[From Ted Grimsrud, Triumph of the Lamb. Herald Press, 1987; reprint edition: Wipf and Stock, 1998.]
The book of Revelation is one of the strangest books in the Bible and in many ways one of the hardest to understand. At the same time, perhaps because of its difficulty, Revelation has led to a large number of speculative writings and has been utilized by many people to support many different views of God, Jesus, and the future.
My hope in writing this short book is to aid interested people in understanding Revelation a bit better. I doubt very much whether anyone can honestly say that he or she fully understands it. But I am convinced that Revelation is to a large degree understandable, and that as we understand it better, John’s words, “Blessed is he who reads aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written therein,” (1: 3) will be true for us.
Approaches to Revelation
How we understand Revelation depends a lot on how we approach it. If we expect to find predictions about the future that might come true at any time, then we will look for those. If we expect to see a veiled condemnation of the Roman Empire, we will look for that. To a certain degree, these are choices we make before we begin to study Revelation. But hopefully, we can remain open to the evidence as we go along and let the actual content of the book lead us in our understanding.
Over the past two thousand years, four distinct approaches have emerged concerning Revelation, though more and more scholars combine two or more.
The first, called the “preterist” view, sees the events recorded in Revelation as relating strictly to the time in which they were recorded. The visions had immediate relevance and were not intended to predict the far-off future. In particular, this view takes the Roman Empire and the early church’s struggle to survive in the face of Roman persecution as the main concern. The main focus of the study of Revelation then becomes seeking to understand what the book meant then. Perhaps some present-day applications can be drawn, but they are secondary.
The second approach, the “historicist,” sees Revelation as a history of the church. It contains some information concerning just about every age of the church, including some about the future. The letters to the seven churches are especially used in this way. They are interpreted as seven stages of church history, from the time of the early church to the end of time.
The third approach, the “idealist” or philosophy-of-history approach, sees Revelation primarily in symbolic terms. In this view, Revelation expresses a philosophy of history in which God’s people struggle with evil until God eventually destroys evil and establishes the kingdom. The visions are symbolic of the spiritual struggle between good and evil–not literal.
The fourth approach, the “futurist,” sees Revelation as portraying the future–not just for John’s time, but for our time too. Most people taking this approach find in the visions enough clues to make them believe that the events pictured in Revelation are soon to take place. The future pictured here is soon to become present.
Most contemporary scholars combine either the preterist and idealist views or the pretarist and futurist views.
I first became aware of the book of Revelation when I was told early in my Christian life that Revelation contained predictions which were being fulfilled or were soon to be fulfilled. I did not study the book as such. My acquaintance with it was limited to isolated verses that were used in discussions about how we were in the end times and how the great tribulation, the rapture, Armageddon, and antichrist were all just around the corner. This came from sermons in my church, listening to tapes by Dallas Seminary professors and evangelist Jack Van Impe, and reading books by popular writers hal Lindsey and Salem Kirban. Reading Revelation itself was simply too confusing.
As I began to read more, I learned that this school of thought was not accepted by everyone. I read some critiques that convinced me to change my views, but I still did not understand what Revelation was about. I was motivated to begin to work at understanding Revelation by some arguments I had with a friend about pacifism. He said that we should not be pacifist because God is not a pacifist; God fights wars in the Old Testament and in Revelation. So I decided to see if he was right.
I began to read various commentaries and other books on Revelation and became fascinated with the book as a whole. I discovered that there has been a good deal of serious scholarship done on Revelation. I was surprised at the commonality of general conclusions.
The kinds of conclusions I have come to and the applications I have drawn have been greatly affected by the kinds of concerns that I have had. After giving up on Hal Lindsey’s approach to the Bible, I became much less concerned with futuristic predictions. I started being more interested in what Revelation says about how we should live now and how this affects affects how we should look at our world now. Social concerns such as war and peace and economics have become more central to me, and I have wanted to know how the Bible, including Revelation, relates to these concerns. My view of “prophecy” changed from seeing it primarily in terms of predictions of the future to seeing it in terms of proclaiming God’s truth for today. I now see prophecy more as forthtelling than foretelling.
At the same time, I have wanted to be sensitive to Revelation’s message on its own terms. Why was it originally written? Who was it written to? What was their situation? what were their needs? How does the book address those needs? In answering these question, I hope to get insights into my questions for the modern world.
I recognize that the questions of Revelation’s first readers were not exactly the same as mine today. Therefore some translating is necessary. It is dangerous to ignore the barriers created by two thousand years and different languages and cultures. Revelation was not originally written for twentieth-century North Americans. To get its point, we need to respect and take into account its original setting.
Recognizing the need to respect the original setting of Revelation, i would to a large degree take a pretarist approah to interpreting it. And then, on the basis of my understanding of what it meant then, I would understand its message largely in terms of the idealist approach. In my view, the visions and imagery of Revelation symbolize God’s work in human history, God’s victory over evil in Jesus’ work, and God’s moving history toward its consummation in the ultimate destruction of evil and the establishment of the New Jerusalem.
I have found Revelation extremely interesting and relevant to my thinking about our world today. These are a few of the applications that I would draw from the message of the book:
(1) No matter how bleak things look in the present, God is in ultimate control of things and is working things out for the good. Therefore we can have hope.
(2) It is self-destructive to retaliate with evil against evil. If we do so, we become evil ourselves and lose God’s spiritual protection.
(3) That the world is hopelessly chaotic and that evil is in control is the superficial view. The “revelation” helps us to see that what is actually going on is that God is facilitating evil’s self-destruction.
(4) Suffering can be redemptive if we remain faithful to God.
(5) The most powerful thing in the universe is Christ’s suffering love, seen especially in the cross, not in the might of kings on earth. Imitating Christ’s suffering love is how we can be victorious.
(6) There is continuity between this world and the next. The good things that we do–not only moral obedience but also human creativity–will be part of the New Jerusalem.
Revelation and Apocalyptic Literature
The Greek word for “revelation” that is used in 1:1 is apokalypsis (apocalypse). This word, when used elsewhere in the New Testament, refers to the supernatural revealing of truths from God that are previously unknown to people and could not be discovered by people on their own (cf. Rom. 16:25 and Gal. 1: 12). The “revelation” comes from outside; it comes from God. So John, when he says this book is an apocalypse, is making high claims.
The use of this word also places Revelation in a category of other ancient works now known as apocalyptic literature. This includes the book of Daniel from the Old Testament and such Jewish and Christian extrabiblical writings as the Book of Enoch, the Apocalypse of Baruch, the Apocalypse of Paul, and the Apocalypse of Peter.
The general characteristics of apocalyptic literature include the extensive use of symbolism; use of the vision as a major instrument of revelation; concentration on the close of this age and the dramatic inauguration of the age to come; the unveiling of the spiritual order lying behind and determining the course of events in history; the use of common motifs (e.g., dragon and lion); and a certain dualism–between this age and the next, good and evil, black and white.
The book of Revelation, however, has some unique characteristics compared to most other apocalypses:
(1) It does not claim to be written by someone other than the true author. Most of the others claim to be written by some earlier, well-known person, such as Moses, Enoch, Paul, or Peter. The author of Revelation identifies himself only as a prophet and pastor. If he is John the apostle he does not play up that identity–something which would surely have happened were the book pseudepigraphical.
(2) The date and place of origin are clear.
(3) Generally in apocalyptic literature all history is directed toward a future end. In Revelation the key event has already happened in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
(4) The dualism of good and evil is limited. Revelation proclaims the absolute lordship of God. Evil is already decisively defeated.
(5) Revelation identifies itself as prophecy, thus self-consciously tying itself with the Old Testament prophets, not the Jewish apocalypticists. The book is the Revelation of Jesus Christ, not the Revelation of John or of any other writer.
Given these significant differences, it seems to me important to distance Revelation a bit from apocalyptic literature in general. We should respect the book’s self-identification as a “prophecy” (1: 3; 22: 7; 22: 10; 22: 18; 22: 19).
The first writing prophets in the Old Testament lived in the eighth century B.C. Their ministry has been summarized by Bernhard W. Anderson in his book The Eighth Century Prophets (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978):
“The proper place to begin to understand the prophetic proclamation is with their sense of time, and particularly their awareness of the relation of the future to the present. The eighth century prophets perceived that a storm was coming–“the east wind of Yahweh . . . rising from the wilderness,” as Hosea said (Hos. 13: 15). As messengers of God, their task was to make the eschatological shock of God’s future effective in the present, so that Israel—the people of God—might recover their identity and their vocation and so that possibly, in the incalculable grace of God, there might be a transition from death to life.” (p. 22).
The book of Revelation shares these characteristics to a large degree. John is presenting God’s Word for the present of his readers by giving pictures of God’s future. The message in Revelation is, “Hold fast to the faithfulness you are now living.” But in many of the Old Testament prophets, it was, “Repent and change your ways.”
However, the letters to the seven churches indicate that John was intending to communicate the latter as well. In any case, his method of communicating, like the ancient prophets, was “to make the eschatological shock of God’s future effective in the present.”
The prophet “forthtells” God’s truth to the present, utilizing the God-given gift of discernment into the true realities of the present. What really matters is the turth of the prophet’s vision of God’s nature and will, and of the world in that light. To the degree that the prophet foretells the future, this is done in the service of speaking about God’s will for the present. The prophets were not concerned with speaking of the future for its own sake.
Thus the book of Revelation focuses on the needs of John’s readers in the face of their present-day reality. They needed encouragement to stand strong in the face of persecution from the Roman Empire and some of their Jewish opponents. Others needed exhortation not to mix the gospel with pagan religion, and especially not to become conformed to the world and to bow down to Caesar. In both cases, a revelation of the true nature of the secular order and its fate was needful. So also was a revelation of the power of God to judge and cleanse to world of all evil and bring about the promised new order. Revelation speaks of the future in order to speak effectively to the present.
The idea that Revelation contains visions of things which apply only to the far-off future and could not really have had any meaning to anyone prior to that future time, directly contradicts this understanding of prophecy.
Revelation speaks to us today to the degree that we share the situation of John’s readers–to the degree that we need encouragement to stand strong in the face of evil and exhortation not to bend the knee to the gods of this world.
The Format of This Study
This book is intended to be a study guide to the book of Revelation. For those who wish to use it as such, I have a few suggestions. Revelation is a difficult book to understand by oneself, and is best suited to be studied with others. But even when working together, each of us must also work at it individually.
Read the book on your own. Read each section a few times on your own prior to looking at my interpretations and other resources. In reading the entire book or the different sections, take notes of your observations and questions. One way to do that is to read each section five times and write down twenty observations and questions. This will help a good deal in knowing what to look for when you go on to look at what other people think.
I have included with each section a list of study questions. You may attempt to answer them during your observation process. They can also serve as aids when you read my discussion of the passages and look at other commentaries and study books.
The bulk of this book is a passage-by-passage interpretation followed by short essays discussing what I see as some of the main issues addressed by Revelation and how those issues apply to us today. At the back of the book, I have supplied a bibliography of books I have found most helpful in my study of Revelation.
Questions for Thought and Discussion
(1) Read the book of Revelation in its entirety, preferably at one sitting. Note questions you would like to pursue further.
(2) What seem to you to be the main themes of the book? Are they unique to this book in the New Testament? Are they central or peripheral to the gospel as you understand it?
(3) How would you characterize the mood of the book?
(4) Have you encountered Revelation in the past? If so, what did you think of it?
(5) Do you think that Revelation has something to say to Christians today? If so, what? If not, why not?
(6) How do you respond to people who see a blueprint for the future in Revelation? Those who see in it a justification, at least implicitly, for violence? Those who see it as sub-Christian?
(7) What do you know about the Roman Empire that would shed light on Revelation? Do you see any relevant parallels between Rome and the United States?
(8) What do you think John’s social location (e.g., social class, economic status, racial and national identification) was? Who today might be closest to John’s social location (e.g., North American Mennonites, Brazilian peasant Catholics, Russian baptists)?
(9) How might John’s social location affect his message? How much “translating” must we do to move from John’s situation to ours?