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The Revelation -- Which Interpretation?
The book of the Revelation of Jesus Christ is not easy to understand, partly because it is a book of symbol, and partly because its structure is rather complex. Nevertheless, it is part of the Word of God, to which the words of Paul should be applied: "All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works" (2 Tim. 3:17,18).
The canon of scripture closed in the first century, and the Revelation was the last book to be added. So it is a book addressed to those who have lived from the end of the first century through to the coming of Jesus Christ; it is in a peculiar sense 'our book'. It demands our attention. Perhaps because it is not easy to understand, it carries an unusual insistence that it should be studied and understood. Yet so many brethren do not take it seriously: they put it on one side with the comment that they are not students, or some similar phrase. Most admit to not having made a serious attempt to understand it.
This attitude cannot be acceptable with God. He has graciously given it to be understood. He urges us to understand it by some very pointed words: "Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things that are written therein". Such is the exhortation at the beginning of the book. And it is reinforced by similar words at the end of the book: "Behold I come quickly: blessed is he that keepeth the sayings of the prophecy of this book". How can we be indifferent to such words from the Master? Do we not want the blessing? Can we do without it? Are we satisfied with the reverse implication -- if we do not understand and keep, there is no blessing of God? Note what surrounds this word 'blessed'. It is used several times in Revelation. "Blessed are the dead
which die in the Lord" (15:3); "Behold, I come as a thief, blessed is he that watcheth, and keepeth his garments" (16:15); "Blessed are they which are called to the marriage supper of the Lamb" (19:9); "Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection: on such the second death hath no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with him a thousand years" (20:6); "Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city" (22:14). Yes, surely, we want God's blessing, and to have it we must, along with other commandments, hear and keep the sayings of this prophecy.
'Hearing' is more than taking in the sound of words; the sense is better expressed by the old English word 'hearken'. The sense is clear in the phrase used at the end of each of the seven letters: "He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith to the churches". After responsive hearing, there is 'keeping'. The Greek word for 'keeping' has the meaning -- to watch, to guard; there is active attention and concern. We remember Jesus' words, "If a man love me he will keep my words" (John 14:23); the sense is, knowing, attending to, and doing his commandments. Jesus in his parable of the sower illustrates the meaning of the words 'hearing' and 'keeping'. The acceptable class are described in the words: "But that on the good ground are they, which in an honest and good heart, having heard the word, keep it, and bring forth fruit with patience" (Luke 8:15). So, as Christ requires a hearing and keeping of the word of the gospel, so he requires the same hearing and keeping of what he says in his Last Message.
If we are to hear and keep what is written, clearly we must understand what is written. We are not expected to understand unaided. This is conveyed in the words: "Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy. . ." "He" that readeth has the sense of being a teacher; "they" are those who listen. The RSV translates as follows: "Blessed is he who reads aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and keep what is written therein". Those who teach have a special blessing; and those who hear and keep have a blessing.
But where today shall we turn for help, for a teacher? In earlier times there was substantially only one interpretation, usually called the continuous historical interpretation; and this is what our brethren and sisters studied. Now there are many books and many interpretations; interpretations that are basically different one from another. In the past 30 years we have been presented with nine new interpretations. How confusing for the earnest seeker after truth; how discouraging for the faithful brother seeking to 'hear' and 'keep' the sayings of this prophecy. It is not that these various books present small variations in ideas; the more important ones set out basically different expositions of the prophecy. There can be only one correct interpretation. If we are expected to hear and keep what is written therein, we can be sure God has provided for us a right interpretation. That there would be false interpretations is implied in the solemn warning at the end of the book --
a dreadful warning to any who "shall add unto" or "take away" from the words of the prophecy of this book. Being a book of symbol, adding or taking away is not referring to material addition or removal of words; but rather to changing the meaning of what is written.
So with courage we must face the unhappy situation that prevails today, and prayerfully seek a right path. This book aims to help the seeker after truth. It first outlines the case for the traditional continuous historical interpretation; and then examines four of the new interpretations. At the end the situation is reviewed, and there are some reflections that may help to guide us along the right path.
As an introduction to the detailed examination of the several interpretations, we give here a brief outline of each.
THE CONTINUOUS HISTORICAL INTERPRETATION
As in Eureka, J. Thomas; also Thirteen Lectures on the Apocalypse, R. Roberts; and Apocalypse and History, Boulton and Barker.
Brother Thomas interprets the Revelation as a forecast of history from the time of John to the full establishment of the kingdom under Christ. He gives the book a clear and understandable structure -- see the diagram on page 16. As the centuries pass, the activities that make up history are seen to be groups of divine judgements in various parts of Europe and the Middle East. The Lamb undoes the seven seals on the scroll, revealing six Seal judgements, followed by the seventh Seal, within which are found seven Trumpet judgements. The seventh Trumpet is subdivided into seven final Vials of the wrath of God to be poured out. Additionally, the conflict between God's people -- called the Holy City and the Two Witnesses -- and the apostasy, is described as a ravaging of wild beasts. The coming of Christ is a Lamb on Mount Zion, who is declared to be the Lion of the tribe of Judah.
The way in which the symbols shown to John describe what subsequently becomes history, is fascinating. The fit between the symbols and history provides assurance that this is the correct interpretation. Not only does the correspondence between the symbols and the onflowing history justify the exposition, but it will be found that this interpretation has no gaps; it is able to interpret all the very extensive detail of the book. This cannot be said of the other interpretations.
THE FUTURIST INTERPRETATION
As in Apocalypse for Everyman, by A. D. Norris.
The word Futurist means that the book is largely concerned with events still in the future. In Bro. Norris' presentation, chapter 4 is a vision of heaven itself; chapter 5 is Jesus arriving in heaven; and the first four Seals of chapter 6, horsemen going forth, cover the general character of history from John's day to ours. From the 5th Seal all is in the future. This means that under 5% of what follows from the opening of the scroll belongs to the past; 95% is in the future.
The 6th and 7th Seals, the Trumpets, the Vials, are all in the future. They describe waves of judgements still to happen. The proposed interpretation of these many judgements cannot be of much importance to us, because it is necessarily speculative and cannot be tested. Nor does it have a background of past judgements that have occurred, to guide us as to the nature of future judgements, as is the case with the future part of the continuous historical interpretation.
The peculiar nature of Bro. Norris' interpretation is expressed in the diagram on page 51. The diagram highlights a basic element of his interpretation that is hard to receive. It is, that God should leave our brethren over the past 18 centuries in darkness with no prophetic light to illuminate their path and encourage them in their patient waiting. This is out of harmony with the example of all previous ages. And it is out of harmony with God's promise: "Surely the Lord GOD will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets" (Amos 3:7). Further, this futurist interpretation results in crowding what seems an unreasonable number of prophetic items into a short space of time in the future, much of it into only 31/2 years, just before we are called to the Judgement Seat. There are over 200 prophetic items to be fulfilled in this short space of time; and yet no prophetic guidance for the previous centuries!
THE PRETERIST INTERPRETATION
As in The Revelation: A Biblical Approach, by H. A. Whittaker.
Bro. Whittaker looks in the opposite direction to Bro. Norris. The Seals and the Trumpets were fulfilled in the first century, though some items have a triple fulfilment:
i) AD 70 to the Fall of Jerusalem
ii) The 'continuous-historic' application ("Eureka")
iii) The Last Days and the Coming of the Lord.
The Vials belong to the future. The other characteristic of this exposition is that the symbols are applied almost entirely to the nation of Israel. The Seals and the Trumpets were judgements on the land and people in the final AD 70 epoch. Thus the great mountain burning with fire cast into the sea in the 2nd Trumpet was a Jewish fleet encountering Roman ships on the sea of Galilee; the great star burning like a lamp that fell on the third part of the rivers and fountains of waters is associated with Haley's comet. As to the future, the Beast out of the abyss is identified with Russia. "All present indications are that the political power of the Church of Rome is as good as finished. Fantasies about political union between Rome and Communism are ventilated from time to time, but these lack even a vestige of Biblical support, and politically they certainly do not belong to the world of reality. The identification of the Beast with the great power of Russia has much to commend it" (p. 171). This exposition drives the author to identify the Harlot of chapter 17 with Jerusalem and modern Israel. Like Apocalypse for Everyman, the exposition provides no prophetic word for the brethren from the
2nd to the 20th century.
It is vital to the concept of this interpretation that the Revelation was given to John before the AD 70 epoch. Evidence does not support this. The evidence of the early Fathers points to the persecution under Domitian near the end of the century for the time John received the vision. Furthermore, if the strange symbols of the Seals and Trumpets had been fulfilled around AD 70, there surely would have been reference to them in the writings of Polycarp, Ireneus and others since Polycarp was personally acquainted with John.
ANOTHER FUTURIST THEORY
As in Exploring the Apocalypse and the Future, by P. Watkins.
Bro. Watkins has elements that are the same as those in both the interpretations just outlined. Like Bro. Norris he places the Revelation in the future; like Bro. Whittaker he associates it almost entirely with Israel, in his case modern Israel. The little Horn of Daniel 7; the little Horn of The Goat of Daniel 8; the Man of Sin of 2 Thess. 2; the Beasts that make war with the saints; these are all symbols of modern Israel, with occasional reference back to the nation in an earlier time. Most of the Seals, the Trumpets, and Vials are judgements on Israel. Israel is to become a world-dominating power, persecuting the saints, and fighting against Jesus Christ. His interpretation of the Revelation is summarised in the diagram on page 78.
THE ORIGIN OF THE PAST AND FUTURIST INTERPRETATIONS
One is not to suppose that interpretations of the Revelation either as largely fulfilled in the first century, or largely still future, are new. Both these ideas were propagated by the Roman Catholic Church to counter the Protestant charge at the Reformation and after, that the Roman Church and her civil supporters is intended in the symbol of the Harlot on the Beast. Alcazar, a Spanish Jesuit, started the idea of a first century fulfilment involving the Jewish nation; Riberia, another Spanish Jesuit, presented his futurist theory in 1580. But it was the writings of a cunning Jesuit, Lacunza, writing under the false name of 'Rabbi Ben Ezra', that turned the Protestants and Non-conformists away from the historical interpretation early in the 19th century. So the futurist ideas were popular in Bro. Thomas' time. Elliott, who published his Horae Apocalypticae in 1844, some 5 years before Elpis Israel was published, wrote at the beginning of his exposition: "When first I began to give attention to the subject, some 20 years ago, it was the increasing prevalence among Christian men in our country of the futurist system of Apocalyptic interpretation, -- a system which involved the abandonment of the opinion held by all the chief fathers and doctors of our Church respecting the Roman Popes and Popedom as the great intended anti-christian Power of Scripture prophecy, that suggested to me the desirableness, and indeed the necessity, of a more thoroughly careful investigation of the whole subject than had been made previously". So the brethren of the last century were not unacquainted with the futurist interpretation.
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