From the very beginning, cranks and crackpots have attempted to use Revelation to advocate some new twist on the Chicken Little Doctrine: The Sky Is Falling! But, as I hope to show in this exposition, St. John’s Apocalypse teaches instead that Christians will overcome all opposition through the work of Jesus Christ. My study has convinced me that a true understanding of this prophecy must be based on the proper application of five crucial interpretive keys:
- Revelation is the most “Biblical” book in the Bible. John quotes hundreds of passages from the Old Testament, often with subtle allusions to little-known religious rituals of the Hebrew people. In order to understand Revelation, we need to know our Bibles backward and forward. One reason why this commentary is so large is that I have tried to explain this extensive Biblical background, commenting on numerous portions of Scripture that shed light on St. John’s prophecy. I have also reprinted, as Appendix A, Philip Carrington’s excellent survey of the Levitical symbolism in Revelation.
- Revelation has a system of symbolism. Almost everyone recognizes that St. John wrote his message in symbols. But the meaning of those symbols is not up for grabs. There is a systematic structure in Biblical symbolism. In order to understand Revelation properly, we must become familiar with the “language” in which it is written. Among other goals, this commentary seeks to bring the Church at least a few steps closer to a truly Biblical Theology of Revelation.
- Revelation is a prophecy about imminent events – events that were about to break loose on the world of the first century. Revelation is not about nuclear warfare, space travel, or the end of the world. Again and again it specifically warns that “the time is near!” St. John wrote his book as a prophecy of the approaching destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, showing that Jesus Christ had brought the New Covenant and the New Creation. Revelation cannot be understood unless this fundamental fact is taken seriously.
- Revelation is a worship service. John did not write a textbook on prophecy. Instead, he recorded a heavenly worship service in progress. One of his major concerns, in fact, is that the worship of God is central to everything in life. It is the most important thing we do. For this reason I have devoted special attention throughout this commentary to the very considerable liturgical aspects of Revelation, and their implications for our worship services today.
- Revelation is a book about dominion. Revelation is not a book about how terrible the Antichrist is, or how powerful the devil is. It is, as the very first verse says, The Revelation of Jesus Christ. It tells us about His lordship over all; it tells us about our salvation and victory in the New Covenant, God’s “wonderful plan for our life”; it tells us that the kingdom of the world has become the Kingdom of our God, and of His Christ; and it tells us that He and His people shall reign forever and ever.
I have many people to thank for making this book possible. First and foremost, I am grateful to Dr. Gary North, without whose patience and considerable financial investment it simply could not have been written. The week I moved to Tyler, Gary took me along on one of his periodic book-buying sprees at a large used bookstore in Dallas. As I helped him haul hundreds of carefully chosen volumes to the checkstand (I bought a few books, too – a couple every hour or so, just to keep my hand in the game), Gary asked me what long-term project I’d like to work on, along with my other duties at the Institute for Christian Economics. “How about a medium-sized, popular-style, introductory-level, easy-to-read book on Revelation?” I suggested. “I think I could knock something like that out in about three months.” That was, almost to the day, 3 years and six months ago – or, as Gary might be tempted to mutter under his breath: A time, times, and half a time. At last, the tribulation has ended.
The book, of course, has vastly outgrown its projected size and scope. No small part of that is due to the Rev. James B. Jordan and the Rev. Ray Sutton, pastors of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Tyler, Texas, who have greatly influenced my understanding of the Bible’s literary and symbolic connections and liturgical structures. The Rev. Ned Rutland, of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Opelousas, Louisiana, read an early version of some chapters and, with consummate tact and graciousness, steered me in a more Biblical direction. James M. Peters, Tyler’s resident historian of antiquities and computer whiz, was a rich treasury of information on the ancient world.
There are others who contributed in various ways to the production of this volume. ICE’s patient and cheerful secretaries, Mrs. Maureen Peters and Mrs. Lynn Dwelle, assisted me with many technical details and secured out-of-print books; they have developed the virtue of “going the extra mile” into a high art. Typesetter David Thoburn, a true artist, labored long hours in works of supererogation, solving unusual problems and ensuring the high quality and readability of the book. He has abundantly confirmed my conviction of his superior craftsmanship. His assistant, Mrs. Sharon Nelson, was a valuable mediator, making sure our computers remained on speaking terms. The indexes were prepared by Mitch Wright and Vern Crisler.
One of the most outstanding Bible scholars of our day is the British theologian Gordon J. Wenham, of the College of St. Paul and St. Mary, whose knowledgeable and well-written commentaries have made a significant mark throughout the evangelical world. My first contact with Dr. Wenham was last year, when, with no advance warning, I sent him a copy of my book Paradise Restored. To my great surprise and delight, he wrote back to express his appreciation. This encouraged me (though not without a degree of fear and trembling) to solicit his comments on the uncorrected proofs of the present work. Dr. Wenham graciously took valuable time to read it, to offer suggestions, and to write the Foreword. I am grateful for his kindness. Naturally, he cannot be held responsible for the numerous shortcomings of this book.
The latter point should perhaps be emphasized. This commentary makes no claim whatsoever to be the “last word” on the subject; indeed, if my eschatology is correct, the Church has many more years left to write many more words! I am greatly indebted to the important contributions of many other commentators – especially Philip Carrington, Austin Farrer, J. Massyngberde Ford, Meredith G. Kline, J. Stuart Russell, Moses Stuart, Henry Barclay Swete, and Milton S. Terry – and I hope I have done justice to them in building on their foundation. Yet I am painfully aware that the task of commenting on St. John’s magnificent prophecy far exceeds my abilities. Where I have failed adequately to set forth the message of the Revelation, I beg the indulgence of my brothers and sisters in Christ, and earnestly desire their comments and corrections. Letters may be addressed to me at P.O. Box 2314, Placerville, CA 95667.
My beloved wife, Darlene, has always been my greatest source of encouragement. Our children (Nathan David, Jacob Israel, and Abigail Aviva) endured our collective “exile to Patmos” with true Johannine grace (mixed, perhaps, with occasional rumblings of Boanergean thunder as well!); and if their bedtime stories were somehow filled with more than the usual quota of cherubs, dragons, flying horses, and flaming swords, they never complained.
Finally, I am grateful to my parents, the Rev. and Mrs. Harold B. Chilton. I was immeasurably blessed to grow up in a home where the Word of God is so highly honored, so faithfully taught, so truly lived. The environment they structured was constantly flooded with musical grandeur and richness, as the atmosphere was charged with rousing theological discussion, all in the context of caring for the needy, sheltering the homeless, feeding the hungry, and bringing to all the precious message of the Gospel. From the steaming jungles and rice paddies of the Philippines to the shaded lawns of Southern California, they set before me a remarkable and unforgettable example of what it means to be bondservants of the Lord. Some of my earliest memories are of seeing my parents’ faith tested beyond what seemed the limits of human endurance; and when God had tried them, they came forth as gold. Holding forth the Testimony of Jesus, suffering the loss of all things in order to win Christ, they are what St. John has exhorted us all to be: faithful witnesses.
This book is dedicated to them.
May 8, 1986