No discussion about the end times can be complete without the Book of Revelation. Obviously, the book is way to long to give it the same verse-by-verse treatment as the Olivet Discourse, so I will instead go over the high points in my next few posts, and give references to several good commentaries.
In order to properly understand the book of Revelation, we need to apply the same rules of interpretation to it that we do to other prophecies. In doing so, being aware of the historical surroundings of the book, we find that it is as understandable as any other book of the Bible.
Time Frame References
“And if you say in your heart, 'How may we know the word that the LORD has not spoken?'-- when a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the LORD has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him.” (Deuteronomy 18:21-22)
Just like the other prophecies, the readers of Revelation had imminent expectations of the events in the prophecy. Historicists try to spread the prophecies of Revelation over the entire history of the Church age, while futurists attempt to place the prophecies of Revelation in the future (usually there own future). But the inspired writer, John, put the prophecies in the very near future of his audience. “Not once did he imply that his book was written with the twentieth century in mind, and that Christians would be wasting their time attempting to decipher it until the Scofield Reference Bible would become a best-selling novel.”1 Consider…
Revelation 1:1 - "...things which must shortly take place"
Revelation 1:3 - "The time is near."
Revelation 1:19 - "Write ... the things that are about to take place."
Revelation 2:16 - "Repent, or else I will come to you quickly"
Revelation 3:10 - "... the hour of trial ... is about to come upon the whole world."
Revelation 3:11 - "Behold, I come quickly!"
Revelation 22:6 - "...things which must shortly take place."
Revelation 22:7 - "Behold, I am coming quickly!"
Revelation 22:10 - "The time is at hand."
Revelation 22:12 - "Behold, I am coming quickly."
Revelation 22:20 - "Surely I am coming quickly."
John uses three different Greek words in these passages. The first is “τάχος” (Revelation 1:1). It means “a brief space (of time)”, and when used in conjunction with “ἐν”, it means “in haste: quickly, shortly, speedily”. The Second Word is “ἐγγύς” (Revelation 1:3). It means “at hand, near, nigh (at hand, unto), ready.” The third word is “μέλλω” (Revelation 3:10). This word is translated “about to” and is a strengthened form of “μέλω” (through the idea of imminent expectation) “to intend, that is, be about to be, do, or suffer something.” Commenting on Revelation 3:10, David Chilton adds, “Does it make sense that Christ would promise the church in Philadelphia protection from something that would happen thousands of years later? "Be of good cheer, you faithful, suffering Christians of first-century Asia Minor: I won't let those Soviet missiles and Killer Bees of the 20th century get you!" When the Philadelphian Christians were worried about more practical, immediate concerns — official persecution, religious discrimination, social ostracism, and economic boycotts—what did they care about Hal Lindsey's lucrative horror stories?”2 This leads us to the second consideration for proper interpretation.
Respect to the Original Audience
“And we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone's own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” (2 Peter 1:19-21)
There is a good post on the Old Truth Blog dealing with the sloppy handling of scripture by theologically inept and egocentric leaders.
Bible Study: "I feel like this verse means . . ."
The harsh fact is that it doesn’t matter how you feel about a verse. The verse means what it says, regardless of how you feel about it. The meaning of a passage of scripture is totally independent of your very existence, let alone your feelings.
In no place is this more relevant than in dealing with Bible Prophecy. I’ve been in Revelation Bible Studies where 15 different people would share 15 different interpretations of the seven heads of the beast (and they were all wrong). When John wrote his prophecy, it is clear that he wrote it in symbols. But the symbols are not to be interpreted by whatever happens to be the current New York Times headlines. When John wrote about the beast, he had a specific entity in mind, meaning that all other interpretations are wrong, and are adding to the Word of God. 2 Peter 1:20 rebukes this nonsense.
A much better way to interpret a passage is to ask, “What did it mean to the original audience?” John didn’t write Revelation in a vacuum. His words had an audience. John addresses the Book of Revelation “to the seven churches that are in Asia…” (Revelation 1:4). These churches will real, first century churches, and despite the claims of historicists and dispensationalists, there is no reason to interpret these seven churches in Asia as anything other than seven churches in Asia. (How’s that for some ‘literal’ interpretation?)
This being the case, it is important to correctly date the Book of Revelation. We will have to dedicate a separate post to that subject, as it is a controversy, and is crucial to the proper interpretation of the Book. But before we get to that, I want to add a comment about Bible prophecy in general, just to keep a proper perspective.
What is Bible Prophecy?
One of the greatest tragedies in the area of bible Prophecy is the misunderstanding of the Nature and Purpose of Prophecy itself. The “About Bible Prophecy” website tells us that “A prophecy is not a prediction of the future - it is a promise about the future.”3 Hal Lindsey, the godfather of our modern doomsday prophets, defines prophecy as "history written in advance".
However, Prophecy, according to the Scriptures, is not merely a prediction of future events. It that were the case, then Jonah would have to be considered a false prophet (See Deuteronomy 18:22, Jonah 3:4). Bible prophecy is the Word of the Living God, given for the edification, exhortation, and comfort of God’s people (1 Corinthians 14:3). The prophets of the Bible were not concerned with future events. They were concerned with exhorting God’s people to living a Holy life in accordance with God’s Law. This is the most overlooked, yet important message of prophecies throughout the Bible, and the same is true with the Book of Revelation.
“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…” (Revelation 1:3)
“Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus.” (Revelation 14:12)
“…Blessed is the one who stays awake, keeping his garments on, that he may not go about naked and be seen exposed!” (Revelation 16:15)
"… Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book." (Revelation 22:7)
“Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates.” (Revelation 22:14)
This is the true message of Bible prophecy. May the Lord use this teaching to call His people to Holiness once again.
1 David Chilton – The Days of Vengeance: An Exposition of the Book of Revelation, p. 41
2 Chilton, p. 129
3 AboutBibleProphecy.com - What is Bible prophecy?