Revelation (Part 01): Introduction
There can be no pretending—Revelation is difficult to understand. Its difficulty rests not only in its genre—apocalyptic literature in which sign and symbol are intended as the means to develop the story/theme—but also in the fact that of apocalyptic works, Revelation is at an extreme end, offering an unending series of symbolic references without other narrative to anchor it. Are we condemned then simply to just not know what the book really says until maybe that dark glass through which we look is shined clean (I Cor 13:12)? I don’t believe that is the case. God doesn’t give us his Word here and now in order to wait until heaven to know and understand it. But it is difficult.
There are, I believe, three major focuses that may help us on the right road toward understanding: (1) recognition that we must (and God would want us to) put the effort in the struggle, (2) careful attendance to certain key principles as we go about our work of interpretation, and (3) understanding the framework of the book first before diving into the details.
Moses Stuart, an early 19th century scholar, I think helps us get a grasp on the first focus. Stuart wrote a commentary on Revelation, published in 1845, that although was decidedly preterist in interpretation, still provides careful and astute observations. I am going to quote a rather lengthy portion of the preface to his work that include some of those thoughts that may help us.
"That the Apocalypse is a book replete with difficulties, not only for the common reader but also for the critic and interpreter, no one will deny who has earnestly applied himself to the study of it. The sources of difficulty, in respect to the prophetic part of it, are obvious, and may easily be stated. The book is made up of one continued series of symbols, unaccompanied for the most part by such plain and explicit declarations with regard to their meaning, as are generally to be found in like cases among the prophetic writings of the Old Testament. The original and intelligent readers of this book, beyond all reasonable doubt, could understand the meaning of the writer; else why should he address his work to them? Their acquaintance with the circle of things in which he moved, and their familiarity with the objects to which he refers, superseded the use of all the critical apparatus which we must now employ.
"Not long, however, after the death of John, the Apocalypse appears to have been regarded as a wonderful and mysterious book, and to have given occasion to many strange and very discrepant interpretations. From that time down to the present, a similar state of things has existed in regard to the exposition of this work. And even with all the light which recent critical study has thrown upon the Scriptures in general, there yet remains, as is generally confessed, not a little of obscurity resting upon the Apocalypse.
"Must this state of things always continue? This is a question of great interest to those, who believe that the Apocalypse rightfully belongs to the Canon of Scripture. Hitherto, scarcely any two original and independent expositors have been agreed, in respect to some points very important in their bearing upon the interpretation of the book. So long as the Apocalypse is regarded principally as an epitome of civil and ecclesiastical history, this must continue to be the case. Different minds will make the application of apocalyptic prophecies to different series of events, because there is something in each to which more or less of these prophecies is seemingly applicable. Such has always been the case, in past times, whenever this method of interpretation has been followed; and why should anything different from this be expected for the future? The consequence however has of course been, to create a kind of general distrust in the public mind, with regard to every effort made in order to explain the book in question. At a period somewhat early, the Apocalypse was excepted by some of the churches from the Canon of books to be publicly read for edification. And even after this exclusion ceased, it was still practically abstained from, or disregarded, by the great mass of Christians, from a consciousness that they were unable with any certainty to discover its true meaning, and from want of confidence in the expositions of it which had already been given.
"Such, I regret to say, is still the state of things extensively, with regard to the book of Revelation. Practically, the prophetic parts of it are almost, if not entirely, excluded from the Scriptures. In spite of all which those recent interpreters have done, who find in it an epitomized civil and ecclesiastical history of ages remote from the time when it was written, confidence in their expositions has been, and is, generally withheld. As it seems to me, it must still continue to be withheld, so long as this method of interpretation is pursued.
"But is it necessary that this method should be still pursued, and thus the book be virtually lost to the churches? I would hope not. The Apocalypse certainly breathes a precious, yea a most noble Christian spirit. Indeed there are few, if any, of the books in the New Testament, which are better adapted to animate and foster the spirit of primitive Christianity than this, when it is rightly understood. It is the belief of this, which has induced me to bestow so much time and pains as the present work has cost me, upon the exposition of it.
"The ground on which I stand, or at least on which I aim to stand, is the same that I would occupy, in case I should endeavor to prepare myself for the interpretation of any or all other books of Scripture. I take it for granted, that the writer had a present and immediate object in view, when he wrote the book; and of course I must regard him as having spoken intelligibly to those whom he addressed. In order to find out his meaning, I have endeavored to resort, as I would in all other cases, to the idiom; to the times in which the author lived; to the events then passing or speedily about to take place; to the circumstances in which he and his readers were placed, and which called forth his work; to the adaptation of the book to these circumstances; and (in a word) to all that is local and belongs to the times in which it was written, whether it be peculiarities in the mode of expression, thought, reasoning, or feeling, or anything else which would influence an author’s style or manner of arranging his composition. My aim has been to abide by this method of interpretation, throughout the work. At the same time I have never forgotten, that the author is virtually a poet and also a prophet; for my belief is, that he is truly both, and therefore I have aimed never to lose sight of either character. If now these principles of interpretation, which I have admitted, and by which I have invariably designed to be guided—principles from which no one can swerve without the certainty of erring—if these are not right and just and well established, then I have only to say, that I have hitherto wholly mistaken the science of interpretation, and have yet to learn its first and constituent elements.
"I am aware that such as have become attached to the methods of interpreting the Apocalypse that are most current in the English and American churches, will probably, at least at first view, disagree with some of my results. I will not find fault with them for this; but they will allow me to entreat them to have patience with me, and not to decide at once on difficult points, but to make the book of the Revelation a subject of thorough and often repeated study. My own views, I mean such as I once had, have been changed by such a course. When I began my official duties in my present station, I had no other knowledge of the book, than what the reading of bishop Newton on the Prophecies, and of others who were of like cast, had imparted to me. The Classes of Pupils under my instruction soon began to importune me to give them some information respecting the Apocalypse. I commenced the study of it, with a design to comply with their request. I soon found myself, however, in pursuing the way of regular interpretation as applied to other books of Scripture, completely hedged in; and I felt at the same time that to pursue my former method of interpreting the book, would cast me inevitably upon the boundless ocean of mere conjectural exposition. I frankly told my Pupils, therefore, that I knew nothing respecting the book which could profit them, and that I could not attempt to lecture upon it. After still further examination, I came to a resolution, not to attempt the exegesis of the Apocalypse, until a period of ten years had elapsed, which should be devoted, so far as my other duties would permit, to the study of the Hebrew prophets. I kept my resolution. After this period had passed, I began, with much caution, to say a few things, in the Lecture-room, respecting the book in question. Every three years, these Lectures, such as they were, I repeated, with some additions and alterations. In process of time I began to go through the whole book. This I have done several times; and the present work is the result of these often repeated and long continued labors."
Regarding the next focus—that of bounding our investigation by certain key principles toward interpretation—I am drawing on seven keys from Dennis E. Johnson’s excellent book Triumph of the Lamb.
Key Principle #1: Revelation is given to reveal.
While seemingly obvious, when struggling in the midst of this puzzle, we may tend to claim the opposite in our frustration. But God did not give us this book as some cruel joke to deliver us into a maze with no exit. The very name of the book comes from the Greek apokalypsis—the apo prefix meaning from or out of and the root kalypto meaning veil. Thus, this coming out of or removing the veil is a revealing—a revealing of what God intends for us to know. This is, as verse 1 of the book points out, a revelation of Jesus Christ for his servants (us!). Therefore we can be assured that there is a right path for us to walk all the way through.
Key Principle #2: Revelation is a book to be seen.
The revelation was not given to John in a book or through a stated message. For the most part it is shown to him—“The revelation of Jesus Christ that God gave Him to show His slaves. . . .” (Rev 1:1). Yet the showing was not merely a video recording of prophetic events. John was given images—symbols—that signified the activity and events revealed. The literalist who insists on not seeing signs in this book unless told that something is a sign necessarily embarks on the wrong path to understanding. The book’s genre argues that the book is full of signs. No one picks up a copy of Pilgrim’s Progress expecting to read a history; the result would be a loss of meaning. Yet, Revelation offers even more direction than merely a recognition of genre. Verse 1 of the book tells us that Christ “sent it and signified it through His angel to His slave John.” The Greek there explains that the showing of the revelation is through signs and is not merely to be taken as literal features. Surely we must understand literal truth from the book. But it is the sign—the figurative representation—that leads to the literal truth.
Of course, the danger is that some people may decide on wild-imagined “truth” based on whim and fancy. But our next key principle should help keep that in check.
Key Principle #3: Revelation makes sense only in light of the Old Testament.
The signs and symbols used in Revelation are not new. We find mountains, falling stars, locusts, beasts, rivers, trees, trumpets, seals, etc. in Revelation. But we find all these same symbols used in the Old Testament. Our understanding of their use in Revelation, therefore, should be informed by their use in the Old Testament. In Moses Stuart’s Commentary Preface, we read that he studied the Hebrew prophets for ten years before turning his attention to Revelation. And we see the result in his commentary as he carefully links the signs and symbols.
Key Principle #4: Numbers count in Revelation.
It is interesting in that almost every specification of number in Revelation holds meaning beyond the specific determination of how many. Seven is probably the most common numerical symbol, always showing fullness or completeness. Threes and tens and sixes and fours and twelves—and even multiples of these numbers speak to specific aspects to be recognized.
Taking some of just these principles so far together helps us see the kind of limits we will be held to as we examine the book. For example, in chapter 7 we read of servants of God sealed in their foreheads and of John saying, “And I heard the number of those who were sealed: 144,000 sealed from every tribe of the Israelites: 12,000 sealed from the tribe of Judah, 12,000 from the tribe of Reuben [and on through Benjamin]. After this I looked, and there was a vast multitude from every nation, tribe, people, and language, which no one could number, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (Rev 7:4-9). Now, if I were to ask how many groups are shown here, what would you say? If I pointed again to the fact that John heard numbers being stated (verses 4-8) but then looked to see a single vast multitude, we would have to conclude that only one group is in view. We will talk later about how the symbology of the numbers heard relates to the one group seen, but this already helps us see how careful attention to detail and our key principles will guide us as we progress.
Key Principle #5: Revelation is for the Church under attack.
The purpose of the book of Revelation is not merely to tell us what will happen in the future. It is not merely a book of prophecy discussing every post-first-advent event. It is meant to support a people who place their faith in God as they move through the sin environment of physical as well as spiritual warfare. The admonition throughout the book is to be faithful in the face of the persecution that has heightened since the triumph of Christ at the cross. We must recognize this intent throughout our study.
Key Principle #6: Revelation concerns “what must quickly take place.”
Again, in verse 1, we read that this revelation concerns “what must quickly take place.” It is not saying that the events will begin only a short time from the revelation, but rather that the duration of the events takes place quickly. On the surface, this seems to support a preterist interpretation because of preterism, historicalism, idealism, and futurism, only preterism has the events of the entire book taking place in the first century AD. All the other views (mine included) understand the book to cover at least a thousand years.
But the significance is not merely in an announcement that the events will happen quickly. The emphasis on short duration, in relation to God’s people, is always attached to persecution and suffering. The emphasis on long duration, in relation to God’s people, is always attached to joy and satisfaction. Thus, the 10 days of Smyrna’s persecution in 2:10 (a short duration of suffering) may be contrasted with the 1000 years of reign with Christ in 20:4 (a long duration of blessing). Even though the entire span of Revelation’s scenes encompass thousands of years, we individuals who focus on the time of our personal experience with suffering are encouraged to be faithful and endure for that time is short compared to the glory of our everlasting life with our God.
Key Principle #7: The victory belongs to God and to his Christ.
The book has much to show of the evil in the world. But through it all, we view the events maintaining focus on God’s control and his victory through Christ. Despair, then, has no place as we rest—even in our study—on the knowledge of our belonging to our great God and King.