The secret of seeing the future lies in looking at it through its author.
Everything you encounter in the Bible finds its terminus in the Book of Revelation. Two chapters into Genesis, there’s a bride and a bridegroom. Two chapters out from the end of the Bible there’s a bride and bridegroom, the consummate couple of Christ and His glorified church (Rev. 21). Two chapters into Genesis, we find precious substances scattered all over the ground of the garden. Two chapters out from the end of the Bible, we find these same substances built together into a city which expresses the glory of God (Rev. 21). Three chapters into Genesis the devil wanders in and ruins everything. Three chapters out from the end of the Bible the devil is judged and thrown into the lake of fire (Rev. 20). You could say Genesis is the seed plot of all divine truths in the Bible, but the book of Revelation is the harvest of those truths.
Since interpretation is such a pivotal feature related to this book, I want to say a few things about it. I will no doubt handle Revelation differently than the pastor in your childhood church, or your favorite podcasts. The reason for the difference lies in the fact that there are four large interpretational approaches that a pastor or a reader of the Book of Revelation will tend toward. Each has explanatory strengths, though when applied too rigidly, weaknesses as well.
The first is called Preterism. This interpretational strategy sees Revelation mainly describing things taking place in the first century, at the time the book was written. The strength of this approach is that it would have made the most sense to its initial Christian recipients during times of great military and political upheaval. However, the weakness of preterism is that it spends so much time occupied with first century events, it leaves little room for future fulfillments. And undeniably, much of Revelation’s emphasis is forward-looking toward things that have not already been fulfilled, such as Christ’s open return, and the manifest appearance of the kingdom of God.
Historicism. This interpretational strategy sees the contents of Revelation as being gradually fulfilled in history. The strength of this approach is that it does seem to fit very well certain parts of the Book of Revelation like chapters 1 through 3, where the seven churches of Asia seem to mirror church history. The weakness of historicism lies in its sheer subjectivity: beyond chapter three one is left trying to match historical events with the verses in Revelation and theorize about which ones fit best. Not surprisingly, little consensus exists among historicists about what belongs where.
Futurism. This method of interpretation treats the book of Revelation as mostly containing things that are in the future. Indeed the tone of the book is forward-looking, so futurism has a strong case. Its weakness is that it makes Revelation a book concerned mainly with the future, leaving it little currency, or application in the present, and almost none for the past.
Idealism. This strategy treats the Book of Revelation as describing neither the past nor the future, but a timeless present. That means the contents of the book reflect certain spiritual realities that are at play no matter what point in time a person happens to be living. The strength of that approach makes Revelation always current and always relevant. However its weakness lies in not treating the contents of the book as needing a calendar fulfillment. We know that at a certain time Jesus must return, bring eternal glory, and redeem all of creation. It is not simply a spiritual principle to be invoked.
These strategies of interpretation are the result of careful scholarly analysis by many faithful Christians, and for the sake of space, I have imperfectly presented each.
There is however, one final approach which should not be grouped with the other four legitimate ones. This occurs when a preacher or commentator, fueled with creative juices and religious imagination, interprets Revelation according to his opinions, and simply likes riding an end-of-the-world hobby horse. There is little discipline involved here, and almost no serious interaction with the text. These people always seem to come out of the woodwork whenever we begin talking about the Book of Revelation or the Book of Daniel.
Good interpretation is important. Without it, Christians attempting to navigate Revelation have been led into ridiculous conspiracy theories, fear-mongering, non-edifying speculation, preoccupation with decoding things, and predicting events.
How am I going to handle this book? I hope to play to the strengths of each of the large legitimate interpretational approaches. Sometimes I may sound like a preterist, sometimes a historicist, sometimes a futurist, and sometimes an idealist. That is the best way I know to respect the text.
God, after all, intends Revelation to be a positive for us.
And the first positive feature is that this book has an unveiling function. Look at the opening two words of verse one: “The revelation.” Revelation comes from the Greek word, apocalupsis, meaning to uncover, or unveil something that was present, but hidden. Additionally, the revelation is “of Jesus Christ” telling us up front that the chief content of this book will be a Person, not a cavalcade of Doctor Suess-like oddities.
Furthermore, this revelation is something “God gave him to show to his servants.” Christ is not only the content of the revelation, but the mediator of it. He has received and then given, specifically to show us “the things that must soon take place.” If we want clarity about the future, we must first see Christ the way God has willed for Him to show Himself in this book. Without a correct view of him at heart level, we cannot see anything else properly. C.S. Lewis once said, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it, I see everything else.”
Prior to the writing of Revelation, there was a great need for an unveiling in the first century. Christ had been crucified for our sins, resurrected, and then ascended to heaven out of plain sight of everyone in 33 AD. This had sparked a flurry of gospel preaching, discipleship, and a proliferation of church plants. But Jesus did not come back. In fact, history took a scary turn.
Caesar Nero began the first ever top-level persecution of Christians, including atrocities like turning believers into human candles, or mangling them with wild animals. After this localized terror had died down, Caesar Vespasian initiated a campaign against Jerusalem in AD 67, ending in the city’s full destruction in AD 70. The leveling was so complete, a dissolution of Israel occurred and the nation didn’t recover until 1948. The church there was also scattered. A Christian living at the time would no doubt have wondered, What does this mean?
The confusion would grow yet worse. At the end of the century, Caesar Domitian was requiring people to call him “Lord and God,” and once again undertook the killing of Christians. Still, Christ had not come back. It looked as if history was nothing more than a random unfolding of events with no rhyme or reason. An unveiling was desperately needed.
It’s a feeling serious Christians also have today. We wonder how the drug epidemic could get any worse, and where the bottom of it might lie. Will we be forced to legalize even more dangerous substances, simply because people crave them?
It’s never been this bad!
The information and communication based technology we laud regularly creates fresh crises of ethics, and crime that people living just twenty years ago didn’t have to deal with.
We’ve never been here before!
We’re still trying to process life in the ideological backwash of Darwin, Freud, Marx, Nietzsche, Hugh Hefner, and the like—folks who have shaped the thought processes of every living person we know.
Is there any hope?
It’s no surprise that even Christians in this matrix fall victim to spiritual shipwreck, led away after beliefs and causes as though they were following some sort of Pied Piper. It reminds us of Jesus’ warning—“False Christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect” (Matt. 24:24).
But it doesn’t have to be this way. There’s a book in our Bible that specializes in unveiling, in fact, it’s named Unveiling (Revelation). It uncovers Christ, and then through Him, illuminates everything else, especially the things that will soon take place.
Yet this book not only reveals what is hidden, it blesses while it does so.
“He [Christ] made it known by sending his angel to his servant, John, who bore witness to the word of God, and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw. Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near” (Rev, 1:1c-3).
Blessing only comes when we read Revelation (yes, open your Bible), hear it (pay close attention to the contents), and keep it (value, hold onto, implement the contents).
You may wonder what the blessing is. We can get an idea from some of John’s other writing:
Jesus said, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words. And the word that you hear is not mine but the Father’s who sent me” (John 14:23-24).
Clearly, if we love Jesus, we will value, treasure, hold onto His word like that priceless family heirloom passed down from your great, great-grandfather that you’d never pawn. When we keep the word of Christ, the resultant blessing will be the Father and the Son building a vibrant permanent relationship with us.
A Christian will always need this blessing, because “the time is near,” but this raises another issue. For thousands of years in every era Revelation 1:3 has said the time is near, yet Christ has not returned. Is the verse wrong? The answer lies in the difference between how we and God see time. We see it in terms of strict chronological procession. He sees it as reflected in his statement to the Jews: “Before Abraham was, I AM” (John 8:58). Christ predated Abraham not in the past tense, but the present, which is problematic for the human mind. He should have said, “I was before Abraham, not “I Am before him.”
We’ll also find a similar thought in Revelation 1:4, where God is called “Him who is, and who was, and who is to come.” So when this God, who exists in such timeless fashion says, “the time is near,” He’s telling the truth. The things in the book of Revelation will have a definite calendar date fulfillment, but the urgency of needing to be blessed is always near.
A generation ago when we thought of the apocalypse, it was usually related to nuclear war. Today we are more likely to think of zombies. Either way, blessing is not part of that association because there’s no thought nor interest in valuing and keeping the words of Christ.
But as unveiling progresses in the coming chapters, we’ll see a vision of Christ as the glorified son of man in the midst of the churches, and the center of God’s administration in heaven, and in the midst of the rapture, and in God’s harvest, and in eternity.
Let these sights seep into your heart, keep them, and enjoy the blessing that comes of it.