An introduction to the interpretative considerations necessary for a study of the Revelation.
The last book of the Bible is the climactic revelation of how Christianity, that is Christ, is superior to and triumphant over all religion. In a conclusive climax with culminating clarity, the book of Revelation reveals that Christianity is not religion, but Christianity is Jesus Christ who has won the victory over Satan, presently reigns in His spiritual kingdom, and will ultimately expose and dethrone all religious pretenders inspired by Satan when the victory is consummated and made evident to all upon His return.
Throughout the entirety of the new covenant literature, the New Testament, there is a continuing exposure of the radical difference between religion and the dynamic life of Jesus Christ as it functions within the kingdom of grace. Revelation is the climactic "capstone" that illustrates the triumph of Jesus over diabolic religion.
Throughout the gospel narratives Jesus is constantly countering the religionism of the scribes, Pharisees and Saducees. In the parables Jesus explains that the kingdom He came to bring is entirely different than that anticipated by Jewish religion; it is a kingdom that functions by grace, which is not of this world. The religious leaders finally realized that Jesus was exposing them in every parable He told (Matt. 21:45).
The Acts of the Apostles records the early history of how Christianity was "breaking free from religion," so as to be unhindered by any identification with Judaic religion.
In Paul's letters it is evident that he saw clearly the dichotomy between religion and Christianity. To the Romans Paul explains that righteousness is not in religious rites or the Law, but in Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. In the first epistle to the Corinthians Paul counters the religious excesses that were developing in the young church in Corinth. In the second epistle to the Corinthians Paul differentiates between gospel ministry by the grace of God and the manipulations of religious method. The letter to the Galatians forcefully denies that there is "another gospel" as inculcated by legalistic religion. The gospel is Jesus Christ alone functioning by grace. Writing to the Ephesians Paul contrasts religious exclusivism with the universality of the Christian gospel and explains that in Jesus Christ all men become a new humanity. In his correspondence with the Colossians Paul combats the effects of the regional religionism of Asia, emphasizing the preeminence of Jesus Christ, who is our life.
The writer to the Hebrews explains how the old and the new covenants are differentiated. The old tenets of Judaic religion are replaced by the life of Jesus Christ. James explains that if one is just going through the rituals, such religion is vain. Christian faith is the outworking of the life of Jesus Christ. Finally, then, in the Revelation, John relates in story form that religion will try to overcome and secularize Christianity, but Jesus Christ overcomes all the machinations of religion by His life.
For many years I have listened to preachers, teachers and commentators banter and battle, bicker and babble about what Revelation means. After immersing myself in the new covenant literature of the New Testament for many years, I have come to realize that the Revelation is consistent with the rest of the New Testament in declaring that Christianity is not religion. Christianity is to be contrasted with religion. Christianity is in conflict with religion. This is particularly apparent in the Revelation where Jesus Christ is portrayed as the victor over all religion.
It is usually conceded that this epistolary, apocalyptic book of prophecy was written late in the first century, probably around 95 AD. Recently there have been attempts to explain that the book was written prior to 70 AD, but this is usually an attempt by certain post-millennialists to justify their preterist interpretation and their setting of the book in a politically persecutive context. The external evidence of early church writers seems to sufficiently document that the book was written late in the first century. Irenaeus (c. 180 A.D.), for example, indicated that John saw his vision "almost in our day, toward the end of Domitian's reign." Domitian was the Roman emperor from 81-96 A.D.. It really does not matter when it was written; the message is the same! The date toward the end of the first century does seem to allow for the perverting and "religionizing" of the churches of Asia, to which the letter is addressed, but "religion" had long plagued the churches of this region. Paul combated "religion" in Ephesus and decided it was best to depart (Acts 19:1-20:1); he cautioned the Ephesian elders about "religionizers" from without and within the church (Acts 20:28-31). In writing to the Colossians, he warns about "man-made religion" (Col. 2:20:23). We will assume that the book was written in the last decade of the first century.
We will also assume that it was written by the apostle John. The author identifies himself as "John" four different times in the book (Rev. 1:1,4,9; 22:8). The best known "John," who would not need to give any other clarification of his identity, would have been the apostle John. The earliest Christian writers accepted the apostle John to be the author.
It has been pointed out that the grammar and vocabulary of the Greek text in which this book is written is very rough and coarse, with what one author called "barbarous idioms." John would have flunked Greek Grammar 101. His writing in the gospel and the epistles is quite polished, however. Is it because he was getting old? He was probably old when he wrote the gospel and epistles, also. Is it because he didn't have a secretary, an amanuensis, out on the island of Patmos, as he seems to have had when he wrote the epistles? Or is it because the vision was so overwhelming and going on all around him, and he was just writing as fast as he could, not worrying about his grammar?
Despite the fact that the Greek grammar is different from the gospel and epistles, and that there are concepts in Revelation not found elsewhere, there are many similarities which tie Revelation with the other Johannine writings: For example, the use of the word logos - John 1:1,14; I John 1:1; Rev. 19:13; Jesus as "lamb" - John 1:29,36, 28 times in Rev.; Christ as bridegroom - John 3:29, Rev. 19:7; 21:2; 22:7; Jesus "pierced" - John 19:34, Rev. 1:7; Jesus' overcoming - John 16:33, 6 times in I John, 17 times in Revelation.
The first word in the Greek text of this book is the Greek word apokalupsis. Thus it is that the book is often referred to as the Apocalypse. It is often explained that this writing is an example of Jewish apocalyptic literature that was prevalent in the last couple of centuries before Christ and in the first century A.D. Many of the academic attempts to narrowly define apocalyptic literature as distinct from parables, prophecy and allegory are "forced" categorizations. It is better to recognize that it was typical Middle-eastern thinking to teach by "story-telling" in picture-language.
It might be argued that the Revelation is the big, multi-faceted, new covenant parable! A good prelude to studying Revelation would be to study the parables of Jesus, which are the previous picture-language story-telling of Jesus Christ utilizing images and symbols. A study of the parables in the gospels will reveal that Jesus used them as an exposé and critique of religion, in order to explain the difference in the new covenant reality of His life functioning in grace within the kingdom.1 Jesus uses picture-language in the Revelation in much the same way as He did in the parables.
Just as in the parables, we should not try to force a full-fledged allegorical understanding upon the images. We should not try to figure out the meaning of every detail. The "literalist" who demands a "direct face-value" for every detail in the book is approaching Revelation like a "mechanic" tightening every nut and bolt, rather than an "artist" who wants to "see" the Big Picture. We do not have to get every detail figured out, nailed down. That is the absolutism of understanding that "religion" tries to achieve. Jesus wanted us to think, to ponder, to be discerning; that is why He spoke in parables and picture-language! If Jesus had wanted theological precision or the precision of prophetic calculation, He would have used a different method of teaching, and a precise vocabulary. He would have used plain language!
John was apparently an individual with an artist-mentality. He was a picture-painter with words. He often conveys what he wants to say with images and analogies. In the gospel that he wrote he employs pictorial language: Jesus is the "light of the world" - in contrast to which religion is darkness and blindness (8,12). Jesus is the "good shepherd" - in contrast to the hirelings of religion (15). In his epistles (I,II,III John) he continues to use images of "sons of light" and "sons of darkness;" sons of God and sons of the devil. He saw clearly the either/or antithesis of God and Satan, and pictured such in many ways. When he writes what he saw in the Revelation, it is predominantly picture-language.
John saw the Big Picture and painted it in word-pictures. It is like a cosmic canvas on which he paints. He paints from God's perspective, and it is difficult for us to get far enough back to see the whole picture. We tend to analyze the strokes and the texture. When we come to the book of Revelation, it is too easy to miss the forest for the trees; to miss the message for the minutia of detail and the fanciful interpretation of those details. We do not have to figure out every detail. If any man could do that, he could stack all the factual data of interpretation and put it on the "knowledge" shelf. That is part of the "epistemological heresy" of religion, that reduces Christianity to merely a "belief-system." The life of Jesus Christ cannot be formulized and "put in the box" of doctrinal or eschatological understanding. Who would want such "canned" Christianity? Who would want such a rigid rectification of Revelation?
Therefore, we should attempt to see the message of Revelation in broad sections, rather than analyzing every detail; a macro-vision, rather than micro-vision.
The structure of this recorded vision seems to be something like a "movie in the round." Have you ever been to one of those movies where multiple camera angles recorded the action on every side, 360 degrees around you? When the action starts, you can hardly keep your equilibrium. We don't have eyes in the back of our head, so we cannot see everything at once. To see the whole movie, you would have to re-run it several times and see the different perspectives. The Revelation-vision seems to be like that. John "runs it by again" to view the new covenant reality of Jesus Christ from different perspectives. He turns the gem around to look at different facets of its brilliance.
The Revelation is not so much a time and space, chronological sequence of either history or the future, but is an increasingly intensified recapitulation of the new covenant reality of Jesus Christ. In repetitive parallels John views Jesus from different perspectives, different angles, another picture, another view. It does not seem to be consecutive or contiguous, but rather concyclic or synchronous the Big Picture in the round!
I will never forget the occasion when I was talking to a young man who was zealous to understand the Bible and spiritual things. He was not well-versed in theological vocabulary, but was trying to use some of the terminology. In referring to the book of Revelation, he meant to refer to it as "apocalyptic," but inadvertently transferred the vowel sounds, and instead referred to it as "a-pickle-optic." I could not help but chuckle to myself when he said it, and the more I thought about it the funnier it became, because I realized that "a-pickle-optic" could be used to describe "apocalyptic." The pictorial imagery that John saw in the vision can indeed be "a pickle of an optic." The interpretation of the symbols has proved to be a difficult "pickle" for Biblical commentators for almost two millennia.
Though the book of Revelation can be "a-pickle-optic," it was meant to be apocalyptic. As previously noted, the book is often identified as the Apocalypse, which is a transliteration of the first word in the Greek text of this book, apokalupsis. Apokalupsis is derived from two other Greek words, apo = from, and kalupto = to cover or hide. The Greek word apokalupsis meant to uncover, unveil, disclose or reveal. Thus it is that we usually refer to this book in English as the Revelation. The purpose of this book was not to provide a difficult puzzle of images for future expositors to sort out, "a-pickle-optic," but rather to reveal, through the Middle Eastern method of story-telling, the triumph of Jesus Christ.
It will be instructive to consider some of the varying interpretations of Revelation and the interpretive methods they employ. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of varying interpretations of the Revelation, but some of the broader schools of interpretation might be identified as follows:
(1) Preterist interpretation. This label is derived from the Latin word praeter, meaning "past." This interpretation views the pictures of Revelation as referring to what was happening in the past, in the first century. They see the images as representing governmental persecution during the reign of either Nero or Domitian. Most understand Revelation chapters 21 and 22 as referring to the future, but there are some who "spiritualize" and put all 22 chapters of Revelation back in the past of the first century.
(2) Historicist interpretation. This interpretation stretches out the images of Revelation to refer to the history of the Western church. For example, the "fifth trumpet" has been interpreted as the Mohammedans in the 7th century; the "sixth trumpet" has been viewed as the invasion of the Turks. Chapter 10 allegedly refers to the "strong angel" who announces the Reformation when the "little book" was found, i.e. the Bible. The "seven thunders" are against the Pope. Revelation 11 and the measuring of the temple is interpreted as the Reformation determination of the true church, and the two witnesses have been interpreted as Luther and Calvin against Rome. The ultimate victory is the overthrow of the Roman papacy.
(3) Futurist interpretation. Revelation 1-3 is recognized to be in the past, but 4-22 are regarded as the record of future events in the seven-year tribulation, leading to the second coming and the millennium. Ryrie, for example, takes 1:19 as the structural "key" for Revelation: (1) "things seen" - 1:9-20 (2) "things which are" - 2:1-3:22 (3) "things which shall take place" (4:1-19:21 in the tribulation; 20:1-15 in the millennium, etc.)
(4) Triumphalist interpretation. Sometimes called the idealist or symbolic interpretation. This interpretation usually sees the images of Revelation as explaining the conflict of good and evil, God and Satan, throughout all of time.
The preterist commentator interprets the message of Revelation primarily as in the past. The historicist interprets the message of Revelation primarily as the process of Western history. The futurist interprets the message of Revelation as referring primarily to the future. The triumphalist interprets the message of Revelation primarily as the symbolic representation of the triumph of Jesus Christ in every age.
These varying interpretations are not issues to fight over. There is value in each of them. From the preterist we can learn that Christianity is contextually rooted in the past, and so is the Revelation. From the historicist we can learn that Christianity is continually timely, and so is the Revelation. From the Futurist we can learn that Christianity is confidently hopeful for the future, and so is the Revelation. From the Triumphalist we can learn that Christianity is constantly recognizing Christ's victory, and the book of Revelation certainly reveals such.
Regardless of which interpretive method one employs, one has to admit that there is symbolism in Revelation that pictures the triumph of Christ; the letter was first written to historical churches in Asia in the past, back in the first century; it is a revelation that has had some message for Christians throughout history; and Revelation does speak of the ultimate victory of Christ at the end of time in the future.
In this study we will employ a Christocentic or Christological interpretation that would probably be a sub-category of the Triumphalist or Symbolic interpretation.
The reason I employ the Christocentric-Triumphalist interpretation of Revelation is because it seems to me to provide the best consistency with the interpretation of the rest of the Scriptures. The Bible is consistent in its message from beginning to end, and the Bible is the best commentary on the Bible. The consistency of this interpretation is seen from its:
(1) Scriptural consistency. The whole of the revelation of Scripture is to reveal that Jesus Christ is the divine life that makes man man as God intends. Religion will not suffice. The "tree of the knowledge of good and evil" can be viewed as the "religion" tree; the "tree of life" as Christianity. The natural tendency of man is to revert to "religion" man-made religion." (Col. 2:21).
There is a consistency in this interpretation with the Old Testament prophets. They were critiquing "religion" and calling for repentance, using some of the same images.
There is a consistency in the use of picture-language and story-telling. God uses pictures. The entire Old Testament can be viewed as the "picture-book" illustrating what God was to do in Jesus Christ.
(2) New Testament consistency. The entirety of the new covenant literature, the New Testament, explains the superiority of Christianity over all "religion." Christianity is not religion, it is the vital dynamic of the life of Jesus Christ lived by grace.
The New Testament concept of "prophecy" is primarily that of proclamation rather than prediction; forth-telling rather than foretelling. The prophecy of Revelation is likewise a proclamation of Jesus Christ, rather than the future.
(3) Internal consistency. The preterist and futurist interpretations seem to segment the interpretation of Revelation, some in the past, some in the future, with a big chasm in-between in the present. This tends to divide the Revelation into "revelations," as many people inaccurately refer to this book, and create a disjuncture. The Christocentric-Triumphalist interpretation that explains the conflict between Christianity and religion, allows the entire book to remain consistently connected. Chapters 2 and 3 provide the historical setting of "religion" creeping into the churches, so that chapters 4-22 can be pictorially placed alongside to reveal the conflict between Christianity and religion.
It is extremely important that we approach the Revelation, willing to engage in exegesis, rather than eisegesis. What's the difference? Exegesis comes from two Greek words meaning "to lead out." It means that we derive the meaning "out of the text." We do not want to "read into the text" our preconceived ideologies and interpretations. That is eisegesis. Too often people come to the book of Revelation with pre-determined eschatological opinions, ideological "grids", and they use and abuse the book to try to document what they think they already know, twisting it to fit their presuppositions.
Some try to make an issue between "literal" interpretation and "symbolic" interpretation. "Literal" does not mean just a direct, face-value interpretation of the words. "Literal" interpretation refers to an interpretation that is in accord with the literary style and literary intent of the author. If the literature is written in a literary style that uses images and symbols, then "symbolic" interpretation is "literal" interpretation.
Since the Triumphalist interpretation is sometimes called the Symbolist interpretation, I want to amplify what I have already noted about the symbolism employed in the Revelation. Regardless of what interpretive method one uses, there must be the recognition that Revelation is full of pictorial images and symbols. One's interpretation will have to be "symbolic" to some degree. The Middle-eastern mind-set seems to have thought in images. They communicated in picture-language and story-telling. There are still many peoples today who still communicate in this way. We of the Western world, with our thinking patterns developed primarily from Aristotelian logic, tend to think in direct, logical categories, rather than in picture-language.
Perhaps the closest thing in our society that conveys ideas in pictures like we have here in the Revelation, might be the editorial cartoons in our newspapers. For example, the President might be pictured as an eagle, with his face attached, and his antagonist as a rodent. Sometimes it is difficult even now, for readers to see what the cartoonist means to convey by the pictures. Just think what it would be two thousand years from now, to look at the pictures and try to see what they mean. Thankfully, the picture-language of the Revelation is not trapped in a particular historical setting as the editorial cartoons often are; the images of Revelation are "timeless" pictorializations, not trapped in history, not trapped in the future, but forever applicable.
The parables and the Revelation are cast in images that create "pictorial ponderables." They employ "round-about" thinking. They are problematic and puzzling. There are strange, bizarre, weird images that are perhaps "past finding out." I think that Jesus spoke in such picture-language, both in the parables and in the Revelation, so that we would have to think and ponder and discern. If you have religiously dissected and determined every detail of the Revelation, then you have taken away all the value of the personal spiritual discernment of individual Christians in every age. That has been the "religious" tendency. These images should remain "dynamic," for they refer to the spiritual conflict that takes place throughout time. They are not static statements. They are spiritual truths that must always be spiritually discerned. As we ponder the pictures, the divine perspective begins to "sink in" so that it "colors" how we think. The images are like a dum-dum bullet that goes into our brain, and therein explodes religious misconceptions in order to bring about God's perception.
The real issue is not whether we "get it" that is, get the Revelation all figured out. The real issue is whether He "gets us," and we discern what He, as Lord, wants to be and do in our lives, by His grace. The issue is not whether we know the combatants in the pictured battles, but rather whether we know the One who is the Victor whether we "know" Jesus Christ.
Perhaps the major symbol or metaphor that is a motif throughout the Revelation is the idea of a conflict. You cannot read the Revelation without recognizing that there is a conflict there is a war going on! There are adversaries and antagonists battling against one another. But one realizes from the beginning that there is no dualism here; there are not two equal forces with an indetermined ending as to who will win over the other. There is no doubt who has the greater power, and who the Victor will be!
It is a battle between the Divine kingdom and the demonic kingdom, between good and evil, between God and Satan, between Christianity and religion. This is a theme that runs throughout the new covenant literature of the New Testament. (Matt. 16:23; John 8:44; 12:31; 13:27; 16:11; Acts 5:3; Rom. 8:39; II Cor. 4:4; 12:7; Eph. 6:16; Col. 1:13; II Thess. 2:7-10; I Tim. 1:20; Heb. 2:14; James 4:7; I Pet. 5:8; I John 2:22; 3:8,10; 4:3; II John 7, etc.)
An apt title for the Revelation might be "Kingdoms in Conflict." Chuck Colson, the Watergate conspirator who was gloriously regenerated so as to transfer from one kingdom to another (Col. 1:13), has a book by that title, wherein he contrasts the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of politics. Some of what he has to say applies to the "kingdoms of conflict" in the Revelation, though:
The world is concerned with power and control. Religion thinks and acts in accord with the ways of the world, because it is aligned with the "god of this world" (II Cor. 4:4). Religion is the most subtle and insidious form of Satan's activity, in the kingdom that attempts to manipulate people and events using the social theory of "power-plays" and political persuasion.. Disguised as an "angel of light" (II Cor. 11:14), diabolical religion counterfeits the church and masquerades as Christianity. C.S. Lewis puts into the mouth of Screwtape, the devil, "it will be an ill day for us if what most humans mean by 'religion' ever vanishes from the Earth....Nowhere do we tempt so successfully as on the very steps of the altar."5 Blaise Pascal wrote, "Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction."6
Throughout the centuries religion has succumbed to the lust for power. In the first century, the religion of Judaism expected God to act with militaristic power against the Romans. "Beat 'em, bash 'em, knock 'em dead!" Religion adopts the world's view of straight-line, strong-arm, clenched-fist power. The misnomer of "Christian religion" has abused power likewise: the Crusades, the Inquisitions, for example. Today we see so-called "Protestants and Catholics" fighting with guns and bombs in Northern Ireland, while "religionists" bomb abortion clinics and murder doctors in the U.S. The Islamic "religionists" battle with tanks and jet fighters and the most sophisticated "fire-power" in the Middle-East. The "power-plays" of the religious power-brokers never seems to cease! But they will some day, as the Revelation reveals to us.
Religion often tries to help God out, because He appears so impotent. "Why isn't God doing something? Why is God delaying? If God is so powerful, why doesn't He knock a few heads together? ..smash a few obstacles? ..level the enemies? We want to see some visible action that will impress people. So let's conceive big things and achieve big things, 'for God.' Let's go to bat for God. Let's plan, get organized and make it happen. Onward Christian soldiers! Let's conquer for Christ." Remember Constantine, the Roman Emperor, who allegedly saw a "cross" in the sky and heard a voice say, "By this sign, conquer." ? Historically, that was one of the greatest perversions of Christianity into religion. But religion in every age engages in "activism," encouraging people to "involvement" and "commitment" to "make things happen." "We are saved to serve," they tell us. They plan their programs and their pogroms. "We shall overcome!" is their battle cry. Whatever it takes to win; the end justifies the means; might is right; a "just war." So it is that "religion" plays its power-games.
On the other hand, in the Kingdom of God, although God is All-powerful He does not exert power just to force the issues. God's power is an ultimate authority that is rooted in His character. That is why Chuck Colson quotes Max Weber as saying that "power involves the use of coercive force to make others yield to one's wishes even against their own will. Authority is achieved by virtue of character that others are motivated to follow willingly."7 God always acts in accord with His character, and exercises His "Lordship" accordingly.
Isaiah 55:8,9 explains that "God's thoughts are not our thoughts, and His ways are not our ways." That is certainly true when it pertains to how God exercises His Power. Jesus was tempted in the wilderness in the wilderness by the devil, but He refused to exercise power as the world does.
Zechariah 4:6 is a key verse to understanding the theme of the Revelation. In the context of a rebuke of religion, Zechariah exclaims, "Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit, says the Lord of hosts." The passage in Zechariah seems to provide both the setting and the subject-theme of the Revelation. The "setting" illustrated by the seven lamps, which are identified in the Revelation as the seven churches; and the "subject-theme" being the recognition that God acts "not by might nor by power, but by His Spirit," in His own way and in accord with His character.
When the final view of the consummated victory of Christ is given in Rev. 19:11-21, there is no battle. God's army is dressed in wedding garments. The beast is subdued without a struggle revealing his "pretense of power." Satan's greatest temptation is to sucker Christians into playing his "power-games," fighting on his field and using his techniques.
The great conflict between God and Satan, between the divine kingdom and the demonic kingdom, between Good and Evil, as it relates the created order of mankind, commenced in the Garden of Eden as recorded in Genesis chapter 3. In the form of a serpent Satan approached the first couple offering them the "lie" of life apart from God's function within their spirit. By their decision of sin, they did indeed die that day as God had promised (Gen. 2:17). They and their offspring were spiritually "dead in trespasses and sins" (Eph. 2:1,5; Rom. 5:12-21).
Throughout the old covenant period recorded in the Old Testament, mankind is forced to recognize that he does not have what it takes to be man as God intended man to be apart from the presence of God in the man. Religion will not suffice, with its legalism, sacrifices, involvement, commitment and obedience to law.
The only solution to man's problem is that God would take the initiative in accord with His character of graciousness, to send His Son, Jesus Christ (John 3:16), as the God-man (John 1:14). As man, He then subordinated Himself perfectly to the indwelling presence of God the Father (John 14;10), and thereby could be the substitutionary sinless sacrifice for the sins of mankind, in order to take the death consequences of our sin.
From the cross He exclaimed, "Tetelestai" "It is finished! Mission accomplished! The victory is won over the Evil One!" (John 19:30; 17:4) By His resurrection, ascension and Pentecostal outpouring, His very resurrection-life dynamically actuated by the Spirit of Christ is available to all men who will receive such by faith in order to be restored to humanity as God intended, allowing the indwelling life of Jesus Christ to live out the character of God in our behavior to the glory of God.
The consummation of Christ's victory, whereby it will be evident to all, and the entirety of the created order will recognize Christ as Victor, is yet to come. There will come a time when "every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord" (Phil. 3:10,11).
Meanwhile we live in the interim between the accomplishment of Christ's victory and the consummation of Christ's victory. This complete intervening period (represented by the numerical imagery of 1000 years in Rev. 20) between Christ's first advent and His second advent presents Christians with somewhat of an enigma which is difficult to understand. The Revelation addresses this enigmatic situation, but the symbolic imagery is also difficult to understand, thus often increasing the enigma of the present anomaly of Christianity in the present world. Why does Christianity not seem to work? Why is there no "peace on earth"? Why is there not the perfect loving community of Christians in the Church?
The first disciples of Jesus faced the "enigma of the interim" between Good Friday and the resurrection on Sunday. How victorious did Jesus appear to be at that time? They had heard His words, "It is Finished", but they surely sounded then like words of defeat and despair. Only after the resurrection could they begin to appreciate the victory of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Even then they found themselves in an "enigma of the interim" between the resurrection and the parousia when the victory would be consummated and made evident for all to see.
That enigmatic interval has extended for almost two millennia now, and generation after generation of Christians have lived in the enigmatic tension of a discipleship that is tested by the enigma of an unconsummated accomplishment, alongside of an apparent situation in the tangible and visible realm where Satan's world-system and his false-religion appear to be so successful and victorious in defeating God's purposes, even to the extent of persecuting and martyring Christians.
The defeated "god of this world" (II Cor. 4:4) exercises His diabolic power in every conceivable way to dissuade men from believing the victory of Christ in the crucifixion and resurrection, and receiving the Victor and His life by faith. Furthermore, the devil attempts to dissuade Christians from reckoning on the victorious resurrection-life of Jesus Christ in order to allow that Christ-life to be lived out to the glory of God. Then, to add insult to injury, the Evil One attempts to persuade Christians to adopt his tactics of warfare within the counterfeit of "religion," which appears to be doing battle against the "bad" and the "evil" in the world. In so doing, Christians try to do what Christ has already done in conquering evil, and try to do by their own self-effort what Christ wants to do through them now by His grace.
The Revelation shown to John and recorded by John is the revelation of the victorious life and work of Jesus Christ, past, present and future. (See chart in Addendum D)
(1) The victory of His historical redemption, which Christians must constantly remember, especially when His visible presence is not with us during the interim between the ascension and the parousia. The victory has been won on the cross! "It is finished!" (John 19:30) Mission accomplished! The work has been accomplished! (John 17:4) The price has been paid in full! (I Cor. 6:20; 7:23).
(2) The victory of His continuing reign in the Kingdom. Jesus Christ does reign as Lord and King in the lives of His people, Christians in every age throughout the interim. We can "reign in life" through Him (Rom. 5:17,21), despite the testings, tribulations and trials that confront us.
(3) The victory of His consummating return, when the victory will be made evident for all to see most vividly. At the parousia, the second coming, the victory of Christ will be eternally etched upon the consciousness of all mankind who ever lived.
Jesus Christ is Christus Victor.8 He has...He does...He will conquer Satan, evil and religion. Christians must recognize His past, present and future activity of victory.
This is the main difficulty in the interpretation of the Revelation; always trying to keep a balanced perspective of Christ's victory as it has been accomplished in the "already," as it is enacted in the "now," and as it will be consummated in the "not yet." This is like juggling three balls ("already," "now," and "not yet") all the way through the interpretive process of this book.
What happens when such a balanced perspective is not maintained? If any of the aspects of Christ's victory are over-emphasized to the diminishing of the others, then aberrations of theological and practical emphasis will result:
(1) If the "finished work" of Christ in His accomplished victory on the cross is over-emphasized, then one's Christian teaching often takes the form of "triumphalism" with some variety of "perfectionism." The practical outcome of such is often passivism and pacifism.
(2) If the present victorious reign of Christ is over-emphasized, then a mis-emphasis on participation in "spiritual warfare" often results, sometimes taking the form of "liberationism" or "exorcism." Christians have often developed a "siege-mentality" which led in the past to such aberrations as the Crusades and the Inquisitions, and lends itself to leadership efforts to recruit Christians to an activistic cause, to "fight for the right."
(3) If the future consummation of Christ's victory is over-emphasized, then Christians may focus on expectations not yet fulfilled, and become so fixated on "futurism" that they fail to recognize the present sufficiency of Christ. Such can be an "escapist" approach focused on the deliverance of the future or on a heavenly "pie-in-the-sky-bye-and-bye."
Likewise, on the other hand, a failure to emphasize any of these three aspects of Christ's victory adequately will lead to aberrations in theological understanding and practical Christian living:
(1) Failure to emphasize the "finished work" of Christ's redemptive victory on the cross is to undermine the entire historical and theological foundation of the Christian gospel. It may lead to the instability of existential mythologizing which disregards the historical Jesus, or to subjective experientialism which determines reality by psychological impact.
(2) Failure to emphasize the present reign of the victorious risen Lord Jesus may lead to the ambivalence and apathy of laissez-faire with no direction or involvement. Christians may conclude that their past is forgiven and their future is assured, but the present is unbearable, so they lapse into fatalism.
(3) Failure to emphasize the future consummation of Christ's victory is to undermine God's direction and destiny for Christians and for the entire created order. Ever so subtly this leads to hopelessness and despair.
The importance of keeping a balanced perspective of Christ's victory in the "already," the "now," and the "not yet," cannot be over-emphasized. One can analyze the popular eschatological systems of interpretation and discover their primary emphases as well as their subsequent failures to keep a balanced emphasis in all three areas. Dispensationalism, for example, employs the futurist method of interpretation and tends to over-emphasize the future consummation of Christ's victory, often to the neglect of understanding the "finished work" of Christ, and with either a denial or a decidedly pessimistic understanding of Christ's victorious reign today. Historical pre-millennialism, like Dispensational pre-millennialism, also has a futuristic focus on Christ's expected victory at the end of time, but usually retains a better foundation in the "finished work" of Christ on the cross, with a more optimistic realization of Christ's reign in the already realized kingdom. Post-millennialism places primary emphasis on the victory of Christ in the present, but there is often very little understanding of the already realized victory of Christ, as they engage in the activism that seeks to enact Christ's victorious kingdom on earth so as to "make it happen" and "usher in" the consummated kingdom at Christ's second coming. Amillennialism sometimes engages in the Post-millennial mis-emphasis, but often over-emphasizes the "finished work" of Christ's victory on the cross so as to engage in a triumphalistic perfectionism which becomes passivistic. It is imperative that Christians maintain a balanced perspective of Christ's victory in the past, present and future; the already, the now and the not yet. Such should be our objective as we study and seek to interpret what Christ was saying in the Revelation, and this is why we will employ the triumphalist method of interpretation that seeks to maintain a balanced perspective of the triumphant victory of Jesus Christ in the already, the now and the not yet.
The particular emphasis of the Revelation is to encourage the Christians at the end of the first century and in every intervening century thenceforth until the second coming of Jesus, to recognize the victory of Christ on Calvary (past), to reckon on that accomplished victory despite all appearances to the contrary, to recognize the ongoing conflict of God and Satan in the contrast of Christianity and "religion, and to repent of any and all tendencies and occasions of having succumbed to Satan's religious trap (present), as we all await the expected return of Jesus Christ (future).
The message of the Revelation is indeed "good news." The gospel is clearly presented throughout the imagery of this book, so as to encourage Christians to live by God's grace in accord with His character whatever the outward circumstances of the physical world might be. It is the message that the Christians at the end of the first century needed to hear. It is the message that the Christians at the end of the twentieth century need to hear. "He who has ears to hear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches."
1 cf. Capon,
Robert F., The Parables of the Kingdom (1985). The
Parables of Grace (1988). The Parables of Judgment (1989).
Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans.