PART 4: STUDIES IN THE BOOK OF REVELATION – Chapter 17: Interpreting Revelation

David Chilton

Narrated By: Daniel Sorenson
Book: Paradise Restored: A Biblical Theology of Dominion
Topics: , ,


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Chapter Text

Forth rushed with whirlwind sound
The chariot of Paternal Deity,
Flashing thick flames, wheel within wheel undrawn,
Itself instinct with spirit, but convoyed

By four Cherubic shapes, four faces each

Had wondrous, as with stars their bodies all
And wings were set with eyes, with eyes the wheels
Of beryl, and careering fires between;

Over their heads a crystal firmament,

Whereon a sapphire throne, inlaid with pure
Amber, and colours of the show’ry arch.
He in celestial panoply all armed

Of radiant Urim, work divinely wrought,
Ascended, at his right hand Victory

Sat eagle-winged, beside him hung his bow

And quiver with three-bolted thunder stored,
And from about him fierce effusion rowled

Of smoke and bickering flame, and sparkles dire.
–John Milton, Paradise Lost [6.749-66]

The Saviour is working mightily among men, every day He is invisibly persuading numbers of people all over the world, both within and beyond the Greek-speaking world, to accept His faith and be obedient to His teaching. Can anyone, in the face of all this, still doubt that He has risen and lives, or rather that He is Himself the Life?
–St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation [30]



From the outset, two problems confront us when we attempt to study the Book of Revelation. First is the question of ensuring that our interpretation is correct – placing checks on our imagination, so that we do not force God’s holy Word into a mold of our own inventions. We must let the Book of Revelation say what God intended it to say. The second problem is the issue of ethics – what to do with what we’ve learned.

The Biblical Standard for Interpretation

In the very first verse of Revelation, John provides us with an important interpretive key: “The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show His servants what must shortly take place; and He sent and signified it by His angel to His servant John” (Rev. 1:1). The use of the term signify tells us that the prophecy is not simply to be taken as “history written in advance.” Instead, it is a book of signs; symbolic representations of the coming events. The symbols are not to be understood in a literal manner. We can see this by John’s use of the term in his Gospel (see John 12:33; 18:32; 21:19). In each case, it is used of Christ signifying a future event by a more or less symbolic indication, rather than by a clear and literal description. And this is generally the form of the prophecies in the Revelation. This does not mean the symbols are unintelligible; the interpretation is not up for grabs. On the other hand, I am not saying that the symbols are in some kind of code, so that all we need is a dictionary or grammar of symbolism to “translate” the symbols into English. Prophecy is poetry, not naive or static allegory. The only way to understand its symbolism is to become familiar with the Bible. The Biblical standard for interpretation is the Bible itself.

We have already taken note of the fallacies and inconsistencies involved in the so-called “literalist” school of Biblical interpretation. Another problem, which is especially severe among certain “pop” theologians, is their arbitrary understanding of prophetic symbols. I have heard preachers speak of the locusts in Rev. 9:3-11 as showing forth a bewildering variety of horrors: bombers, ballistic missiles, Cobra helicopters, and even the dreaded “killer bees” of South America. Which of these do the locusts represent? Without a standard of interpretation, there is no objective way to tell-and thus the Book of Revelation becomes in practice what its very title insists it isn’t: an unintelligible hodgepodge of “apocalyptic” fire and wind, signifying nothing.

Actually, John tells us hundreds of times throughout the Book of Revelation exactly what the standard of interpretation is, for the book is positively crammed with quotations from and allusions to the Old Testament. The Book of Revelation depends on the Old Testament much more than does any other New Testament book. This fact alone should warn us that we cannot begin to fathom its meaning apart from a solid grasp of the Bible as a whole – which is why I wrote Part Two of this book, and why I am harping on the subject again. The early churches had such an understanding. The Gospel had been preached first to the Jews and Gentile proselytes; often churches had been formed by worshipers at synagogues, and this was true even of the churches of Asia Minor (Acts 2:9; 13:14; 14:1; 16:4; 17:1-4, 10-12, 17; 18:4, 8, 19, 24-28; 19:1-10, 17). Moreover, it is clear from Galatians 2:9 that the Apostle John’s ministry was to Jews in particular. Therefore, the first readers of the Revelation were steeped in the Old Testament to a degree that most of us today are not. The symbolism of the Revelation is saturated with Biblical allusions which were commonly understood by the early Church. Even in those rare congregations that did not have some Hebrew members, the Scriptures used in teaching and worship were primarily from the Old Testament. The early Christians possessed the authoritative and infallible key to the meaning of John’s prophecies. Our modern failure to appreciate this crucial fact is the main cause of our inability to understand what John was talking about.

For instance, let’s take a much-abused symbol from Revelation and apply this principle. In Revelation 7, 9, 14 and 22, John sees God’s people sealed on their foreheads with His name; and in Revelation 13:16 he writes of the worshipers of the Beast, who are designated on their right hands and foreheads with his mark. (By the way: Doesn’t it strike you as strange that everybody is so excited about “the Mark of the Beast,” when the clear emphasis in Revelation is on the Seal of God in the foreheads of believers?) Many fanciful interpretations have been made regarding these marks – ranging from tattoos and amusement park validations to credit cards and Social Security numbers – and all without the slightest notice of the clear Biblical allusions. But what would the first readers of these passages have thought? The symbols would have made them think immediately of several Biblical references: the “mark” of sweat on Adam’s forehead, signifying God’s Curse on his disobedience (Gen. 3:19); the forehead of the High Priest, marked with gold letters proclaiming that he was now HOLY TO THE LORD (Ex. 28:36); Deuteronomy 6:6-8 and Ezekiel 9:4-6, in which the servants of God are “marked” on the hand and forehead with the law of God, and thus receive blessing and protection in His name. The followers of the Beast, on the other hand, receive his mark of ownership: submission to ungodly, statist, antichristian law. The mark in Revelation is not meant to be taken literally. It is an allusion to an Old Testament symbol which spoke of a man’s total obedience to God, and it stands as a warning that a society’s God – whether it be the true God or the self-deified State – demands complete obedience to his lordship.

That will be the principle of interpretation followed in this book. The Revelation is a revelation: it was meant to be understood. It will not, however, be understood by lazy-minded and undisciplined thrill-seekers, who are in such a hurry that they have no time to study the Bible. Many rush from their first profession of faith to the last book in the Bible, treating it as little more than a book of hallucinations, hastily disdaining a sober-minded attempt to allow the Bible to interpret itself – and finding, ultimately, only a reflection of their own prejudices. But for those who give their attention to the Word of God as a whole, the message is clear. Benjamin Warfield wrote: “John’s Apocalypse need not be other than easy: all its symbols are either obvious natural ones, or else have their roots planted in the Old Testament poets and prophets and the figurative language of Jesus and his apostles. No one who knows his Bible need despair of reading this book with profit. Above all, he who can understand our Lord’s great discourse concerning the last things (Matt. 24), cannot fail to understand the Apocalypse, which is founded on that discourse and scarcely advances beyond it” (Selected Shorter Writings [Presbyterian and Reformed, 1973], vol. 2, pp. 652f.).

Prophecy and Ethics

The Book of Revelation is often treated as an example of the “apocalyptic” genre of writings which flourished among the Jews between 200 B.C. and A.D. 100. There is no basis for this opinion whatsoever, and it is unfortunate that the word apocalyptic is used at all to describe this literature. (The writers of “apocalyptic” themselves never used the term in this sense; rather, scholars have stolen the term from John, who called his book “The Apocalypse [Revelation] of Jesus Christ.”) There are, in fact, many major differences between the “apocalyptic” writings and the Book of Revelation.

The “apocalyptists” expressed themselves in unexplained and unintelligible symbols, and generally had no intention of making themselves really understood. Their writings abound in pessimism: no real progress is possible, nor will there be any victory for God and His people in history. We cannot even see God acting in history. All we know is that the world is getting worse and worse. The best we can do is hope for the End – soon. But for now, the forces of evil are in control. (Sound familiar?) The practical result was that the apocalyptists rarely concerned themselves with ethical behavior. They weren’t much interested in how to live in the present (and actually taking dominion would be unthinkable); they just wanted to speculate about the coming cataclysms.

John’s approach in the Revelation is vastly different. His symbols are not obscure ravings hatched from a fevered imagination; they are rooted firmly in the Old Testament (and the reason for their seeming obscurity is that very fact: we have trouble understanding them only because we don’t know our Bibles). In contrast to the apocalyptists, who had given up on history, John presents history as the scene of redemption: God saves His people in their environment, not out of it; and He saves the environment.

Leon Morris, in his important study of Apocalyptic (Eerdmans, 1972), describes John’s worldview: “For him history is the sphere in which God has wrought out redemption. The really critical thing in the history of mankind has already taken place, and it took place here, on this earth, in the affairs of men. The Lamb ‘as it had been slain’ dominates the entire book. John sees Christ as victorious and as having won the victory through His death, an event in history. His people share in His triumph, but they have conquered Satan ‘by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony’ (Rev. 12:11). The pessimism which defers God’s saving activity until the End is absent. Though John depicts evil realistically, his book is fundamentally optimistic” (p. 79).

The apocalyptists said, The world is coming to an end: Give up! The Biblical prophets said, The world is coming to a beginning: Get to work!

Thus, the Book of Revelation is not an apocalyptic tract; it is, instead, as John himself reminds us repeatedly, a prophecy (1:3; 10:11; 22:7, 10, 18-19), completely in keeping with the writings of the other Biblical prophets. And – again in stark contrast to the apocalyptists – if there was one major concern among the Biblical prophets, it was ethical conduct. No Biblical writer ever revealed the future merely for the sake of satisfying curiosity: the goal was always to direct God’s people toward right action in the present. The overwhelming majority of Biblical prophecy had nothing to do with the common misconception of “prophecy” as foretelling the future. The prophets told of the future in order to stimulate godly living. The purpose of prophecy is ethical.

The fact that many who study the prophetic writings today are more interested in finding possible references to space travel and nuclear weapons than in discovering God’s commandments for living, is a sickening tribute to modern apostasy. “The testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy” (Rev. 19:10); to ignore Jesus in favor of atomic blasts is a perversion of Scripture, a preposterous twisting of God’s holy Word. From beginning to end, John is intensely interested in the ethical conduct of those who read the Book of Revelation:

Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of the prophecy,
and keep the things which are written in it. (1:3)

Blessed is he who stays awake and keeps his garments. (16:15)

Blessed is he who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book. (22:7)

Blessed are those who do His commandments. (22:14)

I must emphasize that in arguing for the eschatology of dominion I am not simply handing out an alternate program guide for the future. Biblical eschatology is not just a schedule of special events. The fundamental meaning of the Hope is the Lordship of Jesus Christ. The goal of eschatology is to lead men to worship and serve their Creator. Prophecy is never merely an academic exercise. All the prophets pointed to Jesus Christ, and they all demanded an ethical response. God’s Word demands total transformation of our lives, at every point. If that is not the goal, and result, of our study of Scripture, it will profit us nothing.