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Bible Study Helps: Revelation

Dec 26, 2018

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).

Image of The Book of Revelation (New International Greek Testament Commentary)
The Book of Revelation (New International Greek Testament Commentary) by G. K. Beale Amazon logo

The following are some recommended and for the most part conservative resources on the book:

Commentaries

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)

Other studies

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.

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27 Responses to Bible Study Helps: Revelation

  • I enjoyed David Chilton’s The Days of Vengeance the best.

  • Thanks Adrian. Yes I have been looking for a cheapish second hand copy of that for a while now!

  • There is a free online PDF of The Days of Vengeance although I do know you prefer tangible books!
    https://www.preteristarchive.com/Books/pdf/1987_chilton_days-of-vengeance.pdf

    Annette Nestor

  • Thanks Annette. Yes I do prefer an actual book, but I can look at that site while I continue to get my hands on a hard copy.

  • Dear Bill,

    I am no expert on theology, the Bible and least of all the Book of Revelations and to be honest I have no wish to be. However, I do see the need for some familiarity with it so am grateful for your article on it. There is also a need for serious study on it but there will never be full agreement on it.

    As a convert to Catholicism in my teens over 60 years ago the Catholic Mass puts more focus on the consecration of the bread and wine and communion of the faithful than it does on the Word although it would be wrong to say that Catholicism doesn’t bother about the Word because it does. I was once told by a priest that there was an over reaction from the hierarchy to Catholics reading the Bible and interpreting it for themselves as a result of the Reformation but that is no longer evident. Catholics are now encouraged to read the Bible but as you say the Book of Revelations is not an easy book.

    In a Catholic Mass one never hears the ‘endless speculation’ about the end times that evangelical churches believe in. The so called sect, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, which really cannot call itself Christian since it rejects most of the basic tenets of the Christian faith, has even put several dates on the end of the world which have come and gone.However, that is not to say that we as Catholics don’t wonder about it especially the way the world is today.

    What I am sure about though are the verses in the Book of Revelation which you refer to is that Christ WILL conquer evil and that as His followers we must remain faithful and persevere to the end no matter what comes.

    Meanwhile ‘The Holy Spirit blows where it will.’

  • I’m currently listening to a series of sermons on Revelation by Pastor Kevin DeYoung. I’ve listened to 4/47 sermons and have learnt so much about the structure of the book and the meaning behind some of the imagery. I’ve still got a l-o-n-g way to go, but so far I’m really happy with this series.

    https://christcovenant.org/series/pastor-kevin-deyoung-archive/revelation/

  • Thank you for sharing this great source of references! Are you familiar with “The Footsteps of the Messiah” by Dr. Arthur Fruchtenbaum? It is also a wonderful book of the chronology of the prophecies.

  • Dear Bill

    What about G B Caird and G R Beasley-Murray?

  • Yes David, two good volumes by two good scholars. Both are a bit dated (Caird, 1966 and Beasley-Murray, 1974), and both a bit hard to find nowadays.

  • Bill, Ladd and Gruden are not Futurists but are Classical or Historical Ptemillennialists. The others are Dispesationalists
    The secret rapture etc. Belong to them. Ladd has written against the others.
    Rule, Spurgeon and ones before 1840 did not belong to the D group.

  • Thanks Ray but you seem to have things a bit confused here. Simply put, all dispensationalists are premil. But not all premillennialists are dispensatonalists. And basically all those who hold to a premillennial view would be futurists in regard to how they understand Revelation. See a bit more here eg.: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2010/11/30/on-the-millennium-part-one/

  • Thanks for this article, Bill, and for explaining buzzwords like ‘preterist’ and ‘historicist’.

    Given the warnings about adding to and taking from the Scriptures, I wonder why the translations quoted in the article, such as the NLT, change the original Greek singular nouns into plurals, to avoid male pronouns. It certainly gives new meaning to the word translation!

    For example, Revelation 21:7 says:–

    ? ????? ???????????? ?????, ??? ?????? ???? ???? ??? ????? ????? ??? ????

    The 2011 edition of the NIV, quoted in the article, translates this as:–

    Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children.

    But the 1984 edition of the NIV, which, curiously, is no longer available on Biblegateway website, was more accurate:–

    He who overcomes will inherit all this, and I will be his God and he will be my son.

    The deliberate mistranslations in the newer edition reverse the direction of implication. The older translation uses a single example, which the reader can apply to the general situation. But the newer version uses a general situation, which the reader must apply to his (or her…!) particular case. Apparently, the “need” to avoid male pronouns is more important than what God actually said.

  • Thanks Cathie. The full NIV first appeared in 1978. A minor revision of it appeared in 1984. The 2011 NIV was a revision of the lousy gender-neutral TNIV of 2005, replacing the 1984 version. The 2005 version was bad news indeed in many ways, and the 2011 version continued some of that nonsense. It put back proper references to God, but kept much of the generic references to humans. There are both strengths and weaknesses with the 2011 version. A fairly balanced look at it is found here: https://world.wng.org/2013/12/a_fair_analysis_of_the_new_niv

  • I’m surprised that anyone seriously doubts that the Book of Revelation is about prophetic events that are yet to be fulfilled. After all they culminate in the one prophecy that Jesus Himself made and promised – His second coming. The question many mistakenly ask is where does one draw the line between past and future. As is the case with much of scripture verses in the Bible can be interpreted correctly in more than one way without contradiction. Even the seven churches near the start of the Book of Revelation has application to today’s churches.

  • Hi Joe,
    I agree with your last Paragraph but not the first one. Read first few verses of the book re ” must soon come to pass’. At end of the book John is required to send the comments to the 7 churches. Why? If it had nothing to do with them. The Lord is our eternal wisdom. I would hate to try and argue with a skeptic on the wisdom of Jesus sending a message to 7 local churches of things not likely to happen for over 1900 years later.
    If you can find dam Clarke’s commentary on the web or library, read his one paragraph comment on why revelation was written. It is brilliant

  • Re Bill’s comment Dec 28. You are correct but my point is that the D advocates quote Ryle , Spurgeon and early church as advocating their Dispensational doctrines. This is not so They may have advocating 1000 years but not the rest of the D system. Spurgeon was very strong;ly against the O T saints being in a different system than the N T ones

  • Thanks Ray. Yes modern dispensationalism as a theological system is relatively recent (mid-1800s). Earlier theologians had looked at different ages or stages in biblical history, but not to the same extent. And yes modern dispensationalists try to find earlier support, but it is more for pre-mil views and chiliasm, than for say, a seven stage division of God’s timeline. The former can indeed be found, even with the church fathers, but little of the latter can be found of course.

  • Thanks Bill.
    Since I am currently preparing a set of Bible studies on Revelation for the Wednesday Bible study group at our church this year I thought I would throw in my proverbial “two bob’s worth”. there is only space for the briefest of outlines here, and to state my own position, after many years of reading, study, and reflection.
    1. While you have give a fair outline of the four main lines of interpretation, my own view is that there are serious problems with all of them, which space forbids me to outline here. Hence eclecticism is the right approach, taking a leaf from this or that viewpoint in regard to any particular passage.
    2. That said, however, my starting point is 1:19, where “the things which are” denotes the seven churches (1:11) which exist at the time of writing; and “the things which shall come to pass after these things” (4:1) denote events, trends, features, etc. of the period subsequent to John’s time. This, I believe commits us to some kind of historicist approach, notwithstanding the difficulties and hazards which that entails (i.e. we don’t know how much longer there is to go before the Second Coming) . My own reflection, for what it’s worth, indicates that the approach of the Reformers to this book was in principle correct, even if they were too precise (and mistaken) in some of their identifications. Thus e.g. the harlot woman of ch.17 does, I believe, represent not merely the papacy, but apostate christendom as a whole, in alliance with a hostile state.
    3. An important issue for exegesis concerns the seals, trumpets, and bowls. Are they synchronous, or sequential? A common line from the Reformed camps these days is that they are synchronous (following Hendriksen). With this I cannot concur, especially when the same camp pushes the idealist line as “the correct approach”. Again, space forbids me from arguing this matter, but be assured, I have read around the issue, and come to a considered view.

    One commentator I have found particularly helpful is that of Philip E. Hughes (1990 – not on your list). He takes the sequential view of the seals, trumpets, and bowls, and his reasoning is sound.

    A final note, esp. for preachers: do a series on the seven beatitudes of Revelation (yes, 7 again), i.e. 1:3; 14:13; 16:15; 19:9; 20:6; 22:7; and 22:14. On the last, note the textual variant: the KJV (and NKJV) follow a corrupt Mediaeval text which changes the criterion for entering heaven: it is not “doing His commandments”, but being washed in the blood of the Lamb (cf. 7:14).

  • Thanks Murray. Yes I tend to move in the direction of the eclectic approach as well.

  • I always find Murray’s comments interesting since we were both on the old E A committee.
    It seems to me that the big issue with what this book is about depends on whether written before 70 A D or after.
    If before then specific details on trumps etc. logical. If after not so logical.

  • What is Murray’s view in the dating of the book ?

  • Thanks Ray.
    The book dates from the reign of Domitian, 95 or 96 A.D., when according to unanimous early church testimony (Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Hippolytus, and confirmed by the church historian Eusebius) John the apostle was exiled to Patmos, and there received the visions. I see no reason whatever to depart from this. The persecution of Domitian reached many parts of the empire, whereas that of Nero in 64 A.D. was confined to the environs of Rome, and certainly did not involve exiling Christians from Asia Minor to Patmos.
    The idea that the visions belong to a pre-70 A.D. date involves circular reasoning: the interpretation (e.g. of the trumpets) determines the date, then the date yields the interpretation.
    Moreover, a 60s A.D. date involves radical preterism, a view which I reject with abhorrence, for the following reasons:
    1. It began life in 1614 with a Jesuit priest, Alcazar, who sought to divert attention from the equation of the harlot woman of Rev 17 with the papacy, a very dubious beginning and for a very dubious motive.
    2. In more recent times it became the standard view of the rationalists, with their “prophecy after the event” allegation. More lately it has donned an evangelical garb, and become the position of the post-millennial camp, a scheme which Scripturally has serious problems, even downright errors.
    3. If Revelation was all fulfilled before the C1st was out, then God has given His church no prophetic guidelines for the centuries of the Gospel Age, unlike the Intertestamental period, the 400 years of silence, when the faithful had the prophecies of Daniel as their guide.
    More could be said, but I’ll leave it at that.

  • While reading a book “Of Things Which Soon Must Come To Pass—Philip Mauro” I came across the following:

    Adam Clarke makes a suggestion, in regard to the purpose of the Book, that is worthy of consideration. It is this:

    “That the book of the Apocalypse may be considered as a prophesy continued in the Church of God., uttering predictions relative to all times, which have their fulfilment as ages roll on; and thus it stands in the Christian Church in the place of a succession of prophets in the Jewish Church; and by this special economy prophesy is still continued, is always speaking, and yet a succession of prophets rendered unnecessary. If this be so, we cannot too much admire the wisdom of the contrivance which still continues the voice and testimony of prophesy by means of a very short book, without the assistance of any extraordinary message or any succession of messages, whose testimony at all times would be liable for suspicion, and be subject of infidel and malevolent criticism, however unexceptional to ingenious minds the succession might appear.”
    Pages 48-9 (though style a little difficult to read in these days)

  • Thanks Ray.
    If this be so, where does leave the futurist interpretation, where all the prophecies lie in the future and the book has limited relevance for us now? Likewise for the Preterist approach, where all the prophecies (if they ever were such on that scheme) are long fulfilled, and the book has but limited value for us in the C21st? The idealist scheme ends up in a set of truisms, and even platitudes, such that I ask, why all this bizarre and impenetrable symbolism just to tell us what is stated in plain language elsewhere in the NT, e.g. that Christians will suffer persecution in this world, and that Christ will eventually triumph?
    For these reasons alone I prefer an historicist approach, notwithstanding the pitfalls and hazards, and openness to ridicule.
    BTW, “prophesy” (with an ‘s’) is a verb; the noun is “prophecy” (with a soft ‘c’).

  • Devil’s Dictionary
    Revelation

    A famous book in which St. John the divine concealed all he knew.
    The revealing is done by the commentators who know nothing.

    ( Bill can now start reducing his library on this book. . Perhaps, he could keep one or two favourites )
    I think there is slight exaggeration in the above!

  • The book of Revelation was written prior to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. John was told to measure the temple (11:1-2). There was no temple to measure if Revelation was written in the 90s since it was destroyed in AD 70 by the Romans (see Matt. 24:1-3). This can’t be a rebuilt temple since the NT does not say anything about a rebuilt temple. Support for the early date for the composition of Revelation goes back centuries before Alcazar. For a book-length refutation of the often repeated claim that Alcazar was the originator of the Preterist interpretation of Revelation, see Francis X. Gumerlock’s book “Revelation and the First Century: Preterist Interpretations of the Apocalypse in Early Christianity.” (Gumerlock is not a Full Preterist) The claim that the late date composition of Revelation was unanimous among the early church writers does not stand up to historical scrutiny as Kenneth Gentry points out in his book “Before Jerusalem Fell: Dating the Book of Revelation.” Using Irenaeus as a source based on a single sentence that is ambiguous is tenuous. Was it John who was seen or was it the revelation that was revealed to John that was seen during Domitian’s reign? The question relates to whether the number in Revelation 13 was 666 or 616 (Both refer to Neron or Nero Caesar. Both spellings are historical. This would mean that Nero was the land Beast of Rev. 13. This is internal evidence for the pre-AD 70 date.) The only way to know for sure was to view the original scroll that was still available to be “seen” during the time of Domitian’s reign. See the book “The Early Church and the End of the World.” Because the third person singular in Greek can be “it” (the revealing of the prophecy to John) or “he” (John), we can’t be sure what Irenaeus was referring to. There are many scholars who hold to a pre-AD 70 date for the composition of Revelation. What about the relevancy question? If Revelation is about the distant future, then what relevance did it have for its first audience? If it’s about the distant past, then what relevance does it have for us? We could say the same thing about most of the Bible. Most of the Bible is about the past. Jesus was crucified in the past, yet it has significant relevance for us today. Keep in mind that Revelation states, “the things which must soon take place” (1:1) … “for the time is near” (1:3; 22:10).

  • I agree with Adrian Gallagher. Make sure you read Chilton’s commentary “Days of Vengeance” before you read any other commentary. Chilton discusses every single verse and references it to other scripture verses. After all scripture interprets scripture. Chilton’s book and the book by John L Bray “Matthew 24 Fulfilled” changed by long held beliefs in relation to Revelation.

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