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The Eschatology Debate

by Rev. Ralph Allan Smith

Understanding the Book of Revelation

The interpretation of Revelation 19 and 20 depends especially upon our understanding of the book of Revelation as a whole. The four common approaches -- futurist,[1] historicist,[2] idealist,[3] and preterist[4] -- lead to such different understandings of these controversial sections of the book that we might say the debate is more about one's approach to the book rather than the interpretation of these passages.[5] The most consistent futurists, dispensationalists, claim that they are doing justice to the book of Revelation because they interpret the book "literally," at least whenever they think that is possible. Non-dispensational futurists are persuaded that, however they interpret the rest of the book, Revelation 20:1-10 requires an interpretation that acknowledges a millennial kingdom. For the idealist, the millennial question is secondary. Hypothetically speaking, the idealist could hold to any millennial view, except the dispensational form of premillennialism. Historicism as an approach to Revelation has more or less died out, but again, it could be related to more than one millennial position.

The preterist, like the dispensationalist, believes the historical grammatical approach applies to the book of Revelation no less than to the rest of Scripture. Which is to say, it is not the theory of interpretation per se, about which dispensationalists and postmillennialists disagree. Postmillennialists take literally those passages that they think are meant literally, but they take as figurative language many of the passages that the dispensationalist insists are "literal," or at least "partially literal" (the expression is mine; it seems to fit the way dispensationalists deal with many passages in Revelation). The question, then, is which parts of the book of Revelation are intended by John to be literal and which parts are intended to be figurative. And the answer to that question is provided, I believe, by John himself, in the prologue, and repeated in the conclusion, of his book.

A Literal Interpretation of John's Introduction and Conclusion

John's Introduction

Consider the first three verses of the prologue (1:1-20). In this superscription, John introduces his book. He tells us "how and for what purpose the revelation was given"[6] and pronounces a blessing on those who hear with obedient faith.

The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him, to shew unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass; and he sent and signified it by his angel unto his servant John: Who bare record of the word of God, and of the testimony of Jesus Christ, and of all things that he saw. Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written therein: for the time is at hand. (Rev. 1:1-3)

Here at the very beginning of his book, John announces that Jesus has shown him "things which must shortly come to pass." These words, if taken literally, would seem to set certain limits within which we should expect the prophecy to be fulfilled. Even if the word "shortly" cannot be precisely defined, one would think that interpreters know well enough what the word means to be able to determine a basic approach to the book of Revelation. This is not, however, the case.

John F. Walvoord, the dispensational premillennial commentator, suggests that the expression means "quickly or suddenly coming to pass" which is said to indicate "rapidity of execution after the beginning takes place." In other words, the "idea is not that the event may occur soon, but that when it does, it will be sudden (cf. Luke 18:8; Acts 12:7; 22:18; 25:4; Rom. 16:20). A similar word, tachys, is translated 'quickly' seven times in Revelation (2:5, 16; 3:11; 11:14; 22:7, 12, 20)."[7] Henry Alford also thinks that this expression "must not be urged to signify that the events of apocalyptic prophecy were to be close at hand: for we have a key to its meaning in Luke xviii. 7, 8 . . . where long delay is evidently implied."[8]

Alford strenuously rejects the interpretation of Hengstenberg, who insists that the word "shortly" implies that the events predicted must take place soon after John prophesies them. However, his reasoning is rather obscure:

He [Hengstenberg] (in common with many others) takes them to mean that the events spoken of would very soon begin to take place. The axe, he says, lay at the root of the Roman Empire when John wrote this, as it did at the root of the Persian Empire when Daniel wrote. But this interpretation is not borne out by the Greek. is not "which must soon begin to come to pass," but, in the well-known sense of the aorist, "which, in their entirety, must soon come to pass:" being in fact, a past tense, "must have come to pass," "be fulfilled:" . . . So that we are driven to the very same sense of as that in Luke xviii. above, viz. to God's speedy time, though He seems to delay . . ."[9]

I say that his reasoning is obscure because it would seem that if the natural meaning of the Greek is "must have come to pass," then it would be better to disagree with Hengstenberg only in so far as he wishes to delay the fulfillment or imply only a partial fulfillment. The natural conclusion from Alford's analysis of the Greek would seem to be a stronger emphasis on near fulfillment rather than more room for delay. Which is also the conclusion of Dusterdieck, who writes:

designates neither figuratively the "certainty" of the future, nor the swiftness of the course of things, without reference to the proximity or remoteness of time in which they were to occur. So Ebrard, who appeals in vain to Rom. xvi. 20 and Luke xviii. 8, since not only those passages, particularly Luke xviii. 8 (where the subject is not the concrete future, but a constant rule), are dissimilar to ours, but especially because by the , ver. 3, it is decided that the speedy coming of what is to happen is meant.[10]

Dusterdieck's exegesis is persuasive, but we need to consider the other passages adduced by Walvoord. In Acts 12:7 we read: "And, behold, the angel of the Lord came upon him, and a light shined in the prison: and he smote Peter on the side, and raised him up, saying, Arise up quickly []. And his chains fell off from his hands." Compare that with Acts 22:18: "And saw him saying unto me, Make haste, and get thee quickly [] out of Jerusalem: for they will not receive thy testimony concerning me." Finally, Acts 25: 4: "But Festus answered, that Paul should be kept at Caesarea, and that he himself would depart shortly [] thither." None of these passages imply, or even allow for, a period of delay. The obvious point in each case is that what is commanded must be done immediately. When Paul is told to get out of Jerusalem "quickly," or when Peter is told to arise "quickly," or when Festus says that he will depart "shortly," we would no doubt consider them negligent if they delayed. But there is more.

Dusterdieck points to the use of the word in verse three[11] in the expression "the time is at hand," suggesting that it adds further weight to the "literal" interpretation of in verse one. But Alford explains the expression "at hand" by reference to what might be called his "figurative interpretation" of verse one, and adds: "We know little now of relative nearness and distance in point of time: when the day of the Lord shall have opened our eyes to the true measure, we shall see, how near it always was."[12] Walvoord's interpretation is similarly esoteric: "The importance of the prophecy is emphasized by the phrase 'for the time is at hand,' 'the time' (Gr. kairos) referring to a period of time. . . . The expression 'at hand' indicates nearness from the standpoint of prophetic revelation, not necessarily that the event will immediately occur."[13] Is it the importance of the prophecy that is emphasized by the words "the time is at hand" and not, rather, "nearness"? And what is meant by "nearness from the standpoint of prophetic revelation" as opposed to other sorts of nearness? Does a 2000 year delay comport with the literal meaning of these words?

Maybe we should ask a different question. Could the language here be figurative? Is there anything in the context that suggests that John is here using a figurative expression? Well, the language is not, as in many places in Revelation, poetic. Nor is John here seeing a vision. Nothing here seems to be metaphorical. In fact, these sentences are some of the most simple and straightforward declarations in the entire book of Revelation. Why, then, should we understand John's language as an abstract statement about "nearness from the standpoint of prophetic revelation," or talk about "relative nearness"?

To be certain we are not missing any hint that the language is figurative, let's consider the meaning of the expression "the time is at hand" more carefully. The greek word translated "at hand" () refers to nearness, either spacial or temporal and is used quite a few times in the New Testament. Paul, for example, uses the word to speak of physical nearness in a figurative sense when he writes of the Gentiles: "But now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ."

But, of course, the interesting uses are those that refer to temporal nearness. In the synoptic Gospels we have the record of Jesus teaching His disciples the parable of the fig tree: "Now learn a parable of the fig tree; When his branch is yet tender, and putteth forth leaves, ye know that summer is nigh []: So likewise ye, when ye shall see all these things, know that it is near [], even at the doors." (Mt. 24:32; cf. Mk. 13:28-29; Lk. 21:30-31). Also, Matthew tells us that when it was time to prepare the last supper, Jesus sent one of His disciples into the city saying, "My time is at hand" (Mt. 26:18). Finally, John uses the word often, speaking of feasts being "at hand" (cf. Jn. 2:13; 6:4; 7:2; 11:55). What is apparent from these verses is that every expressly temporal use of the word indisputably refers to something that is very near in time, "even at the doors". There does not seem to be enough linguistic latitude for an interpretation of the word as "relative nearness" that may be 2000 years from the initial point in time.

The more that we consider the details, the less likely we must consider the kind of interpretation suggested by Alford, Walvoord, and futurists in general. If John said the "things" he is writing about were to take place, in fact, "must" take place "shortly," a 2000 year gap between John's prophecy and the fulfillment of those words appears to stretch the "literal" language more than it can bear. We also have to ask whether John would have had a reason to speak of the time of fulfillment in the language of immediacy if he meant something else? Or is it more reasonable to assume that a theological bias influenced Alford's and Walvoord's interpretation at this point?

John's Conclusion

The beginning of the book of Revelation, then, rather strongly implies that the things that this book predicts are to occur soon after the book is written. But it is not just the beginning of the book which gives us this impression, for John uses the same expression "for the time is at hand"[14] on one other occasion, at the conclusion of Revelation:

And he saith unto me, Seal not the sayings of the prophecy of this book: for the time is at hand. (Rev. 22:10)

Here we confront an additional matter to consider. John is referring to the book of Daniel, as all readers of the Bible can recognize: "But thou, O Daniel, shut up the words, and seal the book, even to the time of the end: many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased. . . . And he said, Go thy way, Daniel: for the words are closed up and sealed till the time of the end" (Dn. 12:4, 9). Obviously, John alludes to Daniel for the sake of contrast. Whereas Daniel's book is to be sealed because the time of fulfillment is remote, John's book must not be sealed, because the time of its fulfillment is near.

How does Walvoord, whose commentary on Daniel refers to Daniel as the "Key to Prophetic Revelation,"[15] relate these verses from Daniel and Revelation? He doesn't. For some reason, Walvoord does not take the key in hand. He comments:

John is especially commanded not to seal the sayings of the prophecy because the time (Gr., kairos), or proper season, is at hand (Gr., eggys), or near. The time period in which the tremendous consummation of the ages is to take place, according to John's instruction, is near. The indeterminate period assigned to the church is the last dispensation before end time events and, in John's day as in ours, the end is always impending because of the imminent return of Christ at the rapture with the ordered sequence of events to follow.[16]

Alford notes the passage in Daniel 12:10 as well as 8:26 "wherefore shut thou up the vision; for it shall be for many days."[17] But he does not comment on what this means for the book of Revelation, nor does he relate Revelation 22:10 with 1:3. Other premillennialists either do not note the allusion to Daniel,[18] or, even when they do note it, they offer an interpretation similar to Walvoord's above.[19] Even Mounce, who notes the reference to Daniel and the difficulty implied by a straightforward interpretation -- "postponed consummation" -- concludes: "Thus the time has always been at hand. The tension is endemic to that span of redemptive history lying between the cross and the parousia."[20]

The Daniel Connection

The allusion to Daniel in the conclusion of Revelation may be much more important than the futurists acknowledge. G. K. Beale suggests that the book of Daniel really is, as Walvoord implies, the key to understanding the book of Revelation.[21] He points out that not only is Revelation 22:10 alluding to Daniel, as we pointed out above, but even Revelation 1:1 points back to the LXX translation of Daniel 2:28. The parallel can be seen clearly when the two verses are set side by side:

Dan. 2:28

he showed . . . what things must take place in the latter days

Rev. 1:1

to show . . . what things must take place quickly

According to Beale, the verbs translated "show" are "semantic equivalents," both used to describe the "role of the prophets in revealing what God has 'shown' them." The important matter to note is the change from the expression "in the latter days" to "quickly," which "appears to indicate that fulfillment has begun (that it is being fulfilled) or will begin in the near future. Simply put, John understands Daniel's reference to a distant time as referring to his own era and he updates the text accordingly. What Daniel expected to occur in the distant 'latter days' -- the defeat of cosmic evil and the ushering in of the divine kingdom -- John expects to begin 'quickly,' in his own generation, if it has not already begun to happen."[22]

Beale sees Revelation 1:3 as continuing the emphasis on near fulfillment: "This may be taken as an exaggerated expression of immanence: the time is not simply coming soon, but is actually here." Beale labels the expression "the time is near" a "fulfillment formula" and refers to the parallel in Mark 1:15. His conclusion is: "Given these strong textual and thematic parallels between Rev. 1:1, 3 and Daniel, the very least that can be said is that the wording of these texts refers to the immediate future."[23]

Concerning the allusion to Daniel in Revelation 22:10, Beale notes that the "sealing of Daniel's book meant that its prophecies would be neither fully understood nor fulfilled until the end" but that when John is told not to seal the book, it means that the things which "Daniel prophesied can now be understood because the prophecies have begun to be fulfilled and the latter days have begun."[24]

This is the obvious reading of Revelation 22:10, the most natural interpretation of the allusion to Daniel, and, together with the obvious and literal reading of Revelation 1:1-3 and the most natural interpretation of its allusion to Daniel, we can only conclude that the introduction and conclusion of the book of Revelation lucidly announce that John's prophecy concerns events that are to transpire in his days, not in the distant future. A literal interpretation of the verses in Revelation that point clearly to the time that the prophesied events are to be fulfilled -- verses that are written in the plainest language in the entire book -- demands that we understand the figurative language of Revelation's visions to be teaching us the theological meaning of events that took place in John's time rather than offering photographic descriptions of cosmic judgments still future.

The Style of Revelation

But this begs the question: Why did John write a book filled with symbols like dragons, beasts, a woman clothed with the sun, and monster-like locusts in order to teach the theological meaning of events in his day? If he was trying to predict events in the near future, such as the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple system, for example, why didn't he just declare: "Jerusalem and its apostate temple worship are going to be judged by God!"? Why use cosmic imagery about the sun, moon, and stars to indicate an earthly event? Why talk about a new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven, if the concern was the history of the world in the first century?

This whole line of questioning, though it is probably par for the course in our day, betrays a deep ignorance of the Bible, especially of the Old Testament prophets, upon whose writings John was dependent. The problem is that John and the prophets had an entirely different notion of the cosmos from modern men. If we are going to understand John, we are going to have to read him in terms of the Biblical worldview, not a modern, and especially not a "scientific," worldview. John was, for example, quite serious when he wrote: "And the stars of heaven fell unto the earth, even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind." But he would not have considered as serious an exegesis of these words that spoke of literal heavenly fireballs crashing into our planet. Stars falling from the sky and other such cosmic language is part of the Biblical language of judgment, language which is grounded in the symbolism of creation and the history of God's covenantal judgment. It has nothing to do with literal stars falling out of the sky onto our little planet.

To get a better understanding of John's language, consider the very first great covenantal judgment, Noah's flood. Here God's judgment against the sins of men was manifested in an extreme, obvious, and "cosmic" manner. God put an end to the covenantal world order that He had originally created. The flood was a de-creation of the world, bringing everything back to the situation of Genesis 1:2 "And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep." There was no more land and sea, just the vast deep. Of course, no more Garden of Eden. No human race, except those in the ark. No cities. God's brought an end to the original covenant era with a global catastrophe, a catastrophe that serves as a foretaste of final judgement, as well as a paradigm for covenantal judgment in history.

But the paradigm does not work "literally," for God had promised that no other judgment in history would be a literal global catastrophe like the flood (Gen. 9:11). The paradigm works symbolically. That is, every other great covenantal judgment is described in the language of de-creation and cosmic catastrophe because, like the judgment of the flood, they all bring a particular "cosmic order" to an end. Every time God brings final judgment to a particular people or in a particular covenantal era -- such as the judgment on the kingdoms of Israel and Judah -- it is the "end of the world" for that nation, or the end of that particular "cosmic order." Just like the flood ended a covenantal era that began with Adam and brought in a new covenantal era with a new covenantal head, a second Adam, so every other final covenantal judgment ends one world and brings in another, although new covenant eras that began with Abraham, Moses, David, and Ezra were not really new in the full sense of the word. The various covenantal eras in the Old Covenant were all "in Adam," that is, extensions of the original covenant with Adam and a continuation of the covenant given to mankind through him.

Even so, at the end of each of these covenantal eras, there is a catastrophic covenantal judgment that represents the "end of the world." The clearest examples of this come from the prophetic judgments against the kingdoms of Israel and Judah and the nations around them. Consider, for example, the language of Jeremiah when he prophesies the coming judgment of God against Israel:

My bowels, my bowels! I am pained at my very heart; my heart maketh a noise in me; I cannot hold my peace, because thou hast heard, O my soul, the sound of the trumpet, the alarm of war. Destruction upon destruction is cried; for the whole land is spoiled: suddenly are my tents spoiled, and my curtains in a moment. How long shall I see the standard, and hear the sound of the trumpet? For my people is foolish, they have not known me; they are sottish children, and they have none understanding: they are wise to do evil, but to do good they have no knowledge. I beheld the earth, and, lo, it was without form, and void; and the heavens, and they had no light. I beheld the mountains, and, lo, they trembled, and all the hills moved lightly. I beheld, and, lo, there was no man, and all the birds of the heavens were fled. I beheld, and, lo, the fruitful place was a wilderness, and all the cities thereof were broken down at the presence of the LORD, and by his fierce anger. For thus hath the LORD said, The whole land shall be desolate; yet will I not make a full end. For this shall the earth mourn, and the heavens above be black: because I have spoken it, I have purposed it, and will not repent, neither will I turn back from it. The whole city shall flee for the noise of the horsemen and bowmen; they shall go into thickets, and climb up upon the rocks: every city shall be forsaken, and not a man dwell therein. And when thou art spoiled, what wilt thou do? Though thou clothest thyself with crimson, though thou deckest thee with ornaments of gold, though thou rentest thy face with painting, in vain shalt thou make thyself fair; thy lovers will despise thee, they will seek thy life. For I have heard a voice as of a woman in travail, and the anguish as of her that bringeth forth her first child, the voice of the daughter of Zion, that bewaileth herself, that spreadeth her hands, saying, Woe is me now! for my soul is wearied because of murderers. (Jer. 4:19-31)[25]

Here Jeremiah speaks of the coming destruction on Jerusalem in the language of cosmic catastrophe because God is about to bring final covenantal judgment on Judah, a judgment that is analogous to the judgment which he brought upon the world through the Noahic deluge. The covenant structure of the world is about to suffer cataclysmic change. The people of God will be removed from their place as the guardians of God's temple. But only, of course, after the temple itself is left desolate, as Ezekiel shows (Eze. 8-11). Then the land will be defiled by invading armies (vs. 20). The Eden of Jeremiah's day (cf. vs. 26) is about to be overwhelmed in a deluge and the world will be returned to the condition of Genesis 1:2, without form and void (vs. 23), so that God can make a new start.

No evangelical commentator doubts that Jeremiah here uses this extreme language -- language that could be used to describe the literal end of the universe -- to teach the theological significance of God's covenant judgment against His people. The metaphor-system of covenantal judgment naturally employs allusions to previous covenantal judgments, especially the first great world transforming judgment of the flood, to express the truth that God is removing Judah as His priest, leaving the temple, and annulling His covenant with His people, divorcing them for their unfaithfulness.

A similar example is provided by the book of Daniel. Daniel speaks of a little horn which "waxed exceeding great, even to the host of heaven," language that could quite well refer to some sort of supernatural monster. Furthermore, Daniel tells us that this little horn will "cast down some of the host and of the stars to the ground." And, as if that were not enough, he will stamp upon the stars! Now, a literal interpretation of this would require a new physics, but dispensationalist John F. Walvoord does not interpret this "literally." According to Walvoord, this was all fulfilled in the history of Syria, especially through Antiochus Epiphanes (175-164 B.C.):

As a result of his military conquests, the little horn, representing Antiochus Epiphanes, is said to grow great 'even to the host of heaven.' He is pictured as casting some of the host and of the stars to the ground and stamping upon them. This difficult prophecy has aroused many technical discussions as that of Montgomery which extends over several pages. If the mythological explanations such as identifying stars with heathen gods or the seven planets is discarded and this is considered genuine prophecy, probably the best explanations is that this prophecy relates to the persecution and destruction of the people of God with its defiance of the angelic hosts who are their protectors, including the power of God Himself.[26]

Walvoord goes on to quote with approval Leupold's interpretation of the stars as God's people. Which is to say, that even dispensationalists recognize that the language of cosmic judgment may be used to describe covenantal judgment in history. But what Walvoord recognizes here as cosmic symbolism used to describe regular historical events is the typical language of what is commonly called "apocalyptic" literature. As N. T. Wright points out:

It follows from all this that there is no justification for seeing 'apocalyptic' as necessarily speaking of the 'end of the world' in a literally cosmic sense. This modern idea has regularly been fuelled by the belief that 'apocalyptic' is 'dualistic,' in a way which we have now seen to be unfounded. The great bulk of apocalyptic writing does not suggest that the space-time universe is evil, and does not look for it to come to an end. An end to the present world order, yes: only such language, as Jeremiah found, could do justice to the terrible events of his day. The end of the space-time world, no. The implicit argument that has dominated scholarship over this last century has claimed that (a) the hugely figurative language about cosmic catastrophe must be interpreted literally, and (b) the clear dualities inherent in apocalyptic indicate a radical dualism which sought the destruction of the present world altogether. Instead of this, we must insist on a reading which does justice to the literary nature of the works in question; which sets them firmly in their historical context, in which Jews of most shades of opinion looked for their god to act within continuing history; and which grasps the fundamental Jewish worldview and theology, seeing the present world as the normal and regular sphere of divine actions, whether hidden or revealed. Literature, history and theology combine to suggest strongly that we must read most apocalyptic literature, both Jewish and Christian, as a complex metaphor-system which invests space-time reality with its full, that is, its theological, significance.[27]

Interpretation that is truly grammatical and historical, then, must take into account the Biblical metaphor-system of covenantal judgment. Indeed, most commentators, including dispensationalists, already recognize this when they interpret Old Testament prophecy. Thus, most commentators can agree when they interpret a prophecy like Jeremiah 4. We understand that from the perspective of God's covenant, nothing in this world was more important than the worship system of the temple, the land of the Israel, and the covenant people themselves. The greatness of Babylon and the power of Egypt may have been politically more significant, but they were not covenantally more important. However, when, in the days of Jeremiah, the people forsook God's law, He "divorced" His wife, desolating the temple and ruining the land. This meant the end of the covenantal world of the kingdom era that began with David and Solomon. The destruction of that world order was expressed in the language of a covenantal metaphor-system that had its roots in the symbolism of the Garden of Eden and the judgment of the Noahic deluge because the the theological meaning of God's judgment on the kingdoms of Israel and Judah was essentially the same as the meaning of the deluge.

The purpose of using symbolic language was to draw attention to this theological meaning so that the people of Jeremiah's day could understand what really happened. They were not wrestling with a merely political problem, but with the Creator God who brings covenantal judgment in history on those who rebel against Him. The symbolic language was therefore more "real" than a newspaper-type description of the battles fought by Nebuchadnezzar against Judah. Symbolism created an encounter between the Jews and Noah's God.

Of all the covenantal judgments in the world, the judgments surrounding the end of the old covenant era in Adam and the bringing in of a totally new covenant were the most significant. In Jesus, the world is renewed in a way that it could not have been renewed after the flood. Jesus cleansed the world more wholly than the waters of the deluge, so that He brought about the end of the distinction between clean and unclean. He brought into being a new race of men to be God's people, and He opened the way to an everlasting temple that could never be defiled. When He rose from the dead and ascended to the right hand of God, He became King of kings and Lord of lords. A wholly new covenant era began that cannot be defiled and ruined by man's sin because the Last Adam has won the victory over sin and death.

The forty years from the time of Jesus' death and resurrection to the destruction of the temple system were a transitional period, like the wilderness wandering of Israel, during which the worship system of the temple, an old covenant system, was still legitimate, as can be seen from the fact that Paul and the apostles honored it (Ac. 2:46; 3:1 ff.; 5:21, 42; 21:26; 25:8). But the destruction of that temple system, which our Lord prophesied, was one of the most important aspects of the founding of a new covenant era, for the old must be brought into final judgment before the new is fully established. The end of the Adamic covenant and the Adamic world -- the real end and not a mere surface change like the Noahic deluge -- meant a new priesthood, a new law, and a new temple.

John's concern, thus, is with the destruction of the old Jerusalem and its temple system so that the era of the New Jerusalem and its temple system can be fully brought in. The transitional era referred to in the New Testament as the "last days" (Ac. 2:17; 2 Tm. 3:1; Hb. 1:2; Jms. 5:3; 2 Pt. 3:3) was about to end and God's final judgment on the apostate people was coming. The Church, composed of Jews and Gentiles who had all, by baptism, been adopted into the family of Abraham (cf. Gal. 3), clearly became the new people of God. Christians themselves were the new temple and the new priesthood also. The boundaries of the land of promise were extended to the whole world and a new Joshua would lead in the conquest (cf. Mat. 28:18-20). John expresses all of this in the language of the Bible and through its covenantal metaphor-system because this is the most appropriate language to express the deep theological significance of events whose outward appearance could not have shown their real meaning in the plan and program of God.

John himself tells us that he is speaking in signs in the very first verse of his book: "and he sent and signified it by his angel unto his servant John." The word translated "signify" "can be interpreted as 'sign-i-fy,' or to convey truth by signs and symbols. Such an interpretation fits Revelation aptly since it is largely written in 'signs.'"[28] John, in other words, writes his entire prophecy in metaphorical language that can reveal the true nature of the events that are about to take place shortly, events that will fulfill the prophecy of Jesus, bringing about the final end of the old covenant and clear evidence that Jesus is seated at the right hand of God as Lord of the new covenant.


We have seen that a literal translation of the first verses of Revelation informs us that the book is a prophecy of events that took place soon after the book was written, events that John described in figurative language. We have also seen that the figurative language of Revelation reveals the real meaning of the events surrounding the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 in a way that straightforward prose could not. A mere prophecy of the events in the language of journalistic reporting would have concealed what was really happening, even if the report had been accurate. The twentieth century reader, in order to interpret Revelation grammatically and historically, must consider the Biblical language of covenantal judgment and the literary forms used by the prophets of God, whose language John borrows. When we take into account the Biblical forms of prophetic curse, it becomes clear that John's book concerns events surrounding the destruction of Jerusalem. That does not make His book irrelevant to us. On the contrary, it is just as relevant as other New Testament books that speak about matters in the first century, like the books to the Corinthians, Colossians, Thessalonians, and others, which discuss problems in ancient churches. Furthermore, the fact that the language is symbolic means that the application to our own day is more clear, since we can derive principles of covenantal judgment from the fulfilled prophecy of Revelation just as we can from Isaiah or Jeremiah.

In John's day, the quickness of Christ's coming to judge Jerusalem, emphasized so frequently (in addition to the passages above, see: Rv. 22:7, 12, 20), meant that the Church must prepare herself. The judgment of apostate Jerusalem would save the Church from the main source of persecution and thus be a comfort (Rv. 3:11), but it was also a warning. If Jesus was going to judge apostate Jews, He would also judge apostate Christians (Rv. 2:5, 16). This is the message for us today. Christ rules the world by His covenant. Those who represent Him righteously will bear fruit abundantly (Jn. 15:1-8). But apostates will not prosper. He has demonstrated His power and wrath against sinners in the past, and He continues to do so today.

1. The futurist believes that the book of Revelation speaks about events that are still in the future. Most futurists see everything from chapter 4 or chapter 6 as yet to be fulfilled. All premillennialists hold to some sort of futurist interpretation, though they vary considerably in their interpretation of the book of Revelation.

2. The historical school of interpretation died from hermeneutical exhaustion. From the time of the Reformation, when this school flourished, almost every new generation tried to find events in history that could be said to fulfill Revelation's prophecies.

3. Idealists say that the symbolism of Revelation was not meant to be applied to one specific sequence of historical events, but, more generally, to the Church of every age and land as she struggles against the world.

4. The word "preterism" comes from a latin root that means "gone by" or "past." The preterist believes that the book of Revelation predicts God's covenantal judgment upon the nation of Israel. It was future, of course, for the Christians who first received it in around A.D. 65, but most of the book is past from our perspective. The judgment on Jerusalem and its temple is seen as the final aspect of the creation of a new covenant people, a new city, and a new temple.

5. The recent book Four Views on the Book of Revelation discusses the controversial parts of the book in the context of an overall approach. C. Marvin Pate, ed., Four Views on the Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998).

6. Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation in F. F. Bruce, ed., The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977), p. 63.

7. John F. Walvood, The Revelation Of Jesus Christ: A Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1966), p. 35. Walvoord seems to be following the lead of J. B. Smith's commentary, A Revelation of Jesus Christ (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1961), p. 34, but the same opinion has been expressed by others previously.

8. Alford's Greek Testament: An Exegetical and Critical Commentary, vol. 4 (Grand Rapids: Guardian Press, fifth edition, 1875, reprint 1976), p. 545. Robert H. Mounce's view is similar. He suggests that we must take the words of 1:1 in "a straightforward sense, remembering that in the prophetic outlook the end is always imminent." Op cit., p. 65.

9. Ibid.

10. Friedrich Dusterdieck, Critical and Exegetical Handbook to the Revelation of John in H. A. W. Meyer's Commentary on the New Testament (Winona Lake, IN: Alpha Publications, 1980, reprint of Funk & Wagnalls, 1884 edition.), p. 96.

11. "Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written therein: for the time is at hand."

12. Op. cit., p. 548.

13. Op. cit., p. 37.

14. The Greek is slightly different, though synonymous (22:10).

15. Daniel: The Key to Prophetic Revelation (Chicago: Moody Press, 1971).

16. Op. cit., p. 334.

17. Op. cit., p. 747.

18. Consider, for example, J. B. Smith and Herman Hoyt. Smith, op. cit. Hoyt, An Exposition of the Book of Revelation (Winona Lake, IN: Brethren Missionary Herald Company, 1966).

19. See, for example, Gary Cohen and Salem Kirban, Revelation Visualized (Chicago: Moody Press, 1972).

20. Mounce, Op. cit., p. 392.

21. G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation in I. Howard Marshall and Donald A. Hagner ed., The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999). The relationship between Daniel and Revelation has been the subject of special research by Beale.

22. Ibid., p. 153.

23. Ibid., p. 154.

24. Ibid., p. 1130.

25. The language found here in Jeremiah is typical of the prophets. In Ezekiel, God's prophesied judgment against Egypt includes similar language. Ezekiel says that Pharaoh is like a lion or a dragon in the sea (33:2), but God will feed him to the beasts of the earth (vs. 4ff.). When God judges Pharaoh, the heavens will be covered and the sun, moon, and stars darkened (vs. 7-8). Isaiah, too, uses language of stars and sun giving no light when he speaks of judgment against Babylon (Isa. 13:9-11) and of the whole host of heaven being dissolved in the judgment of God against Edom (Isa. 34:1-5). It is only because we are not familiar enough with the prophets and the symbolism of covenantal judgment that it occurs to us to take this kind of language "literally" when we read it in Revelation.

26. Walvoord, Daniel, p. 185. Cf. also, dispensationalist commentator Leon Wood, who simply writes: "The host of heaven, or stars, refers to the people of God (cf. 12:3; Gen. 15:5; 22:17; Ex. 12:41), and the symbolism is that Antiochus would oppress God's people, the Jews, in their land (cf. v. 24)." A Commentary on Daniel (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1973), p. 213.

27. N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), pp. 298-99.

28. Merrill C. Tenny, Interpreting Revelation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957), p. 43.

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