Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the Baptist Messenger as part of a series on the book of Revelation. To read the series, go to baptistmessenger.com/revelation-podcast.
Many people today find the book of Revelation both mysterious and fascinating. It’s mysterious because it’s filled with visions composed of strange and striking imagery. What is one supposed to make of all that? Hearing that there are differing interpretations of what already seems strange, some lose heart at the outset and prefer to avoid the book altogether. However, its mysteriousness is also fascinating and beckons the reader not to turn aside. Furthermore, features of the book—such as its name, Apocalypse, and its climatic conflict, Armageddon—have entered into public imagination and discourse, so that it cannot be entirely avoided. But there is a more important reason why believers need to pay attention to the book of Revelation. Revelation is the last communication given by Jesus to the churches. It explicitly concerns His coming. As such, we must not only give attention to it, but also heed the Lord’s instruction. If we do, the book specifically promises us a blessing (Rev. 1:3).
I’m going to suggest in this brief essay something that might seem shocking: the book of Revelation is not as hard to understand as many people say. I don’t mean that everything in it is perfectly clear. I admit that there are mysteries and difficulties that challenge even the most accomplished scholar.
However,the overall structure of the book is not difficult to see,and keeping some basic rules in mind will help us navigate the visionary imagery.
I am taking what may generally be called a dispensational approach to the book of Revelation. Let me briefly explain. Dispensationalism is a way of interpreting the Bible that recognizes a future, national Israel in the plan and purpose of God. This future, national Israel is not simply another name for the church, any more than the United States, Mexico or Chad are alternative names for the church. Israel is a political, national and ethnically Jewish reality in Scripture. The church is a multi-ethnic, trans-national, corporate body of believers who are united to Jesus and to one another by the Holy Spirit. Members of the church are also members of political states, like the U.S. and present-day Israel. But, church and state are not the same.
The Bible tells us that God has a plan for the national, political order of human existence. At the center of that plan is a future, national Israel. This plan, however, has mostly been “on hold” since the ascension of Jesus. Its complete fulfillment awaits His future coming. At that time, as Peter explained in Acts 3:20-21, “all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets” will be fulfilled. In the meantime, the Lord has been forming His church out of individual Jewish and Gentile believers, uniting them to Himself and to each other by the Holy Spirit (note Acts 1:6-8).
A dispensational approach to the book of Revelation interprets political, national and ethnic features in its visions consistently with this expectation of a renewal of the political and national plan of God. Revelation speaks of judgment on nations and rulers followed by the coming of Christ and the establishment of His Kingdom on Earth.
There are some differences among dispensationalists as to whether the church and kingdom programs are fulfilled as two different people groups or as two dimensions of one redeemed humanity. The former are sometimes referred to as traditional dispensationalists, the latter as progressive dispensationalists. Either way, however, leads to a more “natural, plain or literal” reading of the national and political features in the book of Revelation, especially its description of the future political rule of Christ after His coming. This is why a dispensational reading of Revelation is sometimes said to be a “literal” reading of the book. However, this can be confusing because no one disputes the fact that Revelation’s visions are filled with metaphorical imagery. The point is that the national and political program of the Kingdom of God, which Jesus will fulfill at His coming, is not itself a metaphor, but the literal fulfillment of Old and New Testament prophecy.
Three principles should guide us as we proceed to interpret Revelation. First, identify links between the imagery, words, patterns and themes in Revelation with the rest of canonical Scripture, especially the Old Testament prophets, the prophecies of Jesus and His apostles. The book of Revelation is filled with allusions to earlier Scripture. One of the reasons Revelation seems so strange to modern readers is that they really do not know their Bible. The more familiar one is with the rest of Scripture, the more familiar Revelation will appear to be. Second, follow the literary structure of the book. There are structural markers that are not difficult to recognize, and they are key to its overall interpretation. Third, it’s OK to leave some mysteries and enigmas unresolved. Don’t let that hinder you, however, from learning all you can.
I do need to mention two passages that that are often highlighted by dispensationalists. First, there is a promise in Rev. 3:10 in which the Lord told the church at Philadelphia that He would keep them from “the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world.” Most understand this “hour of trial” as the coming tribulation, which is the subject of much of the main body of the book. This promise is consistent with the idea of a pretribulational rapture, that is a rapture of the church occurring before or at the onset of the tribulation (cf. 1 Thess. 4:13-5:11).
I would also point out that in Rev. 20:1-10, we find the millennial Kingdom of Christ. A dispensational approach is premillennial because such a view not only fits with the expectation of Scripture generally that Christ will come with His kingdom, but the grammatical and literary structure of this portion of Scripture is unambiguous about two bodily resurrections of the dead separated by 1,000 years during which the devil is imprisoned and resurrected saints reign on Earth with Christ!
The book of Revelation offers an amazing synthesis, elaborating and expanding upon earlier biblical prophesies of Christ’s coming, the judgments of God and the glories of the future Kingdom. One not only comes to know in a better way the pattern of biblical prophecy, but also the person, power, glory and authority of the Lord Who is coming. All of this fills the content of what Scripture calls our Hope, the basis for steadfastness and endurance in our present walk with Him. For we know, as surely as Revelation tells us, He is coming! And, when He comes, everything changes!
Allen, David L. and Steve W. Lemke, eds. The Return of Christ: A Premillennial Perspective. Nashville, B&H Academic, 2011.
Blaising, Craig A. “Premillennialism.” In Three Views on the Millennium and Beyond. Ed. Darrell L. Bock. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999. See esp. pp. 204-27.
Blaising, Craig A. and Darrell L. Bock. Progressive Dispensationalism. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993.
Pate, C. Marvin, ed. Four Views on the Book of Revelation. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998,
Patterson, Paige. Revelation. The New American Commentary. Nashville: B&H, forthcoming 2012.
Thomas, Robert. Revelation 1-7. Wycliffe Exegetical Commentary. Chicago: Moody Press, 1992.
Thomas, Robert. Revelation 8-22. Wycliffe Exegetical Commentary. Chicago: Moody, 1995.