Interpretation that takes into account the Context and Character of the Revelation

by | Feb 27, 2013 | Eschatology, New Testament, Systematic Theology

I was recently involved in symposium on the Book of Revelation sponsored by several churches in Reno, Nevada and held at Sierra Bible Church. Gary Demar defended a preterist, Jim Hamilton a futurist, and I an Idealist approach to the Book. The symposium consisted of three major presentations 55 minutes in length in the morning and three 20 minute responses and question and answer time in the afternoon. Here are the first two of those principles as I presented them at the symposium.

I.        Historical Interpretation that takes into account the Historical Context of the Revelation

The first and most basic principle of biblical interpretation is known as grammatical-historical interpretation.  Simply stated this fundamental principle says that the Bible must be interpreted in terms of the normal grammatical meaning of the language and in a way that makes sense in light of the historical context of the language of the passage. The original sense of the words (first of all) for the author and (secondarily for) his readers is the true sense.  No interpretation that divorces itself from its historical-grammatical meaning of the passage can be correct.

Of course, this strict attention to the grammatical-historical interpretation of the passage must be supplemented by an appreciation of its theological interpretation.  The Bible is a divine-human document.  Each of its parts has both a human author (Isaiah the Prophet or John the Apostle) and a divine author (the Holy Spirit).  Each part of the Bible, then, has both a specific grammatical-historical meaning because of its human author and a larger theological significance because of its divine author.   To put this another way, each part of Scripture is intended by the Holy Spirit as the canon (or rule of faith and life) of the church and has, therefore, a significance for the whole church.  I will point out some hermeneutical implications of this later.

The crucial thing that must be pointed out here, however, is that these two sides of Scripture do not contradict one another.  The human authorship of Scripture does not make it less divine. For instance, its human authorship does not cancel its inerrancy or decrease its infallibility. On the other hand, its divine authorship does not suppress the peculiar personalities or vocabularies of its human authors.  Divine authorship does not mean that we can ignore either the peculiar language or the historical situation of the human author.  Rather the theological interpretation always is consistent with and, in fact, grows out of the grammatical-historical interpretation of the passage.

Now what has all this to do with Revelation 20?  It means that the historical context of its visions cannot be ignored in its interpretation.  The exact date of the writing of the Book of Revelation is disputed.  What is not disputed is this.  It was originally written by John the Apostle in exile at Patmos for his faith to local churches in the Roman province of Asia also suffering for their faith (Revelation 1:9; 2:2, 3, 10, 13; 3:9, 10).  Interpretations that forget that these visions were recorded by a suffering apostle for a suffering church defy the principle of historical interpretation.  A credible interpretation must exhibit a clear line of connection with this historical context. Since the premillennial interpretation of this passage asserts that this passage has to do with a drastically different and distant period of time after the return of Christ, it faces up front a problem with this principle of historical interpretation.  If the Beast is the Antichrist at the end of history and those crowned with glory in the millennium are those who suffer at his hands in the Great Tribulation at the end of history, then this passage has only a tangential and secondary application to believers suffering at the hands of Rome in the first century.

If, on the other hand, those who stand beheaded for the sake of Christ in the vision of Revelation 20:1-10 are exactly Christians martyred in the Domitian persecutions of the late first century, then there is an immediate relevance of this passage to its historical recipients.  If their living and reigning with Christ speaks of their glorious participation in the heavenly reign of Christ immediately after their martyrdom, then there is a glorious relevance and encouragement given to the original recipients of this vision.1

II.       Literary Genre Interpretation that takes into account the Predominantly Apocalyptic Character of the Revelation

The Book of Revelation has a predominantly apocalyptic genre.  I need to explain each of these three words.

By using the word, predominantly, I mean again to emphasize my “Relative Idealism.” Not all of the Book of Revelation is apocalyptic.  Some of it, especially the first three chapters, is predominantly epistolary literature.  The Book of Revelation is predominantly, but not exclusively, apocalyptic literature.  Epistolary literature must be interpreted in a more literal (non-symbolic) fashion, while apocalyptic literature must be interpreted in a symbolic.

The adjective, apocalyptic, comes originally from the Greek word that means revelation.  It may also be derived more immediately from the name of the Book of Revelation.  In some traditions it is called the Apocalypse.  In the present context the word, apocalyptic, has reference to the highly symbolic, continuous, and dramatic figurative language characteristic of the Book of Revelation and also of some parts of the Book of Daniel.  For instances of this sort of language compare Daniel 8:1-27 and Revelation 13:1-4.

The word, genre, is a word of French origin that refers to a kind, type, or sort of literature. Thus, the apocalyptic genre of Revelation 20 refers to the fact that it is a kind of literature that utilizes highly symbolic and figurative language.  It is not ordinary, literal, prose.

I have to confess that when I read many Dispensationalists, I am confused by their approach to the interpretation of symbolic literature in the Bible.  It seems sometimes that they are saying that we must not interpret the symbols of the Bible symbolically.  We must rather, they seem to be saying, interpret the symbolic literature of the Bible literally.  As for myself, it seems obvious to me that if literature is symbolic, then it must be interpreted symbolically.

Thus, the principle of biblical interpretation relevant here is that biblical literature must be interpreted in a way appropriate to its genre.  Genre analysis is, therefore, crucial if the Bible is to be properly interpreted.  R. C. Sproul has these helpful comments on the subject of genre analysis in biblical hermeneutics.

Genre analysis involves the study of such things as literary forms, figures of speech and style.  We do this with all kinds of literature.  We distinguish between the style of historical narratives and sermon, between realistic graphic descriptions and hyperbole.  Failure to make these distinctions when dealing with the Bible can lead to a host of problems with interpretation.  Literary analysis is crucial to accurate interpretation.2

Now the relevance of all this to Revelation 20 should be obvious.  Revelation 20 is clearly written mainly in the apocalyptic genre and should be interpreted in a way that takes this into account.  The opening words of Rev. 20:1, “and I saw,” inform us of the visionary and thus symbolic or apocalyptic character of the passage.  It must not, therefore, be interpreted literally.  It must rather be interpreted figuratively and symbolically in accord with its apocalyptic genre or form.  Dan. 7:2-8 provides an example of such literature.

Dan. 7:16 shows that such language is not straightforwardly literal and involves special problems of interpretation.  Daniel says, “I approached one of those who were standing by and began asking him the exact meaning of all this. So he told me and made known to me the interpretation of these things…”  These words make clear that visions seen by the inner eye of the prophet or apostle are not to be interpreted literally, but figuratively.  Their meaning is not immediately obvious like literal language or prose.  Daniel has to inquire as to its interpretation, because as apocalyptic language its meaning is not immediately obvious to him.

All this leads to a further, important question.  How should such symbolic, apocalyptic, or figurative language be properly interpreted?  This question is all the more necessary because the claim is frequently made that symbolic interpretation is necessarily ambiguous.  I quote Zukeran again:

Second, reading spiritual meanings into the text could lead to arbitrary interpretations. Followers of this approach have often allowed the cultural and socio-political factors of their time to influence their interpretation rather than seeking the author’s intended meaning.  Merrill Tenney states, “The idealist view . . . assumes a ‘spiritual’ interpretation, and allows no concrete significance whatever to figures that it employs. According to this viewpoint they are not merely symbolic of events and persons, as the historicist view contends; they are only abstract symbols of good and evil. They may be attached to any time or place, but like the characters of Pilgrim’s Progress, represent qualities or trends. In interpretation, the Apocalypse may thus mean anything or nothing according to the whim of the interpreter.” 3

Several common sense answers can be made to the concern that symbolic interpretation is necessarily ambiguous and contrary ultimately to the doctrine of the clarity or perspicuity of Scripture.

(1)     Apocalyptic passages must be interpreted in a way that is consistent.  They ought not to be suddenly interpreted literally and then figuratively at the whim of the interpreters. For instance, there is no good reason to exclude indications of time (i.e. the 1000 years) from the overall symbolic or figurative character of Revelation 20.

(2)     Apocalyptic passages must be interpreted in light of the clues or explanations given in literal language in the immediate passage.  For instance, in Revelation 20:2 we have such an immediate explanation:  “And he laid hold of the dragon, the serpent of old, who is the devil and Satan…”  In the vision John sees “the dragon, the serpent of old.”  This is figurative language.  He immediately, however, interpolates an explanation or interpretation for what he sees.  This dragon, he says, in the real world where we live, is the devil or Satan.

(3)     This distinction between the world of the vision and the real world where we live suggests another important skill or principle of interpretation when interpreting apocalyptic passages.  We must both be able to distinguish and yet properly relate these two worlds.4

Think about it!  The vision which the prophet sees does not literally exist anywhere in the space-time universe.  It is a visionary world that exists only before the inner eye of the prophet through the revealing power of the Spirit of God.  None of it exists exactly as the prophet sees it with the inner eye in the outer world which can be seen by his external eye.

Yet it symbolizes that world.  One unique feature of apocalyptic literature like that found in Daniel and Revelation is the continued character of the symbols.  You do not have a symbol here and there sprinkled in a passage.  You have long-continued, whole, symbolic passages with, perhaps, here and there sprinkled in an explanation of what this points to in the literal world.   This is the character of the vision of Revelation 20:1-10.  It is continuously symbolic throughout.  It has only occasional exceptions like the opening words, “and I saw,” and the words of verse 2 mentioned previously which identify in literal language the identity of the dragon.

Let me put it this way.  We must not take the vision literally, even though we must take the vision seriously.  We must not cut symbols out of the vision and paste them into the real world.  They may only come into the real world through the gate of symbolic translation.

Let me give an illustration of this.  In the history of the interpretation of Revelation 20 not a few have puzzled over the beheaded martyrs of verse 4.  A failure to understand the principle I have just been articulating has led some to affirm that only beheaded martyrs, or at least only martyrs, or perhaps only especially martyrs, share in the reign of Christ.  Such affirmations raise all sorts of silly questions.  Is beheading more heroic (or meritorious) than burning?  Does a person actually have to die to be a martyr for Christ?  Does other suffering short of death allow one to reign with Christ?

But all such reactions to the text fail to see this that the beheaded martyrs of verse 4 are part of the world of vision.  In the vision they are beheaded by a beast for failure to accept a tattoo indicating allegiance to him in their foreheads or hand.  That is what John really saw.  But none of this is to be taken literally.  The question must be asked, How does all this look when it comes through the gate of symbolic translation?  I think it looks like 2 Timothy 2:12: “If we suffer, we shall also reign with him: if we deny him, he also will deny us.”  We must beware of taking things seen in visions, cutting them out, and without symbolic translation pasting them into the real world.

(4)     Biblical symbols in apocalyptic passages must be interpreted by means of their biblical origin, background, and usage, if they are not explained in the immediate context.  Great help can be derived in interpreting New Testament symbols by studying Old Testament passages from which such symbolism is derived.  The reference to the birds of the air nesting in the mustard tree in the parable of the mustard seed in Luke 13:19 is illuminated by a study of the use of this phrase in two Old Testament passages (Ezekiel 17:22-24; Daniel 4:12, 21, 22) where it is used of nations coming under the rule of great kingdoms.

(5)     The interpretive principle known as the analogy of faith must also be applied here. No interpretation inconsistent with the analogy of Scripture is tenable.  The Westminster and 1689 Baptist Confession agree in asserting that the infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself (Chapter 1, paragraph 9).  The Bible is inerrant and infallible.  No interpretation is acceptable that creates internal conflict in the meaning of Scripture.

One plain and important application of this principle of the analogy of faith is noted in the further statement of this paragraph:  and therefore when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched by other places that speak more clearly.  The application of this to the highly figurative and disputed language of Revelation 20 is manifold.

The symbolic language of Revelation 20 must be searched out in light of other and plainer Scriptures.  The paramount question, for instance, When is Satan bound? must be answered on the basis of the teaching of the rest of Scriptures.  The fact is that nowhere else in Scripture is there any reference to a future interim binding of Satan.  If Revelation 20:1-3 refers to such a thing it is the only reference to it in the entirety of Scripture.  On the other hand, there are many parallel references to a binding and limitation of Satan’s power in the present age.  Cf. Matthew 12:28-29; Luke 10:17-19; John 12:31-32; Colossians 2:15; Hebrews 2:14; 1 John 3:8; and Revelation 12:5-10.

Furthermore, no interpretation of a highly symbolic passage that contradicts the plain meaning of straightforward, literal, or prosaic passages is acceptable.  It demands that plain passages must be given priority over and must interpret obscure passages.  A premillennial interpretation of Revelation 20:1-10, in my view, contradicts this principle.  To give only one example of why this is so, the general judgment according to the clear and pervasive teaching of the New Testament occurs at Christ’s second coming (Romans 2:1-16; 2 Pet. 3:3-18; Matt. 25:31f.).  In Revelation 20:11-15—subsequent to the millennium of verses 1-10—the general judgment is depicted.  If Revelation 20:11-15 is regarded as chronologically subsequent to 20:1-10 (as it is by premillennialists), then the analogy of faith demands that the “1000 years” and “little season” precede the second coming of Christ.

These considerations are particularly crushing to premillennialism when we remind ourselves of the state of the doctrinal question about the millennium.  The interpretation of Revelation 20 is absolutely crucial to the premillennialist.  He must prove that Revelation 20 teaches a future millennium and that no other interpretation is possible.  If there is another feasible interpretation of this passage, then premillennialism is left without its central exegetical pillar.  Indeed Ladd is candid enough to admit that Revelation 20 is the sole exegetical pillar of premillennialism.5

1Charles Hill in Regnorum Caelorum (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 2001), 75-201, presents extensive evidence from the ante-Nicene church for the interpretation here defended.  He shows many examples of the interpretation of Revelation 20:4-6 that refers it to the intermediate state of believers in heaven.

2R. C. Sproul, Knowing Scripture, (Intervarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois, 1979), 49.

3Patrick Zukeran, “Four Views of Revelation,” Internet. Accessed February 19, 2013.

4I believe that I am articulating the same basic viewpoint here as G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1999), 973-74, does when he distinguishes three levels of communication in the apocalyptic genre of Revelation.  He distinguishes a linguistic level, a visionary level, a referential level, and a symbolic level of communication, 52-53.  He complains that many interpreters “typically neglect the visionary and symbolic levels of communication by collapsing them into the referential, historical level.”   This is approximately at least what I mean by visionary world, real world, and the gate of symbolic translation.

5George Eldon Ladd, Crucial Questions About the Kingdom of God (Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1998), 182.

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