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How do you respond to the book of Revelation?

“The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place…” (1:1).

Because many modern evangelical readers consider almost everything in the book of Revelation to be a sort of “snap shot” about what shall occur at the end of history, it will prove more beneficial to deal with the book as a whole rather then analyzing it verse by verse. Defenders of the classical view of foreknowledge who read Revelation in this futuristic fashion sometimes argue that if God possesses foreknowledge of events which shall occur at the end of history, he must also possess exhaustive foreknowledge of all events leading up to this end. I am not convinced that this is the right way to read Revelation, for reasons that I shall give below. But even if one accepts the futuristic reading of this book, I do not see how it implies that everything about the future is settled.

The primary character in Revelation is God who of course perfectly knows his own plans for the end of history. The second main set of characters in this book is Satan and his followers (e.g. the beast, anti-Christ, whore of Babylon, etc.) and we’ve have already seen that God knows what they plan on doing when history comes to a close. Consider that the character of Satan and demons is eternally solidified toward evil which makes their behavior far more predictable than a human who still has the capacity to choose between good and evil courses of action.

The picture we get of Satan and all the forces of evil in Revelation is that they are like rabid pit bulls on a leash just waiting to be allowed to do what they wish. And, like rabid pit bulls, there is little guesswork involved in assessing what they will do when they are finally unleashed. When the judgments spoken of in Revelation occur God allows these spiritual rabid hounds to run free. There is, therefore, no basis for concluding that because God knows the general features of how the world will end he must know every detail leading up to that end.

There are some compelling arguments which suggest that the entire futuristic interpretation of the book of Revelation is misguided, however. I can presently mention only one. This very modern, literalistic, futuristic approach ignores a fundamental exegetical rule of biblical interpretation: the primary meaning of a text, and the meaning which must control all other applications of a text, is the meaning a text would have had to its original audience. Those who interpret the book of Revelation as constituting a “snap shot” of the future usually apply this exegetical principle for all other books of the Bible. But they unfortunately abandon it when interpreting Revelation.

This unwarranted shift is especially puzzling in the light of the fact that John specifies that he’s writing to “the seven churches that are in Asia” (1:4) about matters that “must soon take place” (1:1) because “the time is near” (1:3, cf. 22:6, 10). The emphasis on the nearness of the events depicted in this book and thus on the urgency of his readers to respond quickly is found throughout Revelation (e.g. 2:16; 3:10–11; 22; 22:6, 7, 12, 20). To understand Revelation properly, therefore, we should hear it read to us (see 1:3)—not meticulously combed through with a decoding agenda, as some modern interpreters do—and we must, as much as possible, try to understand it as a first century Christian in Asia minor would understand it.

When we do this, we free ourselves from having to decode (by guesswork) this book to make it relevant to contemporary readers. Most of the symbolic prophecies of this book find their fulfillment in the first century. For example, Nero is the beast: the name “Nero Caesar” in Hebrew (NRWN QSR) adds up to 666 (13:18). And the forty two weeks of his horrifying reign (13:5) is the exact duration of the Roman siege on Jerusalem beginning in 66 A.D.

As with all books of the Bible, however, the basic message of Revelation is for all time. Using Old Testament imagery, this book depicts general truths about God’s fight with and judgment upon Satan and the kingdoms of the world which are under him. These truths are in various ways evidenced in all places and at all times throughout history. The book of the Revelation thus provides warning, encouragement and reassurance to believers in whatever period of history they find themselves. We are to remain confident that God shall be victorious, that evil shall be overcome, and that the righteous shall be vindicated.

If this latter interpretation of Revelation is accepted there is obviously no problem reconciling the prophecies of this book with the view that the future is partly open. The events that were revealed to John were (as he himself says) in the very near future when he wrote the work.

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