General Comments on Interpreting the Book of Revelation
by Dave Brown
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General Comments on the Author's
Basic Approach to Interpreting John's Revelation
by Dave Brown
It is important when approaching a complex part of the scriptures to have an overall idea as to what the readers' thought process will be in the interpretation. This is documented here not only to create a clarification in the mind of the writer of the commentary, but to alert the readers of the commentary as to the approach, so that appropriate skepticism can be applied. It is not at all our goal in this commentary to produce "the definitive work" or even to convince readers that this is the only thing it could possibly mean.
In fact, we should start by saying that the book of Revelation is of sufficient complexity, and there have been so many faithful Christians (to say nothing of the false teachers) that have come to different conclusions of passages within it, that we conclude that there had to be some intent on the part of the Holy Spirit to this end. Anyone who would say that his interpretation of every part of Revelation is beyond question should be summarily dismissed from providing any insight. In addition, those who would make parts of the book apply to specific days and events in our current time frame should similarly be dismissed -- the book was not written for such purposes, and any such claim is ample evidence that false teaching is in the making.
With that said, the question might arise, is it possible to get ANYTHING of current use out of a book that is obviously so obscure? Allow the first few verses of the book to answer this question -- Revelation 1:3: "Blessed is he that reads, and they that hear the words of the prophecy, and keep the things that are written therein: for the time is at hand." Obviously those who believe this is the truth have to believe that something can be obtained NOW from reading or hearing the book read. It would be impossible to "keep the things that are written" if we cannot understand them. And why would we even write a commentary on our thoughts if we felt that understanding is impossible?
It is important at this point to grapple with what it is that we can and cannot understand. We can certainly see the basic principles that the book is expressing, and we can realize its basic goal and its basic theme. These will become apparent fairly quickly; but there is no reason that one should not take a look at Chapters 21 and 22 at the outset just to get a feel about its ultimate outcome. Indeed this will produce a knowledge, albeit incomplete, of the intent of the book.
A major key is given in Revelation 1:1: "The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show unto his servants, (even) the things which must shortly come to pass: and he sent and signified (it) by his angel unto his servant John ..." That key is the word "shortly." It is clear that this book was written to those who were in tribulation, as indicated in 1:9: "I John, your brother and partaker with you in tribulation ..." When these people read about things that would "shortly come to pass," they would certainly not understand that this meant in a few hundred or thousand years years. So a major interpretation key will be for us to look to the history of the early persecuted church to identify those things that are being described.
Does this mean that the book has no application to us today? Not at all. While we should not misuse it to try to convince people we know that certain things are going to happen involving specific current names, dates, events and places, there is no reason at all that we should not observe the principles that are being expressed by the book. Let us just suggest a sampling of them at the outset to give an idea of what we are proposing. The following are the types of principles that we can glean from the book and thus enable us to make the proper applications to our current day and age:
- The ever present and persistent nature of the desire for power of some over others;
- The formalization and use of this power in political and military ways;
- The nature of immorality and corruption;
- The use of immorality and corruption in the accumulation of power;
- God's attitude toward these corruptions to His Way;
- God's attitude toward those who would keep themselves pure in the worldly environment that we find ourselves;
- God's care of the faithful upon the earth, enabling them to withstand the persecution that naturally emanates from evil worldliness;
- The ultimate victory of those who are faithful.
This is not an exhaustive list by any means. And while the reader might go down this list and think: "Oh, I know all about that!" -- to this we respond -- don't be so sure and arrogant as to think that you cannot learn something from a detailed study of the book of Revelation. If all you needed was to read the list above, then God would not have troubled John to write the book of Revelation. If you want the blessing that comes from reading and hearing it -- you have to read and/or hear it.
In applying the types of principles listed above, we will view the details within various seals, trumpets and bowls as refer to (1) some immediate events that would occur shortly; but also to (2) recurring events, as opposed to their being isolated and interpreted in terms of just one or a very small number of comparable events and then having no further application. We believe that this is the correct approach for several reasons, but mainly that human nature has not changed since the events of the Garden of Eden. As such, while we are not able to nail down definitively what every symbol might represent in terms of history or prophecy, we can look beyond these specifics to see and apply these principles of human nature, and for that matter, the principles of the good and evil angelic forces that are reflective of a war in heaven that was comparable to that taking place on earth.
Clearly the opening chapter establishes that these things “are shortly coming to pass,” and no doubt some of them may have been in process at the time that John received the vision. To apply the satanic figures to Rome and the apostate church is a natural initial interpretation, and one that we would expect the early Christians in the first and second centuries to make. However, we know things that would prevent this from being totally restrictive:
- Some things have not yet come to pass, e.g., the judgment and final glorification of the saints shown in Chapters 20-22;
- All readers of the book for all times are promised to be blessed in reading and hearing the book read;
- The nature of mankind, his thirst for power and desire to rule like God, has not changed, nor has the nature of God’s people as pilgrims in this world; and
- The nature or the ruler of this world, Satan, including his ability to deceive the vast majority of humankind that is currently alive on this earth.
In not limiting the application to first and second century Rome, we also sound the alarm against those who would misuse the book to state that certain passages are referring only to particular contemporary events.
Can we see events that are very much like those described in the book of Revelation unfolding around us? Absolutely. Can we say that any particular verse is being fulfilled by any of these events to the exclusion of others? If/when we do so we violate Revelations 22:18-19, and the very possibility of that is something that should strike fear into all of our hearts.
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