4 Methods of Interpretation for the Book of Revelation

July 18, 2016 — Leave a comment

When interpreting the book of Revelation there are two important elements to remember.

  • First, Revelation is a fulfillment of the sixty-five books that came before it. There are hundreds of quotes, references, and allusions to both the Old and New Testaments in the book of Revelation. This means the reader needs to discern if Revelation is purposefully referencing a previous idea, quote, allusion, or does there just happen to be a commonality between what John writes and the previous writings in the Bible?
  • Second, an interpreting angel is sent from Jesus to help John understand what he is seeing. Examples of this interpreting angel or angels are seen in Rev 5:2, 4-6; 10:7-11; 14:13; 17:1-3, 15-18; 19:9-10; 21:9-10, 15; 22:6, 8-11. Because of this, when reading Revelation students need to constantly seek to understand what is said based on previous revelation in the Bible as well as the interpretations from the angel with John.

4 Methods of Interpretation for the Book of Revelation

“About twenty-five years ago upwards of five hundred works attempting to interpret the book of Revelation were on file in the British Museum. One man examined them all and testified that no two of them exactly agreed. These books, however, did fall into two general classes: (1) Those treating chapters 4–20 as history, and (2) those treating this portion as prophecy. Since then very many notable works on Revelation have been written and with a noticeable increase of certainty as to interpretation (note Dan. 12:9). The later expositions, almost exclusively, treat chapters 4–20 as prophecy” (Lewis Sperry Chafer, Must We Dismiss the Millennium? [Florida: Biblical Testimony League, 1921], 1).

I. HISTORICIST – A ROADMAP OF HISTORY

In the twelve century Joachim of Fiore claimed that he had a vision in which he was told that the 1,260 days of the Apocalypse prophesied the events in the Western history from the time of the apostles until the present. Later, reformers such as Luther and Calvin favored this view and saw the Roman Catholic Pope as the Antichrist.

The historicist interpretation makes sense when applied to the letters to the seven churches in Rev 2-3, however this is a difficult interpretation to hold for Rev 4-19. Within this view the beast/Anitchrist has been identified as the Pope, Napoleon, Mussolini, and Hitler.

The main weakness of this view is that it has to reinterpret the book of Revelation for every new period of history. Few people take this position today. (For more see Osborne, Revelation, 18-19; R. H. Charles, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on The Revelation of St. John, clxxxiii; M. Robert Mulholland, Jr., Revelation: Holy Living in an Unholy World, 13)

II. PRETERIST – REVELATION AS A PRODUCT OF ITS TIME

The preterist interprets Revelation as vision describing the events which take place in John’s day (instead of a future time period). In this view, the events of Revelation refer to events in the first century. The preterist view can be the most complex and according to Grant Osborne is represented by three different views.

  • First, some preterists view the book as written about Roman oppression and the fall of the Roman empire.
  • Second, some preterists argue that there was only a small amount of persecution in John’s time and that much of the persecution was “perceived” and not necessarily “real.”
  • Third, some preterists take the book as written before 70 AD and therefore the book focuses on the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 70 AD. (For more on this view see Osborne, Revelation, 19-20).

However, in Mark Hitchcock’s excellent Ph.D. dissertation “A Defense of the Dominitanic Date of the Book of Revelation” he provides three different views of preterism.

  • First is the literary-ciritcal or contemporary historical preterism. This view sees the event’s in John’s time being identified in the symbols he uses. This view is outside of the scope of evangelicalism.
  • Second is partial, orthodox, or moderate preterism. This view is popular today. Partial preterists believe that most of the events described in Revelation occurred in the first century, however some of the prophesies have not yet been fulfilled (literal Second Coming of Christ to earth, the resurrection, and future judgement).
  • Third is consistent, radical, or full preterism. This view sees all the events of Revelation occurring in the first century (Mark Hitchcock, “A Defense of the Domintianic Date of the Book of Revelation,” 3. See footnote 6; Mulholland, Revelation, 14-15).

III. IDEALIST – ILLUSTRATED SPIRITUAL PRINCIPLES

The idealist view does not see locations or people as historical events (whether past, current, or future). Instead, Revelation contains symbols that represent timeless spiritual truths. As a result, these spiritual truths refer to the church between the first coming of Christ and his second coming.

In this view, the book describes the constant battle between good and evil as well as the battle between the world and the church. Furthermore, the Millennium of Rev 20 is not a future event; it is the final cycle of the book describing the end of the church age. (For more on this view see Osborne, Revelation, 20; Mulholland, Revelation, 15.)

IV. FUTURIST (CHILIASTIC) – A BLUEPRINT FOR THE FUTURE

Some of the earliest church fathers followed the futurist view of the book (Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Victorinus of Pattau). In this early period the futurist view was also know was the chiliasm view (which means “thousand” in Greek).

The futurist view disappeared for more than a thousand years when the allegorical method triumphed under Origen. Further movement away occurred when the amillennial view was advocated by Augustine and Ticonius.

In the most basic sense, the futurist view sees Rev 4-22 as events in the future that are not yet experienced by current believers. While there might be earthquakes, tornadoes, thunder, plagues, etc. in our time that reflect the events of the Rev 4-22, these events do not connect to Rev 4-22. When the events of Rev 4-22 begin, believers will definitely know that the seven year tribulation period has begun.

There are two popular positions within the futurist view.

  • The first is the dispensational view. This position is based in the idea of God having different “dispensations” throughout time. For example, the dispensation of promise began with Abraham (Gen 12), then the Law (Exod 19), and was followed by the dispensation of grace with Jesus, then the dispensation of the kingdom will begin in Revelation. In this view the church is a small parenthesis in this plan because God offered salvation first to the Jews and then to the Gentiles (Rom 11:25-32). At the end of the church age the church will be raptured which begins a seven year tribulation period. During that seven year period of tribulation the Antichrist will persecute the 144,000 and others among Israel who have become Christians. At the end of the seven years Christ will return, judge, and then reign on earth for a literal one thousand years.
  • The second futurist view is the classical premillennial view. This position is similar but does not hold to to dispensations. As a result, there is only one return of Christ which is after the tribulation period, therefore the whole church (not just Israel) must endure the tribulation period. (For more on this view see Osborne, Revelation, 20-21; Charles, Revelation of St. John, clxxxiii-clxxxiv; Mulholland, Revelation, 14.)

Christopher L. Scott

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Christopher Scott is Small Groups Pastor at Rocky Hilly Community Church in Exeter, CA. He has more than ten years of experience leading volunteers, running nonprofit programs, and teaching the Bible in small group settings. He holds a bachelor's degree from Fresno Pacific University and master's degree from Dallas Theological Seminary.

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