I remember that day back in Spring of 2006 almost like it was yesterday. I was pacing in bedroom while reading Romans 4 and then that moment came. I stopped dead in my tracks reading 4:17, “He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed—the God who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not.” You see for many of my Christian years, I cited that phrase as if it is something we can do, calling those things that be not as though they were. It’s not like I didn’t read the Bible. I read it diligently. But I imposed the philosophy of “speaking things into existence” unto the text. Because it was so popularly taught in my circles, I sincerely believed that words contain power and we can use them to wield that God would move according to the words we spoke, as if our words had some kind of power over circumstances. So when reading Scripture, I brought that presupposition in to whatever I read (such as Mark 11:24).
But during this particular time, I was already being challenged on the fragmented way I had read Scripture and the frequency of ripping verses out of their context. So when I read that verse in it’s context, it really brought to life my propensity to bring presuppositions into the text. That one verse sent ripples through considering elsewhere in the Bible where that did not validate this concept. It struck me so powerfully that I had imposed this thought unto the biblical text and presumed it was the way it was.
In some sense, I think I’ve had one of the moments as I’ve been studying the book of Revelation and eschatology, in general. As I wrote about here, I’ve been reading Revelation with fresh eyes because of certain assumptions that I’ve made for many years when approaching this book. Presumptions included that 1) it tells a story of what will happen in the order; 2) that it describes literal events that will take place in the future and 3) that it involves bringing Israel to salvation as the church has been moved out of the way. In other words, as I wrote about in my last post, I presumed a dispensational premillennial position. Funny thing was that I’ve long had some tensions with some components of this position that I just took for granted because of the presuppositions that I held regarding the futurist chronological literalism of the book.
The one verse that has served as a catalyst for reorientation on how Revelation should be read is 1:1
The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants the things that must soon take place. He 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. (Rev. 1:1-3)
My long held premillennial presupposition naturally took vs. 1 to mean what God was showing would happen leading up to and during a seven year tribulation period. No doubt that God is giving John a series of vision concerning the message of Christ. But if vs 1 is describing the manner in which God is giving these series of visions, it’s a bit of a game changer.
The notion of verb semaino (make known) could have a straight forward meaning of communicating something, make known or report. But it is likely that vs 1 means how these series of visions should be read. Communication is being conducted in symbolism that is not necessarily playing out in a chronological order of events. This changes how we read Revelation.
In his shorter commentary, Greg Beale cracks this wide open;
In this light, the dictum of the popular approach to Revelation–“interpret literally unless you are forced to interpret symbolically”–should be turned on its head. Instead, the programmatic statement about the book’s precise mode of communication in 1:1 is that the warp and woof of it is symbolic, so that the preceding dictum should be reversed to say–“interpret symbolically unless you are forced to interpret literally.” Better put, the reader is to expect that the main means of divine revelation is symbolic.
Now, considering that the series of visions is rooted in the testimony of Christ, the symbolism has tangible meaning pointing to what has already been revealed in Christ. It IS rooted in a literal reality according to what OT prophecy foretold and Christ fulfilled. The symbolism is more a function of literary genre that is indicative of OT prophecy. Sorry to my charismatic friends, but this means we don’t get to interpret the symbolism in any kind of wild and crazy way we want. Nor is it some kind of vague allegorical randomness as I have heard from my dispensational friends. Beale further adds;
We understand Revelation, therefore (at least, outside the letters to the seven churches in chs. 2 and 3), as a series of revelatory visions which are to be interpreted symbolically. Unless there is strong evidence in the text to the contrary, the visions (whether, for instance, those of the beast, the false prophet, the seven kings, the ten horns, the army of two hundred million, the twenty-four elders, or the millennium) are for the most part to be taken non-literally. This does not mean that they have no meaning or historical reference, but that the meaning is to be found symbolically–and almost always within the context of OT references which run through the visions God gave to John. There is always a literal meaning underlying the symbolic meaning, though this literal meaning is often about spiritual realities, both of which have to do with some kind of historical reality.
What has really struck me the further I read Revelation in light of it’s symbolic nature is how much of it describes the church (example – the 144,000, the 2 witnesses). This is pretty significant and consistent with the rest of Scripture. I also recommend Kingdom Come: an Amillennial Alternative by Sam Storms who deals adeptly with this perspective.
Through my many years of espousing premillennialism, one of the points of tension that I continually wrestled with was the textual evidence for the church being taken out of the way after chapter 4 via the rapture and that the remaining chapters up to 21 exclusively focused on God’s dealing with Israel and judgment on the world. In fact, I heard on repeated occasions that since after chapter 4, the church is not mentioned, this presumes a pre-tribulational rapture. It was probably one of the weakest aspects from a textual perspective but I pretty much just assumed that was the case in cross referencing with 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17 (presuming one reads that as a pretribulational rapture of the church).
But let’s not forget who this letter is directed to – the church. So that leads me to ask a simple yet logical question regarding the nature of the book. If this is a letter to the church, why on earth would most of the book be directed to a group of people not the church (or not considered the church – presuming a distinction between Israel and the church)? What sense does this make?
However, interpreting symbolically in light of the tangible references makes the book of Revelation all about the church, Satan’s war against her, Christ’s protection of her and his ultimate victory over the forces of darkness. Rather, than considering the visions in a more literal chronological order specifying a 7 year period, it makes so much sense that Revelation demonstrates a recapitulation of this war, told from different angles. Otherwise, you do come across some stick chronological situations, e.g. the transition from ch. 19 to 20.
Let’s be clear, this is not just a matter of different interpretations that will just pan out in the end. As we went through a 15 study on Revelation in our Sunday School in conjunction with my own personal study, this really struck me how much the book was about Christ and his bride and not so much about apocalyptic events that tend to get the focus in a futurist interpretation. Of course, we can all agree on Revelation 21, when Christ sets everything right. But I believe the implications are deeply impactful to the work of the church. If you believe that the church will be taken out of the picture so God can deal with Israel, there is less incentive to consider how the church endures persecution.
But I can’t help but see that in Revelation, Jesus comforts his bride, not by taking her out of worldly trouble, but strengthening her through it until the final victory when all evil, death, sin and pain is conquered. I can’t help but think that this has a greater propensity to bind the church together than interpreting how the church will be taken out of the way. And considering all the chaos in the world now and the cultural forces opposing the church, isn’t this what we need? Isn’t that why God gave John the vision in the first place?