Welcome to part three of my introduction to Revelation. On Sunday morning we covered the nature of symbolism in Revelation as well as the four main overarching viewpoints of the book. I hope you enjoy this post!
Symbolism in Revelation
It has occurred to me after studying many of the viewpoints of the pre-trib rapture folks that understanding proper hermeneutics is really fundamental to understanding Revelation. Of course, I’ve mention his before in this study and also in other books I’ve taught through. But I think that when it comes to Revelation, getting the symbols right is important – in fact, just understanding that symbols are, well, symbolic is important!
I bring up the pre-trip rapture folks because as I read through the work of one such seminary professor’s work this evening, I began to really be impressed with his knowledge of Scripture, and his desire to bring Scripture to bear in the forming of his opinions. As I read through his Scripture references, I began to see where he was coming from, but it didn’t make complete sense until I read that, in his view, Revelation 4-18 contained no mention of the church. Of course this is a major point in the pre-trib rapture argument. These folks believe that the church must have been raptured prior to chapter 4. Furthermore, they assume the book works chronologically, and not simply a series of visions describing the inter-advental period.
Now, I disagree with their chronological assumption, and I will address that later. But let me just hone in on this major issue of not seeing the church mentioned anywhere between chapters 4 and 19. This particular professor held a similar belief of many pre-trib folks who say that the “elect” and “Israel” are mentioned, but not the church. Of course, just a simple understanding of the meaning of “the elect” tells us that he doesn’t understand that the elect ARE the church. But again, we will set aside this equally stupefying misunderstanding and just realize that these people come to the conclusion that “the church” is not mentioned in these chapters because they are not reading the book symbolically.
I spent all that time laying that example out so you can see that hermeneutics have consequences. If we ignore the obvious symbolic nature of Revelation and instead choose to take every image we possibly can as literal, then we will never understand this great book.
The question is really not whether we should interpret the book symbolically, but rather how do we go about understanding the symbols? I have given Johnson’s 7 ways to “see” Revelation above, and now I want to just overlay that with some thoughts from Hendriksen who has just 3 different things for us to consider:[i]
1. There is a need to concentrate on the central theme
Just like in Jesus’ parables, each symbol usually has just one main theme or message its trying to convey. You might find other truths associated with the symbols, but that doesn’t take away from the one or two driving principle thoughts/themes.
2. There is a need to distinguish between the principle and the detail
Hendriksen puts it this way:
One must not begin to press the details. One must not ask, in the symbol of the locusts that came out of the abyss (9:1-11), what is the separate meaning of their hair, teeth, breast-plates, etc.” We must not pluck the symbol apart and lose the unity. These details belong to the picture, just as the mule, wine, oil, etc. belong to the parable of the Good Samaritan. One should ask, first, what is the picture taken as a whole? Second, what is the one central meaning of this picture?
As a rule the details belong to the picture, to the symbol. We must not try to give a ‘deeper’ interpretation to the details, unless the interpretation of these details is necessary in order to bring out the full meaning of the central idea of the symbol. Thus, in the symbol of the new Jerusalem (chapters 21, 22), the central idea is perfect fellowship with God. The details – wall, foundations, gates, river etc. – describe the glorious character of this fellowship. What we are after is the total impression, the central idea, of each complete symbol. As in the parables, so here, the context helps to explain the meaning of the picture, and a thorough study of all the details is also necessary in order to determine what is the central thought.
- Learning what the symbols mean
Hendriksen says that there are really two kinds of symbols. The first are those “symbols which describe the beginning or the end of the course of the new dispensation…for example, the radiant woman who is delivered of a Son, a Man-child, refers to the Church bringing forth the Christ, His human nature (12:1-5)” or “…the twofold harvest (14:15) refers to the final judgment, to that one great event.” These are big events at the beginning of the first advent or the end of the age etc.
The second type of symbol is that which fills the majority of the book and could be people, tribulations, place etc. happening in time between the first and second advent of Christ. These symbols are such as the lamp stands, the bowls, the trumpets, seals etc. The question is, do these symbols represent particular people or specific events – single happenings – in history or in the future? Hendriksen, Baucham and many others say “no”, and I agree with them. This probably puts them (and me) in some sort of fashion under the “idealist” view of the book – which we will discuss momentarily!
The reason for these symbols not representing specific one-time events or people in most cases is evident for numerous reasons. First if they did, how would we ever know which events or people in history? Everyone would have their own “interpretation”! Who would be the final judge? We’d have to give up and say that this book isn’t able to be interpreted. But we don’t do that because we believe that this book was indeed given to “reveal” to us God’s purpose, and to edify the church.
Furthermore, these symbols operate in a sphere (to paraphrase Hendriksen) that is very extensive. Large swaths of the earth are involved in the descriptions of the effects of these seals, bowls, trumpets and so forth. “This could hardly be true if each seal, trumpet or bowl had reference to just one single event in history, an event that takes place at a certain specific date in a definite locality…again, these symbols affect not just one very limited group of people, but a multitude that cannot be counted.”
Hendriksen also points out that most of the symbols operate in groups of seven – not a coincidence I think. “This number seven indicates completeness. It harmonizes very well with the idea that the symbols refer to principles in human conduct and of divine government that are always operative, especially throughout this entire dispensation.”
Hendriksen sums up the viewpoint I take on most of these symbols:
Yet we do not believe that this is a closed book. We fully believe that it is a revelation, an unveiling. So we must look for some other rule of interpretation (other than that of specific symbols representing specific one-time events or people).
…It is on the basis of the symbols themselves, as described in the Apocalypse, that we arrive at this very significant conclusion, namely, that the seals, trumpets, bowls, and similar pictures, refer not to specific events or details of history, but to principles that are operating throughout the history of the world, especially throughout the new dispensation.
We should constantly bear in mind that the purpose of God and of the seer is to make men wise unto salvation. The book has an ethical and spiritual purpose. For if these symbols merely indicate and predict isolated, future events, it may satisfy some people’s curiosity, but it can hardly be said that people, in general, are edified. On the other hand, if we believe that the book reveals the principles of divine moral government which are constantly operating, so that, whatever age we happen to live in, we can see God’s hand in history, and His mighty arm protecting us and giving us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ, then, and only then, are we edified and comforted.
Which leads us to our next topic…
But first… a NOTE: As I personally work through the book of Revelation, I will be leaning heavily on those who have closely examined the symbolic nature of the book. While Hendriksen provides a wonderful layman’s outline of how to think of these symbols in broad terms of interpretation, Beale agrees with these and adds another level of study. Beale’s work is very thorough and while he agrees with Hendriksen on OT background, and immediate context, he also explains in-depth the way to both discover when one is seeing a symbolic reference, as well as how and when to approach each symbol to a degree of study that others simply haven’t touched. Beale relies on Sweet, Caird and others as well as his own language and grammar expertise. Much of this is found throughout the commentary, but on pages 50-69 he spends time diving into the grammar and contextual matters involved in this book, and what grammatical/literary and logical rules we must apply when thinking through this book. I just mention this as an aside because for me to go through each of his points in my own notes and teaching would fall beyond the scope and patience level of most people, yet I want those who I’m teaching to understand where I’m deriving my frame of reference for these grammar and literary rules. Indeed I want to assure those in my care that such careful consideration has been taken in these points so that my teaching might be clear, yet without subjecting those reading and listening the tediousness of combing through grammar and literary matters on a Sunday morning.
The Overarching Viewpoints
In the approach to this book there have been several perspectives. There are mainly four overarching perspectives with several modified versions of each. The main four are: Historist, Idealist, Futurist, and Preterist. Let me give a brief overview of each one.
The Historist view is very interesting. They see Revelation as dealing with the big events in Christian history from Christ’s ministry until this day. Beale describes this view:
The majority of these (Historist) commentators have understood the seals, trumpets, and bowls as unfolding successive events in history in general chronological order. Christ’s final coming is usually seen as very imminent. Typically this view identifies parts of the Apocalypse as prophecies of the invasions of the Christianized Roman Empire by the Goths and the Muslims. Further, the corruption of the medieval papacy, the reign of Charlemagne, the Protestant Reformation, and the destruction wrought by Napoleon and Hitler have been seen as predicted by John.[ii]
Issues with this view include its exclusion of non-western church events as important to world history, and also there’s the problem that different people who’ve held this view at different points in history have not agreed with each other on the particulars of each major historical movement. Beale also points out that, “such a projection of future history would have had little relevance to the first-century readers of Revelation.”
The Preterist view has two main iterations. The destruction of Jerusalem by Titus’ armies in 70 A.D. figure prominently in both views. The first believes that the entire book of Revelation is really a prediction about the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. (of course this necessitates an early dating to the book). These folks believe that “Babylon” represents Israel “who aids Rome in oppressing Christians.”[iii] Israel is therefore being judged, and their temple’s destruction is the climax of all the judgment prophecy in Revelation (not to mention Daniel 2 and 7). There are several problems with this, not the least of which is that Daniel 2 and 7 – which are integral to Revelation’s judgments – indicate a worldwide/universal judgment of nations, whereas Preterists see these judgments as exclusive to Israel.
The second main form of Preterism indicates that what Revelation talks about was fulfilled in the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. but that “Babylon the Great” refers to Rome, and not to Israel. This makes a little more sense, but still encounters the difficulties mentioned above.
Now there is a view called “Partial Preterism”, which R.C. Sproul describes as follows:
Partial Preterism holds that many of the prophecies of the future were fulfilled in the first century – chiefly in the events surrounding the destructions of Jerusalem in AD 70. Most Partial Preterists say that the first twenty chapters of Revelation have taken place while the last two chapters have yet to be fulfilled. Partial Preterists tend to be postmillennial in their thinking, holding that the millennium (not a literal one thousand years) began with the first advent of Christ.[iv]
There are other forms of preterism which are really nothing more than heresy. One says that John prophesied worldwide destruction, but was mistaken. Another is similar to the first form I mentioned only goes so far as to say that Jesus came back in 70 A.D., judged Israel, and went back to heaven. In this view there will be no second coming of Christ, for He has already come.
John Frame wisely remarks, “It is also significant that the early church fathers of the generation following the apostles never speak of a return of Christ that occurred in A.D. 70. If this were the momentous event that preterists make it out to be, one would think that the fathers would have made that one of the main themes of their writings. But in fact, they never even mention it.”
There are two forms of the Futurist viewpoint and (as Beale notes) both see John’s vision from Chapter 4 – 22:5 as referring to the future time that will come immediately prior to the end of history.
The dispensational version of Futurism is complicated, so I will quote Beale’s summary here as it is helpful:
…Dispensational Futurism , which interprets very literally and generally sees the order of the visions as representing the historical order of future events: (1) the restoration of ethnic Israel to its land (apparently beginning directly prior to the events depicted in 4:1-22:5), (2) the church’s rapture into heaven, (3) a seven-year tribulation, (4) the antichrist’s reign, (5) the assembly of evil nations to fight over Jerusalem, (6) Christ’s second coming, when he defeats the evil nations, (7) his millennial reign, (8) Satan’s final rebellion at the end of the millennium, which he gathers together unbelievers from throughout the world to fight against Christ and the saints, and (9) Christ’s eternal reign together with the saints in a new heaven and new earth. 1:19 is often seen as the outline of the book: “Therefore, write what you have seen” represents the past, which is described in ch. 1; “and what is” represents the present, which is described in chs. 2-3; “and what things are about to come to pass after these things” represents the future, which is described in 4:1-22:5.[v]
The second form of futurism doesn’t interpret events in the book as literally as the dispensationalists do, and it doesn’t “hold as strictly that the visions represent the chronological sequence of future history.” Beale says that, “In particular, this version can affirm that the church is true Israel and that there will be no ‘pretribulational rapture.’”[vi]
There are several issues with these views, we will deal with them as we get into the book, but Beale is right to state that, “The futurist position especially encounters the difficulty that the book would have had no significant relevance for a first-century readership.”
The Idealist perspective sees Revelation as symbolic and portrays the general conflict between good and evil. There are some versions of this viewpoint which doesn’t see any real historical fulfillment in what John predicted, but rather see it as just lessons to be learned and a depiction of the overall battle between God and Satan.
Beale says, “The problem with this alternative is that it holds that Revelation does not depict any final consummation to history, whether in God’s final victory or in a last judgment of the realm of evil.”
That being said, Beale, Hendriksen, Johnson, and Baucham and others hold to a modified version of idealism. Beale calls his view “Eclecticism” and I really appreciate his viewpoint. He takes the best of idealism and the other views and tosses out those views which have obvious difficulties.
One of the things that we ought to benefit from as Christians living in the 21st century is that men and women have been thinking about these issues for thousands of years. When one view becomes popular, but has holes/issues, then we ought to give it serious consideration and ask ourselves whether our assumptions are wrong. This is why I like Beale’s approach.
Because Beale is one of the most respected scholars on this book, we will be referring to his work a great deal, therefore it may be helpful to give you his own summary of the approach he advocates taking:
A more viable, modified version of the idealist perspective would acknowledge a final consummation in salvation and judgment. Perhaps it would be best to call this fifth view “eclecticism.” Accordingly, no specific prophesied historical events are discerned in the book, except for the final coming of Christ to deliver and judge and to establish he final form of the kingdom in a consummated new creation – though there are a few exceptions to this rule. The Apocalypse symbolically portrays events throughout history, which is understood to be under the sovereignty of the Lamb as a result of his death and resurrection. He will guide the events depicted until they finally issue in the last judgment and the definitive establishment of his kingdom. This means that specific events throughout the age extending from Christ’s first coming to his second may be identified with one narrative or symbol. We may call this age inaugurated by Christ’s first coming and concluded by his final appearance “the church age,” “the interadventual age.” Or “the latter days.” The majority of the symbols in the book are transtemporal in the sense that they are applicable to events throughout the “church age.”
Therefore, the Historicists may sometimes be right in their precise historical identifications, but wrong in limiting the identification only to one historical reality. The same verdict may be passed on the Preterist school of thought, especially the Roman version. And certainly there are prophecies of the future in Revelation. The crucial yet problematic task of the interpreter is to identify through careful exegesis and against the original historical background those texts which pertain respectively to past, present, and future.
[i] Hendriksen, Pg.’s 37-43
[ii] Beale, Pg. 46.
[iii] Beale, Pg. 44
[iv] R.C. Sproul, Everyone’s a Theologian, Pg. 314.
[v] Beale, Pg. 47.
[vi] Beale, Pg. 47