How Should We Interpret the Book of Revelation?2
Perhaps the single greatest controversy surrounding Revelation and the most important issue when it comes to interpreting the book, is the question of its structure. Many, perhaps most, evangelicals read Revelation as if it is describing a short period of time that is still in the future. Those who embrace what may be called the futurist view of the book most often will argue that what we have in Revelation 6-19 is a description of events that will take place in the future in a period of seven years they call The Great Tribulation.
And as you know, there are many who insist that Jesus will return and rapture his people out of this world prior to the outpouring of divine judgment in the “Great Tribulation.” The result is that what we read in Revelation 6-19 has little, if any, immediate practical relevance for a lot of Christians. For them it is fascinating to talk about, but it has little impact on how they live. One often hears: “Praise God that I won’t be here for any of this. Jesus will rescue me so that I won’t ever have to suffer what others endure.”
Although I held to this view for many years, I don’t any longer. Now, please understand that I do believe what we read in Revelation 6-19 applies to the end of the age, just before and including the Second Coming of Jesus. But I think it also applies to and describes what happens throughout the entire course of church history, including our own day and age. In other words, I believe Revelation 6-19 (actually 6-20) portrays for us the commonplaces of history spanning the period from the first coming of Jesus all the way through to his second coming.
Think about it this way. You are at a college football game and have been given the privilege of recording on camera the entire game from a variety of different vantage points. So, you place one camera on the 50 yard line, about 10 rows up. It is the perfect vantage point from which to view the game. Whether with your I-phone or some other form of video camera you begin recording everything that occurs, from the opening kickoff through the end of the game.
Now imagine that you are able to record or video tape the same game but from a different place in the stadium. This time your seat is located in the north end zone, about 50 rows up. Instead of viewing the game horizontally, from left to right, or right to left, you record everything vertically, as the action moves away from you, from one end zone near you to the far end zone at the other end of the field. You video tape the same game, the same plays, but the camera in the end zone provides you with a different perspective on how the game unfolds. You see the players spread across the field and can see much more accurately how a play will unfold.
Now imagine that another camera is in the opposite end zone, at the south end of the field. From this vantage point you can see the game moving toward yourself, as your team takes the ball from the far end of the field and gradually moves it toward the end zone directly in front of where you are sitting.
Now, for one more example, suppose another camera is placed in the Goodyear Blimp, hovering overhead and providing an entirely different perspective of how the game unfolds and develops. You are still watching the same game. But from this vantage point, overhead, you will have a recording of how the teams run and pass and eventually move from one end of the field to the other. From this angle in the blimp you can see both teams equally well. You can observe movements of players in a way that no one sitting anywhere in the stadium can.
Now, in each of these positions you would be watching and recording and eventually describing the same game and the same plays and the same events unfold. But your explanation of how the game started and ended would sound somewhat differently every time. But it’s still the same football game, with the same events unfolding, with the same players on both teams, leading to the same outcome.
This would actually greatly enhance your understanding of what happens in the game. You get to watch it from different perspectives, from different vantage points. Each of the cameras provides its own unique contribution to the same game. One camera focuses almost exclusively on the offense, while another focuses on the defense. Yet another camera hones in on only one player, recording every move he makes. And then there is a camera that sets its sights on the coaches and how they interact on the sidelines with their players.
I want to suggest that this is basically what is happening in the book of Revelation. The technical term for this is recapitulation. John the Apostle is, in my opinion, describing the events of this entire present age in which we live. His description covers the expanse of church history from the first coming of Christ in the first century to the second coming of Christ in some later century, perhaps our own. Sometimes he provides a panoramic view of the entire age of church history. At other times he focuses in on one major event or a series of developments. On occasion he may concentrate on telling us about one person or movement in the course of history.
However, when John replays for you and me his videos of the game, as it were, he doesn’t do it in chronological order, as if from the first play in the first quarter up through the last play in the fourth and final quarter. He jumps around, at one time describing events that occur in the second quarter and then something that happened in the first quarter and then plays that occurred in the fourth quarter. But in each case he concludes his video presentation and his written account by describing the last few minutes of the game when the winning team is known.
I believe John does this multiple times in Revelation. Some believe there are seven progressively parallel sections in which John describes this. Regardless of how many times it happens, the principle of recapitulation is the same. John describes the commonplaces of church history spanning the time between the two comings of Christ. By “commonplaces” I mean the conditions, circumstances, situations, and environments in which people find themselves between the two comings of Christ. As he finishes one section, concluding with the Second Coming of Christ and the end of history, he circles back around to start all over again at the start of the game. Once he concludes yet another journey he circles back around and recapitulates the same period of time from yet another vantage point.
As you know, the book of Revelation is built around three series of seven judgments. There are seven seal judgments, followed by seven trumpet judgments, and finally seven bowl judgments. According to the principle of recapitulation, the seven seal judgments, together with the seven trumpet and bowl judgments, are descriptive of events throughout the course of history between the two advents of Jesus. The only difference in the way John portrays what is happening is that at one time he may describe a preliminary, introductory and somewhat moderate or limited aspect of God’s judgment, and then at another time portray that judgment in its more complete and devastating expression.
All three series of seven judgments (seals, trumpets, bowls) portray events and phenomena that occur repeatedly throughout the course of history between the first and second comings of Christ. All three series of seven judgments bring us to the consummation at the close of human history where we see the final judgment of unbelievers, the salvation and vindication of God’s people, and the full manifestation of the kingdom of Christ.
The fact that the trumpet judgments are partial and somewhat limited and the bowl judgments are more complete and final simply indicates that what can occur in a limited or partial manner at any point in history between the two advents of Christ, can also occur, at any point in history between the two advents of Christ, in a universal or more thorough-going manner. The effect or impact of these plagues of judgment on the unbelieving world is at one time and in one place restricted, while at another time in another place, widespread.
Thus, contrary to the futurist interpretation, Revelation is not concerned merely with events at the close of history, immediately preceding the second coming of Christ. Rather, there are multiple sections in the book, each of which recapitulates the other, that is to say, each of which begins with the first coming of Christ and concludes with the second coming of Christ and the end of history. Each of these sections provides a series of progressively parallel visions that increase in their scope and intensity as they draw nearer to the consummation.
Try to think of it on the analogy of that football game I described a moment ago. Each section of John’s book is like each of the many cameras placed throughout the stadium or in the blimp hovering above. In each section John is describing, generally speaking, the same period of time, just as each camera is recording for us the same football game. But each section and each camera provide their own distinctive points of emphasis.
One objection often raised by the futurist to the concept of progressive parallelism or recapitulation is the fact that John repeatedly moves from one vision to the next by using a phrase such as “after this,” or “after these things,” or “and I saw.” The futurist contends that this indicates John is writing down the temporal sequence in which the visions occur in history, which is to say, one right after another. But these phrases need only indicate the sequence in which John saw the visions. In other words, those phrases that serve to connect or link one vision with another are literary in nature, not historical. They tell us that John first saw vision “A” and then saw vision “B” and after that saw vision “C”, but not necessarily that the events in vision “A” occur before those in vision “B” or that the events of vision “C” occur after those of vision “B”.
Revelation is a challenging and at times baffling book. But I think you will discover that the principle of recapitulation will greatly aid in your effort to understand what God is communicating concerning his purposes for human history.