The last book of the New Testament named The Revelation does not neatly fit into one genre category like most other books we read. Elements of apocalypse, prophecy and letter are combined in a way that has no close parallel in other literature. This complexity makes the book all the more fascinating yet challenging to comprehend.
It is no surprise that much debate surrounds the proper interpretation of The Revelation. Unfortunately, the debate among Christians has often been harsh and hostile. As G. K. Chesterton once wrote, "Though St. John the Evangelist (author) saw many strange monsters in his vision, he saw no creatures so wild as one of his own commentators."
In this article, I will attempt to explain the purpose of The Revelation and the timeless principle of the Kingdom of God. Then I will describe four mainstream views adopted to its interpretation throughout church history.
The book of The Revelation is first and foremost a message to the church. Popular speculative theology centred on symbolism, sequence of events, characteristics of the millennium and the end-times often misses the point by focusing on the periphery questions. The first question we ought to ask is: what is the purpose of the book?
I believe that the book conveys four key points: God's sovereignty, Christ's return, final judgment and hope for the future. The Revelation is a book of great richness, stirring deep emotions in the reader. Amidst of all the evil and destruction, it gives us hope for the future and the reason to worship God in the present. It reveals the full identity of Christ after his death and resurrection. If it is an 'end times' book, then it actually says, 'In the end, Christ.'
The nature of God's Kingdom
The book of The Revelation gives us a glimpse into the upside-down nature of God's Kingdom by depicting a lamb as a symbol of Christ. This is in stark contrast to the predatory birds and beasts we earthlings normally use as symbols of power and might. Only the Lamb is worthy to break the seven seals on the scroll (Revelation 5). Things of God certainly do not go by the rules of men.
Biblical commentator J.P. Love put it this way: "This is perhaps the most important figure of the Book of The Revelation. When earth-bound men want symbols of power, they conjure up mighty beasts and birds of prey. Russia elevates the bear, Britain the lion, France the tiger, the United States the spread eagle: all of them ravenous. It is only the Kingdom of Heaven that would dare to use as its symbol of might, not the Lion for which John was looking, but the helpless Lamb, and at that, a slain Lamb".
Who are the true followers of the Lamb in God's Kingdom? The Parable of the Banquet (Luke 14 verses 15 to 24) serves as a metaphor. The ruler invites a wider guest list than cultural expectations would normally allow because the 'elites' of this world are too preoccupied with their earthly affairs. Jesus' image of God's Kingdom is that not only everyone is invited to the table, but also that people on the periphery of society are usually the ones who make it. This too is contrary to the ways of this world.
The four views
Throughout church history, there have been four mainstream views for the interpretation of The Revelation, namely: preterist, historicist, futurist and idealist. The preterist views The Revelation as symbolic representation of events that occurred in the past, while the historicist views the events as symbolic of church history continuing into the future. The idealist approach views the events of The Revelation not tied to specific historical events but general pointers to historical 'themes', while the futurist approach interprets the events literally. So which view is right?
I find some truth in all four of these views, but I also think that none of them 'has it all' and applies universally. The Revelation is a fascinating book filled with vivid visions and unusual symbolism. As such, it has suffered misinterpretation from allegory to literal manipulations including spectacular end-time scenarios. That being said, we should not simply reject some prophecies but test everything that is said and hold on to what is good (1 Thessalonians 5 verse 20-21).
In my opinion, it is beneficial not to intellectualise and speculate beyond what has been revealed to us by the Holy Spirit. The Scripture says that if anyone adds anything to what is written, God will add to that person the plagues described in the book (The Revelation 22 verse 18). In addition, the day of the Lord will come as unexpectedly as a thief (2 Peter 3 verse 10) and no one knows the day or hour, not even the Son, but only the Father (Matthew 24 verse 36). Not even Jesus knows!
At the same time, we need to have the courage to accept what the Spirit has revealed to other people. Through the book of Revelation, God has given us enough information for us to be alert and of sober mind and prepare for the Lord's coming in our daily walk with Him.
Come Lord Jesus! May the grace of the Lord Jesus be with God's holy people.
Daniel Jang is a Wellington-based consultant, writer and theology student at Laidlaw College.
Daniel Jang's previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/daniel-jang.html