The Revelation is the concluding book of the Scriptures, unfolding the events which bring human history, as we know it, to an end. The word "revelation," used as the title of this book, is from the late Latin revelatio, which means (as does the Greek apokalupsis, from which the English word "apocalypse" is derived) disclosure of what has previously been hidden or unknown.
Some Bibles have titled this book as, "The Revelation of Saint John the Divine." This notion is refuted in the very first sentence of the book, "The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him..." This entire revelation is God's revelation, given to Jesus who, in turn, gave to an angel to give to John who then wrote it down for us.
An accurate understanding of The Revelation is acquired only through an accurate understanding of the preceding 65 books of the Bible. Any thought of simply reading and understanding The Revelation, without first reading and understanding the previous books, is doomed to fruitless failure.
The main purpose of the book is providing the setting for the revelation of Jesus Christ. Prominent attention is given to the time of the tribulation (chapters 4-19), which coincides with Daniels seventieth week (Daniel 9:24-27). The climax of the book begins with the revelation of the Lord Jesus Christ in chapter 19.
Alternating Scenes in Heaven and Scenes on Earth.
A foundational aspect of this book, too often passed over by commentators, is a significant help in understanding these chapters when it is recognized. That is, many scenes of this book are located in heaven, while the judgments themselves take place on this earth; and the scenes in heaven always precede the earthly events to which they are attached. Thus, the messages to the seven churches are preceded by a vision of the ascended Lord. The opening of the six seals in chapter 6 is preceded by a vision of the Lamb in heaven, worthy to open the book (chs. 4; 5). The judgments accompanying the blowing of the seven trumpets are preceded by a heavenly scene extending from 7:1 to 8:5. The dreadful events of chapters 11; 12; 13 are again preceded by a heavenly scene of instructions to John. The devastations accompanying the seven plagues (chs. 15; 16) are preceded by the announcements of the angels and the showing of "the temple . . . in heaven." And, after the final judgment of chapter 20, the book concludes with a picture of the heavenly home of the redeemed.
There are two great truths to be drawn from this phenomenon. First, what is about to take place on earth, though unknown to man and unexpected by him, is fully known to those in heaven-the ascended Lord, the angels, the twenty-four elders, the living creatures, and the others. Secondly, what is to take place on earth is under the complete control and direction of heaven, so that we may safely say, judging from this book, as well as from other prophetic books in the Scripture, everything that takes place on this earth only fulfills the Word of God. This principle is remarkably set forth in the preliminary announcements concerning the kings of the earth going forth to make war with the Lamb. Though we read of the ten kings satanically inspired, having one mind and giving their power and authority unto the beast (17:12,13), nevertheless, it is God who "did put in their hearts to do his mind, and to come to one mind, and to give their kingdom unto the beast, until the words of God should be accomplished" (17:17).
Wycliffe's Comments on The Four Principal Schools of Interpretation
The book of Revelation is the only large portion of the Word of God concerning which four basic differing systems of interpretation have been developed. The system of interpretation a Bible student adopts will make an enormous amount of difference in what he believes the book teaches.
(1) The Spiritual Scheme of Interpretation. From the time of Augustine, there have always been some Biblical scholars who have insisted that the purpose of this book is not to instruct the church regarding the future, not to predict specific events, but simply to teach fundamental spiritual principles. This is the view expressed over and over again by Milligan (W. Milligan, Lectures on the Apocalypse), though at times he contradicts his own conviction. He says in one place: "The Apocalypse does deal in a most distinct and emphatic manner with the Second Coming of the Lord." Gloag insists upon the same view: "The book is designed to teach us the spiritual history of the Church of Christ, to warn us of those spiritual dangers to which we are exposed, to inform us of the spiritual trials to which we are liable, to describe the great contest with evil, and to comfort us with the assurance of the final victory of Christ over the powers of darkness." Now all of this is true. The book does teach principles, spiritual principles; it does bear a message of comfort in its assurance of the ultimate victory of Christ. But everything in the book contradicts the view that it does not unfold the prophetic future. The book itself claims to be genuine prophecy. "Evil," as Moorehead says, "ever seeks to concentrate in a person or system; so does good. Revelation shows us evil centralized in the beast and in the false prophet." Certainly the return of Christ is in this book, and that is a prophecy of a future event; likewise, the resurrection of believers and the judgment of the Great White Throne. (This is the view held by most commentators of the Reformed faith, Peters and others).
(2) The Preterist Scheme of Interpretation. This system of interpretation of Revelation insists that the author describes only events taking place on earth in the Roman Empire during his own time, especially toward the end of the first century. This was a view developed principally in the seventeenth century by a Jesuit scholar, Alcazar, in an attempt to reply to the arguments of the Reformers, who insisted that the book predicted the corruption and doom of the Roman Catholic Church, especially in the two chapters devoted to Babylon. Alcazar's view has been adopted by a number of modern writers-Moses Stuart, A. S. Peake, Moffatt, Sir William Ramsay, Simcox, and others. These men hold that the ruler whose deadly wound was healed refers to Nero, and that Domitian was the beast of chapter 13. It is true that the preterist view must be applied in our interpretation of the seven churches. But to say that the remainder of the book refers only to the events of the first century is really to deny its prophetic character, and to force many of its statements into a mold too small to contain them. As Milligan has said, "The whole tone of the book leads to the opposite conclusion. It treats of much that was to happen down to the very end of time, until the hour of the full accomplishment of the Church's struggle, of the full winning of her victory, and of the full attainment of her rest. The Apocalypse bears distinctly upon its face that it is concerned with the history of the Church until she enters upon her heavenly inheritance" (op. cit., p. 41).
(3) The Historicist Scheme of
Interpretation. In the history of the interpretation of the Apocalypse, probably more
great names are attached to this scheme than to any other one view, with the exception of
the futurist. According to this conception, the book of Revelation, especially in the
prophecies of the seals, the trumpets, and the bowls, sets forth particular events in the
history of the world that relate to the welfare of the Church from the first century down
to modern times. The greatest work based on this theory is the four-volume study by
Elliott (E. B. Elliott, Horae Apocalypticae), which may be taken as an illustration of
this scheme. He says that the trumpet judgments cover the period from A.D. 395 to 1453,
that the first trumpet refers to the invasion of the Goths, the third to the Huns under
Attila, the fifth to the hordes of Moslems pouring into the West in the sixth and seventh
centuries, etc. To take another illustration, Mede, in his famous work, says that the
sixth seal predicts the overthrow of paganism under Constantine, that the second vial
refers to Luther, the third to events in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, etc. Many of
those who belong to this school insist that the earthquake in 11:19 refers to the French
Revolution; others find Napoleon Bonaparte in the book of Revelation, etc., etc.
Milligan, in a powerful criticism of this whole scheme, says: "We may indeed admit that the events found in it by the historical interpreter would have been instructive or consolatory to the early Christian, if he could have thoroughly apprehended them. But the real difficulty lies in this, that such apprehension was then impossible. . . . While thus useless to the men first addressed by them, the visions of the Apocalypse would, upon this system, have been equally useless to the great body of the Christian Church, even after they had been fulfilled, and their fulfillment recognized by a few competent inquirers. The poor and the unlearned have always known, and will probably always know, little of the historical events supposed to be alluded to. Could it be a part of the Divine plan to make the understanding of a revelation so earnestly commended to us dependent on an acquaintance with the ecclesiastical and political history of the world for many hundred years? The very supposition is absurd. It is inconsistent with the first promise of the book, 'Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of the prophecy!' . . . The selection of historical events made by the system is in a high degree arbitrary, and cannot be said to correspond to the degree of importance which these events have vindicated for themselves in the course of history" (op. cit., p. 131).
(4) The Futurist Scheme of Interpretation. It can hardly be doubted that the Revelation is a book of predictive prophecy. To deny this is to disregard the style, the theme, and the future events of the Apocalpse. Certainly the Second Advent, the final conflict of Christ with the forces of evil, the Millennium, the final judgment, are events still future. The futurist scheme of interpretation insists that, for the most part, the visions of this book will be fulfilled toward the end and at the end of this age. The futurist view was long ago excellently defined as that scheme which "looks for the fulfillment of these predictions, neither in the early presentations and heresies of the church, nor in the long series of centuries from the first preaching of the Gospel until now, but in the events which are immediately to precede, to accompany, and to follow the Second Advent of our Lord and Saviour" (Lectures on the Apocalypse, p. 68).
It is strange to find Gloag (in
1891) saying that "this system has not many supporters" (op. cit., p. 372). The
fact is, it has a great many supporters, among whom are some of the outstanding Biblical
expositors of modern times and some of the most distinguished students of prophecy. Among
them are Todd, Benjamin Wills Newton, Seiss, William Kelly, Peters, practically all of
those writing within the circumference of the Plymouth Brethren, e.g., S.P. Tregelles,
Nathaniel West, A. C. Gaebelein, Scofield, Moorehead, Walter Scott, Alford, and others.
Theodor Zahn's notable commentary on Revelation (not yet translated into English) takes
the futurist position, and Zahn is recognized as the greatest conservative New Testament
scholar of Europe towards the close of the nineteenth century. Simcox, who is no futurist
himself, frankly admits "from the time of Tertullian and Hippolytus - not to say
Justin and Irenaeus - we have a consistent expectation of the course of events that will
precede the last judgment" (G. A. Simcox, The Revelation of St. John the Divine in
CBSC, p. xliv).
So which scheme is the best to use when interpreting The Revelation? There is, of course, some truth in each of these systems of interpretation. The first three chapters must be interpreted historically. There are tremendous spiritual principles set forth in the judgments, promises, prophecies, and Messianic victories of The Revelation. For the most part, however, the Apocalypse will be most correctly interpreted if the futurist scheme is adopted.
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