Biblical Research & Education Resources

 Blaine Robison, M.A., M.R.E.

Interpretation of Revelation

Published 28 October 2008


Numbers in brackets link to notes at the end of the article.

Many people believe that truly understanding Revelation is impossible since there have been so many failed predictions of the future and the Second Coming by past interpreters. One of the earliest reviewers of Revelation, Dionysius (190-265), Bishop of Alexandria in the third century, concluded:

“Yet, having formed an idea of it as a composition exceeding my capacity of understanding, I regard it as containing a kind of hidden and wonderful intelligence on the several subjects which come under it. For though I cannot comprehend it, I still suspect that there is some deeper sense underlying the words. And I do not measure and judge its expressions by the standard of my own reason, but, making more allowance for faith, I have simply regarded them as too lofty for my comprehension; and I do not forthwith reject what I do not understand, but I am only the more filled with wonder at it, in that I have not been able to discern its import.”[1]

Centuries later John Wesley (1703–1791), founder of Methodism, commented:

“It is scarce possible for any that either love or fear God not to feel their hearts extremely affected in seriously reading either the beginning or the latter part of the Revelation. These, it is evident, we cannot consider too much; but the intermediate parts I did not study at all for many years; as utterly despairing of understanding them, after the fruitless attempts of so many wise and good men: and perhaps I should have lived and died in this sentiment, had I not seen the works of the great Bengelius. But these revived my hopes of understanding even the prophecies of this book; at least many of them in some good degree: for perhaps some will not be opened but in eternity. Let us, however, bless God for the measure of light we may enjoy, and improve it to his glory.”[2]

Adam Clarke (1762–1832), a leader of early American Methodism, put it more succinctly in the preface of his commentary on Revelation, “I do not understand the book; and I am satisfied that no one who has written on the subject knows anything more of it than myself.”[3] The latter part he said, not because he was arrogant, but because he found such diverse opinions among the expositors he consulted. He could be right. The commentator who thinks he has exhausted the riches of the secret vaults of Revelation needs to remember the biblical caution, that having taken an interpretive stand, he should “take heed that he does not fall” (1 Cor 10:12).

Modern scholars who teach linguistic studies often emphasize the importance of letting the text “speak for itself.” (Evidently, Revelation did not speak clear enough for Dionysius or Clarke.) If it was a simple matter of the text speaking its own message all interpreters should arrive at the same conclusions about the book’s meaning. Unfortunately, interpreters don’t agree and commentators on Revelation have generally been grouped into four interpretive approaches in terms of how they treat the prophetic material in Chapters 4–22:[4]

(1) Idealism, or the spiritual approach, views Revelation as an allegory of the conflict between good and evil and a dramatic method of teaching timeless truths;[5]

(2) Historicism looks for fulfillment in the continuous history from John’s day until the end, usually to the lifetime of the commentator;[6]

(3) Futurism believes the fulfillment of Revelation prophecy is accomplished in the distant future at the end of history;[7] and

(4) Preterism (meaning “past”) finds the fulfillment of prophecies primarily in the time of John.[8]

The interpretive categories are not so much exegetical methods as conclusions based on certain (and often unexpressed) assumptions about the composition of the biblical writing. The problem with the idealist and preterist interpretive approaches to the prophetic (particularly apocalyptic) works is that they rely heavily on the assumptions and methods of literary criticism, and in so doing fail to take the predictive nature of the prophetic Scriptures seriously. As Baron rightly observes about the spiritual approach,

“This method of interpretation does not spiritualize Scripture but phantomize Scripture, for it does not really bring out the meaning and true application of the Spirit, which alone makes the Word of God spiritual and profitable to the reader, but substitutes an unnatural and shadowy meaning for what is plain and obvious, and thereby throws a vagueness and uncertainty over all the prophetic oracles.”[9]

Similarly, preterism tends to ignore grammar and historical facts to develop interpretations that only fit contemporary events of the prophets. The methodology of preterism is too close to the skepticism of the Serpent who asked “has God said?” (Gen 3:1) and treats the great Hebrew men of God as mere reporters.

The four interpretive approaches attempt to assign a specific text to one of two categories, (1) literal or (2) symbolic. All of the four interpretative approaches actually result in literal interpretations of some passages and symbolic interpretations of other passages (usually more of the latter). In reality, all commentators assume that the author was a real person who wrote to real congregations. Revelation is also taken literally by all in its assurance of the Second Coming and the eternal Kingdom of God. The differences in viewpoint, of course, are in the details. To complicate things further modern commentators sometimes alternate between or combine the four approaches when interpreting portions of Revelation.[10]

The argument could be made that all four of these characteristics may be found in this complex book. There is no doubt that John could have applied some of the prophetic (futurist) elements to his own time. Scholars have documented the dual character of biblical prophecy in that while prophesying of the distant future there was nonetheless a contemporary fulfillment. For example, John prophesied that the Antichrist is coming, but observed that there were already many antichrists (1 John 2:18). Jesus affirmed Malachi’s prophecy that Elijah would come before the Day of Judgment but had already come in John’s day (Mark 9:12-13).

In order to arrive at the conclusion of literal or symbolic the science of biblical exegesis (meaning an exact analysis of Scripture to determine its meaning) seeks to answer three basic questions: (1) what does the Scripture say; (2) what did the Scripture mean to the writer and the original recipients; and (3) what does the Scripture mean for life application today? Perhaps the most important question in biblical exegesis is the first one – what does it say? Inadequate attention to the first question may easily result in unwarranted assumptions and interpretations. In John’s day Jewish rabbis relied on several principles to interpret Scripture, but two fundamental methods were called p’shat and drash or midrash.[11] The p’shat (meaning “simple”) method of interpretation is to accept the plain literal sense of the text, which means to deduce what the Hebrew writer intended to say. The p’shat method involves giving due consideration to the historical setting, the grammar of the writing and the meaning of each individual word or idiomatic expression used by the writer, as defined in the vocabulary of the writer at the time of the writing. In following this method of exegesis every word of Scripture is important.

The literal approach to interpretation is based on the principle of God wisdom, “All the utterances of my mouth are in righteousness; there is nothing crooked or perverted in them. They are all straightforward to him who understands” (Prov 8:8-9). In other words, to take God’s word in a literal, straightforward manner is to assume that He intended to communicate clearly and did so in ordinary understandable human language.[12] “Literal,” of course, does not mean “literalistic.” Those who follow a straightforward interpretation of Scripture recognize that Scripture incorporates many rhetorical devices, such as euphemism, hyperbole, and metaphor, as well as idiomatic expressions.

For example, when Jesus described Himself as a door, light, bread, way (or highway), vine and good shepherd no one would conclude that Jesus was confused about His identity and neither should the reader of the Gospel text. The Revelation to John does contain many elements with symbolic import that are explained, but they were none the less real to John in his experience. Even though the lampstands in Chapter One symbolize congregations of believers, the reader would not conclude that lampstands in general and these lampstands in particular did not actually exist. Symbolism must have an objective source or communication becomes meaningless. In arriving at a simple explanation of the text, the interpreter must carefully weigh the usage of all linguistic elements.

The second rabbinic methodology is called midrash (“commentary,” “exposition” or “interpretation” of Scripture), which is drawn from drash (“search” or “inquire”). A midrash may focus either on halakhah, directing the Jew to specific patterns of religious practice, or on haggadah, dealing with theological ideas, ethical teachings, philosophy, and other interpretations that are not halakhah. This method answers the second and third questions of biblical exegesis. A midrash not only concerns itself with what a verse means in its context, but its meaning in the whole of scriptural revelation.

Midrash recognizes that Scripture may inspire and guide the reader to truths not directly related to the specific text, but appropriate in light of other passages. The Apostle Paul, well trained in rabbinic methodologies, illustrated the importance of the midrash when he asserted, “all Scripture is inspired and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16). With this understanding the rabbinic interpreter endeavored to make the appropriate application to everyday life. The same principle follows for answering the third question and applying the Scripture to life now. The mistake, of course, would be to develop the present application of the text before providing an adequate answer to the first two questions.

Applying the simple method of exegesis to Revelation, then, means to accept John’s straightforward narrative of his experience while “in the Spirit” and the interpretations that are offered in the text. Many commentators treat all or most of Revelation as symbolic, often allowing imagination to override reason, sometimes even ignoring what the text and the context actually say. Instead, the advice of the great fictional private detective, Hercules Poirot should be heeded – “Imagination is a good servant and a bad master. The simplest explanation is always the most likely.”[13] As a result of following the simple method of interpretation, chapters six through twenty-one seem to be most comprehensible in the futurist framework.

[1]Dionysius, Works, Part 1, 1:3.

[2]Wesley, Introduction.

[3]Clarke, 1331.

[4]For an excellent summary on the history of the development of these interpretative approaches see Steve Gregg, Revelation: Four Views, 28-49 and George Eldon Ladd, The Blessed Hope, 19-60.

[5]No accurate beginning point can be assigned for the idealist approach to Revelation, but the commentary on Revelation by Victorinus in the early fourth century certainly represents an effort to apply Revelation to issues related to Christian theology and Christian living rather than contemporary events.

[6]The rise of the historicist school of interpretation most likely began with Joachim of Fiore, who published a long commentary on Revelation called “Exposition on the Apocalypse” about 1200. (Alford, The New Testament for English Readers, Vol. II, Part II, 349.)

[7]The earliest proponent of futurism as a true system of interpretation, probably in reaction to Protestant historicism, seems to be a Roman Catholic Jesuit scholar, Francisco Ribera (1537-1591), who published a commentary on Revelation in about 1580 taking a literal approach and interpreting the prophecy as a forecast of events to occur at the end of history (Schaff, I, 12, §101).

[8]The preterist system of interpretation seems to have been first introduced by the Spanish Jesuit Luis de Alcazar in his “Investigation of the Secret Sense of the Apocalypse,” published in 1614. (Alford, op. cit.)

[9]Baron, 64.

[10]For example, Ralph Earle suggests that Revelation predictions had a partial fulfillment in John’s day and the Roman Empire, that they have had a continuing fulfillment throughout the Church age, and that they will have a complete fulfillment in the future (Earle, 623).

[11]David Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary, 11-12.

[12]“Straightforward interpretation” is called “strict construction” in the field of law, which says that laws mean whatever the lawmakers intended them to mean. The Supreme Lawmaker gave mankind His infallible and inerrant Word, so we should expect that God said what He meant and meant what He said. Indeed, the latter is impossible without the former. Faithful stewardship in biblical scholarship must proceed from a renewal of the mind by the Holy Spirit that rejects worldly philosophy and the secular hermeneutic of doubt (Rom 12:2; Eph 4:23ff; Col 2:8; 3:10). The reader will find that on the whole I support a “strict construction” view of Revelation.

[13]Agatha Christi, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (Bantam edition, 1961), p. 75. Poirot’s “method” is a restatement of the famous argumentation of logic known as “Occam’s Razor,” attributed to William of Occam, an English philosopher who lived 1300-1349. The application of Occam’s Razor in any field of study means that an explanation for unknown phenomena should first be attempted in terms of what is already known or that the simplest of two or more competing theories is preferable.

Copyright © 2006, 2008 by Blaine Robison.  All rights reserved.