Interpretation that takes into account the Structure and Theme of the Revelation

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I was recently involved in symposium on the Book of Revelation sponsored by several churches in Reno, Nevada and held at Sierra Bible Church. Gary Demar defended a preterist, Jim Hamilton a futurist, and I an Idealist approach to the Book. The symposium consisted of three major presentations 55 minutes in length in the morning and three 20 minute responses and question and answer time in the afternoon. Here are the final three principles under which I presented the hermeneutical framework of Modified Idealism.

III.      Non-Consecutive Interpretation that takes into account the Recapitulatory Structure of the Book of Revelation

Biblical prophecy often has a non-consecutive structure that recapitulates or repeats different perspectives about the same period of time.1  After his fine exposition of Matthew 24-25, John Murray carefully underscores this in one of his conclusions:

 1.  The discourse, as to structure, is recapitulatory to a considerable extent.  It is not, therefore, continuously progressive.  We are repeatedly brought to the advent and informed of its various features, concomitants, and consequences (vss. 14, 29-31, 37-41; 25:31-46).  We should expect for this reason, that revelation respecting the future would in other cases follow this pattern.  At least we should be alert to the propriety of this structure in predictive prophecy.2

Murray may be thinking of the Book of Revelation.  At any rate, it is clear that Revelation is not a consecutive, chronological, prophecy of history.  Some interpreters (for example, those of the historicist and futurist schools) have begun with chapter four and assumed that each prophecy occurs in consecutive, chronological order in history right through chapter 22.  The seven seals, seven trumpets, and seven bowls, for instance, occur in consecutive chronological order not just in the visions of Revelation, but in history.  Whatever one’s conclusion on the structure of the Book of Revelation, this view must be rejected.

There are clear instances of repetition or recapitulation in the Book of Revelation.  For instance, Rev. 11:18 speaks of the final judgment, while the immediately following passage (cf. 12:3, 5) returns to the period of Christ’s first advent.  (Even Preterists must admit recapitulation here—even if they think the judgment of Revelation 11 is the destruction of Jerusalem.)  This clearly shows that recapitulation must be taken into account in the interpretation of the Book of Revelation and that systems of interpretation (like that of historicism) which insist on a consecutive, chronological interpretation of the Book cannot be seriously entertained.

We may once more illustrate this principle in terms of Revelation 20.  Simply because Revelation 20 follows the description of what is apparently, though figuratively, the second advent of Christ in chapter 19, this does not demand that the historical fulfillment of the visions in Revelation 20 be chronologically subsequent to the historical fulfillment of the visions in chapter 19.  Just as Revelation 12 takes us back to the beginning of the gospel age, so also may Revelation 20 do the same.

By way of further explanation, let me qualify the recapitulatory character of the Book of Revelation in several ways.  First, I do not think it necessary to my thesis, nor do I claim here, to present an overall schema of the Book of Revelation or to specify how many such recapitulations should be enumerated.

Second, recognizing recapitulation in the structure of Revelation is not contrary to recognizing other literary structures.  For instance, Jim in his book on Revelation has a very interesting and compelling diagram of the chiastic structure of Revelation.  In it he asserts that Revelation 11:15-19 occupies the central position in the entire book.  I think he may be right, but I do not think this is contrary at all to my recognizing that the transition from chapter 11 to chapter 12 is a prime example of recapitulation in the Book of Revelation.

Third and finally, recognizing recapitulation as a fundamental structure of the Book of Revelation does not contradict a kind of progression in the Revelation.  Let me put it this way, the recapitulation of Revelation is not a circle.  It is a spiral.  William Hendriksen affirms this in his More Than Conquerors.  He divides the book into seven cycles:

(1)  The book consists of seven sections.
(2)  These seven sections are parallel.  Each of them spans the entire dispensation from the first to the second coming of Christ…3

Later, however, Hendriksen asserts that each of these parallel sections (or recapitulations) focus more and more attention on the consummation of the gospel age.  He writes,  “The Seven Sections of the Apocalypse are Arranged in an Ascending, Climactic Order.  There Is Progress In Eschatological Emphasis:  The Final Judgment Is First ANNOUNCED; Then INTRODUCED; Finally, DESCRIBED.  Similarly, the New Heavens and Earth Are Described More Fully in the Final Section Than in Those Which Precede.”  On the next page Hendriksen provides a diagram illustrating this thesis.4  We may describe this view of Hendriksen as “progressive parallelism.”

IV.     “Analogy of Faith” Interpretation that takes into account the Kingdom-Theme of Revelation

Under a previous head I have already asserted the principle of interpretation affirmed in 1:9 the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith.  Let me remind you of what it says:

The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture interpretation is the Scripture itself; and therefore when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched by other places that speak more clearly.5

This principle of interpretation is known by different names:  the analogy of faith, Scripture interprets Scripture, the clear before the obscure, and the literal before the figurative.  I have talked about some of its implications for the Book of Revelation already, but it seemed right to reserve one of its major applications for separate treatment here.

The present reign of Christ before the eternal state is one of the major themes of the Book of Revelation (Rev. 1:5-7, 9; 5:1-14; 11:15-19; 12:1-10; 20:1-10).  In particular, the millennial reign of Christ is clearly the theme of Revelation 20.  The principle of interpretation under discussion, the analogy of faith, insists that the teaching of the rest of Scripture and particularly that of the New Testament about the reign of Christ be regulative for our understanding of the Book of Revelation as a whole and particularly Revelation 20.

When, therefore, we utilize this principle of the analogy of faith what do we discover?  In the entirety of the rest of Scripture there is no reference to a future interim reign of Christ after the Second Coming and before the eternal state.  On the other hand, in many passages in the New Testament there are clear references to a present interim reign of Christ that began with His first advent and lasts until His Second.

Like Matthew 13 and 1 Corinthians 15:21-28 the theme, therefore, of Revelation 20:1-10 is the coming of the kingdom of God already in the interim reign of Christ before the end.  This points us to the normative importance of less figurative passages like Matthew 13 and 1 Corinthians 15:20-28 for the interpretation of Revelation 20:1-10.  When a comparison is made with those passages, the similarities and parallels are striking.  The significance of this observation against premillennialism is obvious.  They demand that the millennial reign be placed prior to Christ’s second coming.  (The following chart attempts to show the striking character and significance of these parallels.)

Eschatology Comparison

The fifth and last principle of interpretation of my Relative Idealism is …

V.      Analytical Interpretation that takes into account the Internal Structure of Revelation.

Any proper interpretation of a passage or book of Scripture involves an honest evaluation of its own structure and development.  This evaluation of the structure and development of a passage begins with the identification of its theme.  Great care must be taken to allow God to speak to us in the text.  In particular, we must not impose our own themes and structures on the text.  We must rather allow the theme and development of the text to manifest itself to us.  I am impressed with the attempt Jim has made to do this with regard to the Book of Revelation in the several diagrams in his book.

The need for such an approach is nowhere more important than in Revelation 20.  Thankfully, both the theme and the development of Revelation 20 are in their essential features clear.  The common theme of these verses is the millennial reign of Christ.  The 1000 years both as the period of Satan’s binding and the period of Christ’s reign is mentioned 6 times in the passage:  once each in verses 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7.  These verses clearly divide into three paragraphs:  verses 1-3, verses 4-6, and verses 7-10.  From one point of view the arrangement of these verses appears chronological:

Verses 1-3:        The Inauguration of the Reign
Verses 4-6:        The Continuation of the Reign
Verses 7-10:       The Completion of the Reign

From another point of view an ABA structure may be discerned.

Verses 1-3:        The millennial reign on earth
Verses 4-6:        The millennial reign in heaven
Verses 7-10:       The millennial reign on earth

I cannot provide here the full justification for saying that verses 4-6 deal with the millennial reign in heaven.  But this much at least should be clear.  The subject matter of verses 4-6 is clearly distinct from that of verses 1-3 and 7-10.  Verses 4-6 deal with the “souls” who reign with Christ.  Verses 1-3 and 7-10 deal with Satan and the nations.  When I expound the passage, I follow the following outline or analysis of the passage.  I look first at  The Millennial Reign on Earth (vv. 1-3 and 7-10) and then at The Millennial Reign in Heaven (vv. 4-6).

1Cf. Beale, The Book of Revelation, 974-83, for an extensive defense of the non-consecutive chronological relation of Revelation 19 and 20:1-10.

2John Murray, Collected Writings of John Murray, vol. 2, (Banner of Truth Trust, Edinburgh, 1977), 398-99.

3Willliam Hendriksen, More Than Conquerors (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1967), 25.

4Hendriksen, More Than Conquerors, 47-48.

5This is chapter 1, paragraph 9 in both the Westminster and the 1689 Baptist confessions of faith.

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