The book of Revelation is written in a genre that we in the modern world no longer use, and consequently it can be a very difficult book for us to understand. G.K. Chesterton said that John the apostle saw many strange monsters in his vision, but none so strange as any one of his commentators. And Ambrose Bierce said that it was a book in which St. John concealed all that he knew. The revealing, he said, is done by the commentators, who know nothing. So as we attempt to survey this book in one message, the goal will be to tread lightly, but with some hope of edification.
“I Jesus have sent mine angel to testify unto you these things in the churches. I am the root and the offspring of David, and the bright and morning star. And the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. And let him that is athirst come. And whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely” (Revelation 22:16–17).
Defining Our Terms
The images from Revelation are quite familiar. But the language of those images is not, and one of factors in the difficulty is found in how the entire book is set. There are four basic options. The first is the idealist view. In this understanding, the book is a giant parable in the sky, with no actual historical anchors. The second is the futurist view, in which the book is understood to be talking about events at the end of the world, which is of course in our future. The third is the historicist view, which understands the book of Revelation as finding its fulfillment down throughout church history, like an unrolling carpet. And the last is the preterist understanding (preter referring to the past), which locates the fulfillment of most of the book in the first century (i.e. in the prophet’s future, but in our past).
My approach here is preterist, with the exception of the last two chapters, which I think must be read in a historicist fashion.
And Another Thing . . .
Another major factor in interpreting this book is found in when you believe it was written. There are two basic schools of thought—one holds that it was written in the nineties, during the reign of Domitian. The second view, the one I hold to, is that it was written prior to the destruction of Jerusalem, and is in fact all about that destruction. If you locate the book after the leveling of Jerusalem, it is difficult to understand what the book could possibly be about, thus opening the door to killer bees, atomic blasts, and nefarious computers in Brussels. The late date depends largely on external evidence. Irenaeus, a disciple of Polycarp, a disciple of John, says the vision “was seen not very long ago, almost in our own generation, at the close of the reign of Domitian.” Domitian died in 96 A.D. The evidence for an early date depends largely on internal evidence. “Things which must soon take place,” etc.
One of the advantages of approaching your study of this book with a preterist understanding is that the past happened the way it did, and there is little opportunity for any funny business. By way of contrast, the future is infinitely malleable. Your creative interpretation can always fit exactly . . . until it doesn’t. Here are three examples of how the fulfillment of Revelation can be understood in a preterist way. All of these examples have to do with numbers.
42 months—the dragon gave power to the beast, and it says: “And there was given unto him a mouth speaking great things and blasphemies; and power was given unto him to continue forty and two months” (Rev. 13:5). The beast, which is Rome, is given power to persecute the saints for 42 months. Nero set the city of Rome on fire, and when suspicion fell on him, he blamed the Christians for it, and launched the first Roman persecution of the church. That persecution lasted from November of 64 A.D. and it continued until June 8, 68 A.D. It lasted for 42 months.
666, the number of man—“Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is Six hundred threescore and six” (Rev. 13:18). Notice that John knew who he was talking about, and he expected some of his readers to be able to figure it out. Recall that the practice of gematria was common then. So why would it take someone who had “understanding”? If you transliterate the Greek of Nero Caesar into Hebrew, it added up to 666. And if you go from Latin into Hebrew, you get 616, which some manuscripts of Revelation have, even though it is not nearly so spooky.
5 are fallen—“And I saw a woman sit upon a scarlet coloured beast, full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns . . . And here is the mind which hath wisdom. The seven heads are seven mountains, on which the woman sitteth. And there are seven kings: five are fallen, and one is, and the other is not yet come; and when he cometh, he must continue a short space” (Rev. 17:3, 9–10). Rome was renowned as the city of seven hills. We know instantly what is meant by the Big Apple, or the Windy City, or the Big Easy. It was the same kind of thing here. But the seven heads are seven kings, not just seven hills. So let us count—Julius, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius. There are the five, and the one that is “now” is Nero.
Back to the Text
The dragon hates the woman, and the dragon has always hated the seed of the woman (Rev. 12:1ff). But the seed of the woman will crush the head of the seed of the serpent. And thus we have the main characters in this cosmic drama—we have the antagonist, Satan, and we have the Christ and we have the woman. And so it is that both the Spirit and the bride issue an invitation to all mankind—who have only two choices. Either you remain with the serpent, or you come and drink the water of life freely. We know the course of wisdom here because we are told how the story ends.