In The Devil’s Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914) included the following definition for the book of Revelation: “REVELATION, n. A famous book in which St. John the Divine concealed all that he knew. The revealing is done by the commentators, who know nothing.” G. K. Chesterton added to the exposure of revelatory confusion: “Though St. John the Evangelist saw many strange monsters in his vision, he saw no creature so wild as one of his own commentators.”[1] Not to be outdone, H. G. Wells had this to say in his book The Fate of Man: “Who, except cranks and lunatics, reads the Book of Revelation?” A fitting epitaph to Wells’ own worldview can be found in his “aptly titled book, The Mind at the End of Its Tether (1945) in which he concluded that ‘there is no way out, or around, or through the impasse. It is the end.’”[2] Wells considered himself to be a prophet, but to no avail.

Confusion over the book of Revelation comes about because while it “is applicable to all times and occasions in the Church” it was written at a particular time and to a particular audience. Like all prophecy, even though it may be fulfilled, it does not mean it does not have abundant application. Too many interpreters of prophecy are under the impression that if a prophecy was not about their time, it doesn’t have any relevance for them. No Christian looks at the many Old Testament prophecies that were fulfilled in the person and work of Jesus Christ and comes to that conclusion.

The Book of Revelation Made Easy

The Book of Revelation Made Easy

Revelation is the most Hebraic of all the New Testament books, and no student of the Word can afford to miss its clear connections with the figures, language, and imagery of Old Testament literature in bringing the story of God’s covenant to a close. Relying heavily on Old Testament prophecy and first-century history, Gentry provides his reader with the essential keys for unlocking the text—the guideposts necessary for following its winding paths and discerning its key figures and their roles—and without indulging in tedious detail.

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What is the relationship between the Jesus of the Olivet Discourse and the Jesus of Revelation? A study of the Olivet Discourse is a good introduction into the study of the book of Revelation since there are many parallels that even futurists and idealists acknowledge. James M. Hamilton, Jr., for example, says that “the opening of the seals in Revelation 6 corresponds to what Jesus describes in the Olivet Discourse in the Synoptic Gospels.”[3] If the Olivet Discourse is describing events leading up to and including the destruction of Jerusalem that took place within a generation, then Revelation must be given a similar interpretation.

Some maintain that the two prophetic sections mostly cover the tribulation period just after the return of Jesus to “rapture” the church. Dispensationalists, for example, believe the seven-year tribulation period begins with Revelation 4:1 where John, representing the “raptured” church, is commanded, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after these things.” They argue that since the word “church” is no longer used in chapters 4 through 19, it must have been “raptured,” taken off the earth. In this way, the church does not go through the Tribulation. This sounds reasonable until the careful reader notes that the whole “church” is not mentioned in the first three chapters of Revelation. It’s the “church in” seven geographical areas in Asia Minor (Rev. 2:1, 8, 12, 18) or “the churches” (1:4, 11, 20; 2:7, 11, 17, 23, 29; 3:6, 13, 22; 22:16), never just “the church.”

We’re told that because the “church” is to be “raptured” before the seven-year tribulation period, that the seven years to follow is about Israel. There’s a big problem. The word “Israel” only appears once between chapters 4 and 20 (7:4). Notice how Revelation ends with these words of Jesus: “I, Jesus, have sent My angel to give you this testimony for the churches. I am the Root and the Offspring of David, the bright Morning Star” (22:16).

Supposedly, the yet future end-time tribulation period ends with the physical return of Jesus in Revelation 19, covering a seven-year time span that makes up the 70th week of Daniel’s prophecy (Dan. 9:24-27) to be followed by Jesus’ reign on earth for a thousand years even though Revelation 20 doesn’t say anything about Jesus’ reign on the earth.

Hamilton takes the position that the Olivet Discourse and the parallel passages in Revelation describe “all of church history between the two comings of Christ.” The late Tim LaHaye, a noted dispensationalist, took a similar position claiming that the seven churches of Revelation 2 and 3 represent the entire church age. We are now, according to what LaHaye proclaimed, living in the age of the church of Laodicea. You can’t have an “any moment rapture” if the six previous church periods had to have passed away. The rapture can only take place when the Laodicean period began. This negates the any-moment rapture doctrine.

If we can determine the timing of Jesus’ discourse that He gave to His disciples on the Mount of Olives, it might go a long way to help identify the time when the book of Revelation was written and the particular event or events that make up the subject matter of the most enigmatic books of the Bible.

Hamilton, the author of God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment and Revelation: The Spirit Speaks to the Churches, says “the best way to interpret apocalyptic literature and Revelation is by the light of other Scripture. The apocalyptic world view is the biblical world view. We need to soak ourselves in all of Scripture so that we recognize the allusions to other passages in Revelation, and often the meaning of those other passages are crucial to understanding what John is saying in Revelation. The ancient hermeneutical rule is still the best one: Scripture is the best interpreter of Scripture.”[4]

I wouldn’t be off the mark to say that every interpreter of apocalyptic literature and the prophetic material found in Revelation would agree with Dr. Hamilton’s methodology. Even people like Harold Camping, author of 1994?, and Edgar Whisenant, author of Why the Rapture is in 1988, believed “Scripture is the best interpreter of Scripture.” In a debate I had with Mr. Whisenant in 1988, he told the radio audience that if he was wrong in his interpretation, the Bible had to be wrong. So much with Scripture interpreting Scripture.

Even with wild-eyed date setters being so wrong about their predictions, Scripture is the best interpreter of Scripture. Using something else other than the Bible to interpret the Bible is the first step off the prophetic cliff.

When Moses Stuart (1780-1852) began his professorship at Andover Theological Seminary, some of his students repeatedly requested of him to teach on the book of Revelation. He took the request to heart but did not immediately satisfy the request. Stuart’s professorship began in 1809 but the publication of his two-volume, 1000-page Commentary on the Apocalypse was not published until 1845. Stuart explains the delay:

I commenced study of it, with a design to comply with their request. I soon found myself, however, in pursuing the way of regular interpretation as applied to other books of Scripture, completely hedged in…. I frankly told my Pupils, therefore, that I knew nothing respecting the book which could profit them, and that I could not attempt to lecture upon it. After still further examination, I came to a resolution, not to attempt the exegesis of the Apocalypse, until a period of ten years had elapsed, which should be devoted, so far as my other duties would permit, to the study of the Hebrew prophets. I kept my resolution. After this period had passed, I began, with much caution, to say a few things, in the Lecture-room, respecting the book in question…. In the process of time I began to go through the whole book. This I have done several times; and the present work is the result of those often repeated and long continued labors.[5]

Stuart’s studied and cautious approach to interpreting Revelation is a lesson for all of us. Until there is a familiarity with the rest of the Bible, Revelation will remain a book that is variously interpreted but with its message rarely revealed. It’s no wonder Richard Bauckham described it as The Climax of Prophecy. There’s a long prior series of stories that need to be understood before the completion of the story can be determined. Knowing the source of Revelation’s content will go a long way in determining the book’s meaning and relevancy.

Since Revelation is written against the backdrop of the Old Testament and there are countless allusions to the Old Testament, a good approach to help us understand what is often an enigmatic book is to begin with the way the Old Testament depicts prophetic judgment themes. The first readers of Revelation were expected to understand what had been revealed. If not, then how could they “heed the things which are written in it”? (Rev. 1:3). You can’t heed what you can’t understand. Understanding is the hallmark of interpretation (Rev. 13:18).

Left Behind: Separating Fact from Fiction

Left Behind: Separating Fact from Fiction

With confidence based on years of biblical study, DeMar carefully examines eleven major components of the pre-tribulation rapture theology and offers clear, convincing alternatives to the interpretations of Bible prophecy presented in Left Behind. What difference does it make what we believe about the end times anyway? DeMar addresses that question as well, showing how our point-of-view regarding end-times prophecies affects the way we live each day. In addition, DeMar answers skeptics who use failed end-times predictions to disprove the Bible.

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There have been many attempts to interpret the prophecies of Revelation in a so-called literal way. Understood properly, “literal interpretation” is the correct approach as long as it means letting the Bible interpret itself. R. C. Sproul writes:

“To interpret the Bible literally is to interpret is as literature. That is, the natural meaning of a passage is to be interpreted according to the normal rules of grammar, speech, syntax and context.”[6]

What reference point would those attending the seven churches in Asia have used? The only written Revelation they had was what we call the Old Testament and maybe some of the early New Testament books:

All Scripture is God breathed and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work (2 Tim. 3:16-17).

Without knowledge of prior revelation, specifically revelation given to us in the Old Testament prophets, Revelation will always remain a closed and enigmatic book. Interpreting this enigmatic book requires paying close attention to the time indicators (1:1, 3: 22:6, 10, 12, 20), it’s first audience that was to understand it (the seven churches in Asia Minor), and the book’s ultimate purpose “to testify to you [ὑμῖν/humin: 2nd person plural] these things [shown to John] for the churches” (Rev. 22:16). The “you” were Revelation’s first readers.

[1] G.K. Chesterton, “The Maniac,” Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy was first published in 1908.

[2] Herbert Schlossberg, Idols for Destruction: The Conflict of Christian Faith and American Culture (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books [1983] 1990), 2.

[3] Hamilton, An Interview with Dr. James Hamilton. For further discussion of this point, see James M. Hamilton, Jr., Revelation: The Spirit Speaks to the Churches (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 166-167.

[4] “An Interview with Dr. James Hamilton on ‘Revelation: The Spirit Speaks to the Churches.’”

[5] Moses Stuart, A Commentary on the Apocalypse, 2 vols. (London: Wiley and Putnam, 1845), 1:v.

[6] R.C. Sproul, Knowing Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1977), 48-49.