept it as Scripture, it is also a "word" of God to the church today.

2) This relation to Old Testament prophecy also underscores the fact that the Book of Revelation is related to a particular time in history, to a particular set of circumstances, and to particular people. This does not mean it is irrelevant for us today; it just means we cannot make it address the issues we want it to address directly, without first understanding something about what it meant to the early church.

III. Interpreting the Book

Several principles need to guide any study of the Book of Revelation.

A. "The primary meaning of the Revelation, or at least the anchor point of any meaning, is what John intended it to mean, which in turn must also have been something his readers could have understood it to mean." (Fee and Stuart, How to Read the Bible for all It’s Worth. . ., p. 209)

B. "Any keys to interpreting the Revelation must be intrinsic to the text of the Revelation itself or otherwise available to the original recipients from their own historical context." Fee and Stuart, How to Read the Bible for all It’s Worth., p. 209)

C.  The rich and varied cultural context of the ancient world must be the frame of reference for interpreting the names and symbols of the book, but also with a sensitivity to how creatively they are used in the book.

D. The visions and symbols should not be pressed into allegory in which every detail has some meaning; most often the meaning is in the entire vision and its impact rather than every detail.

E. Apocalypses (or writings modeled after them) do not intend to give a detailed chronological map of the future; the message is much more historically conditioned, and much more theologically oriented. Rather than a map of the future, it is an encouragement for the present.

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Views of the Time Frame of the Book of Revelation

Dennis Bratcher

The different approaches that various people or groups use to understand the Book of Revelation (called "interpretive horizons") are generally grouped under four major categories, with some subgroups (see The Kingdom of God: Various Interpretations).

1. Futurist: A Blueprint of the End Times

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 future. Present history is analyzed to find in it clues that the end is imminent, or already beginning to take place. Usually this is done by combining references from various parts of the Bible to construct an interpretation of the present. This was the position held during the first centuries of the church, and was revived with the Adventist and Dispensationalist movements of the 19th century.   

2. Historicist: The Road Map of World History

The book basically deals with all of human history. The meaning of the symbols are 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. All of the book is a symbolic account of the whole scope of world history, with the "beast" identified with various historical figures or peoples, from the Saracens, to Mohammed, to the Pope, to Adolph Hitler. 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."

2a. Church Historical: The History of the Church

This is a modification of the previous position, and sees the book as only dealing with events associated with the church; it is an account of the church through history. This was the view adopted by many Protestants following the Reformation.

3. Preterist: The First Century Church

The book is a symbolic account of the first century church’s struggle with Roman persecution. The symbols are drawn from ancient texts as well as contemporary culture to dramatize the plight of the church and to encourage its members in the face of troubled times. The "beast" is usually identified with the Empire of Rome, or a particular Roman emperor. While the book does deal with the future, in this view it is focused largely in the first century, and extrapolates and projects the first century experience of the church into the future. This view gained prominence in the 17th and 18th century as more knowledge of the history of the early church, as well as other apocalyptic writings from the period, came to light.

4. Idealist: Eternal Principles

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. The symbols can refer to specific people or events in that time, for example, the emperor Nero, but they also become symbols for a larger reality tied to common human experience.  The "beast" symbolizes Nero, while Nero symbolizes the lack of control we experience in our lives, as well as those who exercise power over us in destructive ways.

4a. Theological: An Incarnated Message

This is a modified combination of the last two above. The book is basically a symbolic account of the early church, but rather than simply containing eternal principles, it is a confession from the first century church about God and how he enables His people to deal with hard times. The emphasis is on a holistic reading of the book to see the dual message of promise and hope for an oppressed people, as well as the final failure of any human institution that takes the place of God in the world.

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Contents of the Book of Revelation
Adapted from Richard Jeske, Revelation for Today: Images of Hope, Fortress, 1983

I. The Prologue (1:1-8)

II. The Prophetic Call (1:9-20)

III. The Letters to the Seven Churches (2:1-3:22)

IV. The Visions (4:1-22:5)

A. The Heavenly Court: The Glory of God and the Lamb, 4:1-5:14

B. The Seven Seals: Judgment on Sin, 6:1-8:1

C. The Seven Trumpets: God Calls to Repentance, 8:2-11:14

D. The Seven Visions of Conflict: The Establishment of God’s Kingdom, 11:15-13:8

1. The woman with child: the birth of Jesus, 12:1-2

2. The great red dragon: the enemy of Peace, 12:3-6

3. The war in heaven: the Cross, 12:7-12

4. The dragon, the woman, and her children: the struggle of God’s people, 12:13-17

5. The seven-headed beast from the sea: the power of Rome, 13:1-4

6. The war against the saints: persecutions, 13:5-10

7. The beast and his mark: corruption of the emperor and the dragon’s agents, 13:11-18

E. The Seven Visions of Mt. Zion: Assurance to God’s people, 14:1-20

F. The Seven Bowls of the Wrath of God: Security Amid Turmoil, 15:1-16:21

G. The Seven Visions of the Fall of Babylon: End of the Evil Empire, 17:1-19:10

H. The Seven Visions of Recompense: Celebration of Victory, 19:11-21:5a

I. The Holy City: Kingdom of God in a New Heaven and New Earth, 21:5b-22:5

V. The Epilogue (22:6-21)

Another outline: The Book of Revelation

-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2018, Dennis Bratcher, All Rights Reserved
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