Summation of Interpretive Views

Without exception, for the first two and a half centuries, the early Church universally held a belief in the premillennial coming of Christ to defeat Satan’s Antichrist and establish His glorious millennial kingdom where the saints would reign with Him. In addition, the majority of these Christians believed in the imminent coming of the Lord to resurrect the saints. Additionally, they looked for a period of apostasy prior to the Second Advent. During this period of apostasy, the early Christians saw a personal Antichrist and a False Prophet deceiving the world and defiling a rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem. Interestingly, they understood that the last week of seven years in Daniel’s prophecy of the seventy weeks would be separated from the first sixty-nine weeks by a gap—the Church Age. Hence, futurist, literal, dispensational and premillennial views were held by most Christians in the early Church.

No one would dream of applying the whole of Preterist, Historicist, or Idealistic methods of interpretation to OT prophecy. Because Revelation has been interpreted in isolation from the rest of the Biblical books, and from other works of a similar literary type and genre outside the Bible, it is has been possible to treat it in a non-literal manner.

Yet, all of these views have something to commend them. One should be open to the great and timeless value of Revelation’s descriptive symbols in the historical context, and throughout the Church Age. Whether one interprets the Apocalypse from a Preterist, Historicist, Idealist or Futurist view, or with a postmillennial, amillennial or premillennial view, the overriding message is clear.

There is a confrontation between the Roman Empire (historical or revived) and God’s people (church or tribulation saints). Satan and God lead these two groups in conflict, and so there exists absolutely no doubt as to the result of the battle. In the end, Christ (in the name of God) along with His followers shall overcome Satan and his followers. The defeated and ungodly of all ages will be cast in the Lake of Fire (Revelation 20:11-15). On the other hand, the saints of all ages will enjoy the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, which comes down from heaven from God to a new heaven and a new earth created by Him (Revelation 21:1-22:5). Such a view of the unfolding of history (understood as two opposing powers and divided into successive eras) is in every way typical of apocalyptic theology.

A question often asked by the Preterists and Idealists is “What good would the suffering and severely persecuted Christians of John’s day have derived from specific and detailed predictions concerning European and world conditions which would prevail some two thousand years later?”

The futurist answer: The same kinds of encouragement the Jews in distress were to receive from Daniel and Zechariah’s prophecies during the empires of Babylon, Media-Persia, Greece and Rome. The Jews of the Intertestamental Period were greatly encouraged by the prophecies of Daniel and Zechariah, as will be the Jews of the Tribulation Period. The Jews, as well as the Tribulation saints, will receive similar encouragement from the prophecies of Revelation when the Revived Roman Empire persecutes Jews and believers at the end of this present age. Like Daniel and Zechariah, Revelation looks past the present world situation to the near and distant future. As prophecy is fulfilled, the events offer hope and comfort to believers who recognize that God controls history and His will prevails.

The primary function of prophets was to speak for God to their own contemporaries. Yet, God’s messages through the prophets speak to people of all ages. He was like an ambassador from the heavenly court, who relayed God’s will to the people. His divine messages announced the immediate future of Israel, Judah, and other nations, as well as the distant future. Hence, when we study prophecy, we should observe three things:

1. Primary Association: The Historical Setting and Meaning
2. Prophetic Anticipation: The Fulfilled and Future Predictions
3. Personal Application: The Message God for Our Day

Therefore, a sound interpretation of the Apocalypse must take as its starting-point the position that the book was intended for believers living in John’s day and age as well as believers throughout this entire dispensation, and then, especially for those living at the Time of Jacob’s Trouble.

Views of the Rapture

PRE-TRIBULATIONISTS hold that the rapture will occur before the beginning of the Tribulation and the apostle John typifies the Church caught up to heaven prior in Revelation 4:1. The terms “church” and “churches” occur 19 times before 4:1, and not again until 22:16. The true Church is absent during wrath!

MID-TRIBULATIONISTS place the Rapture at the middle of the Tribulation; at the time, the Antichrist breaks the covenant and sets up the Image of the Beast on the west wing of the Temple, which is “the abomination that causes desolation” (Daniel 9:27; 11:31; 12:11; Matthew 24:15; Mark 13:14).

POST-TRIBULATIONISTS believe the church will continue on the earth throughout the Tribulation Period and be raptured when Christ returns as described in Revelation 19:10. Hence, the church will experience wrath.

PRE-WRATH VIEW position is the Rapture will take place with the breaking of the seventh seal and blowing of the first trumpet, supposedly at the middle of second three and one-half years of the Tribulation (Revelation 8:1-7).

PARTIAL RAPTURE VIEW holds that only Spirit-filled believers will be raptured by Jesus Christ before the Tribulation Period. Carnal believers will have to go through the Tribulation.

Views of the Millennia

THE MILLENNIUM. The term millennium is the Latin equivalent of the 1,000 years in chapter 20. Three views of the Millennium have been advocated.

POSTMILLENNIAL VIEW. Not all, who hold this view, agree that the return of Christ would be after the Millennium. This view usually interprets the Millennium as figurative; to denote the period of the Gospel’s gradual triumph over the nations until a reign of peace results, which will endure until Christ, comes at the end of history in final judgment.

AMILLENNIAL VIEW. Amillennialists interpret the thousand years as a highly figurative designation and they see no ground for expecting a literal Millennium as a definite time. Its advocates view the Millennium as representative of the blessedness of Christian experience now, or that it possibly represents the intermediate state of the blessed dead. They see no prospect of the conversion of the whole world through the preaching of the Gospel but rather that an increase of lawlessness may be expected as the end of the world approaches. Christ may return at any time, and that return will usher in the final judgment and the eternal state without a literal thousand-year reign.

PREMILLENNIAL VIEW accepts the thousand years as a definite chronological period and holds that Christ will return to earth personally in glory to initiate His one thousand year reign on the earth. The righteous dead will be raised and rule with Him during the Millennium. The surviving saints of the Tribulation Period will enter the Millennial Kingdom in mortal bodies and repopulate the earth. This view holds that there are two stages to the second advent of Christ.

1. The Rapture—Christ’s coming in the air for the church (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18)
2. The Revelation—Christ’s coming to earth to judge and to reign on David’s throne in Jerusalem for one thousand years (Revelation 19:11-6).

Premillennialists are not agreed on the time of the Rapture in relation to the Tribulation.

Methods of Interpretation

Four traditional ways of understanding Revelation 4-22 have emerged in the history of the church. In our day, additional mixed views have been developed by combining elements from these four traditions. Since each of the four views or approaches is held by evangelicals, they are not an issue of orthodoxy but of interpretation.

Approaches to Interpretation

PRETERIST VIEW, sometimes called the Kingdom Now View. Preterist comes from the Latin word praeter, which means “past.” This view holds that Revelation 4-22 is simply a sketch of the conditions of the Roman Empire in the first century.

Preterists believe Revelation was written by some Hebrew Christian who revolted against pagan tyranny. He saw the empire as a gigantic machine (the beasts of chapter 13) that opposed the Gospel in the social, political and religious realms, and was bent on stamping out the Christian movement. Hence, the book is seen as a Jewish apocalyptic to encourage faithfulness during intense persecution. This view holds that the chief prophecies were fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 and the fall of the Roman Empire.

Hence, many hold the Millennium is the Kingdom now. Those who hold this postmillennial or amillennial view believe that Christ will not return to earth for thousands of years until the Church converts the world to Christianity and creates the Kingdom of God on earth. The Spanish Jesuit named Alcasar developed this system in A.D. 1614.

HISTORICIST VIEW is sometimes called the Continuous-historical View. It contends that Revelation is a symbolic presentation of the entire course of history of the Church from the close of the first century to the end of time. By this interpretation the various series of the churches, the seals, the trumpets and the bowls are made to represent particular events in the history of the world that are related to the history of the Church. Although many of the advocates of this view agree among themselves about the method, there is no general agreement about the fulfillment of the details. Many of the interpretations have to be strained in order to preserve the proper sequence of the events, which are supposed to be foreshadowed.

This view started with Joachim of Floris (A.D. 1202). Luther, Calvin, and other Reformers adopted this view and it prevailed until A.D. 1820. Many who held this view lost family and friends to the Inquisition, and they naturally saw their enemy in the prophecies of the book of Revelation. They interpreted the Papacy as both the Antichrist and Babylon. This view interprets the three-and-one half years of the rule of the Antichrist as 1,260 years instead of days. Thus, the 1,260-year period represents the Anti-Christian rule from the rise of Papal Rome until the defeat of Papal troops by Napoleon around A.D. 1800. However, when all possible termination periods for the 1,260 day-year period expired without fulfillment, most Christians abandoned this method of interpretation.

IDEALISTIC VIEW is sometimes called the Spiritualist or Allegorical View. It holds that the whole book is to be interpreted “spiritually.” Revelation represents the eternal conflict of good and evil, which persists in every age, although here it may have particular application to the period of the church. The symbols have no immediate historic connection with any definite social or political events. Hence, the entire book is poetic, symbolic and allegorical. This approach follows the earlier allegorizing methods of the Alexandrians (Clement and Origen).

Idealists (many postmillennialists and amillennialists) do not expect any of Revelation’s detailed prophecies of the Antichrist, False Prophet, the Battle of Armageddon, or Christ’s thousand-year reign on the earth to be fulfilled in the future.

The idealistic view holds that the Apocalypse’s main purpose is to impart comfort to the militant church in its struggle against the forces of evil. After the Beast seems to be victorious, Christ and His Church are victors over the Dragon (Satan) and his helpers. Those martyred are victorious because they reign in heaven with Christ for a thousand years (20:4), and in the new heaven and earth forever (22:5).

Idealists find comfort in consolations for afflicted believers, who are given the assurance that God:

1. Sees their tears (7:17; 21:4)
2. Hears their prayers (8:3-4)
3. Gives them glory that far surpasses the intensity of earthly suffering (14:13; 20:4)
4. Ensures their final victory (15:2)
5. Avenges their blood (cf. 6:9-10; 8:3; 19:2)
6. Exalts them to reign forever with Christ in the rejuvenated universe (chapters 21-22)

FUTURIST VIEW sometimes called the Literalist View is a chronological approach which believes that all the visions from Revelation 4:1 to the end of the book are yet to be fulfilled in the period immediately preceding and following the second advent of Christ. Therefore, the seals, trumpets, and bowls refer to events still in the future. The beasts of chapters 13 and 17 are identified with the future Antichrist and False Prophet, who appear during the Tribulation Period and afterward are defeated by Christ in His second coming to judge the world and to establish His earthly millennial kingdom.

Variations of this view were held by the earliest expositors, such as Justin Martyr (A.D. 165), Hippolytus (A.D. 236), and Victorinus (A.D. 303). After a ten-century eclipse, during which time the allegorical method prevailed, the futurist view was revived in the late sixteenth century by Franciscus Riberia. After the 1830s, this view increased in popularity among Protestants. Today, dispensationalists hold this view. Historicist, Preterist and Idealist methods of interpretation for the most part ignore the interpretive key of Revelation 1:19, and fail to correlate the book with Bible prophecy as a whole. The early Church Fathers favored the futurist view in that they believed in the imminent return of Christ, His subsequent earthly kingdom (cf. Acts 1:6), and a period of great trouble preceding and inaugurating that kingdom.

Summary of When Prophecies are Fulfilled in the Four Methods

Historicist – Throughout Church Age
Preterists – Time of Roman Empire
Idealist – Recurrently in History
Futurists – Most Yet Future

Background

AUTHOR AND WRITER. The content of the book comes from God the Father. He gave it to Jesus Christ to show His servants. The Apostle John wrote down what Christ revealed to him. John is identified as the writer four times (1:1, 4, 9; 22:8).

Unlike the apocalyptic writers who claim to reveal the mysteries of the cosmogony, of astronomy, and of the unfolding of ancient history since the beginning of the world, John directs the attention of his readers to the present and its eschatological conclusion. He does not use the artifice of pseudonymity by placing his book under the authority of a famous man of the past; he discloses his name.

In the plainest sense of a true prophet, John sees (1:2, 12) and hears (1:10, 12) the word of God, and is told to transmit it to his brethren as the command to write is repeated eleven times. In fact, John is told that his mission is similar to that of the ancient prophets (10:11). Hence, John and his book belong to the great prophetical tradition.

Besides belonging to the class of prophets, John calls himself a servant of Jesus Christ (1:1) and describes himself as “your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus” (1:9).

A mid-second century document, Apocryphon of John, from the library at Chenoboskion in Egypt, identifies its author as “John, the brother of James, these who are the sons of Zebedee.” The prevailing testimony of early Christian writers identifies John with the apostle of our Lord. Polycarp, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Tertullian, and Hippolytus assumed the apostle’s authorship of Revelation without question.

RECIPIENTS. The book is addressed “to the seven churches that are in Asia” (1:4). These seven churches stand on the great circular road that bound together the most populous, wealthy, and influential part of the west- central region of the Province. The seven churches are historical churches, yet the number seven indicates the seven are representative of all churches from John’s day to the Day of the Lord.

The message of the Apocalypse, as a true book of prophecy, is not to be limited to the historical situation that prompted its production. The prophecy of this book goes far beyond any known historical situation in the first century.

There can be little doubt that the dark hour that was upon the Church prompted the writing of Revelation. The historical situation was ominous for the Church. Christians were living on the edge of a volcano of hostility that had erupted. John clearly recognized that a life-and-death struggle with the imperial power of Rome lay ahead.

PLACE AND DATE. The background of persecution reflected in the Apocalypse seems most consistent with Domitian dating. John received the visions of the Apocalypse while on “the island of Patmos” (1:9) in the Aegean Sea, twenty miles off the southwestern shore of Asia Minor. John was banished to Patmos by the Emperor Domitian but was released and returned to Ephesus after the emperor’s death. Historically, John identifies with those of the future, who will be persecuted for their faith and hold fast as overcomers.

It was the testimony of the early Church that the Apocalypse was written during the latter part of the reign of Domitian, who was emperor from A.D. 81 to 96. The Domitian dating is consistent with the condition of the Asian churches, as reflected in the seven letters to the churches. They already had a long history behind them. For instance, an earthquake had destroyed Laodicea in A.D. 62, and time must be allowed for full recovery. Polycarp implies that the believers in Smyrna did not yet know the Lord when Paul wrote Philippians.

Against the extant evidence, Historicists and Preterists attempt to date this book during the reign of Nero, around A.D. 68 or 69. In all probability, this book was written in the latter part of the reign of Domitian (A.D. 81-96), probably A.D. 95 or 96).

OCCASION AND PURPOSE. John wrote at the direct command of the Lord, who appeared to him (1:9-10, 19). This writing is the only NT book called a “prophecy” (1:3; 22:7, 10, 18, 19) and its message and predictions go far beyond any known historical situation of the first century. While assuredly its message provided the needed help to the original readers, its contents, in a large measure, deal with events subsequent to the time of its composition. It helped the original readers by enabling them to interpret their own time in light of the prophetic future, just as the OT prophetic books did for the people of Israel in the time they were written.

The purpose clause is found in the first verse: “to show his servants what must soon take place.” The events that called for the Revelation were a foretaste of things to come. What the readers were experiencing was a part of the age-long struggle between Christ and His followers and Satan and his followers.

Revelation fully acknowledges the many forms of evil that exist in the world, and the sin derived from Satan or his evil angels. The good news is that sin and the satanic forces will be defeated when Christ rules and the author of evil will be locked in the prison of the Abyss and eventually cast into the Lake of Fire forever.

Consequently, Revelation is a book of judgment and redemption from first to last. It tells how God ultimately will deal with evil in the world. The picture of Christ in the first three chapters is that of the Redeemer-Judge in the midst of His churches. Chapters 6-16 consist of a series of judgments upon a Christ-rejecting world. Judgment is meted out upon apostate Babylon in chapters 19-20, judgment falls upon the rebels against Christ at His return in glory, and final judgment is given to the dead at the Great White Throne (20:11-15). Thus, it is a book of judgment consummating in victory. “I AM” (1:8; Exodus 3:14) will make no compromise with evil; sinners must be punished and His kingdom on earth established.

Revelation is distinctly a Christ-centered book. It is rich in its Christology since it is not only a revelation from Him but of Him. His person is central to the book. Christ is unveiled as Redeemer, Judge and King. He is the Kinsman-Redeemer, who redeems both the land and His brethren as well as executes vengeance (Leviticus 25:25, 48; Numbers 35:27). He fulfills this role as the Lamb of God, who redeems, pours out wrath, and is worshiped because he is Lord of lords and King of kings (5:6, 8, 13; 6:3, 5, 7, 16; 7:9, 14, 17; 12:11; 13:8; 14:1, 4, 10; 17:14; 19:7, 9; 21:9, 14, 22, 23, 27; 22:1, 3).

Revelation in the final analysis is the establishment of the Kingdom of God. The present spiritual consistency of kingdom is stipulated in 1:6, along with the arrival of the Kingdom on earth, which announced in 12:10 and becomes a reality in 19:11-20:6. In the interim, the entire Church Age is previewed in chapters 2 and 3.

Revelation focuses on the sovereignty of God in Christ; the satanic nature of the revived Roman emperor, who would be ‘Lord and God’; the inescapable judgments of the Lamb upon those who submit to the pseudo-Christ rather than God’s Christ; and the conflict between the oppressive powers in the world and God’s people. The victory is sure since Satan is already a defeated foe in the death and resurrection of Jesus (12:9-12), which anticipates the ultimate completion of God’s purpose of good for the world He has created and redeemed (21:9-22:5).

Central to the book is the existence, power, sovereignty, justice, wisdom, and goodness of God. God is—He is the one who was and is and is to come, the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. Nothing and no one exists who can rival Him.

Therefore, Revelation is characterized by song, praise and worship of the Almighty. While portraying judgment upon sin, a note of joy and praise is heard repeatedly. Some twenty songs or outbursts of praise and worship are recorded. Both men and angels joyfully unite in their worship of the Lamb of God (5:6-14).

Revelation touches upon most aspects of early Christian thought; hence, careful study will pay rich dividends to the student. Revelation is the only book of the Bible that promises a blessing to the reader and hearer:

Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near (Revelation 1:3).

Read, hear and take it to heart and you will be blessed!

Editor’s Note

As with all of the studies that I have edited, it is my ongoing privilege to compile this study online from my friend and mentor Bob Conway.  The book of Revelation is fascinating as it is the best glimpse of what still lay ahead for us as Christians as well as the the future of all of humanity.  It is my experience that every time a disaster occurs in the world that there is a renewed interest in Bible prophecy.  In uncertain times people seek out the certainty that can only be found in God.  I believe that it is a very safe bet that this will only continue with the passage of time.

Revelation is broken into three parts – what has happened, what is now, and what will take place.  While most of the book focuses on the future, I have divided things up into these three sections.  With most of the pages of this study focused on the future (and rightfully so), the format that I have used for most of Bob’s Bible studies doesn’t work as well.  Instead, if you click on the links at the top of this page you’ll find an outline of each section with appropriate links to that material.  If you just follow the posts below, you’ll actually read the study backwards.

What you’ll find in this study is an extensive look at the imagery of Revelation as well as possibly explanations of what the apostle John saw.  While some allegorize the images of Revelation which can be used to twist the images into meaning almost anything, this study uses as literal of an interpretation as possible.  Where there is clear historic reasoning for interpreting an image in a certain way, the explanation is given.

Perhaps the most important section of this study is not in giving the meaning of various events and images but instead it is found in the introductory section.  We are all implored to be like like the Bereans of Acts 17.  Rather than just accept Paul’s word on what scripture said, they studied it for themselves and verified it to be true.  The introduction to Revelation will give a student of the Bible the tools to interpret the book on their own instead of just giving one interpretation of Revelation.

One last note: There are some words in the text that may look like gibberish.  These are Greek and Hebrew words that don’t translate properly to an online format.  Where it makes sense to remove them I have but occasionally you’ll see words that just look like random letters.  Unless you read Greek or Hebrew it probably doesn’t matter what language the gibberish is in. 🙂

Begin Unsealing Revelation