Preaching and Teaching Revelation: Interview with James Hamilton

What's the most difficult book in the Bible to preach? While opinions may vary, Revelation is sure to top many lists. The final book in the divine library, John's apocalyptic account is tough to understand—much less to preach. So what are believers and pastors to do? Many simply choose to ignore it lest they become too confused themselves or, God forbid, confuse others too.

But is this the wisest, most faithful approach? Enter James Hamilton's Revelation: The Spirit Speaks to the Churches, the latest installment in Crossway's Preaching the Word series, edited by R. Kent Hughes. The stated aim of this series is to produce commentaries “written by pastors for pastors, as well as for all who teach or study God's Word.” I corresponded with Hamilton, associate professor of biblical theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, about his expositional treatment of this notoriously difficult—yet altogether glorious—book.

What would you say to the pastor or Bible teacher who is hesitant to wade into Revelation because it feels so cryptic and daunting?

The rest of the Bible is just as cryptic and daunting if we see it with fresh eyes and really begin to understand it.

Of course there are unique challenges in books like Daniel, Zechariah, and Revelation, so I think my main encouragement would be that these books of the Bible deserve further study, consideration, and attention. The treasures most worth having are those that require most from the one who would attain them.

Keep reading these passages of the Bible. With that, maybe consider devoting a month or a season or a year to one of them for more intense study. Read and re-read Revelation over the course of that time, and supplement your own reading and study with lectures or sermons from trusted interpreters and/or reading books or articles that will help you see more of what is there.

God has more light to break from his most holy Word.  

How do we know whether the book of Revelation is presenting a sequential narrative or recapitulating the same story over and over again? 

I see both recapitulation and sequential progression. The arguments against certain sequences seem so strained that I think you have to be committed to the position beforehand to accept them. We should let the text tell us whether the author intends us to see recapitulation or progression. Let me give an example of each. Each of these is disputed, and each is very difficult. I'll try to be brief, and further exposition can be found in the book.

Along with other factors (such as the chiastic structure of the whole book, see GGSTJ, 544), the parallel statements in Revelation 11:7 and Revelation 13:7 lead me to think that Revelation 11:1–14 and Revelation 12:1–13:10 are complementary depictions of the same reality: the persecution of the church throughout the time of tribulation. (I’m convinced that John treats the tribulation as the whole of church history between the two comings of Christ, on which see also the table on the messianic woes in GGSTJ, 493.) Between these two pictures of the persecution of the church is the announcement that “the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ” in Revelation 11:15–19. This passage is the center of the book's chiastic structure, with matching elements on each side as you move out from it (see esp. ch. 15 in Revelation, which focuses on the structure and contents of Revelation 6–16). 

In contrast with these complementary pictures of the same reality, John seems to intend his audience to see a progression of events in Revelation 19:11–20:15. Jesus returns on the white horse and defeats his enemies (Rev 19:11–21). The beast and false prophet are not killed but thrown alive into the lake of fire, John noting that they had deceived those who received the mark of the beast back in Revelation 13:16–18 (19:20). Then Satan is seized, bound, and thrown alone into a pit so that he can't deceive the nations for a thousand years (20:1–3). We know the deception in view is the deception depicted back in Revelation 11–13 because again there is a reference to the mark of the beast John described in 13:16–18 (20:4). There is also a clear progression in the resurrections—first those martyred in the persecution of Revelation 11–13 are raised from the dead (cf. again their refusal to receive the mark of the beast in 20:4 with 13:16–18, and note how they have already been depicted as alive in heaven in 15:2), then they reign for a thousand years (20:4, cf. 5:10 where they will reign on earth), and then after the thousand years the rest of the dead are raised (20:4–6). After the thousand years Satan is released and again deceives the nations (20:7–10). He is defeated and “thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were” (20:10).

First the beast and false prophet were thrown into that lake of fire in 19:20, with Satan then locked in the pit for a thousand years in 20:1–6. Then Satan is thrown into that lake of fire after the thousand years, and John notes that the beast and false prophet were already there in 20:10. The conclusion that John means to communicate progression here seems inescapable.

I would add that the details between Revelation 12 and 20 are too different for these chapters to be seen as describing the same event (see table 22.1 in Revelation, 251, “Differences in Detail between Revelation 12:7–12 and 20:1–3), nor do Revelation 12 and 20 stand across from one another in the book's chiastic structure.

I think we can put together everything the book says to form a symbolic timeline in which there is progression across the book from Jesus taking the scroll in chapter 5, opening its seals in chapter 6, and the angel giving the scroll to John in Revelation 10 (matching Revelation 1:1, where God gave the revelation to Jesus who made it known by sending his angel to his servant John). There is also a symbolic progression from the church's tribulation through the return of Christ, the millennium, the final rebellion, and the last judgment on to the new heaven and new earth (see table 33.2 in Revelation, 371, “Revelation's Symbolic Timeline”).

Aren't things like dragons in chains symbolic? Why then would someone choose to interpret other parts of Revelation 20, such as the thousand years, in a literal manner? 

No question these things are symbolic, but the symbols are intended to communicate meaning.

We should interpret the symbols in light of each other. For instance, the dragon, the beast, and the false prophet seem to represent a false trinity in Revelation (cf. 12:17–13:18; 16:13). Jesus is a lamb standing as though slain in Revelation 5:6. He's not literally a woolly four-legged creature saying “baaa,” but he really did (literally) ransom people by his blood (Rev 5:9). Satan's wicked parody of the redemption Jesus accomplished is seen in the beast like a leopard with the mortal wound that is healed in Revelation 13:2. God has a lamb. Satan has a leopard. These symbolic realities communicate literal truths about God's redemptive mercy and Satan's ravenous malice.

Similarly, we can grant that the thousand years symbolize the golden age, perhaps alluding to the nearly thousand year lives of those who lived prior to the flood in Genesis 5. But we should also think about that thousand-year time period in light of other references to symbolic periods of time in Revelation. For instance, the “ten days” of tribulation the church in Smyrna faces in Revelation 2:10 probably isn't a reference to ten literal days, but it's a lot shorter period of time than a thousand years. There are many references to periods of time in Revelation (see table 33.1 in Revelation, 369, “References to Time in Revelation”), and we should interpret these symbolic references to time in light of each other.

Here's why the presence of symbols doesn't undermine historic premillennialism: in Revelation 11–13 the nations are being deceived by Satan, the beast, and the false prophet. This false trinity has a fake christ who has undergone a fake death and resurrection, and Satan's fake religion includes a fake sealing of the saints—the mark of the beast in Revelation 13:16–18 being Satan's cheap imitation of God's sealing of his servants in 7:1–3. Everyone but the elect worships Satan's fake christ (13:8), while those faithful to Jesus are slain (13:7, 10). After the return of Jesus, Satan's fake christ and his fake holy spirit are thrown into a lake of fire (19:20). Satan himself is sealed up in a pit so he can no longer deceive the nations (20:1–3). Meanwhile, those killed when he was deceiving the nations are raised from the dead and reign with Christ (20:4–6).

The point is that the persecution symbolically presented happening in one passage (Rev 12–13) is symbolically represented not happening in the other (Rev 20), and it would be wrong to conclude that since these things are depicted symbolically they are actually depicting the same thing.  

In your judgment, what's the biggest weakness of the historic premillenial position you espouse?

I think there are several weaknesses, and I would imagine that relative size is in the eye of the beholder. I list them in the order they occur to me, with a brief reply to each:

The very idea of the millennium can seem preposterous and unnecessary. Christ reigning physically on earth for a thousand years? We could say the same about a lot of things in the Bible. The idea of the millennium has been despised at least since Eusebius heaped scorn on the chiliasts.

The fact that only Revelation 20 explicitly mentions it is a concern to some, but we could say this about many things in the Bible as well. Some think only Genesis 3:15 says the seed of the woman will crush the serpent's head, others think that no OT passages present a crucified messiah, etc. 

Then there's the issue of the identity of the rebels Satan deceives at the end of the millennium in Revelation 20:7–10, about which I said this in an interview on Denny Burk's blog:

This problem arises from us needing the text to give us more information than it does. We need the text to specify that not every last person was killed at the return of Christ but that some unbelievers entered the millennium, had unbelieving children, and these unbelievers comprise the ranks of unresurrected unregenerates who join Satan’s cause. This problem is not as bad as the biggest problem for the amillennial view. The amil problem isn’t needing the text to say more but with what the text already says! There are OT texts that indicate that some unbelievers survive the return of Christ (cf. Zech 14). So I think the premil view is plausible, whereas the amil view requires that we twist and turn and contort ourselves in the attempt to deal with what the text does say. 

Sam Storms thinks a premillennial interpretation of Revelation 20 can't be reconciled with 1 Corinthians 15, but I would say it's easy to harmonize the two passages.

I'm premillennial because I think that's what John is teaching in Revelation. We have to go where the text leads us, and we have to hold together everything the text says.