OK. Show of hands -- how many people think that the first hearers of the Book of Revelation:
- set around scratching their head wondering what it was all about?
- Or started thinking about helicopter gunships, Mideast oil, the number of soldiers a future Chinese Army would number, or of vast sorties of Russian attack aircraft exploding harmlessly over the land of Israel while they were trying to bomb it out of existence?
- Or, if they were hearers of the Book in 100 AD, said to themselves 'thank goodness all this prophecy was fulfilled 30 years ago so I don't have to worry about it?
I may have gone a bit overboard but the above illustrations are very close (if not exactly) what some people who read the Book of Revelation today assume it to mean. I'm going to get into trouble here (I do not mean to offend anyone) but most commentators hold there are basically 4 ways to interpret the Book of Revelation. I don't hold to any of them, so in a few minutes I'll be introducing you to a 5th way. Let me say at the outset that I do not think this additional way to interpret the Book of Revelation is at all new.
(Let the yelling commence)
The four ways to interpret the Book of Revelation in brief3:
- One way to view Revelation is the idealist view, or the spiritual view. This view uses the allegorical method to interpret the Book of Revelation.
- The Preterist View. Preter, which means "past," is derived from the Latin. There are two views among preterists: full preterism and partial preterism. Both views believe that the prophecies of the Olivet discourse (Matthew 24) and Revelation were fulfilled in the first century with the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Full preterism tends toward heresy.
- The Historicist view of Revelation teaches Revelaton is a symbolic representation of the course of history from the apostle's life through the end of the age.
- The Futurist View holds that the events of the Olivet Discourse and chapters 4-22 of Revelation will occur in the future. Further more, Futurists argue that a consistently literal or plain interpretation is to be applied in understanding the Book of Revelation and reject (most) allegorical interpretation. The most popular and widely held Futurist view today is found in dispensational theology.
I could be wrong but it seems to me that all four of these views would be a source of confusion rather than an unveiling to the first hearers of Revelation. I know they are all a source of confusion for me. The weaknesses of these views have been addressed by others so I'm going to set aside a discussion of the weakness inherent in these positions during this discussion. The remaining space in the post will be used to briefly describe the method I think best fits the contentions I have so far made in previous posts:
- Revelation is a revealing not a concealing of events that must soon take place.
- The readers and hearers of this book are expected to keep what is written in it; how could we do this unless we can understand the meaning of the book when we read or hear it? Revelation is unique in that it promises a blessing to those who read, hear, and keep it. The reading and hearing is one half of the promise of the blessing, the keeping of it is the other half. The command with the blessing implies that both can be accomplished.
- Scripture, including the Book of Revelation, cannot have one meaning for the 1st century church and a whole different meaning for those of us who live in the 21st century. This principle is derived from the Analogy of Faith which has two main points:
- Scripture interprets Scripture. Because there is no contradictions in the Scriptures we must compare a proposed interpretation of a Scripture passage with what other parts of the Bible teaches.
- Closely related to this concept is that the clearer passages of Scripture interpret the unclear passages of Scripture.
There is one other important point to take into consideration -- What were the very first written Scriptures the early church had in its possession? The answer is, of course, the collection of books that we now refer to as the Old Testament. The early church also had the advantage of the teachings of the Apostles and, as they came into being and circulated, the Writings of the Apostles -- those books which we now refer to as the New Testament. The first members of the first New Testament churches were Jews, although it did not take long for Gentiles to begin to be added to the number of the elect. There is no doubt that the early church read extensively from the Old Testament and from the writings of the Apostles. In short, the 1st century church knew (what has become known as) their Bible and they were diligent about using it -- consider the case of the Bereans (Acts 17:10-13) as example:
"The brothers immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue. Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. Many of them therefore believed, with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men. But when the Jews from Thessalonica learned that the word of God was proclaimed by Paul at Berea also, they came there too, agitating and stirring up the crowds."
Notice that the Jews of Berea were found "examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so". Note that the Scriptures that the Bereans had to have been searching was the Old Testament. But the Jews in Thessalonica didn't examine the Scriptures but instead (and perhaps because they did not turn first to Scriptures) became the source of all kinds of trouble. I think in much the same way, when we hear someone teach the Word if from Genesis or from Revelation or anything between, we should examine the Scriptures…to see if the things being taught are so. By example the Bereans have showed us the better way. It is no less important, perhaps even more important, that when we read and come to a conclusion about the meaning of a particular Bible passage, we should follow the Berean example and "examine the Scriptures" to see if our conclusion is Biblical or in error.
Words have a meaning and the words of Revelation have a meaning. We can understand Revelation and, usually, we do not have to look any further than the other books of the Bible (and sometimes the Book of Revelation itself) to begin to comprehend the meaning of the words of this prophetic book. If you didn't catch it, let me restate this point because it is very important, the whole Bible has to be taken into account when seeking to understand Revelation…as someone (I wish I could find the citation to give them due credit) pointed out, Revelation is the most Biblical book of the Bible.
And that, my friends, is how we should read it.