55. Revelation: Key Issues

Course: New Testament Survey - Acts to Revelation

Lecture: Revelation: Key Issues


Now we’ll look at a number of keys in interpreting the Book of Revelation. There are a number of schools of interpretation of the Book of Revelation.

• One was the Church Historical School, which sought to say that the Book of Revelation teaches us a continual history of the church from the beginning to the end, and that these churches symbolize different periods in church history. And then after that, you generally have references to the very end of history. All of the Church Historical interpretations, though, if you look at and compare them together, each have a different understanding of what period of history this church stands for, and that church stands for, and there’s total lack of any commonality between them. That should tell us something (that this is all very speculative), and I don’t think this is a real option in interpreting the Book of Revelation. There was a day when this was popular, and the Scofield Bible used it, but the church historical method is not a valid one in my opinion.

• The Spiritual School interpreted the Book of Revelation as essentially a work of fiction to show that good will triumph over evil at the end. I don’t think this is a real valid option, either. There are some specific refs to Rome, and probably to Nero as well.

• The third school is the Futuristic School, which says that after chapters 1 and 3, everything that follows refers to future events which have not yet occurred. In other words, on the very last day, chapters 4-22 will take place, but none of that has occurred yet.

• The Preterist School sees the Book of Revelation as referring to things that were happening at the time of the writer, and in the immediate future of the writer.

I think something like option 3 or 4 is more acceptable. I tend to think that the Preterist School has a lot to offer the interpretation, because he’s talking (in my opinion) about events in his day, but also about the very end as well. I think 3 and 4 are the real options left for us.

Another key for understanding this is the relationship between the seven seals, seven trumpets, and seven bowls. Are they consecutive, so that you have seven seals, and then you have seven trumpets, and then you have seven bowls that follow (so that you have essentially 21 events in consecutive order)? Or, do we have six seals, and then the seventh seal is really identical to the seven trumpets, which are repeated in the seven bowls? Or, do we have a repetition, where the seven seals are repeated by the seven trumpets, and then these events are repeated again by the seven bowls? There are some real similarities between them. I’m not going to spend time on them this morning, but if you look at the second trumpet and the second bowl, they’re very much alike; as are the third trumpet and the third bowl, the fourth trumpet and the fourth bowl, etc.

Another thing that happens is that, after the sixth seal, the seventh trumpet, and the seventh bowl, it seems like the end of history has taken place. It seems that it’s the end. Let’s read about the sixth seal from 6:12,

“When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. The sky vanished like a scroll that is being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand before it?’”

That looks like it’s the end. What more can go on after that? But when you get to the seventh trumpet (11:15-18),

“Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, saying, ‘The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.’ And the twenty-four elders who sit on their thrones before God fell on their faces and worshiped God, saying, ‘We give thanks to you, Lord God Almighty, who is and who was, for you have taken your great power and begun to reign. The nations raged, but your wrath came, and the time for the dead to be judged, and for rewarding your servants, the prophets and saints, and those who fear your name, both small and great, and for destroying the destroyers of the earth.”

It looks like this is the end – the Final Day of Judgment. And then, when you get to the seventh bowl in 16:17-21,

“The seventh angel poured out his bowl into the air, and a loud voice came out of the temple, from the throne, saying, ‘It is done!’ And there were flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, and a great earthquake such as there had never been since man was on the earth, so great was that earthquake. The great city was split into three parts, and the cities of the nations fell, and God remembered Babylon the great, to make her drain the cup of the wine of the fury of his wrath. And every island fled away, and no mountains were to be found. And great hailstones, about one hundred pounds each, fell from heaven on people; and they cursed God for the plague of the hail, so fearful was that plague.”

In all these instances, it looks like we’ve come to the end, and all of a sudden it starts over again.

Interestingly enough, when you hear people who are “experts on Revelation”, some of them don’t even know whether these incidents are consecutive or repetitive. We tend to think linearly. But is this a cyclical understanding, where the writer is telling the story of the judgment of the end, and then he starts over and tells it all again? It could be that we have repetition of the same theme over and over. Most of us are taught to preach linearly. But there’s a lot of great preaching in the world that doesn’t do that. “I have a dream”, and then you come back, “I have a dream” -- Martin Luther King’s great sermon has this repetition. And people in other parts of the world don’t always argue in a linear perspective like we do, so it may be that the writer of Revelation is repeating this three-fold to get the same thing over and over again, and to emphasize in so doing God’s victory. So that is another serious issue as to how to interpret this text.

Let me point out one more thing at least, and that has to do with the letters to the churches. In chapters 2 and 3, we have letters written to seven churches. It’s interesting – why seven, and not eight? Well, he likes the number seven and that’s why he had seven. Why that particular order of churches? This is due essentially to their geography. They start out with Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea, (so in other words, you’re basically making a circle of the churches in Asia -- that’s why he doesn’t cross backwards). I see no reason why you should deny that he intended them to be real letters to real churches that had real problems of one sort or another, and he deals with them. In AD 96, all of the issues raised were true with regard to these particular churches. It is suggested of course, though, that there are a lot more than seven churches in that area. Why did he not add others? Well, he liked seven, and the roundness and completeness of seven probably indicates what he’s writing to these seven churches extends to other churches as well.

But now, in each of these churches, he writes in ways that are very interesting, because he starts off with a word and a description of the person saying this.

• In 2:1, to Ephesus, “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: ‘The words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands ….’”

• This is a reference to a description of Jesus found earlier in 1:16, where we have “… in his right hand he held seven stars ….” He has seven stars here, and so the description of Christ that has just preceded is followed up here in 2:1.

• In 2:8, “To the angel of the church in Smyrna, write: ‘The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life.’”

• In 1:5, we have, “And from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead [the one who came to life].” And then in 1:17-18, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.” So you have a reference to the Christ referred earlier.

• In 2:12, “To the angel of the church in Pergamum, write: ‘The words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword …”

• And in 1:16 we had the description, “In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword….”

• In 2:18, “And to the angel of the church in Thyatira write: ‘The words of the Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire, and whose feet are like burnished bronze.’”

• In 1:14-15, we have “The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze.”

• When you get to 3:1 “And to the angel of the church of Sardis write: ‘The words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars.’”

• In 1:4 we have reference to the seven sprits that are before the throne.

• In 3:7, “And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: ‘The words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens.’”

• And in 1:18 we have the description of him who is “the living one” who has “the keys of death and of Hades”.

• And in3:14, “To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: ‘The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s creation.”

• And in 1:5, we have “From Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth.”

So you have in all of these, the one who speaks is being referred back to the vision found in the first chapter.

Not only that, in all of these you have a reference to conquering.

• In 2:7, in the first church, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who conquers [and then there’s a promise], I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.”

• In 2:11, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who conquers [and then you have the promise] shall not be hurt by the second death.”

• In the third one, in v. 17, “To him who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except him who receives it.”

• In the next one, 2:26, “He who conquers and who keeps my works until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron, as when earthen pots are broken in pieces, even as I myself have received authority from my Father. And I will give him the morning star.”

• When we come to the next one, 3:5, “He who conquers shall be clad thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels.”

• In 3:12, “He who conquers, I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never shall he go out of it, and I will write on him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down from my God out of heaven ….”

• Then he goes on into the last one, 3:21, “He who conquers I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on the throne.”

And all of them have a phrase at the end of them, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” (or something like that).

All of the letters, then, begin with a word of this glorious Christ, and there is a promise for those who hold on and conquer through Christ that it will be worth it. And so you have this holding on, and this idea of being a conqueror through Jesus Christ, and inheriting reward, eternal life, or something like that. But, how does one conquer for many of these people? They die for their faith. It’s not usually what we think of as conquering, but this is the great victory over the enemy – that you conquer him by remaining faithful, even unto death itself. And so the Book of Revelation is a book that is really written to people, helping to prepare them for death itself.

It therefore seems very strange to think that the way you read this book and identify with it is by sitting at a desk with large sheets of paper to diagram all these things when the next events take place. This is being read to people who are lining up at the gas chambers at Auschwitz, about to be martyred for their faith. And if you are about to die for your faith, when you read this book, what are you wanting to get from it? Surely, it’s not a chart of the end times, but something that will help you to overcome and conquer. And that’s the way we have to read the book.