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by Harold G. Norris
"The Revelation to John" is part of scripture, so that an understanding of it should be sought by every Christian. John wrote this book in a time of grave peril for the church. Persecution was raging. Pagan Imperial Rome was seeking to destroy the church. What will be the place of the church in the world? Will good triumph over evil? Such questions are answered in this book.
It is acknowledged that "The book of Revelation" is written in such a manner that interpretation by Western minds is often difficult. That is no excuse for neglecting it. The studies that follow are advanced humbly with the prayer that God will guide us to a better understanding of "The Book with a blessing." We may not agree with some of the views expressed in these studies, but it is our prayer that they will lead to a more earnest study of the last book of our Bible.
The book of "Revelation" is "THE NEGLECTED BOOK" of the Bible. There are reasons for this neglect. Its meaning does not lie on the surface. It is written in symbolic language. It is a type of literature which was in common use between 200 B. C. and 100 A. D. and was used in times of persecution when it was not safe to pass on a message of Christian hope in plain language. It was composed of symbols that were known and understood by Christians but these symbols were meaningless to non-Christians. It was a kind of writing IN CODE. Like any other code writing it is essential to know the right KEY to the meaning of the code. When we realize that "The book of Revelation" is written in symbolic language, and that the meaning of the symbols used can be found particularly in Old Testament scriptures which were known to Christians in John’s day, and we are consistent in the use of this KEY to interpretation, then it becomes "The book with a blessing."
At the time of John’s writing this book "The Apocalypse" (translated into English "REVELATION") there was fierce persecution of the Christian church. Imperial Rome ruled the world and required that all people worshipped the Emperor of Rome as both king and God.
Christians worshipped Christ as King and God and refused Emperor worship.
To write the belief and worship of Christians in ordinary language would have meant confiscation of the book and increased persecution of Christians. So John wrote in CODE. His message would not be understood by pagans but at the same time the book encouraged Christians with the deathless hope of the victory of Christ over all opposition both now and in the final outcome of history.
If we can find the right KEY to interpretation, this book will bring the blessing of Christian hope to us in our day.
Unfortunately, a host of false interpretations given to the visions of this book have made it a happy hunting ground for extremists. Nearly all the sects of Christendom take their rise from false interpretations of the book of Revelation. But, this does not excuse us for remaining ignorant of this book but is all the more reason for our seeking to discover its true message.
To most Bible readers the first three and the last two chapters are familiar while the rest of the book is completely unknown. Yet it is the one book of the Bible which contains a definite promise of blessing to its readers 1:3 and 22:7.
The word "Revelation" (’Apocalypse’) by which John describes the book in the first verse of chapter 1 proves that it is not meant to be a mysterious book. The word "Revelation" means THE UNCOVERING OF THAT WHICH HAS BEEN PREVIOUSLY COVERED--THE DRAWING BACK OF THE VEIL THAT HAS PREVIOUSLY CONCEALED A PERSON OR THING. The book of Revelation is A REVELATION, not a mystery. The book of Revelation is the UNVEILING of God’s plans and purposes which lie behind the things seen and temporal in history, so as to enable the church and individual Christian to face trials in a strong and hopeful spirit. This "Apocalypse" then is A DRAWING BACK OF THE CURTAIN, WHICH, TO MERELY HUMAN EYES, HANGS OVER THE PURPOSES OF GOD.
It is important for the reader to realize that the book deals with what is happening NOW, as well as what will happen in the FUTURE.
Verses 1 and 19 of chapter 1 read:
1. "The revelation of Jesus Christ which God gave unto him, to show unto His servants things which must shortly come to pass."
19. "Write the things which thou hast seen, and the things which ARE, and the things which shall be HEREAFTER."
Things which ARE NOW, things which must SHORTLY COME TO PASS, and then, things which SHALL BE HEREAFTER.
These words are entirely against the teaching of those who say that the events of this book are still mostly FUTURE: for it concerns "Things that ARE now." Some have taught that the book deals with things which were all fulfilled in John’s day.
The truth seems to us to be that the WORDS OF GOD ARE OF PERPETUAL FULFILMENT. They are not only TO BE FULFILLED, but ARE BEING FULFILLED all the time. The predictions, the principles, which John said would shortly come to pass are not exhausted in any past fulfilment but carry lessons for all generations. Verse 3 of chapter 1 makes plain that the whole fulfilment of the book was not exhausted in earliest ages, nor reserved for future times; else where is the blessing promised "for ALL who READ, LISTEN AND KEEP"? The predictions of the book apply to EVERY age, or else verse 3 is meaningless.
METHODS OF INTERPRETATION:
To understand and be blessed by John’s Apocalypse the first necessity is to consider the book as a whole, and to understand the method of symbolic literature it uses, and to be consistent in using the key to its symbols.
First it is necessary to outline the three main schools of interpretation.
1. THE HISTORICAL
This sees the book as a complete history of the church and of the world from the first to the second advent of Christ. I personally find this method unsatisfactory for three reasons.
(1) It is a law of all prophecy that its first message is for its own age. But if the book covers over 19 centuries how could it help the Christians of John’s age?
(2) The message of the book would be beyond people of that generation.
(3) Hardly any two holders in this historical interpretation agree regarding past or future events.
2. THAT THE BOOK REFERS ONLY TO JOHN’S AGE.
But if it refers to that age alone, it doesn’t make sense for many of its references are to the FINAL advent of Christ--something still future.
3. THE FUTURIST
This interpretation goes to the other extreme and finds its references to future events yet to come in the last days of the world, so that we are now living in chapters two and three while chapter four onwards all refers to the future.
This method allows full scope for one’s imagination.
For reasons outlined above on Revelation 1:3, I must look to other methods of interpretation.
It is true to state that one’s idea concerning "the millennium" (the 1,000 years reign of Christ) will shape one’s approach to interpretation of the whole book of Revelation. The three main theories concerning "the millennium" are briefly outlined in these studies in chapter 20. The method of interpretation in these studies is neither Pre-millennial nor Post-millennial, these theories are not required in the interpretation of the Apocalyptic writing of the book of Revelation. THE SYMBOLIC INTERPRETATION of the book of Revelation which is followed in these studies recognizes that often the figures used in the book of Revelation spring from the situation in the days of the Roman empire when it was written. We also recognize that historical events similar to these figures have often occurred. And we recognize that the words of John will find their completion not in this present world and life but in times that are yet to be which John describes as the new earth and the new heaven.
In John’s Apocalypse he sees two opposing forces. He sees good and evil always personalized as God and Satan, or as Christ and the devil, but God and His Christ are always in control of the outcome. There is no possibility of any other end of history than the triumph of God and of His Christ.
The Symbolic interpretation of the book of Revelation sees its symbols as A CHRISTIAN PHILOSOPHY OF LIFE. By this we mean that the events described in the book are not single events of the past, present, or future, but rather they are the interpretation in the figure of symbols of how things always turn out in this world where evil seems to be in power but where God is actually in control and where God triumphs.
THERE ARE THREE IMPORTANT THINGS TO REALIZE IF WE ARE TO UNDERSTAND THIS BOOK.
1. FIRST, THE BOOK OF REVELATION DEALS WITH SPIRITUAL PRINCIPLES, AND NOT WITH HISTORICAL EVENTS (but historical events are often included in the course of the spiritual principles described). This book covers the WHOLE CHRISTIAN ERA. The spiritual principles it portrays operate in all ages. The idea of chronology (or successive events in world history in order of time) does not exist in this book. The visions of the book are parallel--not successive. (Because the 7 seals of chapter 5 precedes the 7 trumpets of chapter 8 does not mean that one event is earlier than the other, for the visions of the book are parallel, not successive). One vision brings us to the verge of the FINAL advent of Christ, and so closes. Then another vision opens, looking at the same events from a different point of view. It is true that the visions of the book do find counterparts in human history. They have happened in the past and will also happen in the future. What was written by John helped the early Christians to whom Imperial Rome was the great Babylon which absorbed the world’s riches and persecuted the church. To these early Christians no doubt the Roman Emperor was the wild beast, savage and relentless, rising out of the sea of the fickle, restless, troubled nations of the world. No less the visions of this book consoled Christian martyrs who saw their persecutors as the world’s beast of Revelation chapter 13. Nor is the force of the consolations exhausted. In the future, according to this interpretation, there will be persecution for Christians, and the sure and certain triumph of God and His kingdom. In the past the coded message of this book has encouraged Christians, and in the present and future its message will grow clearer and bring hope to all who read it. The book has a message to EVERY AGE--past, present, future. The book shows the certain triumph of God over the devil--of good over evil--of the church over a hostile world. The book is a TABLEAU--A PICTORIAL UNFOLDING OF PRINCIPLES IN CONSTANT CONFLICT THOUGH UNDER VARIOUS FORMS. Just as we say "history repeats itself", so in this book we see the struggle of GOOD against EVIL, GOD against the DEVIL, and this conflict goes on in EVERY age. That is what this book presents. And this book of "Revelation" is the MOST HOPEFUL BOOK IN ALL THIS WORLD FOR IT PROCLAIMS CHRIST’S VICTORY.
The first principle is this then, the book of Revelation deals with spiritual principles in constant conflict--the struggle between good and evil in EVERY age.
2. THE BOOK IS WRITTEN IN SYMBOLIC LANGUAGE.
The book of Revelation is full of material things such as trees, hills, stars, locusts, etc. Each material thing is a symbol of something. To begin to understand the book at all we must realize that the material things here ARE symbols, and we must be consistent in interpreting these symbols in the whole 22 chapters of the book. The KEY to this symbolic interpretation is given by John himself in chapter 1, verse 20. "A STAR" John says means "AN ANGEL--OR MESSENGER" "A CANDLESTICK," John says means "A CHURCH" And having pointed this out John takes it for granted that Christian readers will consistently use this KEY to interpretation all through his 22 chapters and will look at all the material things he describes as symbols. John also uses numbers as symbols.
3. THE BOOK IS DRAWN FROM OTHER SCRIPTURES.
It should be noted that the language of Revelation and its pictures and symbols is embedded in the language of the Old Testament. The last book of the Bible is fittingly a mosaic of the message of the Bible as a whole. Within the 404 verses of this book there are 518 quotations from the Old Testament apart from countless suggestions from it. John uses the traditional symbolism of the Old Testament literature such as "EYES"--for vision; "HORN"--for power, "WHITE"--for purity and conquest. John uses NUMBERS with given symbolic meanings which are rooted in Jewish history and which can fairly simply be set out:
symbol for "ADEQUATE WITNESS" Revelation 11:3 cf. Deuteronomy 19:15, Matthew 18:16
"COMPLETENESS" Revelation 1:4-5; Revelation 16:19 cf.1 John 5:8
"INCOMPLETENESS" Revelation 8:7; Revelation 9:15; Revelation 12:4
"ANYTHING THAT CONCERNS THE EARTH" The earth being considered as a square with 4 corners Revelation 20:8; Revelation 4:6; Revelation 9:14 cf. Matthew 24:31
"SMALLNESS" Revelation 9:5 cf. Isaiah 30:17
"SIN" six falling short of seven (which is the symbol of perfection). Six--falling short, missing the mark, unredeemed humanity, man apart from God, worldliness Revelation 13:18 (the number of the beast 666--falling short of the Godhead 777).
"PERFECTION" perfect unity in diversity. "3½" (the broken 7)--a symbol of the TIME OF THE POWER OF EVIL. As 7 symbolises eternity of goodness 3½ symbolises the present age of time up to the final coming of Christ.
"FULLNESS" and "COMPLETENESS" Revelation 17:12. It is therefore also a symbol of "LIMITATION." To come up to 10 is to reach the limit because it can’t be more complete than complete. 2:10 cf. Daniel 1:12.
Symbol for "THE CHURCH" 24 symbolises the church of God through the Old and New Testaments. 12 Patriarchs of the Old Testament, 12 Apostles of the New Testament, 12 gates of the holy city Revelation 21:12. 144,000 of Revelation 7:4; Revelation 14:1. 3 = 12 squared to show completeness, and cubed to show multitude. 144,000--"THE WHOLE UNIVERSAL CHURCH." 12 or its multiples is always a reference to the church.
"COMPLETE AND ABSOLUTE." The cube of 10. Revelation 20:2-7. "The millennium"--THE COMPLETE AND ABSOLUTE RULE OF CHRIST--not a literal 1,000 years of time.
"TEN THOUSAND TIMES TEN THOUSAND" the symbol for "INNUMERABLE" for the highest number that can be represented by Greek notation is 99,999,999.Revelation 5:11; Revelation 7:9.
It is important that we recognize that we cannot take some numbers as symbols, and others literally or there can be no sound interpretation. e. g. if the "7" churches of chapters 2 and 3 and the "7" horns of Revelation 5:6, and the 3½ days of Revelation 11:11 are symbolical so also is the 1,000 years of Revelation 20:2.
"THINGS" are also symbols. e. g., "A STAR" is an angel or messenger."
A CANDLESTICK" is a church 1:20.
"SATAN" in Revelation 12:9 is "THE DRAGON" because he is fierce and "THE SERPENT" because he is cunning and subtle.
"WORLDLY POWER" is "THE BEAST" in Revelation 13:1-2, like a
"leopard"--leaping on its prey, like a
"bear"--relentless, like a
THE AIM OF THE BOOK OF REVELATION
Some see it as a prediction of the fall of pagan Rome. Others see the destruction of papal Rome in it. Others see in it the FALL OF ALL PAGANISM.
This is certain--The book assures the church of the certainty of Christ’s coming and victory--whether it be the victory over pagan or papal Rome--OR THE PAGANISM OF OUR PRESENT WORLD. The true aim of the book appears to be to reveal THE VICTORY OF CHRIST OVER ALL WRONG.
The visions of the book find their counterpart not in any one age but in ALL ages.
The fall of paganism is certainly included in its visions. As the downfall of world-power is included Christ triumphs. This is the book of the advent and victory of Christ.
No attempt is made in these studies to explain every verse or symbol of the book of Revelation. Our aim is more general--to provide the reader with a KEY TO INTERPRETATION OF APOCALYPTIC LITERATURE, a KEY to be used consistently by the reader to discover the true message of this book of scripture. We will not agree with each other in some interpretations but if we will each be consistent in using the KEY to interpret the symbols of this book we will find the book of Revelation a new and thrilling part of scripture.
THE MAIN OUTLINE OF THE BOOK:
1. The introduction--Christ and His church
(1) The vision of Christ-chapter 1
(2) The message of the universal church--chapters 2 and 3
2. The visions
(1) The heavenly council--chapter 4 and chapter 5
(2) The visions of conflict
A. The conflict seen from the world’s side--chapters 6-11
1. The 7 seals (chapters 6-8:1)
2. The 7 trumpets (chapters 8:2-11)
B. The conflict seen from the heavenly side--chapters 12-20
1. The spiritual foes (chapters 12-14)
2. The 7 vials of retribution (chapters 15, 16)
3. The fall of the foes (chapters 17-20)
C. The vision of Peace--chapters 21, 22
Keeping in mind the 3 basic principles of interpretation
1. The book deals with spiritual principles, not historic events
2. The book is written in symbolic language
3. The basis and key to the meaning of the symbols used is found in Old Testament scripture--
Now let us turn to study the book of Revelation.
Whatever the fluctuations of hope and despair in the struggle for the souls of men, whatever may be the rise and fall of earthly governments, whatever the struggles between the principles of good and evil, faith and unbelief--this book proclaims the coming victory of Christ. The reading of it today will sustain faith in a hostile world. This book is not a museum to satisfy an archaeologist in prophecy. It is a book of living principles at work in human society. It tells how always Christ is with us, leading to ultimate victory. It is the book of the triumph of Christ over all lawlessness and evil. "HE COMES" is the central theme of the book. The book of Revelation is the most hopeful book in the world.
the Fifth Week after Easter