The 66th and final book of the Bible is also the most mysterious and enigmatic of them all. Also called the Apocalypse, it has three main genres. Besides of course being a letter, it is also comprised of apocalyptic and prophecy. It is often hard to distinguish these two, but we can describe apocalyptic as a revealing, disclosing, or unveiling, from the Greek word, apokalypsis.
Dreams, visons and revelations feature strongly in such literature, and it tends to have a pessimistic view of the world, with a strong contrast between this present evil world and a future eschatological age. Apocalyptic writings are found elsewhere in the Bible, for example in Isaiah 24-27; Daniel 7–12; and Zechariah 1–8.
It is also highly symbolic with striking imagery and style. The highly symbolic and esoteric nature of these writings makes it difficult to interpret. Indeed, for this very reason, there is no single, universally-agreed to understanding of Revelation. Instead there have been four main ways of seeking to interpret this book. Those major interpretative frameworks are these:
Preterist = Based on a past time period. This view sees an immediate fulfilment of what is described in Revelation. The events discussed in the book were mostly fulfilled in the first century, or at best, the early centuries of the church. That is, events were fulfilled at the fall of Jerusalem (AD 70) or the fall of Rome (AD 476).
Those of a postmillennial bent tend to gravitate toward this view. The Christian Reconstructionists prefer this interpretation as well, along with many scholars. Recent supporters include Kenneth Gentry, R. C. Sproul, Gary DeMar, and David Chilton.
Historicist = Based on a present time period. This view sees the events of the book fulfilled throughout human history. This view was fairly common among the Reformers, but today it has fewer serious supporters. Some who have held to this view include Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wycliffe and Albert Barnes.
Futurist = Based on a future time period. This view sees most of the book (chapters 4-22) as not yet fulfilled, but they will be fulfilled at the end times just before Christ returns. Probably most evangelicals today hold to this understanding of the book. Certainly dispensationalists of all stripes push this interpretation.
Supporters of this view are many – they include C. I. Scofield, George Eldon Ladd, C. Marvin Pate, Charles Ryrie, Tim LaHaye, John Walvoord, Darrell Bock and Wayne Grudem, to name a few.
Idealist = Based on a timeless time period. This view does not see historical fulfillment involved here, but just timeless, symbolic truths being stated, such as the fight between good and evil. Theological liberals – and those tired of all the endless speculation about the end times – tend to prefer this option. Paul Minear, Sam Hamstra, Dennis Johnson, and William Hendriksen are among those who prefer this option.
These are not hard and fast schemes, and some interpreters will hold to a mixture of views. Known as eclecticism, this emphasises a mixed time period. Gregory Beale for example in his massive (1250-page) commentary on Revelation describes his own view as a “redemptive-historical form of modified idealism”.
Given how difficult this book is to properly understand (Calvin for example did not write a commentary on Revelation), we need to show a bit of humility and teachability here, and steer away from harsh dogmatism concerning our own pet theories and views.
As Grant Osborne rightly cautions, “Thus in interpreting the symbols of the book, we first need the ‘hermeneutics of humility’ to realize we ‘see things imperfectly as in a poor mirror’ (1 Cor. 13:8 NLT).” Such humility – indeed, even some godly fear – is certainly in order here, given that this book even comes with a warning about not adding to or taking away from its message (Rev. 22:18-19).
But despite the wide array of interpretations and understandings of the book, several clear themes do stand out. One is on the need to persevere and overcome in times of great trials and tribulations. Similar thoughts to the words of Jesus as found in Matthew 24:13, “But the one who endures to the end will be saved” are found in the book of Revelation.
For example, in Rev. 2:26 we read: “The one who conquers and who keeps my works until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations.” And Rev. 3:21 says this: “The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne.”
Another such passage is Rev. 21:7 which says, “Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children”. The overcomer contrasts with the coward who does not inherit eternal life, as the very next verse makes clear. But God helps us to be victorious.
The other major theme of course is that Christ is King, he reigns, and he is triumphant. And we share with Christ this ultimate victory over all sin, evil and opposition. The title of Hendricksen’s commentary certainly emphasises this truth: More Than Conquerors. As he writes in his introduction:
Throughout the prophecies of this wonderful book Christ is pictured as the Victor, the Conqueror (1:18; 2:8; 5:9ff; 6:2; 11:15; 12:9ff; 14:1,14; 15:2ff; 19:16; 20:4; 22:3). He conquers death, Hades, the dragon, the beast, the false prophet, and the men who worship the beast. He is victorious; as a result, so are we, even when we seem to be hopelessly defeated….
In short, the theme of this book is stated most gloriously and completely in these words: ‘These shall war against the Lamb, and the Lamb shall conquer them, for he is Lord of lords, and King of kings; and they also shall conquer that are with him called and chosen and faithful’ (17:14).
The following are some recommended and for the most part conservative resources on the book:
Aune, David, Revelation, 3 vols. (WBC, 1997-1998)
Beale, G. K., The Book of Revelation (NIGTC, 1999)
Dumbrell, William, Revelation (NCC, 2011)
Duvall, J. Scott, Revelation (TTC, 2014)
Hendriksen, William, More Than Conquerors (Baker, 1940, 1967)
Johnson, Alan, Revelation (EBC, 1981)
Johnson, Dennis, The Triumph of the Lamb (P&R, 2001)
Keener, Craig, Revelation (NIVAC, 2000)
Michaels, J. Ramsey, Revelation (IVPNTC, 1997)
Morris, Leon, The Revelation of St. John (TNTC, 1969)
Mounce, Robert, The Book of Revelation (NICNT, 1977)
Osborne, Grant, Revelation (BECNT, 2002)
Patterson, Paige, Revelation (NAC, 2012)
Wall, Robert, Revelation (NIBC, 1991)
Walvoord, John, The Revelation of Jesus Christ (Moody, 1966)
Wilcock, Michael, The Message of Revelation (BST, 1975)
Wright, N. T., Revelation for Everyone (WJK, 2011)
Bauckham, Richard, The Theology of the Book of Revelation (Cambridge University Press, 1993)
Desilva, David, Unholy Allegiances: Heeding Revelation’s Warning (Hendrickson Publishers, 2013)
Goldsworthy, Graeme, The Gospel and Revelation (Paternoster, 1984, 1994)
Gregg, Steve, ed., Revelation: Four Views: A Parallel Commentary (Thomas Nelson, 1997)
Newton, Jon K., Revelation Reclaimed (Paternoster, 2009)
Pate, C, Marvin, ed., Four Views on the Book of Revelation (Zondervan, 1998)
Storms, Sam, To the One Who Conquers (Crossway, 2008)
The best commentaries? It in part depends on your theological and eschatological point of view. But I recommend Beale, Mounce and Osborne for thorough and incisive studies. For a handy comparison of the main views, see Gregg and Pate.
Happy reading and happy studying.