Revelation - Images of Judement and Hope.

Purpose: To present to the student the Historical and Literary features of Revelation and the various approaches to Revelation so that they might better understand the significance of the apocalyptic writing style. 

Objectives: To inform the student of the genre, Historical and Literary context and basic hermeneutical principles of Revelation.

When we take on the task of trying to understand the book of Revelation we may feel as if we’re entering a foreign country or reading a science fiction novel. Instead of the narratives and letters containing statements of fact and theological insight, this book is full of angels, trumpets, earthquakes, of beasts, dragons, and bottomless pits.

Sometimes the writing is easy to understand, and we can apply it quite simply. There are moments where the diverse symbolism can be understood like the judgement in a form of an earthquake but things like the two witnesses (11:1-10) leave us unable to solve the problems of the symbols because they deal with future events set in a first-century context. We should not pretend to be able to solve all of the mysteries of the book of Revelation.

John also saw this book in light of the Old Testament, and he cites or echoes over 250 passages in the Old Testament to tell the story to his readers. The writer John is exiled to the Island of Patmos and put the date of its writing between 70 A.D. and 95 A.D. this is right in between the reign of Nero and Domitian, two Roman emperors who were beginning to enforce the cult of Emperor worship. Christians held that Christ, not Caesar, was Lord and were facing increasing hostility.

What’s The Whole Point? 

This is really where we should begin. The point of the whole book is that John wrote to a group of churches to encourage them amid persecution. The book was written to show them that even though they suffer for Christ, God is still in control.

What Is the Point For Us? 

In one sense it is the same for us. God is in control, and we can be encouraged that in the end Christ is victorious over death and suffering and pain. 

Distinctive Features

One of the distinctive features is the frequent use of numbers especially the use of the number 7 (52 times). There are 7 beatitudes, 7 churches, 7 spirits, 7 golden lampstands, 7 stars, 7 Seals, 7 horns and 7 eyes, 7 trumpets, 7 thunders, 7 signs, 7 crowns, 7 plagues, 7 golden bowls, 7 hills, and 7 kings as well as other sevens. Symbolically the number 7 stands for completeness.

With all of the imagery and the apocalyptic writing there still are some clues for interpretation from the text itself. The stars are angels, lampstands are churches, great prostitute is Babylon or Rome, and the heavenly Jerusalem is the wife of the Lamb. The one like the Son of Man is Christ (1:13, 18) the great Dragon (12:9) is Satan. The 7 heads (17:9) are the 7 hills in which the woman sits.

What is the Nature of the Revelation?

There are three genres in the book of Revelation:

1.      Apocalypse: This was a well know style or genre of writing in John’s day and his readers would understand the kind of writing that it was. Its character includes the following.

a)      Imagery from the OT apocalyptic writing in Daniel, Ezekiel, Zechariah, and parts of Isaiah.

b)     It was a form of writing or literature.

c)      Its language is symbolic, and cryptic, and is presented in the form of dreams and visions.

d)     The images were often fantasy, rather than that of reality.

e)      Since it was a form of writing, it had a formal structure. The use of sets of numbers and dividing time and events into neat packages is common.

2.      Prophecy: John was able to speak forth God’s word (prophecy) in his time to his audience about the coming judgment and salvation and in the “already/not yet” we can see the prophecy projected to the final judgment.

3.      Epistle. Revelation was written to 7 churches. Real churches and therefore we need to see this letter also as an Epistle. The same as all Epistles we then need to see the occasion for writing, and we must then understand the historical context.

Historical and Literary context. 

1.      John was exiled to the Island of Patmos during a time of great persecution for Christians under the Emperor Domitian. No doubt the Christians in the 7 churches were also under persecution. John writes to the churches to provide hope and encouragement. 

2.      One of the keys for interpreting the book of Revelation is the distinction between two crucial words or ideas-tribulation and wrath.

a)      Tribulation (suffering and death) is clearly a part of what the church was enduring and was yet to endure.

b)     God’s wrath, on the other hand, is God’s judgement that is to be poured upon those who have afflicted God’s people. It’s clear from the context in the book of Revelation that God’s people will not have to endure God’s awful wrath when it is poured out upon their enemies, but it is equally clear that they will indeed suffer at the hands of their enemies.

Approaches to the Book of Revelation

The following are five approaches to the book of Revelation[1]:

1.      Preterist Approach: This approach claims that the book of Revelation is one story that speaks to the contemporary situation of that day and thus its purpose was to strengthen those believers who were persecuted in the first century. Revelation must be looked at as an apocalypse that uses symbolic language to describe political events. Revelation does prophesy the end of the world. They believe that we are currently in chapter 20 right now. The weakness of this view is that it fails to deal with the magnitude of the destruction involved, and it is difficult to apply today.

2.      Radical Futurist: (Tim LaHaye) This approach places believers in chapter 3 of the book. Most of the book speaks to the seven years of the great tribulation (chapter 4:1-the end). They believe that there will be a rapture in which the Christians will be taken off the earth. The weaknesses with this approach are that the majority of the book only applies to Jews and people who live in a seven-year time period, no relevance to the church of John’s day and the rapture of Ch 4:1 is a secret rapture.

3.      Moderate Futurist: This view combines the Preterist with the Radical Futurist view. They say that chap 1-3 apply to the audience of that day (95 AD) and that 4-16 speaks to the future, 17-21 to the end, and 21-22 to the eschatological new creation. It speaks to the future beyond the NT age, not just the seven years of tribulation. The weaknesses are that it treats seals, trumpets, and bowls similarly and applies everything to tribulation before the Second Coming. We are in chapter 16.

4.      Continuous Historical: This approach views Revelation as a continuous story that rehearses over and over what will happen in church history, extending the story a little more each time. They view everything in Revelation as having happened already. They understand the book as a prophecy of specific events until the end of the world. The weakness with this view is that each generation refashions the interpretation, so it includes events in their day and ends in their day, thus it is too subjective.  

5.      Idealist: (Hendriksen) This is the general Reformed view. They see the visions in Revelation as revealing spiritual principles rather than future events, a philosophy of history and ideas rather than concrete specifics. They claim Revelation allows us to encounter successive visions of Christ rather than visions of successive events. They see the genre as being a pastoral exhortation rather than prophesy or apocalyptic. The weakness with this approach is that it’s very general and can apply to anything.

[1] Class notes, 220 New Testament Perspectives II. Professor Dean Deppe. Calvin Theological Seminary. Winter Quarter 2000-01

 Small-group Material

1.      Have you ever taken the time to study the book of Revelation?

2.      Have someone from your group read Revelation 6:9-17.

a)      Who is experiencing tribulation? How long must they wait (verse 11)? Who is experiencing wrath?

b)     Read again the last phrase of Revelation 6:17 “who is able to survive?” The answer is given in chapter 7.

c)      Read Revelation 7:4-14. From this reading, who is able to survive? (Those whom God has sealed and those who have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.)

3.      Walk the group through the following outline of Revelation. 

a)      Prologue: Chapter 1 - First Beatitude of 7 (1:3) and John’s vision of Jesus (1:9-20)

b)     The letters to the Seven Churches: Chapter 2-3

c)      Vision of Heaven: Chapter 4-5

d)     The Seven Seals: Chapter 6:1-8:1 – with a positive interlude between the 6th & 7th seal.

e)      The Seven Trumpets: 8:2-11:19 – positive interlude between the 6th & 7th trumpets and three woes.

f)       The Seven Mystic Figures: Chapters 12-14 – with an interlude after the 7 and a second beatitude. (14:13)

g)      The Seven Bowls: Chapters 15-16 - the bowls are seven plagues (like Egypt) and the third beatitude (16:15)

h)     The Prophecy of the End: chapters 17-20 – destruction of the seven great enemies and the fourth, and fifth beatitudes (19:9, 20:6).

i)        The New Heaven and New Earth: Chapter 21:1-22:5 – new Creation, New Jerusalem, new Garden of Eden.

j)       Epilogue 22:6-21 – Response to the revelation and the sixth and seventh beatitudes (22:7, 22:14)

4.      Have the group turn to chapter 12. This is the theological centre of the book of Revelation.

a)      Read Chapter 12 together and answer the following questions:

i)        What is the timeline in this vision from John?

ii)      Who are the Stars (vs4)? Who is the Dragon, the woman, and the child (verse 5)?

iii)    Who won? (Verse 7-9)

iv)    Who are the offspring of the woman? (Verse 17)

b)     What is the message to the original audience that you can apply to yourself?

Complete and Continue