The Lamb who was Slain

Revelation 5:1-7

When we come to chapter five, we’re essentially coming to a continuation of the previous chapter. John has seen a vision of the heavenly throne room, and God is illustrating to Him what things are like from His perspective.

5:1 Then I saw in the right hand of him who was seated on the throne a scroll written within and on the back, sealed with seven seals.

Throughout chapter 4 there was a strong parallel to Ezekiel 1-2, and Daniel 7 as well. Now as we get into chapter five, the Ezekiel references fade a bit into the background, but in verse one, there remains a very strong allusion to the scroll mentioned in Ezekiel. Yet as well see momentarily, there are also Isaianic and Danielic references that come to the forefront.

The passage in Ezekiel we ought to take note of it this:

And when I looked, behold, a hand was stretched out to me, and behold, a scroll of a book was in it. [10] And he spread it before me. And it had writing on the front and on the back, and there were written on it words of lamentation and mourning and woe. (Ezekiel 2:9-10)

Note that like the passage before us, this is a scroll written on both sides. The scroll in Ezekiel has to do with judgment that is about to befall Isarel, but the scroll here in Revelation has both judgment and redemption concerns. Therefore it is probably best to think of the scroll as containing those plans which God has for the world. The destiny of mankind is the topic of this scroll.

Note that it is sealed with seven seals. In Roman society, legal wills were sealed with seven seals (noted by everyone from Walvood to Beale). The imagery suggests that, like in Roman times, once the will was opened two things would happen 1. The will would be executed and 2. The time for waiting to see the contents of the will would be at a conclusion.

In terms of this imagery and the idea of the sealed will, many theologians see a clear reference to Daniel where twice the “sealing up” of a vision is mentioned:

The vision of the evenings and the mornings that has been told is true, but seal up the vision, for it refers to many days from now.” (Daniel 8:26)

But you, Daniel, shut up the words and seal the book, until the time of the end. Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall increase.” (Daniel 12:4)

I heard, but I did not understand. Then I said, “O my lord, what shall be the outcome of these things?” [9] He said, “Go your way, Daniel, for the words are shut up and sealed until the time of the end. (Daniel 12:8-9)

The passages in Daniel 12 were written in the third year of the reign of Cyrus the Great. The people were back in the land, rebuilding of the temple had commenced, and yet things weren’t as they should be. The future that the prophets had promised with so much enthusiasm didn’t seem to be so glorious – at least not yet. It was a slow process – much like our own day, we wonder “when will Jesus come back and restore the earth”, well they likely wondered “when will the glory of Jerusalem return in the way prophesied? When will the line of David be restored to the throne?”[i]

Some see Isaiah 29 (verses 11-12 are instructive) as a background thought here as well. Consequently, Is. 29 is a parallel passage to some of Isaiah 6 – the portion that speaks of the people essentially not having ears to hear the word of God. The idea is that God has sealed the truth of this Revelation until the right time – the time of Jesus’ ministry. Thus, God has now allowed John to see and proclaim what Daniel was told to seal up, and what Isaiah bemoaned would never be seen or heard by the Israelites in his day because of their hardness of heart.[ii]

There is a possibility that the meaning of the scroll having been written on front and back has to do with 1. The fullness/completeness of the message and 2. The fact that when something was written front and back it was therefore not completely sealed off from all knowledge content-wise. That is to say that there was a portion of God’s revelation that was readable – some make the connection between this and the fact that Daniel (for instance) had to know what God had in mind, even if he didn’t share it with others. So in some sense at least one from among men knew God’s plan prior to the seal being opened. I’m not entirely sure how strong of an observation this is, but it made some sense in my mind – some of this is predicated upon the imagery of a scroll and not a codex being what is intended, I suppose.

5:2-4 And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” [3] And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it, [4] and I began to weep loudly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it.

Now I always found this interesting. Why would John be weeping about the scroll not being opened? It wasn’t until I put some study into this and realized that the scroll contains the future plans of God for both judgment and redemption that I began to understand the angst of the apostle.

Hermeneutical side note: If we are reading this literalistically, we’d get tripped up by the phrase “And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it.” Would not our immediate conclusion be that no one – including Jesus – was able to do this? The right way to read this is as a generalization/hyperbole on John’s part. We actually use this kind of language all the time. We say, “no one understands my point of view” or “no one on earth is good enough to marry my daughter” and so forth. When we don’t mean that not ever single person, rather it is a generalization and one that is usually limited to our own awareness of the situation. Now, no one that I have read from any camp sees this as an issue, but that’s because they don’t apply their own hermeneutic to it! Therefore we must be consistent in our understanding of grammar and literary forms and structures.

So why is John so upset? Because no one can open the scroll, which is tantamount to saying that all of God’s plans for the future of the world cannot be achieved. Sinners who hate God and His children will go on persecuting them, and Christians will never be united to their Savior. This would indeed be a sad state of affairs.

Beale helpfully comments:

Once the seals are opened, the readers can understand the decretive nature of the book and, therefore, the purpose of history. They can discern that even their “sufferings are according to the will of God” and can be comforted by “entrusting their souls to him,” since he employs suffering to “perfect, confirm, strengthen, and establish” them (1 Peter 4:19, 5:10). Despite the chaos and confusion of the world, there is an ordered eschatological plan, which cannot be thwarted and is, indeed, already being fulfilled.”[iii]

Lastly, just note the worldwide nature of the situation here. In the Isaiah 29 background, the author was speaking more specifically to the house of Israel, but Daniel 12 speaks to the entire world and deals with the consummation of world history. That isn’t to say that John didn’t have the Isaianic text in mind, but I point it out so that we can understand the contexts of each passage – only then are we able to see how they are transformed across the canon. But again, it is notable (according to Beale and others) that when you have read Daniel 7 and 12 you begin to see that the plans God has in this scroll are universal in nature. So there seems to be a specific aim in the Daniel passages that finding its teleos in Christ and is aimed at prophesying what John is seeing here, whereas the Isaianic passage had perhaps a dual role 1. To be fulfilled in their time by the invasion of Babylon and the captivity due to Israel’s disobedience and 2. To find even greater fulfillment in Christ in that it anticipates a day when One will come who will unseal the mysteries of God – not on the basis of the righteousness (or lack there of) of the people, but on His own righteousness and worthiness. He will soften the hardness of human hearts by supernatural work of the Spirit in the setting of a new covenant.[iv]

5:5-6 And one of the elders said to me, “Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” [6] And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth.

The elders end the weeping of John by pointing to the Lion of the tribe of Judah. In here there is a mini-Biblical theology of the conquering of Jesus. The key here is to think of the central idea of the conquering of Jesus. It begins with Genesis 49 as the background:

Judah is a lion’s cub; from the prey, my son, you have gone up. He stooped down; he crouched as a lion and as a lioness; who dares rouse him? [10] The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until tribute comes to him; and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples. (Genesis 49:9-10)

Jesus is the seed of the woman who has sprouted from the tribe of Judah. This is then picked up in the prophets who call him the “root of David”

There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. (Isaiah 11:1)

And…

In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious. (Isaiah 11:10)

Then of course the text we all are familiar with from Isaiah is it pertains to the Lamb:

Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. [5] But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. [6] All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. [7] He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth. (Isaiah 53:4-7)

Jeremiah combines the image of the tree branch and the lamb:

But I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter. I did not know it was against me they devised schemes, saying, “Let us destroy the tree with its fruit, let us cut him off from the land of the living, that his name be remembered no more.” (Jeremiah 11:19)

And…

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. (Jeremiah 23:5)[v]

And the very last prophet in a long line of OT prophets, John the Baptist finally beholds the Lord incarnate and proclaims what we now have come to call the Angus Dei:

The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! (John 1:29)

All of these images are meant to bring to our minds the plotline of the Bible. God is in control of history and is moving it to a conclusion which centers around His Son. And His Son is worthy because of the redemption He achieved. Ironically, He died in order to live. He lost physically in order to conquer spiritually.

The atonement motif is especially vivid here, with the bloody sacrifice being portrayed in the imagery of the lamb.

It’s worth noting that the word “slain” here is in the perfect participle. So that in this sense He “continues to exist as a slaughtered Lamb” which “expresses an abiding condition as a results of the past act of being slain” (Beale).

Because of all of these things, and the great victory He has achieved on the cross, Jesus is worthy to execute and handle all of the events of judgment and redemption bound up in the scroll.

Horns and Eyes

Finally, the imagery here suggests characteristics which can only be appropriated to the Deity. The lamb is said to have 7 eyes and 7 horns. The 7 eyes are the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is the Member of the Trinity who appropriates the work of God’s redemption to individuals on earth. Jesus’ victory is appropriated to individuals, and that happens through spiritual renewal, through new spiritual life, the application of which comes from the Holy Spirit who is said to have fullness of knowledge – the 7 indicates fullness, and the eyes indicate the full knowledge of God.

When King Asa has relied on the Syrian king for help instead of God, a prophet told him this: “For the eyes of the LORD run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to give strong support to those whose heart is blameless toward him. You have done foolishly in this, for from now on you will have wars.” (2 Chronicles 16:9)

The point is that nothing is hidden from the eye of God. God’s eyes search the earth and He knows all. As it relates to the lamb who was slain, and there is an obvious redemptive tie. The Spirit only applies redemption to those whom God has foreordained to that end. Revelation knows nothing of man’s “free will” in matters of salvation or escape from judgment.

The horns on the lamb are indications of power – the fullness of power. This is OT imagery. A few examples should suffice.

When Moses blessed the tribe of Joseph he said:

A firstborn bull—he has majesty, and his horns are the horns of a wild ox; with them he shall gore the peoples, all of them, to the ends of the earth; they are the ten thousands of Ephraim, and they are the thousands of Manasseh.” (Deuteronomy 33:17)

When Ahab sought advice from prophets as to whether he’d be victorious in battle, we read of one prophet saying this:

And Zedekiah the son of Chenaanah made for himself horns of iron and said, “Thus says the LORD, ‘With these you shall push the Syrians until they are destroyed.’” (1 Kings 22:11)

The Psalmists says…

For you are the glory of their strength; by your favor our horn is exalted. (Psalm 89:17)

Of course the passages in Daniel 7 and 8 are replete with examples of this as well.

Summary of vss. 1-6

As the hymn says, “what shall we say to these great thing? To mysteries sublime, for if he is with us we can sing, now and for all time!”[vi]

Beale has two pages of wonderful conclusionary statements on these verses, but here is one of my favorite parts in which he is discussing the prominence of the “lamb” motif in this passage. What he is noticing is that Revelation 4 and 5 are parallel to Daniel 7, but the main difference seems to be that John substitutes the “son of man” title in these chapters for “lamb of God.” This is his conclusion:

…John is attempting to emphasize that it was in an ironic manner that Jesus began to fulfill the OT prophecies of the Messiah’s kingdom. Wherever the OT predicts the Messiah’s final victory and reign, John’s readers are to realize that these goals can begin to be achieved only by the suffering of the cross. That this is the intention of the juxtaposition of “Lion” and “Lamb” in 5:5-6 is discernible from the pattern elsewhere in the book: visions are placed directly after heavenly sayings in order to interpret them.[vii]

How does this apply to us? Beale says:

Consequently, the Lion conquers initially by suffering as a slain lamb. This juxtaposition implies that, in their struggle against the world, believers should remember that Christ also suffered at the hands of the world but triumphed over it. His destiny is to be theirs, if the persevere.[viii]

So there are two things I’d say that really impressed upon me as I studied this passage. 1. The imagery used here is meant to bring to mind the words and promises of God. All that was bound up in the Pentateuch was picked up and interpreted by the prophets, and found its “amen” in Christ the lamb who was slain. And 2. Because of His intercessory atoning work on our behalf, our sins have been forgiven, and because we have been united to Him through the baptism of the Spirit (Rom. 6), we share in His destiny – which we’ll see in chapters 6 onward is a good thing.

So often we hear the secular liberals of our time saying “you Christians are going to be on the wrong side of history” with regards to gay marriage or other social issues. But from what we read here, we’re on the right side of history. Our futures are tied to the one who has control over the future, and that is a very comforting thought indeed.

5:7 And he went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne.

Just another hermeneutical side note: we must not press imagery too far inter literalistic oblivion. For example, if everything must be exactly literal, then how in the world are we to picture a slain lamb (that was supposed to be a Lion) handling a scroll? Last time I looked lambs have hooves, which make it rather difficult for them to clutch parchment. You see my meaning.

Now the idea of the image here is that the lamb is approaching the throne of the Father and is taking the scroll from his hand. This image really conveys a boldness that only one with the right to be there would have. I don’t want to blow this too far out of proportion, but if I were to ever enter the throne room of Queen Elizabeth, I might stand there on the sideline as a spectator, but I wouldn’t have the right or position to approach the throne. But the Lamb in this picture does just that. He approaches and takes the scroll, because He Himself is royalty, and because He is worthy to do so.

In this picture we see the authority of the conquering Christ. He reaches out and grabs the scroll, thereby taking charge of world history. He alone decides the fates of men, and is the only name by which any man may be saved.

Footnotes

[i] My thoughts on this passage were formed in part by E.J. Young and Ian Duguid’s commentaries on Daniel12.

[ii] Admittedly Beale says that Is. 29 forms more of a background, but I can tell that he wants to have the parallel made. I see a real connection there between God’s providence over the progressive revelation of His plan and the hardness of man’s hearts. But I am not an OT scholar.

[iii] Beale, longer commentary, Pg. 342.

[iv] Alex Motyer’s commentary on Isaiah has proven somewhat helpful here in understanding the background of this passage. Is. 29 really parallels Is. 6 post-call of Isaiah. In that passage the people are said to have ears that won’t hear and feet that won’t obey etc. And that Isaiah is being sent to them even though they won’t listen because they have hardened hearts. It is a mission of judgment, one might say. So even though these passages don’t form a direct prediction-to-fulfillment in the same way Daniel 12 does, they do provide the background against which the plotline is unfolding. And they (Is. 29 verses) give us an understanding for a fuller context in which the sealing up of God’s plans for His people was occurring. His people weren’t ready for the unsealing of His promises. And the world wasn’t ready either. Only when Christ came did these plans get really inaugurated – as Churchill once stated about a turning point in WWII, it wasn’t the beginning of the end, but only the end of the beginning. I don’t know if that is precisely accurate here, but Christ did inaugurate a new covenant with major consequences for humanity, solving a lot of the issues that Is. 29 was bemoaning (people’s hardness of heart + one worthy to bring God’s promises to consummation). That’s a long way around explaining some of the background thought that is built in to these images.

[v] Zechariah also says, “Hear now, O Joshua the high priest, you and your friends who sit before you, for they are men who are a sign: behold, I will bring my servant the Branch” (Zechariah 3:8).

[vi] These Great Things, a hymn from ‘Glory to the Holy One’ by R.C. Sproul and Jeff. L.

[vii] Beale, longer commentary, pg. 353.

[viii] Beale, longer commentary, pg. 353.

Revelation: An Introduction Part I

This week I have started a study on Sunday mornings in the book of Revelation.  For the first few weeks we’ll be examining the overall picture of the book, and covering some introductory themes.  Below is part 1 of that introduction – I hope you enjoy!

PJW

Introduction and Overview to the Book

Why Study Revelation? 

Revelation can be intimidating. It has taken me several years just to get up the courage to study through it and teach it. Many commentators also note in their respective prefaces how difficult it was to get around to doing this study as well. Pastor Voddie Baucham says that when surveyed, a large denomination of Christians said that Revelation was the book they most wanted to hear preached. That same survey found it was the bottom of the list of books Pastors most wanted to preach![i]

The word “Revelation” or “Apocolypse” holds negative, even scary connotations in our society today. As Warren Wiersbe writes:

The word translated “revelation” simply means “unveiling.” It gives us our English word apocalypse which, unfortunately, is today a synonym for chaos and catastrophe. The verb simply means “to uncover, to reveal, to make manifest.” In this book, the Holy Spirit pulls back the curtain and gives us the privilege of seeing the glorified Christ in heaven and the fulfillment of His sovereign purposes in the world.[ii]

But I have found that in my studies thus far, it is a book that provides great blessing and perspective which can enable a Christian to persevere, and adore Christ above all other things. In fact, those are the two things that I believe makeup the two main themes of the book: Christ’s reign and ultimate victory, and our ultimate triumph with him. The second part – our eventual triumph – is the reality for which we have been called to endure. Therefore the majestic reign of Christ and the call to persevere under tribulation make up the main nexus of John’s writing.

The majestic reign of Christ and His overall splendor permeates the book. He is the Lord of history, the Lord of man and of all created things. The high Christology of Revelation is evident from the first chapter:

…and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. 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, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength. When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying, “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. (Revelation 1:13-18)

He is the first and the last, and the one who is “alive forevermore.” His power and His majesty are evident to all who read the book. No longer are we limited to the motif of the suffering servant, or the profound teachings of the Great Rabboni. Now we are afforded a peak, a glimpse, a view into the fuller person and majesty of Jesus Christ.

Revelation helps us understand the profundity of His cross work, and finality of His sacrifice. It helps us understand that He is sovereign over all things, including time and creation.

I really like what Warren Wiersbe has to say about the proper approach to the book: “When Daniel and John received God’s revelations of the future, both fell down as dead men (Dan. 10:7-10; Rev. 1:17). They were overwhelmed! We need to approach this book as wonderers and worshippers, not as academic students.”

But it is also a book about the saints who are called to endure. William Hendriksen says, “In the main, the purpose of the book of Revelation is to comfort the militant Church in its struggle against the forces of evil.”[iii]

Followers of the Lamb are to endure until He comes again – that second coming is our great hope. As Hendriksen so beautifully opines:

As we think of the glorious hope of the second coming, our hearts are filled with joy; our souls are consumed with a breathless impatience; our eyes attempt to pierce the dark clouds which veil the future, hoping that the glorious descent of the Son of man may burst upon the view. It is a longing which gushes into word: “And the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And he that hears, let him say, Come” (22:17).[iv]

John MacArthur points out that this is the only book in the Bible that begins and ends with a blessing. And Doug Kelley puts his finger on the reason I decided to study this book, namely the blessings/benedictions ascribed to those who would take the time to study it.

Kelly splits these into promises and blessings. The benedictions (blessings):[v]

Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near. (Revelation 1:3)

And I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Blessed indeed,” says the Spirit, “that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!” (Revelation 14:13)

(“Behold, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake, keeping his garments on, that he may not go about naked and be seen exposed!”) (Revelation 16:15)

And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” And he said to me, “These are the true words of God.” (Revelation 19:9)

Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years. (Revelation 20:6)

“And behold, I am coming soon. Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book.” (Revelation 22:7)

Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates. (Revelation 22:14)

Here are the promises to the saints that Kelly lists:[vi]

  1. God sees their tears (7:17; 21:4)
  2. Their prayers are heard and used to rule the world (8:3-4)
  3. Their death or suffering leads to glory (14:13; 20:4)
  4. Their final victory is assured (15:2)
  5. Their blood will be avenged (6:9; 8:3)
  6. Their Christ lives and reigns forever and is victorious in time and eternity (5:7-8; 21:22)

Clearly this gives us ample motivation to study this wonderful book!

Who wrote this Book?

Most every scholar and theologian believes that the book was written by the apostle John – the one who wrote the gospel of John, and the three epistles named for him. Some hold that perhaps another John wrote the book – a late 1st century prophet with the same name, perhaps. But G.K. Beale (who believes the apostle John is the likely author) says this, “The issue is not important to settle since it does not affect the message of the book. Regardless of which John wrote, the author of the book identifies himself as a prophet (parenthetical references). Therefore, it is probably that John should be socially identified with a group of early Christian itinerant prophets.”[vii] 

William Hendriksen thinks that the evidence for another John having written this book is particularly weak. For instance, he points out, “Surely the very fact that the author of the Apocalypse merely calls himself John indicates that he was very well known, not only in one particular locality but throughout the churches of Asia.”[viii]

Now, there are certainly different styles of grammar and writing between the Gospel of John and the Revelation of John – some say this is enough to believe another man wrote the book. But conservative scholars are not so sure. There are some differences, but there are also many similarities. Hendriksen says, “The similarities are striking. They are to be found even in peculiar grammatical constructions and in characteristic expressions.” His comparative similarities are as follows (for those who want to look them up):[ix]

John 3:36 and Revelation 22:17
John 10:18 and Revelation 2:27
John 20:12 and Revelation 3:4
John 1:1 and Revelation 19:13
John 1:29 and Revelation 5:6 
 

Some of these comparisons are more obvious, others less so. But there are many other similarities. The gospel calls Jesus the “Lamb of God” and the “Logos” and so does Revelation – these are words and phrases that make John’s gospel unique, and here we find the phrase “Lamb of God” used 29 times in Revelation.

Of course the similarities don’t stop with grammar and phraseology. The doctrine is the same in both books. The sovereignty of God, the pre-temporal nature of Christ, the conquering power of the blood of Jesus all form major doctrinal similarities between books.

I especially like the way in which John describes Jesus as pre-temporal in both books. Here are a few examples:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. [2] He was in the beginning with God. [3] All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. (John 1:1-3)

So the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” [58] Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” (John 8:57-58)

I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” (Revelation 22:13) 

When was this Book Written?

It is hard to overestimate the importance of discerning when this book of Revelation was written. The reason being that if the book was written prior to A.D. 70, then scholars have reason for believing that some of the things written herein refer to the events that occurred in that fateful year when the Romans destroyed the city of Jerusalem, and the great Herodian (2nd) temple complex.

G.K. Beale has done a nice job compiling the different historical arguments for both viewpoints, and is worth quoting his summation here below:

The difference of dating could alter the interpretation of the book, since the occasion prompting John to write might be different in each case. The early date is especially important for those viewing the main intention of the book as prophecy of the imminent destruction of Jerusalem: interpreters who hold to the early date generally understand the book primarily as a polemic against apostate Jewish faith. And the early date places many of the book’s descriptions of persecution against the background of Nero’s oppression of Christians in 65 (A.D.).

But if the book was written in the nineties, then it was occasioned by the situation of Christians living under the reign of Domitian, a situation that itself is an issue of debate. The majority maintaining a late date have viewed Domitian as a persecutor of Christians, though a few others recently have viewed his reign in more benevolent terms.

One can in fact affirm the early date or the late date without the main interpretative approach being affected. Under either dating position the book could be understood as a polemic against Rome and especially against compromise with ungodly Roman culture. The early date allows for an anti-Jerusalem focus, but does not demand it.

There are no single arguments that point clearly to the early or the late date. The early date could be right, but the cumulative weight of evidence points to the late date.[x]

Those who are partial (or full) preterists rely on the early date because they see these events in 65 and especially in 70 AD as fulfilling the prophecies of John’s apocalypse. Full preterists even believe the Jesus Himself came back in 70 AD!

I believe the latter date is more likely simply from my own study of church history this past year in seminary. The persecution under Nero was very localized to Rome, and the rest of the church really didn’t feel the pressures as much.

Furthermore, as Beale and others point out, when Pliny (a magistrate/governor of Rome) was trying to figure out what to do with Christians in 113 AD he wrote to Emperor Trajan as there seemed to be no previous law code or judicial or military precedent as to how to deal with them.[xi] 

Furthermore, John uses the term “Babylon” throughout the book, and while some see this as a sort of symbolic name for the “apostate Jerusalem”, Beale rightly (I believe) notes, “John’s use of the name may be the strongest internal evidence for a post-70 date. ‘Babylon refers to Rome in Jewish literature after 70 A.D. and roughly contemporary with the Apocalypse. Jewish commentators called Rome ‘Babylon’ because the Roman armies destroyed Jerusalem and its temple in 70 A.D., just as Babylon had done in the sixth century B.C. This use of the name probably influenced John, as did other Jewish traditions.”[xii]

Lastly, it is the testimony of very early Christian authors that this book was written at a later date. Irenaeus, Victorinus, Eusebius, Origen, and possibly Clement of Alexandria as well all believed the book to be written post 70 A.D.[xiii]

Irenaeus’ writings are especially important. In discussing the antichrist’s identify he wrote that, “We will not, however incur the risk of pronouncing positively as to the name of the Antichrist; if it were necessary that his name should be distinctly revealed in this present time, it would have been announced by him (John) who beheld the Apocalypse. For it was seen not very long ago, but almost in our day, toward the end of Domitian’s reign.”

This is very hard to refute for early daters no matter how much they try and re-translate or offer new ideas about what Ireneaus clearly spoke.

Early daters mention a number of arguments in their favor, from the mention of the “seven mountains” in 17:9, which are supposed to be seven kings of Rome, to the calculation of the number 666 as meaning Nero in the gematria, to Babylon (which we’ve already mentioned). Beale goes through each argument (and several more) and I really don’t find the weight of these arguments convincing.

Therefore, while either date might be correct, it seems like the weight of both the historical and internal arguments on behalf of a later date rule the day.

The Importance of Hermeneutics

It is so important that before we begin our study in this book that we have an understanding of how to interpret what we’re reading. The book of Revelation is classified as what theologians call “apocalyptic literature”, which means that the genre of this writing is not poetry, historical narrative, or epistolary – though it has some elements of the latter form.

R.C. Sproul explains this very well, and its worth quoting him at length here:

The basic principle of biblical interpretation established by the Reformers was literal interpretation, sensus literalis, which means that responsible interpreters of Scripture always interpret the Bible in the sense in which it was written. Poetic literature should be interpreted as poetry, didactic literature should be interpreted as didactic, and so on. A verb remains a verb, a noun remains a noun, a simile is a simile, and a metaphor is a metaphor.

Conversely, the style of interpretation called “literalism” involves applying a wooden interpretation, which does not work well for poetic literature. For example, when the psalmist says that the rivers clap their hands (98:8), we do not take that to mean that rivers somehow grow hands and begin clapping. We do not interpret such poetic images in an overly literalistic way.

When it comes to interpreting prophetic literature, the question is whether the language is figurative or ordinary prose, and there is widespread disagreement about that. Some believe that we must interpret the prophecies of the future literally in order to be faithful to the Bible, but that can lead us in circles.[xiv]

Revelation is a book will need to be interpreted differently than, say, the book of Genesis. We will encounter all manner of symbols, numbers, and visual descriptions that will leave us in awe – and perhaps a little confused, especially if we take the wrong approach to the book. Dennis Johnson rightly says, “The strength of symbolism is vividness, for often a picture is worth a thousand words. The challenge of symbolism, however, is its ambiguity.”[xv]

…to be continued…

Footnotes

[i] Voddie Baucham: http://www.gracefamilybaptist.net/sermons/2012-05-introduction-revelation/

[ii] Warren Wiersbe, Commentary on the New Testament (The David Cook two volume set), Revelation, Pg. 1036.

[iii] William Hendriksen, ‘More Than Conquerors: An Interpretation of the Book of Revelation’, Pg. 7.

[iv] Hendriksen, Pg. 8

[v] Douglas F. Kelly, Revelation, A mentor expository commentary, Pg. 21

[vi] Kelly, Pg. 21

[vii] From G.K. Beale’s commentary on Revelation, Pg.’s 35-36

[viii] Hendriksen, Pg. 12

[ix] Hendriksen, Pg. 12 – carries on the discussion onto page 13 as well, and really provides some helpful comparative verses here. Shockingly, he leaves out John 8 which I cite above (it’s one of my favorite examples of Jesus’ pre-temporal existence).

[x] G.K. Beale, The Book of Revelation, Commentary, Pg. 4

[xi] Beale, Pg. 5

[xii] Beale, Pg.’s 18-19

[xiii] Beale, Pg. 19

[xiv] R.C. Sproul, ‘Everyone’s A Theologian;, Pg.’s 310-311

[xv] Johnson’s commentary on Revelation is called, ‘Triumph of the Lamb’ and this quote is found on page 10.