Methods of Interpretation
Revelation is the most difficult of all New Testament books to interpret, primarily because of the elaborate and extensive use of symbolism. How are these strange, often bizarre, symbols to be understood? Several distinct methods of interpretation have emerged. Many interpreters find valuable elements in more than one method, so there is considerable overlapping. But four distinct methods can be identified.
Preterist. The view which prevails in critical and scholarly circles is that that the Revelation belongs to a distinct genre of jewish-Christian writings called “apocalyptic,” which are “tracts for hard times.” Judaism produced such books as Enoch, The Assumption of Moses, The Apocalypses of Ezra, and Baruch, which exhibit similar literary characteristics to the Revelation, particularly in the use of symbolism, and a similar type of eschatological hope. These writers were discouraged because of the evils of historical experience and the persecutions of God’s people at the hands of godless nations. While they were led to despair of history, they continued to hope in God and to look forward to his salvation. They believed that God would soon arise from his throne to shatter the rule of the wicked nations, destroy all evil, and establish his Kingdom on the earth. This would occur by a shattering cosmic visitation which would completely displace the fallen evil order by the glorious Kingdom of God. The apocalyptists looked upon their own days as the worst and the last, since the end of the age was immediately to come. However, their apocalyptic predictions, of course, were not fulfilled, and as genuine prophecies of future events the Jewish apocalypses are worthless. They are important only in understanding the religious hopes of the people whose culture produced them.
Interpreted in this way, the Revelation expresses the hopes of the early Christians of Asia that they were about to be delivered from their troubles at the hands of Rome. In the preterist view, imperial Rome was the beast of chapter 13, and the Asian priesthood promoting the worship of Rome was the false prophet. The church was threatened with practical extinction in the face of impending persecution, and John wrote to confirm the faith of believers that even though terrible persecution was at the door, God would intervene, Christ would return, Rome would be destroyed and the Kingdom of God shortly established. Of course, Christ did not return, Rome was not overthrown, and the Kingdom of God was not established. But prophetic prediction is not an element of the genre of apocalyptic. The book fulfilled its purpose in strengthening and encouraging the first-century church. For those who accept the claim of Revelation to be a prophecy, this view is quite inadequate.
Historical. This method views the Revelation as a symbolic prophecy of the entire history of the church down to the return of Christ and the end of the age. The numerous symbols of the book designate various historical movements and events in the western world. and the Christian church. Obviously, such an interpretation could lead to confusion, for there are no fixed guidelines as to what historical events are meant. One of the most prevailing features of this interpretation has been the view that the beast is the Roman papacy and the false prophet the Roman Church. This view was so widely held that for a long time it was called the Protestant view. This view has little to commend it, for the Revelation would in that case have little to say to the churches of Asia to which it was addressed.
Idealist. This method avoids the problem of trying to find any historical fulfillment of the symbols of Revelation and sees only a symbolic portrayal of the spiritual cosmic conflict between the Kingdom of God and the powers of satanic evil. The beast represents satanic evil wherever it breaks out to oppress the church. That there is some truth in this method is illustrated by chapter 12, which portrays a mighty conflict in heaven between Satan and the angels. However, it is a fact that Revelation belongs to the genre of apocalyptic, and apocalyptic symbolism is primarily concerned with the events in history which lead to the end of the age and the coming of the Kingdom of God. Therefore, we must look further.
Futurist. This method interprets Revelation largely as a prophecy of future events depicted in symbolic terms which lead up to and accompany the end of the world. The futurist view has taken two forms which we may call the moderate and the extreme futurist views. The latter is also known as Dispensationalism. The seven letters are seen as seven successive ages of church history symbolically portrayed. The character of the seven churches depicts the chief characteristics of the seven periods of church history, the last of which will be a period of decline and apostasy (Laodicea). The rapture of John symbolizes the rapture of the church at the end of the age. Chapters 6-18 depict the period of the great tribulation-the last short but terrible period of church history when the Antichrist will all but destroy God’s people. In the dispensational view God’s people are Israel, restored to Jerusalem, protected by a divine sealing (7:1-8), with a rebuilt temple (11:1-3), who suffer the wrath of Antichrist. The church is no longer on earth, for it has been caught up to be with the Lord in the air.
A moderate futurist view differs from the extreme futurist view at several points. It finds no reason, as does the latter, to distinguish sharply between Israel and the church. The people of God who face fearful persecution are the church. Again, there is no reason to see in the seven letters a forecast of seven ages of church history. There is no internal evidence whatever for such an interpretation; these are bona fide letters to seven historical churches. However, this view agrees that the primary purpose of the book is to describe the consummation of God’s redemptive purpose and the end of the age.
The objection again seems valid that if the book is conceived to deal primarily with events which lie in the distant future, its message had little relevance for the first-century churches to which it was addressed. This is an argument which cannot be pressed too far, or else it will empty many of the Old Testament prophecies of any relevance. The prophets spoke not only of contemporary events; they constantly related contemporary historical events to the last great event at the end of history: the Day of the Lord when God will visit his people to redeem them and to establish his Kingdom.
This brings us to a characteristic of Old Testament prophecy which is also characteristic of the Revelation and which solves this problem of distance and relevance. As we have just pointed out, the prophets had two foci in their prophetic perspective: the events of the present and the immediate future, and the ultimate echatological event. These two are held in dynamic tension often without chronological distinction, for the main purpose of prophecy is not to give a program or chart of the future, but to let the light of the eschatological consummation fall on the present (II Pet 1 19) Thus in Amos’ prophecy the impending historical Judgment of Israel at the hands of Assyria was called the Day of the Lord (Amos 5:18, 27), and the eschatological salvation of Israel will also occur in that day (9:11). Isaiah pictured the overthrow of Babylon in apocalyptic colors as though it were the end of the world (Isa. 13:1-22). Zephaniah described some (to us) unknown historical visitation as the Day of the Lord which would consume the entire earth and its inhabitants (1:2-18) as though with fire (1:18; 3:8). Joel moved imperceptibly from historical plagues of locust and drought into the eschatological judgments of the Day of the Lord.
In other words, the imminent historical judgment is seen as a type of, or a prelude to, the eschatological judgment. The two are often blended together in apparent disregard for chronology, for the same God who acts in the imminent historical judgment will also act in the final eschatological judgment to further his one redemptive purpose. Thus, Daniel viewed the great eschatological enemy of God’s people as the historical king of Greece (Antiochus Epiphanes of the Seleucid Kingdom-11:3), who yet took on the coloration of the eschatological Antichrist (Dan. 12:36-39). In the same way, our Lord’s Olivet Discourse was concerned with both the historical judgment of Jerusalem at the hands of the Roman armies (Luke 21:2Off.) and the eschatological appearance of Antichrist (Matt. 24: 15ff.). Rome was a historical forerunner of Antichrist.
Thus, while the Revelation was primarily concerned to assure the churches of Asia of the final eschatological salvation at the end of the age, together with the judgment of the evil world powers, this had immediate relevance to the first century. For the demonic powers which will be manifested at the end in the great tribulation were also to be seen in the historical hatred of Rome for God’s people and the persecution they were to suffer at Rome’s hands.
Therefore, we conclude that the correct method of interpreting the revelation is a blending of the preterist and the futurist methods. The beast is both Rome and the eschatological Antichrist-and, we might add, any demonic power which the church must face in her entire history. The great tribulation is primarily an eschatological event, but it includes all tribulation which the church may experience at the hands of the world, whether by first-century Rome or by later evil powers.
This interpretation is borne out by several objective facts.
First: it is the nature of apocalyptic writings to be concerned primarily with the consummation of God’s redemptive purpose and the eschatological end of the age. This is the theme of the revelation: “Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him” (1:7).
Second: it is the nature of apocalyptic symbolism, whether canonical or noncanonical, to refer to events in history leading up to, and associated with, this eschatological consummation.
Third: as already noted, the book claims to be a prophecy. We have already seen that the nature of prophecy is to let light shine from the future upon the present.
The main contents of the book are easy to analyze. After an introductory chapter follow four series of sevens:
seven letters (2-3),
seven seals ‘(5:1 to 8:1),
seven trumpets (8:2 to 11:19), and
seven bowls (15:1 to 16:21).
These four series are broken by several interludes which briefly interrupt the flow of the narrative and do not belong to the four series of sevens. The book concludes with the judgment of Babylon, the apostate civilization, the final triumph and consummation of God’s Kingdom, and the descent of the heavenly Jerusalem (chaps. 17-21).
In terms of literary structure, the book consists of four visions, each of which is introduced by an invitation to “come and see” what God purposes to disclose (1:9; 4:1; 17:1; 21:9). The book is concluded by an epilogue.
Quote from: A Commentary On The Revelation Of John, George Eldon Ladd. W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co. Grand Rapids, MI. 1972. Pages 8-14.