Finding an Interpretive Approach to the Revelation of John

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Kieran Beville (D.Litt, Ph.D, BA, PGDE) is Pastor of Lee Valley Bible Church (Baptist), Ballincollig, Co. Cork, Ireland and Visiting Professor of Intercultural Studies and Practical Ministry at Tyndale Theological Seminary, Badhoevedorp, Netherlands. He has written several books and numerous articles and he has taught intensive courses in Theology and Biblical Studies on leadership training programs in Eastern Europe, the Middle-East and India.

The Book of Revelation was written around A.D. 95 in Asia Minor by the apostle John, who, was on the island of Patmos, not far from the coast of Asia Minor.[1] “I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.” (Rev.1:9). This has traditionally been taken to mean that he had been exiled there as a martyr for his Christian faith. Some scholars, however, have suggested that it might have been a regular stop on a preaching circuit. Next, the author said, “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet (Rev.1:10), and this voice told him to write what he was about to see. Thus begins the revelation disclosed to him in voice and vision.

Ephesus was both the capital of the Roman province of Asia and one of the earliest centers of Christianity. The book next contains seven short letters of exhortation to the Christian churches in the seven leading cities of Asia Minor — Ephesus (2.1-7), Smyrna (2.9-11), Pergamon (2.12-17), Thyatira (2.18-29), Sardis (3.1-6), Philadelphia (3.7-13) and Laodicea (3.14-22). This region would become a key area for the expansion of Christianity into the Roman Empire.

Revelation is one of the most fascinating books of the Bible. However, much debate surrounds the proper interpretation of this work. Is it a prophecy of future events yet to take place, or have the prophecies of this book been fulfilled?


Popular Views

Two popular authors highlight the debate that continues today. In his best-selling series Left Behind, Tim LaHaye wrote a fictional account based on his theological understanding that the events of Revelation will occur in the future. Popular radio talk show host Hank Hanegraaff disagrees strongly with the theology underlying LaHaye’s perspective. In his book The Apocalypse Code, Hanegraaff asserts that the events of Revelation were largely fulfilled in AD 70 with the fall of the destruction of Jerusalem. He criticizes theologians for taking a hyper-literal approach to Revelation.[2] This begs the question, how should the book of Revelation be interpreted?

Four interpretive models

The issues at the center of the debate between LaHaye and Hanegraaff have been around for a considerable amount of time, predating these individuals. Throughout the history of the church, there have been a number of diverse views about how Revelation ought to be interpreted. There are essentially four distinct interpretive models: idealist, preterist, historicist, and futurist.

The idealist model asserts that Revelation describes in symbolic terms the battle throughout the ages between God and Satan and good against evil. The preterist model asserts that the events recorded in Revelation were largely fulfilled with the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple in AD 70. The historicist model asserts that Revelation comprises a symbolic account of church history commencing in the first-century AD. According to this view, the prophecies of Revelation are fulfilled in various historic events such as the fall of the Roman Empire, the Protestant Reformation, and the French Revolution. The futurist model asserts that Revelation predicts events that will take place in the future. These events include the rapture of the church, seven years of tribulation, and a millennial rule of Christ upon the earth.

These interpretive models are essentially different hermeneutical approaches to the text of Scripture insofar as they try to apply principles of interpretation.[3] The issue of which hermeneutical approach should be applied is important in the debate about how Revelation ought to be interpreted.

The idealist model asserts that Revelation is apocalyptic literature and as such, it should be interpreted allegorically. The preterist model views the book of Revelation as a symbolic account of events that occurred in AD 70. The historicist view interprets the events as symbolic of all Western church history. The futurist approach asserts that the book of Revelation should be interpreted in a literal manner, that is, the events of Revelation are scheduled to take place in the future. Each of these interpretive models needs to be explored a little further.

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The Idealist Approach

The idealist model uses the allegorical method to interpret Revelation. This approach to Revelation was initiated by Origen (AD 185-254), being further circulated by Augustine (AD 354-420). According to this approach, the events of Revelation are not connected to specific historical events. Thus, the imagery of Revelation presents the continuing battle throughout history of God against Satan and good against evil. In this epic drama the redeemed are persecuted and martyred by the forces of evil but will ultimately be vindicated by the victorious Lord whose sovereignty is made manifest in history.

William Milligan, a nineteenth century scholar has said, “While the Apocalypse thus embraces the whole period of the Christian dispensation, it sets before us within this period the action of great principles and not special incidents; we are not to look in the Apocalypse for special events, but for the exhibition of the principles which govern the history of both the world and the Church.”[4] Robert Mounce summarizes the idealist view stating “Revelation is a theological poem presenting the ageless struggle between the kingdom of light and the kingdom of darkness. It is a philosophy of history wherein Christian forces are continuously meeting and conquering the demonic forces of evil.”[5]

Thus, symbols in the book are not connected to particular events but indicate motifs during the course of church history. The struggles in the book are thus interpreted as spiritual warfare displayed in the persecution of believers, or battles that have happened in history.

So the beast from the sea could be understood as satanically inspired political opposition to the church in any age. The beast from the land may be viewed as corrupt religion or paganism. The Babylonian whore is symbolic of the compromised church or seduction by the world. The bowls, trumpets and seals typify natural disasters such as famines and wars that take place as God implements his sovereign will in history. Calamities are manifestations of God’s displeasure with sinful, unrepentant humanity. God is ultimately triumphant.

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Strengths and Weaknesses

The strength of this interpretation is that it circumvents the difficulties of harmonizing passages with events in history. Furthermore, it allows that Revelation is germane and applicable for every era of church history.[6]

Nevertheless, there are some weaknesses associated with this view especially as it denies any particular historical fulfillment.[7] The opening verse of the book suggest future, imminent fulfillment, ‘The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place’ (Rev.1:1). There is the danger in this view of engaging in eisegesis (reading our meaning into the text) rather than exegesis (taking the meaning of what the author meant out of the text). Thus, the idealist approach tends to lead to arbitrary and subjective interpretations. Adherents of this view have frequently permitted contemporary cultural and socio-political issues to determine interpretation rather than seeking the author’s intended meaning.[8] Merrill Tenney says:

The idealist view … assumes a “spiritual” interpretation, and allows no concrete significance whatever to figures that it employs. According to this viewpoint they are not merely symbolic of events and persons, as the historicist view contends; they are only abstract symbols of good and evil. They may be attached to any time or place, but like the characters of Pilgrim’s Progress, represent qualities or trends. In interpretation, the Apocalypse may thus mean anything or nothing according to the whim of the interpreter.[9]

The historical-grammatical method of hermeneutics is an approach to biblical interpretation, which safeguards the original, intended meaning of the author. Ignoring such contextual issues is likely to lead to alternate interpretations that may even contradict the author’s intended meaning.[10]


The Preterist Approach

The preterist model takes its name from Latin, preter meaning “past.” There are two preterist perspectives: full preterism and partial preterism. Both views believe that the prophecies of the Olivet Discourse of Matthew 24 and Revelation were fulfilled in the first century with the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70. Thus, chapters 1-3 describe the conditions in the seven churches of Asia Minor prior to the Jewish war (AD 66-70). The remaining chapters of Revelation and Jesus’ Olivet Discourse describe the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans.

The Full preterist asserts that all the prophecies of Revelation were fulfilled in AD 70 and that the current age is the eternal state, or the New Heavens and the New Earth. Partial preterist asserts that most of the prophecies of Revelation were fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem. However, they believe that chapters 20-22 refer to future events such as the future resurrection of believers and the second coming of Christ. Those who hold a partial preterist view consider full preterism heretical as it denies the second coming of Christ and teaches an unorthodox view of the resurrection.

Some church historians trace the roots of preterism to Jesuit priest Luis de Alcazar (1554-1613).[11] Alcazar’s interpretation is thought to be a reaction to the Protestant historicist interpretation of Revelation, which identified the Pope as the Antichrist. However, some preterist contend that preterist teachings are found in the writings of the early church as early as the fourth century AD.[12]

The date of the composition of Revelation is a critical matter in the preterist view. As this approach alleges that Revelation foretells the destruction of Jerusalem, preterists holds to a pre-AD 70 date of writing. According to this view, John was writing specifically to the church of his day and had only its situation in mind. Thus, preterists state that the book of Revelation was written to encourage the saints to persevere under the persecution of the Roman Empire.

Preterists suggest several reasons to support this view. First, Jesus stated at the end of the Olivet Discourse, “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” (Matt. 24:34). If a generation were understood to refer to a period of forty years then the fall of Jerusalem would fit this time frame. Second, the account of the historian Josephus’ concerning the fall of Jerusalem seems to coincide with the symbolism of Revelation in a number of ways. Third, this view would be directly germane to the author’s contemporaries.

However, a careful critique of this view reveals that the events described in the Olivet Discourse and in Revelation 4-19 are different in some ways from the fall of Jerusalem. For example, Jesus described his return to Jerusalem this way: “For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.” (Matt. 24:27). Preterist say this refers to the Roman army’s advance on Jerusalem. However, the Roman army advanced on Jerusalem from west to east, and their assault was not as a quick lightning strike. The Jewish war lasted for several years before Jerusalem was besieged, and the city fell after a lengthy siege.[13] Another argument against the preterists view is that the Roman general Titus did not set up an “abomination of desolation” (Matt. 24:15) in the Jerusalem Temple. Rather, he destroyed the Temple and burned it to the ground. Thus, it appears the preterist is required to allegorize or stretch the metaphors and symbols in order to find fulfillment of the prophecies in the fall of Jerusalem.

Another example of allegorical interpretation by the preterist is their interpretation of Revelation 7:4. John identifies a special group of prophets: the 144,000 from the “tribes of Israel.” Preterist Hanegraaff states that this group represents the true bride of Christ and is referred to in Revelation 7:9 as ‘a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages’. That is, the 144,000 in verse 4, and the great multitude in verse 9 are the same people.[14] This seems inconsistent with the context of the chapter for a number of reasons. First, consistently in Scripture the phrase “tribes of Israel” literally refers to Jews. Second, John says there are 12,000 from each of the twelve tribes of Israel. This would be a peculiar way to describe the multitude of believers from all nations.[15] Third, the context shows John is speaking of two different groups: one on the earth (the 144,000 referenced in 7:1-3), and the great multitude in heaven before the throne (7:9). Thus, Hanegraaff seems to be allegorizing the text. Robert Mounce states:

The major problem with the preterist position is that the decisive victory portrayed in the latter chapters of the Apocalypse was never achieved. It is difficult to believe that John envisioned anything less than the complete overthrow of Satan, the final destruction of evil, and the eternal reign on God. If this is not to be, then either the Seer was essentially wrong in the major thrust of his message or his work was so helplessly ambiguous that its first recipients were all led astray.[16]

Mounce and other New Testament scholars assert that the preterist view is inconsistent and indulges in allegorical interpretations to make the text suit a particular theological perspective.


The preterist position depends on a pre-AD 70 date of writing. However, the majority of New Testament scholars reckon the date of composition to be AD 95. If John had written this book post AD 70 it could not predict of the fall of Jerusalem as this event would have already occurred. Herein there is a problem with the preterist view.

However, preterists suggest there are some reasons to believe that Revelation was written before AD 70. John makes no mention of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. They contend that if he was writing after the event it seems odd that he did not mention such a momentous event. However, if Revelation was written a quarter of a century after the incident there seems to be no good reason for mentioning this historical event. Nevertheless, John does not mention either Christ’s prophecy of the fall of the Temple (Matt. 24, Mk. 13, Lu 21) or the fulfillment of this prophecy. John is told to “measure the temple of God and the altar and those who worship there” (Rev.11:1). The preterists view asserts that this suggests that the Temple was still standing during the composition of the book.[17]

The preterist view (especially partial preterism) is upheld by such eminent scholars as R. C. Sproul, Hank Hanegraaff, Kenneth Gentry, and the late David Chilton.

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The Historicist Approach

This interpretive model asserts that Revelation is an essentially symbolic depiction, which portrays the unfolding of history from the first century to the end of the age. Thus, the symbols in the apocalypse correspond to events in the history of Western Europe, including various popes, the Protestant Reformation, the French Revolution, and rulers such as Charlemagne. Most interpreters place the events of their day in the later chapters of Revelation.

Many advocates of this position view chapters 1-3 as seven epochs in church history. The breaking of the seals thus represents the fall of the Roman Empire (chapters 4-7). The Trumpet judgments symbolize the invasions of the Roman Empire by the Goths, Visigoths, Vandals, Huns, Saracens, and Turks (chapters 8-10). Protestant historicists of the Reformation era believed the pontiff to be the antichrist. Thus, the true church was exemplified in its struggle against Roman Catholicism (chapters 11-13). The bowl judgments typify God’s sentence on the Catholic Church (Revelation 14-16), climaxing in the future overthrow of Catholicism described in chapters 17-19.[18]

This approach allows for a wide variety of interpretations as those who espouse this view are inclined to interpret the text through their contemporary context. Thus, many understood the culmination of the book would occur in their own generation. John Walvoord points to the lack of agreement among historicists, “As many as fifty different interpretations of the book of Revelation therefore evolve, depending on the time and circumstances of the expositor.”[19] Moses Stuart raised this same concern in the early nineteenth century, “Hithertho, scarcely any two original and independent expositors have agreed, in respect to some points very important in their bearing upon the interpretation of the book.”[20]


The historicist approach focuses almost entirely on the church in Western Europe, largely ignoring the East, and this fails to account for God’s activity throughout Asia and the rest of the world. Thus, such a view would have little meaning for the first century church, which John was addressing. It is improbable that believers in Asia Minor could have understood Revelation according to such an interpretive model.

Numbered amongst adherents of the historicist view were such eminent figures as John Wycliffe, John Knox, William Tyndale, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, Charles Finney, C. H. Spurgeon, and Matthew Henry. The historicist view became widely disseminated during the Reformation because it associated the pontiff with the beasts identified in Revelation 13. However, the historicist view has waned since the beginning of the twentieth century.


The Futurist Approach

With the decline in popularity and influence of the historicist view there has been resurgence (particularly from the beginning of the twentieth century onwards) of the futurist view. This interpretive model asserts that the events of the Olivet Discourse and Revelation chapters 4-22 will occur in the future. Those who hold this view divide the book of Revelation into three sections, as indicated in 1:19: “Write therefore the things that you have seen, those that are and those that are to take place after this.” Thus, chapter 1 describes the past, chapters 2-3 describe the present and the rest of the book describes future events.

The futurist approach to the interpretation of Revelation is essentially literal. Thus, chapters 4-19 refer to a period known as the seven-year tribulation.[21] During this time, God’s judgments will be dispensed as revealed in the seals, trumpets, and bowls. Chapter 13 describes a literal future world empire headed by a political and religious leader represented by the two beasts. Chapter 17 depicts a harlot who epitomizes the church in apostasy. Chapter 19 refers to the second coming of Jesus as well as the cataclysmic battle of Armageddon to be succeeded by a literal thousand-year rule of Christ upon the earth in chapter 20. Chapters 21-22 describe the post millennium creation of a New Heaven and a New Earth and the inauguration of the heavenly city upon the earth.[22]

Futurists argue that a consistently literal or plain interpretation ought to be applied in understanding the book of Revelation. This is the historical-grammatical approach of hermeneutics. Thus, literal interpretation of the Bible means ascertaining the original intended meaning of the author. This involves the consistent application of grammatical rules in the original language(s) and respecting the cultural framework of the text. Literal interpretation does not discount figurative or symbolic language. As J. P. Lange stated:

The literalist (so called) is not one who denies that figurative language, that symbols, are used in prophecy, nor does he deny that great spiritual truths are set forth therein; his position is, simply, that the prophecies are to be normally interpreted (i.e., according to the received laws of language) as any other utterances are interpreted – that which is manifestly figurative being so regarded.[23]

Charles Ryrie concurs:

Symbols, figures of speech and types are all interpreted plainly in this method, and they are in no way contrary to literal interpretation. After all, the very existence of any meaning for a figure of speech depends on the reality of the literal meaning of the terms involved. Figures often make the meaning plainer, but it is the literal, normal, or plain meaning that they convey to the reader.[24]

However, figurative language does not justify allegorical interpretation.


Futurists assert that the literal interpretation of Revelation has its origins in the ancient church fathers. Certainly, features of this understanding (such as a future millennial kingdom) are found in the writings of Clement of Rome (AD 96), Justin Martyr (AD 100-165), Irenaeus (AD 115-202), Tertullian (AD 150-225) and others. Those who adhere to a futurist position suggest that the church fathers held to a literal interpretation of the book until Origen (AD 185-254) introduced allegorical interpretation. This was further popularized by Augustine (AD 354-430). Literal interpretation of Revelation is evident throughout the history of the church and has experienced resurgence in the modern era.

The futurist interpretive model is widely accepted among evangelical Christians today.

Dispensational theology is a prevalent form of the futurist view, which is promulgated by schools such as Dallas Theological Seminary and Moody Bible Institute. Theologians such as Charles Ryrie, John Walvoord, and Dwight Pentecost are renowned scholars in this field. Tim LaHaye made this theology popular in the late twentieth century with his end-times series of novels.

Regrettably, there have been and continue to be preachers who mistakenly apply the futurist approach to associate current events with the symbols in Revelation. Some have even been involved in making predictions about the precise date of Christ’s second coming. Although such preachers may have a wide appeal, they do not properly represent a biblical futurist view.


Critics contend that the futurist view makes Revelation irrelevant to the original first century readers. Another criticism is that the book ought to be rightly understood as apocalyptic literature and as such should be interpreted allegorically or symbolically rather than literally.[25] Hank Hanegraaff states, ‘Thus, when a Biblical writer uses a symbol or an allegory, we do violence to his intentions if we interpret it in a strictly literal manner.’[26]


Date of Writing

The date of composition of the book of Revelation is an important matter in the discussion, especially between preterist and futurists. As already noted, preterists argue for a pre-AD 70 date while futurists hold to a date of AD 95. There are several reasons for the later date.

First, Irenaeus, in his work Against Heresies, states that John wrote Revelation at the end of Emperor Domitian’s reign, which ended in AD 96. Irenaeus was a disciple of Polycarp, who was a disciple of the Apostle John. He thus had a connection with a contemporary of the Apostle John.

Second, the conditions of the seven churches in Revelation appear to describe a second-generation church setting rather than that of a first-generation. For example, the Church of Ephesus (Rev.2:1-7) is charged with abandoning their first love and warned of the Nicolaitan heresy. If John had written Revelation in AD 65, it would have overlapped with Paul’s letter to the Ephesians and Timothy. However, Paul makes no mention of either the loss of first love or the threat of the Nicolaitans. Ephesus was Paul’s headquarters for three years, and Apollos served there along with Aquila and Priscilla. The church of Smyrna did not exist during Paul’s ministry (AD 60-64) as recorded by Polycarp, the first bishop of the city. Laodicea (Rev.3:14-22) is rebuked for being wealthy and lukewarm. However, in his letter to the Colossians, Paul commends the church three times (2:2, 4:13, 16). It would likely take more than three years for the church to decline to the point that chapter three would state there to be no commendable aspect about it. In addition, an earthquake in AD 61 left the city in ruins for many years. Thus, it is unlikely that in a ruined condition John would describe them as rich.

Preterists who favor the AD 70 date pose the question, “Why doesn’t John mention the fall of the Temple which occurred in AD 70?” Futurists respond that John wrote about future events, and the destruction of the temple was twenty-five years in the past. He also wrote to a Gentile audience in Asia Minor, which was far removed from Jerusalem. Preterists also point to the fact that the Temple is mentioned in chapter eleven. Futurists respond that although John mentions a temple in Revelation 11:1-2, this does not mean it exists at the time of his writing. In Daniel 9:26-27 and Ezekiel 40-48, both prophets describe the temple, but it was not in existence when they described a future temple in their writings.

What did Jesus mean when he said, “this generation will not pass away until all these things take place”? (Matt. 24:34). The common futurist response is that Jesus was stating that the future generation about which he was speaking would not pass away once “these things” had begun. In other words, the generation living amid the time of the events he predicted will not pass away until all is fulfilled.



Revelation is a complex but intriguing book. Discussion regarding how it ought to be interpreted continues. Despite differences of opinion, there is significant agreement.[27] All views believe that God is sovereign in history. Except for full preterism and some forms of idealism, all believe in the literal (physical) return of Christ. All views believe in the resurrection from the dead. All believe there will be a future judgment. All believe in an eternal state in which believers will be with God, and unbelievers will be separated from him. All agree upon the importance of the study of prophecy and its edification for the body of Christ.

When I set out to write this work my intention was to understand the words of Jesus to the seven churches of Asia Minor in their context and to elicit their application for the church today. An essential presupposition in my approach is that the words of Scripture are both timeless and timely. In other words, they have a particular historical significance as well as a contemporary resonance. The words of the apostle Paul to Timothy must apply to this portion of Scripture too: ‘All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness’ (2 Tim. 3:16). Thus, I found myself addressing certain questions, “In what way are these words of Jesus to the church relevant now?” “How are they profitable for teaching?” “Is there some relevant rebuke here for Christians in the twenty-first century?” “In what way might the church today find correction by paying attention to these words?” How can believers be trained in righteousness through these words?” In short, how may these precious words of the Lord be applied to individual Christians and to local communities of believers? The aim is to explore them with a view to developing healthy churches. If this work contributes something to that end, I will be immensely thankful to the Lord.

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The late Dr. Robert L. Thomas of the Master’s Seminary in his
mammoth two-volume Exegetical Commentary

The futurist approach to the book is the only one that grants sufficient recognition to the prophetic style of the book and a normal hermeneutical pattern of interpretation based on that style. It views the book as focusing on the last period(s) of world history and outlining the various events and their relationships to one another. This is the view that best accords with the principle of literal interpretation. The literal interpretation of Revelation is the one generally associated with the premillennial return of Christ and a view of inspiration that understands God to be the real author of every book of the Bible. Though He used human authors whose individual backgrounds and writing styles are reflected, the divine element in inspiration prevails to the point that the unity of Scripture can be assumed. Blomberg’s assessment that an “exclusively prophetic interpretation usually insists on an impossibly literal hermeneutic which is therefore inevitably applied inconsistently” (“Genre,” p. 46) reflects a premature and biased judgment about a subject on which the last word has yet to be written.

The preferred approach to the Apocalypse is to interpret according to normal principles of grammar and facts of history, remembering the peculiar nature of predictive prophecy throughout the Bible. This is usually referred to as literal interpretation. One may wonder how a book of symbols and visions such as Revelation can be interpreted literally. This is not so difficult to understand if one keeps in mind that the symbols and visions were the means of communicating the message to the prophet, but they have a literal meaning unless otherwise indicated in the text. They do not furnish grounds for interpreting the text in a nonliteral fashion. They are to be interpreted as one would interpret the rest of the Bible.

The verb ἐσήμανεν (esēmanen, “he signified”) in Rev. 1:1 furnishes an advance notice of the symbolic nature of God’s communication with John. This has nothing to do with how the resultant communication should be interpreted, however. Ryken makes the same basic mistake as Ironside in taking the Apocalypse to be a book of symbols that cannot be interpreted literally. Both men fail to distinguish between the process of revelation and that of interpretation. Ryken’s faulty judgment is in not recognizing that literal interpretation makes ample allowance for figures of speech that are clearly represented as such and in seeking to make a distinction between “literal” and “historical.” By blurring this characteristic of literal interpretation, he opens the door to treat details of the text quite loosely. Literal interpretation sees a distinction between symbols and symbolic or figurative language. The latter receives full recognition, but the former may have a meaning that is quite literal and historical.

The proper procedure is to assume a literal interpretation of each symbolic representation provided to John unless a particular factor in the text indicates it should be interpreted figuratively. For example, John saw in vision form a dramatization of a multitude of 144,000 (Rev. 7:4) which in future fulfillment will be a literal multitude of 144,000 people because nothing in the text indicates that the number should be understood in some hidden sense. On the other hand, the city where the two witnesses will be slain is called “spiritually” (πνευματικῶς, pneumatikōs) Sodom and Egypt (Rev. 11:8), indicating that a figurative rather than a literal interpretation of the proper names is in order. So a literal interpretation is the assumption unless something in the text indicates otherwise.

Literal interpretation refrains from the tendency to find hidden meanings in the Apocalypse. “Green grass” in the first trumpet of Rev. 8:7 has at times been seen as a hidden symbol, the grass standing for human beings and the green portraying the prosperous conditions of those people. Alford points out the incongruity of such an interpretation, noting that the later trumpet judgments distinguish clearly between grass as a natural object and men who are distinctly so labeled in explicit terminology (Rev. 8:11; 9:4, 15). Analogy requires that in the same series of visions, when one part destroys earth, trees, and grass, and another inflicts no injury on earth, trees, or grass, but does harm men, grass must carry the same meaning, i.e., a literal one, in both cases.

The same principle applies, but even more conspicuously, in conjunction with the sixth seal judgment (Rev. 6:12–17). At times, commentators have understood the cosmic disturbances to picture human arrogance and the overthrow of principalities and powers supporting the authority of earthly kings. The most conspicuous deficiency of this kind of interpretation is that the thing allegedly symbolized by the convulsion of the heavens (6:12–14), i.e., a convulsion of the nations, is described immediately after the heavenly phenomenon in literal terms (6:15–17) (the same way as in Hag. 2:21–22).

Another clear distinctive of literal interpretation is its avoidance of assumptions not justified in the text. Theories that “Babylon” in Revelation 14 and 16–18 is a code-word for Rome have been widespread. The fact that the text of Revelation locates the city on the Euphrates River (16:12) has been no deterrent to this symbolic understanding. Neither has the fact that Rome, because of its geographical location, has never been and could never be the great commercial city described in Revelation 18. Babylon did eventually become a code-word for Rome, but not during the period of the NT’s composition.

Attempts to assign a symbolic connotation to the thousand years in Rev. 20:2–7 have been multiplied. Lewis is typical of the wide assortment of attempts to explain away the literality of a future millennium on earth when he writes, “The biblical millennium … is not the glorious age to come, but this present era for giving the message of salvation to the nations.” The trend of this view is to take one thousand as a symbolic number and identify the period with the interval between Christ’s first and second advents. All who adopt this tactic, however, are at a loss to explain how two resurrections in Rev. 20:4–5 can be described as separated by one thousand years and yet have that thousand years not be future and literal. The two resurrections are designated by the same verb: ἔζησαν (ezēsan, “they lived,” “they came to life”). By common agreement, the latter resurrection is clearly a bodily one, so the former one must be too, necessitating that both be future and positing a future thousand-year period between them. The literal approach is fair and consistent. To interpret otherwise marks an end of “all definite meaning in plain words.”

Kuyper acknowledges that the language of Rev. 20:1–10 found anywhere else would require literal interpretation, but thinks that its surroundings in this book require the terminology to be understood nonliterally. Ladd points out the fallacy of this reasoning. He disagrees with the position that “the spiritual interpretation departs from the proper principles of hermeneutics because this is literature of a different type to which the ordinary rules of hermeneutics cannot apply.” He finds no contextual clue in Rev. 20:4–6 to support a spiritualized interpretation.

Because in broad perspective the Apocalypse is prophetic in nature as is the rest of the NT, a different set of hermeneutical principles is not needed to interpret it. A normal grammatical-historical methodology is the natural and necessary interpretive framework. To arrive at this goal, other commentaries and analyses are incorporated as resources from past and present generations. Their insights recorded in various exegetical works are invaluable for the present, to the degree that they observed valid hermeneutical principles. Otherwise, the works are valueless except by way of application. The goal of this commentary is to use judiciously these authorities of the past as facilitators in arriving at the one correct interpretation of each of the myriad difficult passages in Revelation.

Judicious use of resource works entails frequent recourse to basic principles of hermeneutics. Interpreters have not consistently used these basic principles. Two examples of relatively recent departures illustrate this. The first relates to the understanding of Greek verb tenses. Responding to frequent abuses of the aorist tense, Stagg proposed in a 1972 essay that the aorist denotes undefined action and therefore is not to be contrasted with other verb tenses in the same context. He is correct about abuses, but overreacts against them. A balanced understanding of the aorist takes into account the aspect of verbal action derived from each context and the contribution of the root idea of the verb itself. This does allow for the kinds of contrasts with other tenses that Stagg condemns in a blanket fashion. The balanced approach will serve as the guideline in the comments below where documentation will reflect the grammatical authorities who oppose Stagg’s stand.

Another recent suggestion says that the aorist imperative implies no urgency, which is contrary to what grammatical opinion has long held. Moule is one who has expressed this. On the other hand, the long-term position that urgency is implicit in the aorist imperative has solid grammatical footing. As comments below will reflect, my judgment will favor the notion of urgency whenever encountering an aorist imperative.

In addition to verb tenses, a second example of departures from traditional hermeneutics pertains to synonyms. It has been more customary to see a distinction between similar words used in the same immediate context. In line with modern linguistic trends, however, some have chosen to question any distinction between two synonyms, such as ἀγαπάω (agapaō, “I love”) and φιλέω (phileō, “I love”), in the same context. The plea is usually made that the writer chose to vary his vocabulary for stylistic effect. Yet the NT writers, for the most part, were not aiming for stylistic excellence as classical Greek writers of earlier generations. They wrote in the language of the man on the street. This would have been particularly true of John, writing while in a prophetic trance. So my commentary follows the longstanding view that the writers intended shades of distinction in synonyms. Moule’s advice is wise: “The safest principle is probably to assume a difference until one is driven to accept identity of meaning.” Robert L. Thomas, Revelation 1-7: An Exegetical Commentary (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 1992), 32, 35–39.



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[1] Some dispute authorship and date of writing but there is general agreement that it was written around A.D. 95 in Asia Minor by the apostle John.

[2] Hank Hanegraaff, The Apocalypse Code (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007), 20.

[3] These may be based on the historical-grammatical (conservative evangelical) or the historical-critical (liberal) methods.  See Louis Berkhof, Principles of Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1950, twenty-fourth printing, April 1994); Dan McCarthy and Charles Clayton, Let the Reader Understand: A guide to Interpreting and Applying the Bible (Wheaton, Illinois: BridgePoint, 1994); Walter C. Kaiser Jr. and Mosés Silva, Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics: The Search for Meaning (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, revised and expanded edition, 2007); R. C. Sproul, Knowing Scripture (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter Varsity Press, 1977, third printing 1979).

[4] William Milligan, The Book of Revelation (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1889), 153-4.

[5] Robert Mounce, The New International Commentary of the New Testament: The Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids: William Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1977), 43.

[6]  Leon Morris, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: Revelation (Grand Rapids: William Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987), 20.

[7] Robert Mounce, 43.

[8] Robert Thomas, Revelation: An Exegetical Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1992), 31-2.

[9] Merrill Tenney, Interpreting Revelation (Grand Rapids: William Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1957), 146.

[10] Postmodern hermeneutics is a reader-centered approach that flagrantly violates the principles of the historical-grammatical approach and it has led to arbitrary and subjective individual and community interpretations.

[11] Steven Gregg, Four Views of Revelation (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1997), 39.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Tim LaHaye and Thomas Ice, ed., The End Times Controversy (Eugene, OR.: Harvest House Publishers, 2003), 377.

[14] Hanegraaff, 125.

[15] Unless one thinks of Israel in spiritual rather than racial terms.

[16] Robert Mounce, The New International Commentary of the New Testament: The Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids: William Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1977), 42.

[17] Evidence for the AD 95 date of writing will be presented in the futurist section.

[18] Steven Gregg, Four Views of Revelation (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1997), 31, 217, 309, 399.

[19] John Walvoord, The Revelation of Jesus Christ (Chicago: Moody Press, 1966), 19.

[20] Moses Stuart, A Commentary on the Apocalypse (Edinburgh: Maclachlan, Stewart & Co., 1847), 35.

[21] See Daniel 9:27.

[22] While Christian Publishing House does hold to the Futurist position, we would encourage Bible students to read the following article, Resurrection Hope – Where?

[23] J. P. Lange, Commentary of the Holy Scriptures: Revelation (New York: Scribner’s, 1872), 98, quoted in Charles Ryrie, Dispensationalism (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2007), 91.

[24] Charles Ryrie, Dispensationalism (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2007), 91.

[25] Christian Publishing House Note: Interpreting symbolic and figurative language literally does not mean that we deny the symbolic and figurative sense. For example, Jesus likened himself to the figurative door of a figurative sheep. Was Jesus literally a door, i.e., what hangs on hinges? No. Were the people that Jesus referenced literally sheep that walk in a pasture? No. We interpret what the author meant by the symbolic or figurative language, and this is what we take literally. Jesus is a door in that it is only through him, his ransom, that Sheeplike ones can be saved.―Luke 12:32; John 10:7-11; 14:6

[26] Hanegraaff, 14.

[27] Norman Geisler and Ron Rhodes, Conviction Without Compromise (Eugene, OR.: Harvest House Publishers, 2008), 333.


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