Why would anyone write a book like Revelation, which is so different from the other books of the New Testament? The focus of this essay will be the examination of the purpose of the book of Revelation. Included in the discussion will be which John wrote the book and the various interpretive views used with this particular book.
The authors identify themselves in the first few verses of the book, as is common for many New Testament books. I say ‘authors’ because the human author makes it quite clear he was sent the revelation by God through an angel. God wrote the book of Revelation through the hand of someone named John. The human author identifies himself as John in Revelation 1:1, 4, 9; 22:8.1 John also indicated in Revelation 1:9 that he was on the island of Patmos, which is where Ignatius claimed John was exiled to.2 Justin Martyr, who lived in the first part of the second century, attributed the prophecy to the Apostle John.3,4 Numerous early Church Fathers credited the Apostle John with having authored the book of Revelation.5 It is evident, from the fact that the author did not identify himself more fully, that he was sufficiently well known by the churches to which he addressed the letters. The language used was not that of a person for whom Greek was their first language, while the use of imagery suggests knowledge only a Hebrew would have – both of these issues would be satisfied by the Apostle John.6 All of this suggests the Apostle John wrote the book of Revelation.
The various methods of interpretation of the book must be examined to provide a framework for understanding the text and to help determine the purpose of the book. There have historically been four different methods of interpreting the book of Revelation, particularly chapters 4 through 22 of the book of Revelation: allegorical, preteristic, historical, and futuristic. Each of these will be examined in turn.
The allegorical approach, also known as the spiritual approach, sees the book of Revelation as a purely symbolic discussion of the conflict between God and Satan.7 Those who hold to this view, like Augustine, Clement of Alexandria and Origen, claim there is nothing literal in this book. In this view, the entire book is simply a timeless allegory about the conflict between good and evil.8 Since it is not considered a prophetic work, those who hold this view do not believe in any millennial kingdom of Christ and as such hold to an amillennial view. The problem with this view is that it ignores the author’s statement in Revelation 1:3 that it was prophesy.
The Preterist approach views the book of Revelation as symbolic history. This view sees the book as having been symbolically descriptive of the things that had occurred in John’s time and do not look to any time in the author’s future.9 Since it does not look to the future, this view is amillennial. This view sees the purpose of the book as purely one of comfort and encouragement. The problem with this view is that, like the allegorical approach, it ignores the fact that John specifically stated he was writing prophecy. 10
A third method of interpretation is the historic method. This view recognizes that there is a great deal of symbolic language, but contends that the book of Revelation uses symbolism to present the complete Church history up to the time of Christ’s return. In this view, it is thought the thousand years spoken of in Revelation 20:2 is the peace that follows the conversion of the world brought on by the gradual spread of the Gospel. As such, this view is postmillennial.11 Walvoord quotes Henry C. Theissen as saying that Wycliffe, Luther, and Sir Isaac Newton, among others, held this position.12 The problem with this position, as Wiersbe points out is, “One interpreter sees Luther and the Reformation in a symbol that, to another student, stands for the invention of the printing press.” 13
The futurist approach sees all the visions from chapters 4 through 22 relating to a time preceding and following the return of Christ. This premillennial view looks forward to Christ’s future return to earth and reign on earth for one thousand years as prophesied in Revelation 20:2-7. Variations of this view were held by Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Hippolytus, and Victorinus, all of whom were early Church Fathers.14 Those who hold to this method of interpretation use a more literal interpretation where possible, recognizing the symbolic language that is so prevalent in Revelation must be accounted for in any interpretive system. People who object to this view usually argue that it would offer no “practical comfort.”15
I tend to agree with Elwell’s position that each of the four different approaches have something of value in them. Certainly the book of Revelation can be used as an allegory for the ever-present combat of good versus evil, with Christ reigning supreme in the end. I also think the perterists have something to their idea that the book does refer to John’s day. However, it also can be applied to almost any point in the history of the Church. But since I hold to a contextual-historical interpretation of the bible, I think the futurist’s premillennial view holds the most for us in how to interpret this book.16
While some may believe the futurist’s approach held no comfort, that was not necessarily the primary purpose of the text. The human author states his purpose in writing the book along side that of God’s purpose in giving the revelation to him in Revelation 1:1-3, to present everything he was told to say:
The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who testifies to everything he saw—that is, the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ. Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.
God’s purpose is also given in the same verse, to encourage people to take heed of what is told within the revelation and practice it. Revelation 1:19 expands that purpose by stating specifically that John to write about what he had seen, what was happening at that time, and what would occur in the future. While that may have been the expressed purpose in writing the book, I think there were many different purposes. One purpose was to present the reader with a better understanding of what their faith in Christ would do for them. The book was an encouragement to the Christian who could look forward to the time he would be reunited with Christ, and as such was a book that offered very practical comfort. It was a spur to action for those who needed an extra nudge to help them maintain the course past difficult times as well, be they living in John’s time or any other time. Another purpose of the book was to show exactly what Paul had taught concerning Israel being brought back into the fold would come to pass. In doing so, God gave encouragement to future Jews who would hear the Gospel, but He also laid the groundwork to bring glory to Himself when the various prophecies in the book of Revelation appear to come to pass. I think a final purpose I see for the book was to provide a constant reminder to the Christians who would follow the Apostolic age that Christ can return at any time, and to encourage us to remain faithful, just as Christ is faithful.
Christ loves those who love Him. One manifestation of that love was the book of Revelation. He loved us and so chose to offer us this book as a means to encourage us with something of what we have to look forward to. God, using John the Apostle, wrote the book of Revelation. Possibly the best approach to interpreting and applying the book of Revelation in our lives today would be to use a literal-cultural-historical-grammatical interpretation, with an approach that combined the various views presented earlier, but focusing upon the premillennial futurist’s approach. This would provide the most accurate interpretation and would make it easier for each person to understand the book on many different levels.
Elwell, Walter A. ed. “Revelation: Introduction.” Evangelical Commentary on the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House Company. 1989. [CD-ROM]. Logos Library System. 1996.
Ignatius. “The Episle of Ignatius to the Tarsians”. Ante-Nicene Fathers. Volume I, chapter 3. [On-Line] Available: <http://ccel.wheaton.edu/fathers2/ANF-01/anf01-28.htm#P2610_431080> [Accessed December 11, 1998].
International Bible Society. The Holy Bible: The New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. 1984. Scholar’s Library [CD-ROM]. Logos Library System. 1997.
Johnson, Alan F.1981. “Revelation”. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Vol. 12. Ed. Gaebeleien, Frank E., Douglass, J. D. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Corporation. 397-603.
Martyr, Justin. “Dialogue of Justin”. Ante-Nicene Fathers. Volume I, Chapters 80-81, [On-Line] Available: <http://ccel.wheaton.edu/fathers2/ANF-01/anf01-48.htm#P4767_1027095> [Accessed December 11, 1998].
Martyr, Justin. “Introductory Note to the First Apology of Justin Martyr“. Ante-Nicene Fathers. Volume I <http://ccel.wheaton.edu/fathers2/ANF-01/anf01-45.htm#P3573_611640> [Accessed December 11, 1998].
Richards, Lawrence O. “Study Guide 169: Introduction – Revelation.” The Teacher’s Commentary. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books. 1987. Scholar’s Library [CD-ROM]. Logos Library System. 1997.
Walvoord, John F. The revelation of Jesus Christ. Chicago, IL: Moody Press. 1966.
Wiersbe, Warren W. Wiersbe’s expository outlines on the New Testament, Wheaton, IL : Victor Books. 1992. Scholar’s Library [CD-ROM], Logos Library System. 1997.
1 All Bible references are drawn from: International Bible Society, The Holy Bible: The New International Version, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. 1984) Scholar’s Library [CD-ROM], Logos Library System.
2 Ignatius, “The Episle of Ignatius to the Tarsians”, Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume I, chapter 3, [On-Line] Available: <http://ccel.wheaton.edu/fathers2/ANF-01/anf01-28.htm#P2610_431080> [Accessed December 11, 1998].
3 Justin Martyr, “Dialogue of Justin”, Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume I, Chapters 80-81, [On-Line] Available: <http://ccel.wheaton.edu/fathers2/ANF-01/anf01-48.htm#P4767_1027095> [Accessed December 11, 1998].
4 Justin Martyr, “Introductory Note to the First Apology of Justin Martyr.” Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume I <http://ccel.wheaton.edu/fathers2/ANF-01/anf01-45.htm#P3573_611640> [Accessed December 11, 1998].
5 John F. Walvoord, The revelation of Jesus Christ, (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1966), 12-14.
6 Alan F. Johnson, “Revelation,” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 12. Ed. Frank E. Gaebeleien, J. D. Douglass, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1981), 404-405.
7 Walvoord, 16.
8 Warren W. Wiersbe, “Revelation: Introductory Notes to Revelation,” Wiersbe’s expository outlines on the New Testament, (Wheaton, IL : Victor Books, 1992), Scholar’s Library [CD-ROM], Logos Library System, section III, paragraph B.
9 Walter A. Elwell, ed., “Revelation: Introduction,” Evangelical Commentary on the Bible, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House Company, 1989), paragraph 17.
10 Wiersbe, section III, paragraph A.
11 Lawrence O. Richards, “Study Guide 169: Introduction – Revelation,” The Teacher’s Commentary, (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1987), “History of Interpretation” section, “Postmillennial” paragraph.
12 Walvoord, 18.
13 Wiersbe, section III, paragraph B.
14 Johnson, 408-409.
15 Walvoord, 21.
16Elwell, paragraph 21.