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by Gary Hampton
What Jesus Revealed To the Churches!
A Study of the Book of Revelation
By Gary C. Hampton
The very title makes it clear that the writer wanted his message to be known. Thayer says the word "revelation" means, "an uncovering, prop. a laying bare, making naked." Three Old Testament writers used signs and symbols to set forth their messages, Ezekiel, Daniel and Zechariah. Ezekiel and Daniel wrote during the days of Babylonian captivity. Their messages carry hope for the remnant that would be saved. Revelation was written during the trying days of the Roman persecution. The message was meant to be read and a blessing is pronounced upon its readers ( Rev_1:3 ; Rev_22:7 ).
Its purpose was to warn the church to keep itself pure, while assuring Christians that victory would ultimately be theirs. It offered comfort to those in sorrow, even promising a great end to sorrow in heaven. Likewise, it gave hope to a people who must have thought at times that Rome had even conquered their Lord by saying that God was still on his throne and in control of all the world's affairs. Its theme might be said to be, "We shall overcome, because our Lord is Lord of lords and King of kings" ( Rev_17:14 ).
The Author and Date of Revelation
The book's author was obviously John ( Rev_1:1 ; Rev_1:9 ; Rev_22:8 ). However, he merely writes the words of Jesus ( Rev_1:1 ; Rev_1:5 ; Rev_1:10-19 ). The letter is addressed to seven churches in Asia (1:11). Since seven is a symbolic number for perfection and we know that there were other churches in Asia in cities such as Colosse, Laodicea, Hierapolis and Troas ( Col_1:2 ; Col_4:13 ; Act_20:5-12 ), we believe that this group of churches stands figuratively for all churches.
The date of the book has been the object of considerable controversy. There are two basic trains of thought. Some think it was written during the reign of Nero (54-68 A. D.), while others think the reign of Domitian a more likely time (81-96 A. D.). We are of the latter opinion for several reasons. First, Nero's persecution was mainly limited to the area around Rome, while Domitian's extended over most of the empire. Second, the cult of emperor worship did not really take shape until Domitian. His father, Vespasian would not accept worship, but Domitian took for himself titles such as "God", "Lord and God" and "Jupiter" (McCord). There was an annual sacrifice before Domitian's magistrates in which one had to say, "Caesar is Lord" and burn a pinch of incense. Once one had completed this sacrifice, a certificate, good for one year, was issued. Jews were allowed to forego such because they were recognized as Monotheists, but Christians had to comply and were persecuted if they did not. Third, the conditions of the church at Ephesus argues for a later date. Paul wrote to them around 62 A. D. and commended their faith and love ( Eph_1:15 ). It is hard to imagine that Jesus would be prepared to remove their lampstand from its place for having left their first love just six short years later ( Rev_2:4-5 ). Fourth, Ireneus in the second century and Eusebius in the fourth century A. D. both indicate John wrote during the time of Domitian.
A Message For the First Century
Many try to take the message of Revelation literally and thereby develop many fanciful doctrines. Such is dangerous as the book itself sets forth many symbols with their meaning. The seven stars in Christ's right hand were angels and the lampstands were churches (1:20). Seven lamps of fire before God's throne are seven Spirits of God, as are the seven eyes (4:5; 5:6). The bowls of incense are prayers (5:8). The red dragon is the devil (12:3, 9). Seven heads are seven mountains, ten horns are ten kings and a woman is a great city (17:9, 12, 18). Fine, clean, white or bright, linen represents the righteousness of the saints (19:8). When death and hell are cast into the lake of fire, it is called the second death (20:14).
One has to read carefully, recognizing that the book was written to a troubled people who needed courage and hope. The message had to be hidden from the persecutors and yet plain to the persecuted. It was not sealed because the message of hope would soon begin to come to pass ( Rev_22:10 ; Rev_1:3 ). In light of this book's stern warning, we must avoid going beyond what is written and adding to or taking away from the Revelation ( Rev_22:18-19 ). Just as there were some secret things that belonged to God in Moses' time, so there are things not uncovered for us today ( Deu_29:29 ). Our goal shall be to understand what is uncovered, bearing in mind that it cannot contradict other plain teachings of scripture, and leave the rest to God's judgement.
The Futurist Method of Interpretation
There are several methods of interpreting Revelation. It is helpful to know what these are so that one can understand the origin of various trains of thought on particular passages. Most interpreters hold that the first three chapter are addressed to a circular rout of seven literal churches of that day.
One holding the futurist view sees chapters 4-19 as occurring primarily before Christ's second coming. Then they see the millennial reign (20:1-10), followed by judgment (20:11-15) and heaven, or hell as the case may be (21-22).
They generally take all the book literally and hold the premillennial theory to be a true one.
The Continuous-Historical Method
Those following the continuous-historical method of interpretation believe that the book describes all of the history of man until the end of time. This view has been held almost exclusively by Protestants and has seen the beast of Rev_13:1-18 as the papacy. Not to be outdone, one Catholic saw the beast as Protestantism. As can already be seen, those who hold this view vary widely in their understanding of what a particular sign or symbol may be. This view has led some to predict the exact year, and even day, of the end of time, which has proven to be embarrassing.
The Preterist and Philosophy of History Methods
Preterist interpreters hold that the book was written solely for those of John's day. They believe that it has all been fulfilled. Naturally, Catholic scholars have liked this view because the Catholic church and the pope could not be foretold in such a view. These read the book only as history.
The philosophy of history, or symbolic, view holds that the symbols in Revelation describe forces which are constantly at work in the world. Thus, the book accurately predicts events throughout time. The forces of good and evil are always in conflict, but God will ultimately win out.
The Historical-Background Method
The historical-background method recognizes the dire circumstances of first century readers. Therefore, an immediate meaning in the first two centuries A. D. must be found for the bulk of the book. However, there is clearly a message for Christians of every age. This method takes the best of the other methods and, hopefully, avoids their pitfalls. We will try to pursue this approach.
To get the most out of this method of study, it is important that the student put on his first century colored glasses to examine the text. Before one can explore possible meanings for his time, he must recognize the essential meaning for the time when the Lord made his revelation known through John.
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