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Interpretations of Revelation

By Mike Mazzalongo     Posted: Wed. Jan 29th 2014
This lesson reviews the 4 major interpretations given by scholars as to the meaning of the book of Revelation.

In the last chapter we reviewed the introductory material concerning the book of Revelation:

  1. Written by John the Apostle
  2. Used apocalyptic style to disguise meaning
  3. Addressed to 7 churches in Asia Minor
  4. Describes the struggle in the 1st century between Rome and the church
  5. Encourages church to persevere in suffering because Rome will be defeated
  6. Also describes the ongoing cycle of struggle between good and evil that will end with Christ's appearance at the end of the world
  7. Material is presented in a series of visions that reveal Christ and His relationship and dealings with the church on earth, the church in heaven, as well as the destruction of Satan.

The theme of the book is the revelation of Christ and the outline follows this theme. If you do not get mired down in all of the imagery, the book is rather straightforward. In this lesson we will examine the first two sections of this outline.

Prologue – Christ communicates

The first verse gives insight into the time that the rest of the material is referring to.

"The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show to His bond-servants, the things which must soon take place; and He sent and communicated it by His angel to His bond-servant John, 2 who testified to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw. 3 Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of the prophecy, and heed the things which are written in it; for the time is near. 4 John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace, from Him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven Spirits who are before His throne, 5 and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To Him who loves us and released us from our sins by His blood— 6 and He has made us to be a kingdom, priests to His God and Father—to Him be the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen. 7Behold, He is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see Him, even those who pierced Him; and all the tribes of the earth will mourn over Him. So it is to be. Amen. 8"I am the Alpha and the Omega," says the Lord God, "who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.""
- Revelation 1:1-8

As I said before, there are four main views on what Revelation is referring to:

  1. Preterist – The term refers to something that has happened in the past - Preterist tense of a verb (IE. I go - present tense; I went: preterite tense or past tense). The book refers to the events taking place during the writing of the book. The struggle between Rome and the church.
  2. Idealist / Philosophical / Spiritual – The book contains principles that refer to the church's ongoing struggle with the evil in the world (cyclical) and how it will triumph.
  3. Historical / Historicist – A forecast of the entire period of church history between the first and second coming of Jesus. Key events in history prophesied until the end (Roman Catholicism, Reformation, etc.).
  4. Futurist – The book describes mainly the events that will take place at the end of the world. Total prophecy.

There are good arguments to support each of these views and when it comes to Revelation it is wise not to be too dogmatic because there are many things we do not completely grasp.

However, if I were to say what I personally believe is the best approach and the one traditionally followed by most teachers in the church of Christ, I would say that we hold a position that is a combination of the first and second views.

I believe that the book of Revelation is about the 1st century church and its struggle with its Roman oppressors and its symbolism and message also contains basic principles that point to an ongoing struggle between the kingdom and Satan which will end with Christ's second coming.

I believe this for several reasons:

  1. The very first verse in the book says that what the book will describe are things that will shortly take place. It is about things that will happen soon in their lives. There are only two centuries between the writing of the book and the fall of Rome. Again in verse 3, John says that the time is near for these things to happen.
  2. A book that contained a look into the future or only principles about good and evil would not have been very comforting to those who were suffering a very real persecution in their own lifetime.
  3. The historical and futurist views do not deal with the reality of the Roman Empire (they even revive the Roman Empire in one instance). In addition to this, many of their historical applications do not fit the symbolism of the book. For example, trying to make the second beast the Catholic Church. Revelation teaches that both beasts existed at the same time but the Roman Catholic Church did not exist at the time of the Roman Empire, only after. These two views begin with an assumption and then try to fit all the symbols and images into their assumption. There are always pieces left over.
  4. The combination of the Preterist and Idealist view explain accurately (and simply) most of the symbols, images and purposes of the book. It was written to encourage and warn the early church about events soon to take place. It provides every generation an encouragement that Christ will care for His church and be victorious in the end.

For these reasons we will study the book as a letter written by John dealing with contemporary problems of the 1st century church, offering God's solution that would continue to encourage the church until Christ's return.

So let us go back to the text in chapter 1:1-3

The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show to His bond-servants, the things which must soon take place; and He sent and communicated it by 1 His angel to His bond-servant John, 2 who testified to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw. 3 Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of the prophecy, and heed the things which are written in it; for the time is near.
- Revelation 1:1-3

John establishes the fact that what is to follow is a revelation given to him by God and concerns events that will take place in the not too distant future.

4 John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace, from Him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven Spirits who are before His throne, 5 and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To Him who loves us and released us from our sins by His blood— 6 and He has made us to be a kingdom, priests to His God and Father—to Him be the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen. 7 Behold, He is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see Him, even those who pierced Him; and all the tribes of the earth will mourn over Him. So it is to be. Amen.

8 "I am the Alpha and the Omega," says the Lord God, "who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.""
- Revelation 1:4-8

John specifies to whom this message is addressed, the seven churches that formed a network in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey). He also mentions from whom the message comes:

  • The Father, who was, is, to come. The eternal One.
  • The Holy Spirit, the seven spirits before the throne. The perfect Spirit (7).
  • Jesus Christ, the Son, the savior, the Lord.

No doubt that this is the God they worship as He is fully revealed here in His triune nature.

In verses 7 and 8 he mentions Jesus coming in judgment (mourning). This does not refer to the second coming but rather the coming of Jesus to fulfill the things written in the book. There is a lot of confusion and debate here.

The "coming" of the Lord is a phrase that is associated with temporal judgment, not just the second coming. For example Matthew 24:27 refers to the "coming" of the Son of Man, but in reference to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD.

When God is said to be "coming" it either means to judge a nation for some reason (Sodom, Amalekites, Egypt) or the final second coming of Christ. The context will determine which. In Revelation 1:7, the coming of Jesus refers to the things that John has said will shortly take place. This means that for the early Christians, Christ was coming to rescue them from their predicament. They might have thought it would be the second coming, but we know it was not.

History shows that within a relatively short period of time the persecution stopped, Rome crumbled, and the Christian religion survived and flourished.

Historians will credit the breakdown of government, the emerging strength of surrounding nations as the reason for Rome's fall, but through the eyes of faith we see God working to destroy this enemy using other nations as His servants. In the Old Testament He used Nebuchadnezzar as His tool and even called him His "servant." We see, therefore, that the premise of the book is established in the first eight verses.

  • God reveals His plan to John.
  • John addresses the church with God's plan.
  • Christ is preparing to come to save them from their present suffering.
  • His coming and salvation will be soon.

In the next section the message concerning Christ's coming changes as John has his first vision. In this first vision Christ begins by warning the churches about their spiritual condition before He comes to visit judgment on the enemy.

Vision I – Christ and the Church – 1:9-3:22

In these next chapters John begins describing his first vision, one in which Christ appears to him and gives him a message for the churches.

There were more than seven churches that existed in those times but these congregations formed a network of churches around the church where John worked, Ephesus. Also the number 7 was significant in referring to what is perfect, 7 churches symbolizing the entire church.

In verses 9 through 20 John has a vision of Jesus in His glorious state.

9 "I, John, your brother and fellow partaker in the tribulation and kingdom and perseverance which are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. 10 I was in the Spirit on the Lord's day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like the sound of a trumpet, 11 saying, "Write in a book what you see, and send it to the seven churches: to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea.""
- Revelation 1:9-11

He is given the command to write a book while he was in exile on Patmos. The book is to be addressed to seven churches and their names are given.

12 Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking with me. And having turned I saw seven golden lampstands; 13 and in the middle of the lampstands...
- Revelation 1:12-13a

The lampstands are later explained as churches among which the Lord is present.

13b I saw one like a son of man, clothed in a robe reaching to the feet, and girded across His chest with a golden sash. 14 His head and His hair were white like white wool, like snow; and His eyes were like a flame of fire. 15 His feet were like burnished bronze, when it has been made to glow in a furnace, and His voice was like the sound of many waters. 16 In His right hand He held seven stars, and out of His mouth came a sharp two-edged sword; and His face was like the sun shining in its strength.
- Revelation 1:13b-16

He describes the heavenly vision of Jesus: Son of Man (Old Testament title for Messiah), long robe (royal attire), golden girdle (purity/priesthood), hair white as wool (supernatural), eyes aflame (knowledge), feet like bronze (power), voice like many waters (universal), 7 stars in hand (authority), sword from mouth (word/judgment), face shining like the sun (awe inspiring). This is a vision of God with each element describing different facets of God's character and being.

17 When I saw Him, I fell at His feet like a dead man. And He placed His right hand on me, saying, "Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, 18 and the living One; and I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of death and of Hades."
- Revelation 1:17-18

John is afraid and Jesus reassures John that it is He, the Lord.

19 Therefore write the things which you have seen, and the things which are, and the things which will take place after these things. 20 As for the mystery of the seven stars which you saw in My right hand, and the seven golden lampstands: the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches."
- Revelation 19-20

He is told to record his vision and explained the meaning of the seven stars. The seven stars are angels who belong or serve the churches represented by the lampstands. In essence Jesus is saying that He is close at hand, close to the churches, ready to judge and intervene in the things that are taking place, but first He has a specific message for the churches.

The next two chapters list the seven churches mentioned in 1:11 and the message for each. Each church has specific problems and needs which are addressed, but the entire message contains some basic principles which are repeated from church to church.

7 principles of the 7 letters

1. Christ knows every Christian – The Lord knows in intimate detail the work (or absence thereof) of each member of every congregation. This should be a source of comfort and motivation for all.

2. Christ wants the church to guard His teachings – The church needs to be careful in what it hears, what it believes and what it teaches. The doctrines that you hold and teach will make a difference (Matthew 7:15-27).

3. Christ wants Christians to grow in service. The Lord mentions service 5 out of 7 times:

  • Thyatira – last works greater than first.
  • Philadelphia – great opportunity for service.
  • Ephesus – left your first love, repent.
  • Laodicea – lukewarm, will reject them.
  • Sardis – not living up to your reputation. Christ cares about what we do, how we serve.

4. Christ wants Christians to live in purity – There is no compromise. This was the problem with Jezebel and the Nicolaitians. Our standards are not to be set by the world around us.

5. Christ wants Christians to be ready for persecution and persevere in it – the Roman persecution had been ongoing and would continue for some time. The Roman persecution embodied the spirit of all those who would oppose Christ until the end of time.

6. Christ wants Christians to know that it is possible to be lost (and He wants all to be saved).

  • Ephesus – remove their candlestick
  • Laodecia – spew out of mouth

You cannot serve God and Mammon; if you serve the world you lose your salvation, if you refuse to serve Christ you lose your salvation.

7. Christ will reward Christians who overcome – The final word to each of the 7 churches is that if they overcome (the temptation to deny Christ or return to the world and give up due to suffering on account of their faith), they will be richly rewarded. Some of the rewards mentioned:

  1. Eat of the tree of life.
  2. Not hurt by second death.
  3. New name on white stone.
  4. Receive Morning Star.
  5. White garments, name in book of life.
  6. Pillar in New Jerusalem.
  7. Sit and reign with Christ in heaven.

All of these are symbolic ways of saying that those who remain faithful will resurrect from the dead, have eternal life with God in heaven and reign with Him in power over all the spirit world.

This is the encouragement to the churches in the area of Asia Minor but who represented the entire church and by extension the same message for the church today wherever it meets.

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Oklahoma Christian University