Revelation – A Radical Church in the Real World
A brief overview of Revelation.
Revelation is a book that has inspired artists, writers and film makers – of which apocalyptic films with their visions of a catastrophic end of the world is a growing category. It has inspired and frustrated and been the subject of many weird and wonderful interpretations!
1. A BRIEF LOOK AT THE FOUR VIEWS
There are four different ways of interpreting Revelation, and the fact that people who love the Lord Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord and have a high regard for the Bible have come to differing conclusions, means we need to approach it with care, and not be too dogmatic, and ‘diss’ those who think differently, let alone call them heretics or doubt their salvation – and yes, some do!
Unity is important and scripture says we should be careful to maintain the ‘unity of the Spirit’ in the bond of peace’ whilst we grow together towards maturity in the faith. This requires grace and humility. Our understanding of the end times should not be, and is not the basis for our fellowship.
Historical – There are two schools of thought:
1. Linear – a straight line from the day it was written right up to the end of time. In this view then, Revelation describes the chronological order of history from the day it was written right up until the end of time. The problem with this view is that the details have to be forced into it, and at any given time while it might apply in one place, it doesn’t fit in another, and no two writers seem to agree as to what events are actually being referred to.
2. Cyclical – a repeating circle of events. In this view Revelation is seen as covering the whole of church history, but more than once, i.e. Revelation provides us with six overviews, picturing history from different angles, or as one writer sees it, as covering the whole church age in seven developing cycles. Again such endeavours appear to be forced upon the text, and writers are not necessarily agreed on the number of cycles or overviews there are.
Idealist – The Idealist agrees in many ways with the historical view but sees Revelation in terms of recapitulation rather than time specific, in other words the literary order doesn’t necessarily follow the actual historical order of events, but is a way of repetition in order to elaborate on God’s purposes and so confirm their certainty. It is about what seems to be the unending struggle between good and evil, and how the victory can be experienced by an overcoming church wherever it finds itself in history. The problem (though the truths taught may be correct) is that it means Revelation ends up as no more than a ‘myth,’ it being spiritually true, but not historically, or to put it another way Revelation is no more than a Pilgrims Progress, or a Chronicles of Narnia.
Futurist – this approach which is widespread today and widely publicised and popularised through the fictional Left Behind series by Tim Lahaye, usually means that after chapter 3 all that’s referred to applies to an unknown time, somewhere in the unknown future, and when it does take place it will be compressed into a very short dramatic, even cataclysmic, period of time. It should be noted that this dispensational approach to Revelation came rather late on the scene, some 150 – 200 years ago, and has also led to all sorts of conjecture/speculation especially with regard to modern events, i.e. nearly every crisis in modern times has had people looking for answers/meaning in Revelation, from the six day war in 1967, the crisis in Kuwait, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq etc., only to be proved they were false starts. The most recent example was Harold Camping’s announcement that Jesus was coming on a certain date this year, only for it to pass into history as a non-event.
Another problem is that what is written between chapters 3 – 19 is of no relevance as the church will not be there to match it all up. This view in its extreme dispensational, pre-tribulation, pre-millennial form also has a tendency to divide up scripture in a way that does injustice to the overarching story of God and his people, so that instead of there being one unifying story there are actually two, with the church as the sub plot or story, or worse still God’s alternative idea until he could get back on track with his original plan.
Another problem with Futurism is that it suits the cosy, comfortable Christianity of the middle class West, and leads to a weak Christian life and a church with an escapist mentality – when things get tough praise God we won’t be here!
Preterist – this means ‘to look back,’ and there are two schools of thought here,
1. Hyper-preterist, or full preterist, which sees the whole of Revelation as having been fulfilled, and with it all the prophecies relating to the second coming. This means that there is no second-coming of Christ to look forward to because it has already taken place. This seems to go too far, and not do justice to the whole of Scripture regarding the end times.
2. Partial-preterist which sees the large part of Revelation as having immediate significance for the people it was written to, but with the last few chapters referring to the last days.
One argument against the preterist view is that it means Revelation has nothing to say to us today. This nevertheless is a false argument as the same would then apply to most of the Bible. The answer is that Revelation is to be treated in the same way as we would treat Ephesians or Corinthians etc..
Sadly it seems that many ignore the normal principles of interpreting scripture when it comes to studying the book of Revelation and treat it as an entirely different species of book, even disconnected from the rest of the Bible – one of the great dangers is reading backwards from where we are in our time and culture – when we do that we’ll see things that are just not there.
Some principles of interpretation
There are two things that are generally understood by all with regard to scripture:
1. The Bible is clear in its message and can be understood.
2. The message of the Bible is an integrated whole – it is coherent and without contradiction, it has a grand theme.
Three further points flow from the above:
1. Scripture must interpret scripture
2. Every text must be taken in its context – textual, literary form, cultural and historical.
3. No interpretation should contradict the overall message of scripture
The language is symbolic, not all to be taken literally. “When I use a word,” said Humpty-Dumpty in a rather scornful tone, “It means just what I want it to mean – neither more nor less.” The same applies to Revelation, how John used the word is of foremost importance. Numbers aren’t to be taken as statistics. Pictures are not to be taken literally. The best guide is the Old Testament as there are more references to the it than any other book in the New Testament.
It is revelation – an unfolding; not designed to be a mystery/hidden. John expected them to know, or work out the number of the Beast. Daniel was told to seal the words of his prophecy, but John is to open them up, why? Because they were needed at that time.
3. WHEN WAS IT WRITTEN
This is highly debated with most favouring a date in the 90’sAD largely based on something that Irenaeus a Church Father wrote, the translation of which is entirely open to question and doesn’t fit with what he wrote, elsewhere. He was also known to be less than accurate with dates and times.
Reasons for an early date (internal):
1. Written to the seven churches….
2. The emphasis on imminence… soon, shortly
3. The temple is still standing… (note Jewish historian Edersheim refers to John & Revelation must have been written before 70AD)
4. The synagogue of Satan – Jews were still a major force of persecution, still, strong, influential, powerful. After 70AD many were sold as slaves, and weakened they were in no position to persecute.
5. John expects them to know the number of the beast.
6. The seven kings (17:10) the sixth is still reigning (Nero) doesn’t make sense any other way.
7. Daniel is told to shut up the words of his prophecy, John is told to open them up.
8. John’s imprisonment on Patmos – has to be earlier as he was told there was still much he had to do which would not have been conceivable with a later date that would have made him too old.
Revelation is only understood in the light of the rest of the Bible, especially the Old Testament, and when done so provides a logical conclusion to the inspired canon of Scripture. We must track the story from God’s purpose in creation, through the fall into sin, the promise of a Saviour, Abraham, Israel, and the coming of Jesus Christ who fulfilled the prophetic purposes of God in his life, death, and resurrection. He was God dwelling with men (presence). He was the mediator (priest). He was the Lamb of God who would take away the sin of the world (offering). In him forgiveness would be found, relationship restored, and as a result the Old Covenant represented in the Temple as the place of the presence and relationship with God with its priesthood and offerings was coming to an end, and the temple and all it activities would be destroyed and cease.
The Holy Spirit had been poured out on 120 Jewish believers – this was the beginnings of the church Jesus said he would build. They went out and preached the good news, thousands of Jews believed and were added to the church, persecution came from the Jewish authorities, people were dispersed, the gospel was also presented to the Gentiles and they start getting added to this previously ‘Jewish’ church, that Paul describes as ‘one new man,’ and one body. Persecution intensified. Letters are written to the churches.
Revelation was one of those letters, and became the conclusion to the ‘canon’ of Scripture, God’s inspired Word for all people, in all places, in all generations, tying up the loose ends, and also affirming the prophetic ministry of Jesus (i.e. Matthew 24).
Revelation then has to do with the close of the old covenant, the judgment by God of unfaithful Israel as a nation (that is Israel of that day), the destruction of the temple and end of the priestly ministry, and the opening up of the new age of grace.
1. Christology – Jesus is Lord, Lion and Lamb.
2. Satan – most extended consideration of … and destruction
3. Sovereignty of God – despite all that’s going on
4. The Judgment/wrath of God
5. The Gospel – redemption & salvation
6. Protection and perseverance of the saints
7. The end of the old covenant age.
8. Heaven and Hell – very real destinations.
9. The church – struggles (suffering), endurance and ultimate glory
Five characteristics about God in Revelation
1. He is Trinity
2. He is Holy
3. He is Sovereign
4. He is Good
5. He is Just – theodicy; a defence of God’s righteous character and judgement
• His judgment reveals his righteous character, especially against evil in the world
• Even though God judges the depraved earth dwellers God still offers them the opportunity to repent
• He executes his righteousness by turning sin upon itself
• His justice is demonstrated in his vindication of the righteous