Whenever there is a cataclysmic global crisis—be it war, rumors of war, or a novel coronavirus—we see a sharp uptick of interest in the book of Revelation. While paying attention to the Bible is always a good thing, Revelation is too often used (by Christians and non-Christians) in a way that does less to edify the body of Christ and more to stoke the fires of wild speculation and unfounded conspiracy theories.
It may be helpful, then, to understand what kind of book Revelation is and how to make sense of imagery like the mark of the beast. We’ll get to the mark of the beast in the third and final installment of this short series. But before we get there I want to take a couple posts to look at what Revelation is all about and how we should interpret this not-as-strange-as-it-seems book.
Probably no book of the Bible has been harder for Christians to understand and, as a result, produced more bizarre theology than the book of Revelation. Although it is called “revelation,” it has been anything but a revelation for many Christians. It is a closed book for many of us, not correcting, not teaching, not rebuking, not training in righteousness like all Scripture should.
I remember teaching through part of Revelation for a Sunday school class several years ago and telling my mom about it over the phone. She said something like, “Kevin, you’re not going act like you have everything figured out are you? John Calvin didn’t even write a commentary on Revelation. You don’t know more than John Calvin, do you?” It is true that Calvin did not write a commentary on Revelation (one of the few books he didn’t write on), and it’s true that I don’t have everything figured out. But most of Revelation can be understood and applied if we will take the time to study it.
In fact, the entire book of Revelation can be summed up in one word: nike. Nike is the Greek word for victory. It occurs one time in the New Testament—1 John 5:4 states, “This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith.” Another form of the word (nikos) appears four other times, three times in 1 Corinthians 15 (e.g., “Death has been swallowed up in victory;” “He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ”). The verb form, nikao (meaning to conquer, to overcome, to triumph), occurs more frequently—28 times. Seventeen of those occurrences, more than in the rest of the New Testament combined, are in Revelation.
Revelation is the story of the Devil trying to conquer the church, but the church overcomes the Devil and the world because she belongs to the Lord who has won for us the victory (Rev. 5:5; 17:14). The book of Revelation gives instruction for the believer on how to conquer instead of being conquered, how to triumph instead of being trampled, and how to be an overcomer instead of a succumber. That’s why each of the seven letters to the seven churches concludes with “to the one who conquers . . .” If we cave and give in to persecution and give into worldliness and give into the Devil’s temptations, we will lose. But if we overcome through trial and suffering and seeming irrelevance, we will win (Rev. 21:6-7). That’s where history is heading, and that’s the big idea of Revelation.
(Possible) Map for the (Seeming) Madness
There is no one inspired way to understand the structure of Revelation. When studying this book in-depth several years ago, I found 11 different outlines, which suggests there probably isn’t one obvious structure we’re supposed to see.
One simple approach is to see Revelation as divided into two main sections. Chapters 1-11 introduce the story of God’s triumph, and chapters 12-22 explain the story in greater detail, this time unveiling in more depth the role of evil through the beast, the false prophet, and the whore of Babylon.
Another way of approaching the book is to divide it into four main sections, each marked off by the phrase “what must soon take place” or “what must take place after this.”
Rev. 1:1 The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants the things that must soon take place.
Rev. 1:19 Write therefore the things that you have seen, those that are and those that are to take place after this.
Rev. 4:1 “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.”
Rev. 22:6 “And the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, has sent his angel to show his servants what must soon take place.”
The language in these four passages comes from Daniel 2 and indicates that Old Testament prophecy is already and not yet completed in Revelation.
There’s another way to outline the book into four main sections. This approach marks out the times John says he was caught up in the Spirit.
Rev. 1:10 I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet.
Rev. 4:2 At once I was in the Spirit, and behold, a throne stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne.
Rev. 17:3 And he carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness.
Rev. 21:10 And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God.
By this reckoning, Revelation consists of four main visions that John saw while he was in the Spirit on four different occasions.
Yet one more way of approaching the book—and the approaches are not mutually exclusive—is to look for sets of sevens. Everyone recognizes that seven is a crucial number in Revelation, and that there are at least four sets of sevens: seven letters, seven seals, seven trumpets, and seven bowls. This much everyone agrees on. But from here things get less clear. Since there are plainly at least four sets of sevens, many scholars have wondered if we are meant to see seven sets of sevens. I am convinced there are seven sets of sevens, but I certainly wouldn’t be dogmatic about it. My outline, which is similar to outlines I’ve seen from others, looks like this:
I. Seven letters: 1:9-3:22
II. Seven seals: 4:1-8:5
III. Seven trumpets: 8:6-11:19
IV. Seven visions: 12:1-15:4
V. Seven bowls: 15:5-16:21
VI. Seven judgments: 17:1-19:10
VII. Seven last things: 19:11-21:8
VIII. The beautiful bride: 21:9-22:21
You’ll notice there is an eighth section that is not a set of seven. An eighth section makes sense because eight is often the number of new creation in the Bible (Jesus rose on the eighth day/first day of a new week, eight people started the new humanity after the flood, sons were to be circumcised on the eighth day), and this eighth section is about the new heavens and new earth. But there is nothing inspired about the outline above. It’s just one way of making the book more manageable and putting together some possible patterns with some obvious ones.
Our Interpretive Lens
The last thing I want to do in this post is look at the various ways Christians have understood Revelation. There are four main schools of thought.
The first school of interpretation is called preterism. The preterist approach teaches that a large portion of the book of Revelation was fulfilled in the first century, specifically in the destruction of the temple in AD 70. Further, most of the prophecies in Revelation were fulfilled by the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century.
The strength of the preterist school is that it puts Revelation in its original context. Revelation was written to first-century Christians with first-century metaphors and imagery and referents. If we jump to the 21st century and ask, “What does this mean for me?,” we will almost surely get the wrong answer. We have to first ask, “What did this mean to them, to John’s original audience?”
Preterism is not without weaknesses. First, some preterists try to find a single, specific fulfillment to the prophecies of Revelation when it seems more likely that John’s visions often portray generalized spiritual battles and struggles that occur throughout the ages. Second, full-blown preterists argue that all of the end-time events, like the second coming and the last judgment, actually were fulfilled by AD 70. This does not seem in keeping with the cataclysmic language used at the end of each sequence.
The second school of interpretation is called historicism. The historicist reads Revelation as a straightforward, sequential roadmap of history. Revelation is seen as predicting any number of key historical figures and events from Napoleon to Hitler to the European Union to the United Nations.
The strength of historicism is that it makes Revelation relevant for all Christians. It focuses our attention not on the fall of the temple or on the Roman Empire but on the way of the church in the world.
But besides this strong point, historicism is the worst way to try to understand Revelation. It is full of weaknesses. Let me quickly mention just four.
First, historicism is often anachronistic and takes Revelation out of its original context. I am thinking of those who argued that the country out of the north (from Daniel, not Revelation) must be Russia, or that the locust swarm from Revelation 9 is foretelling a helicopter battalion. These sorts of interpretations completely ignore the imagery of ancient prophecy and the context of the first century.
Second, historicism, with its end-of-the-world predictions and identifications of the beast, has often been demonstrably wrong. During the cold war, people saw Russia in Revelation. A decade ago they saw Iraq. Now they see the coronavirus. In a few years, they will be on to something else. Historicists tend to see Revelation being fulfilled in whatever crisis is pertinent for the day. And then on another day, another group of historicists see that view was wrong and find something completely different.
Third, historicism limits the prophecies of Revelation to one exclusive location or personality instead of allowing that the imagery of Revelation may be well suited to an inclusive number of different figures and times. That is, I think historicists are right to see Revelation unfolding in history, but they are wrong to think that Revelation is uniquely unfolding in one historical moment.
Fourth, historicism is irreducibly subjective. There is simply no objective standard of interpretation. Who’s to say that Hitler was more the beast than Stalin? Or that 666 is a reference to Bill Clinton (as one website I found argues)? Or, as another article maintains, that Ronald Wilson Reagan (six letters in each of his names!) was the beast? It’s all hopelessly subjective. The text ends up saying anything we want it to.
The third school of interpretation is futurism. The futurist reads Revelation (chs. 4-22) as a prophecy solely concerned with the distant future. The events depicted refer to the time involving, or immediately preceding, the end of history. Dispensationalists are futurists (though not all futurists are dispensationalists).
The strength of futurism is that it emphasizes how Revelation speaks to the future, not just about the past. Futurism is right to see that some things in Revelation deal with the final consummation of human history. Futurists are also right to see that the future is moving somewhere, toward the triumph of the Lamb.
But futurism also has weaknesses.
First, if Revelation 4-22 is entirely and only about the distant future, then most of Revelation was barely relevant to its original readers. Sure, it would have helped them see the end of the world, but it really spoke little into their immediate context (when John says Revelation revealed “what must soon take place”).
Second, futurism often assumes a strict sequential chronology. And yet, we cannot assume that what is shown to us in chapter 12 comes in time after what we see in chapter 6. To the contrary, one of the keys to interpreting Revelation is to understand that its visions are recapitulated. So, Revelation gives us a sweep through history in the seven seals, and then does the sweep again in the seven bowls. Revelation comprises overlapping prophecies that go back and forth between the present and the future and are not strictly chronological.
Don’t think of the visions of Revelation as frames from a movie reel running through the light one after the other. Think of the visions as portraits in a gallery. You look at one portrait and get a glimpse of reality, and then you look at the next portrait, and then you walk over to the next room and look at the portraits over there. They are pictures telling the same story and pointing to the same reality, but they aren’t sequential clips from a movie.
The fourth school of interpretation is idealism. The idealist reads Revelation as a symbolic conflict between the forces of good and evil. Revelation, idealists argue, does not point to particular historical figures but depicts the timeless struggle between God and Satan. It interprets Revelation as a series of repeated symbolic pictures, focusing on the church’s triumphant struggle from the first century until the last judgment and the eternal state.
The strength of idealism is that is understands the symbolic nature of Revelation. It realizes that Revelation’s imagery is rooted first in Old Testament language and second in the known world of the first century. The other strength is that it sees behind the first-century context deeper spiritual realities that would outlive and transcend ancient Rome and remain relevant for believers throughout the ages.
The weakness of idealism is that it can at times under-emphasize the fact that all of history is moving somewhere. That is, idealism sometimes sounds vague, as if there were no end point in history as we know it, as if Revelation was just about the struggle between good and evil and not also about the ultimate triumph of Jesus Christ.
Interpret the Book
So what approach do I think helps us best understand Revelation? I think each approach offers something needed. This doesn’t mean that I think every approach is good or that one is not better than another (I’m basically an idealist with a partial preterist bent). But each school of interpretation does offer something important.
With the preterist, we must read Revelation in its immediate context.
With the idealist, we must look at Revelation as a symbolic portrayal of God’s work, most of which can be applied to any historical time.
With the futurist, we must read Revelation with end of history in mind, recognizing that the book depicts, in parts, the second coming, the final judgment, and the eternal state.
And with the historicist, we must understand that the prophecies of Revelation, though they are not limited to one particular occurrence, are fulfilled in time and space.
The best way to defend one’s interpretive grid is to actually interpret the book. But since this is a three-part blog series and not a 50-part sermon series, we will have to settle for just one more post on the subject. In the first three verses, John makes clear that this book is an apocalypse, a prophecy, and a letter. Once we know what each of the terms entail, we will be better equipped to understand the book as a whole and specific imagery like the mark of the beast.