Book of Revelation

Specialist Moderator: Robert Mounce

The last book of the Bible is generally regarded as a typical apocalypse. Apocalyptic literature* flourished in the last two centuries b.c. and the first of our era. It is marked by a lavish use of symbolism, often of a bizarre kind, by a pessimism as to the outcome of man's best efforts, and by a conviction that God is in supreme control. He will deliver His people out of their current trouble and will bring in the end of the world when His kingdom will be set up. Revelation is like the apocalypses in many respects (indeed the name of this book in Greek, apokalypsis, gives its name to this class of literature). But it differs in not being pseudonymous (most apocalypses are fathered onto some great figure of the past like Moses or Enoch, whereas our author gives his name as John). And it is specifically called a prophecy more than once (1:3; 22:7,10,18,19). It differs also in its more stringent demand for repentance where the apocalypses set out simply to comfort God's people (there is comfort, of course, in Revelation, but there is also the other note). This is not to say that there are not apocalyptic features in this book. There are, especially in the symbolism. But we must not simply view it as no more than another apocalypse.

It has been interpreted very variously throughout church history. The preterists see it as referring to events of the day under its symbols, with the author conveying to the church the message that God would help them in due course. The historicists hold that the book sets out the whole of human history in a panoramic view; unfortunately, most see it in terms of the history of W Europe-and even so there is no agreement as to what events are referred to. The futurists think the book a prophecy of events at the last day; as such it has no relevance to any generation of Christians except the last. Idealists do not see events at all; they think the author has imaginatively set forth with his vivid symbolism some important ideas for the Christian as he lives out his faith.

Probably elements from more than one view are needed. We cannot hold that the book was meaningless to its first readers, so it must refer in some way to current needs. But we should not (with the preterists) confine it to the first century. There is surely more than that. It seems that the best view is that which sees it as setting forth a theology of power. It sets out the great principles which we may observe in God's moral government of the world. There are references to contemporary happenings which illustrate the point, but the book goes far beyond that and pictures those principles as active to the end of time. Indeed, they will be especially operative at the end, and John's conviction that God will one day bring this present system to an end dominates the whole.

H.B. Swete, The Apocalypse of St. John (1907); R.H. Charles, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Revelation of St. John (1920); M. Kiddle, The Revelation of St. John (1940); W. Hendriksen, More than Conquerors (1956); G.B. Caird, The Revelation of St. John the Divine (1966); L. Morris, The Revelation of St. John (1969).