What Do We Believe Now About the Book of Revelation?

 

One thing we know for sure when we leave Jehovah’s Witnesses—the book of Revelation does not foretell the insignificant modern-day history of the Organization.  What presumption to claim that the Cedar Point, Ohio, convention in 1922 or the constant harangue against Christian churches in a series of tracts and resolutions had anything at all to do with the momentous fulfillment of Bible prophecy!  So after enduring all those boring book studies and learning what Revelation doesn’t mean, what are our options for understanding the book, now that we can think for ourselves?

It seems that the approach individuals take to interpreting Revelation is based upon their approach to interpreting the fulfillment of prophecy in the entire Bible.  If they believe that most of the Old Testament (OT) prophecies regarding the nation of Israel are to be taken literally, then these Christians fit the New Testament (NT) into the OT framework.  Dispensational Premillennialists fall into this category.  On the other hand, if Christians believe that the NT ushered in a new understanding of OT prophecies as applying to spiritual Israel, then they reinterpret the OT to fit into the framework of the NT.  Historical Premillennialists, Amillennialists, and Postmillennialists fall into this latter category.

It is fascinating to me that convincing arguments can be made for most of these differing views, so that when all is said and done, many of us conclude that we are “Panmillemmialists,” meaning that only God knows for sure what will happen in the future, so we can be confident that it will all “pan out” in the end.  However, for those who would like a brief summary of the four major interpretations of Revelation, I’ve done my best to put them in the following nutshells.

Dispensational Premillennialism

  • John received the Revelation “on the Lord’s day” (Rev. 1:10), which means the setting of the book takes the reader into the future when “the Lord’s day” will result in the destruction of the wicked at Jesus’ second coming (1 Thess. 5:2-4).

  • John was shown the things that “must shortly take place.”  Since one day to God is as 1,000 years (2 Peter 3:8), then the remaining time to him before the end is relatively short.

  • The purpose of God is to establish a kingdom on earth at Christ’s second coming.  This kingdom will last for 1,000 years before it is merged with the eternal state when Jesus hands all things back to the Father (1 Cor. 15:24-28).

  • Before the kingdom is established, there will be cataclysms of nature obviously caused by God, and there will be seven years of tribulation ruled by the anti-Christ (the last week of Daniel 9:24-27), during which time a faithful remnant of Jews and numerous Gentiles will be saved.

  • During the millennium, Christ will rule over the earth with the church, the OT saints, and the tribulation martyrs.  Jerusalem will be the seat of government where the Shekinah light will again shine in the rebuilt temple.  A sovereign, inflexible Jewish state will rule over the earth, where the saved, living Gentile nations (sheep of Matthew 25) will learn God’s laws and receive healing and long life.

  • At the end of the 1,000 years, Satan will be released and will be joined by unfaithful humans to wage a final war against Christ’s true followers.  Then the final judgment will take place, and Christ will deliver all back to the Father.

Amillennialism

  • John received the Revelation “on the Lord’s day” (Rev. 1:10), meaning the first day of the week (when Christians met together because it was the day on which Jesus was raised [Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2]).  As a result, some translations say John received the Revelation “on Sunday.”

  • John was shown the things that “must shortly take place.”  “Shortly” means just that.  Even though the last few chapters of Revelation are describing future events, most of the symbolic language and prophecies applied to first century Christians who were being persecuted by Rome at that time.

  • The OT prophet Daniel was told to seal up his book because it prophesied about “the end of time” (Daniel 12:4); whereas, John was told, “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near” (Rev. 22:10).

  • All promises made to Israel in the OT were either fulfilled or have been forfeited through disobedience (Joshua 21:43, 45; Jer. 18:9, 10).  Although Romans chapter 11 possibly means that the Jews will be converted in the future, the NT does not predict a future restoration of Israel as a nation.  Rather, when the Jews rejected Jesus, he said the kingdom of God would be taken away from them and given to a nation bringing forth good fruit (Matt. 21:43).  That nation is the church—“a holy nation” (1 Peter 2:9) in which “there is neither Jew nor Greek” (Gal. 3:28).

  • The 1,000 years mentioned in Revelation chapter 20 is not a literal number.  It pictures the time period between Christ’s first coming and his second coming.  During this time, Satan has been abyssed or restrained only in such a way that he cannot prevent the spread of the gospel or use the nations to destroy the church.  Just before Jesus comes again to end all wickedness in the final battle, Satan will be “released” so that he can deceive the nations into once more coming against God’s people en masse.  When this happens and Satan and his forces are defeated, he will be thrown into the lake of fire where all power will be taken from him.

Historical Premillennialism

  • Old Testament prophecies must be interpreted in the light of the NT to find their deeper meaning.  Prophecies about the nation of Israel in the OT are applied to the church in the NT, so that the church is now spiritual Israel.  (Rom. 2:28, 29; Phil. 3:3)

  • However, Romans 11:26 seems to say that at some point the Jews will be converted, in the same way as the Gentiles—by faith in Jesus as their crucified Messiah.  This conversion may take place in connection with the millennium.  The NT gives no details, so Historical Premillennialists simply affirm the future salvation of Israel and remain open regarding how and when God will accomplish it.

  • The NT does not make the reign of Christ one that is limited to Israel in the millennium.  Christ has been reigning in his kingdom since his resurrection and ascension (Heb. 1:3; 2:7, 8; Rev. 3:21), and his second coming will simply be another aspect to his reign.

  • The book of Revelation is apocalyptic literature, which has as its main concern the end of the age and the establishment of God’s kingdom.  The beast of Revelation chapter 13 is both Rome and a future anti-Christ.  Revelation chapter 19 pictures the second coming of Christ, the marriage of the Lamb, and his battle with the anti-Christ.

  • Revelation chapter 20 is the only NT passage that talks about a millennium.  Nowhere else does the Bible explain its purpose in God’s redemptive plan.  We know there will be a new heaven and a new earth, and the millennium will reveal to the world the glory and power of Christ’s reign.  God will make known the details when it suits his purpose.  All we know is that the millennium falls between Christ’s return and the end when he hands back everything to the Father.

Postmillennialism

  • We are presently living in the millennium.  It is the period of time known as the Church Age when the gospel is being preached throughout the earth, and the kingdom has been established in the hearts of people.

  • Ultimately, the vast majority of people in all nations will be converted to Christianity, so that when Christ returns, he will find that his Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20) has been fulfilled.  He will return to a golden age of righteousness and peace, a truly Christianized world.

  • So far, the Church has been negligent in making disciples.  However, the redemption of the world is a long, slow process overseen by the Holy Spirit, whose regenerating work will be sure to triumph before Christ returns.

Even though the above four approaches to the book of Revelation, and particularly to the millennium, differ from one another, all share several concepts in common.  The Bible is the inspired Word of God; Christ came to this world a first time as a sacrifice for our sins; He will come a second time, visibly and in glory, to judge the world and to usher in a new heaven and a new earth, wherein righteousness will dwell.  These common concepts involve our salvation; whereas, the various interpretations of how events will unfold leading up to the end are matters for personal interpretation.

For Nils and me, the freedom we now enjoy to study the Bible with open minds has led us to some lively discussions regarding the book of Revelation.  Nils tends toward a Dispensational Premillennialist view, and I tell him that his view makes me smell a rat.  All the proof-texting between the OT and the NT, stringing together prophecies counting years, and painting a very specific picture of future events transports me back to Witness doctrine.  Nils tells me that by arguing for Historical Premillennialism (and sometimes for Amillennialism), I’m ignoring strong indications from the Bible and from history that God has never abandoned the Jews as a nation.  He points out that Satan appears to be on a mission to eliminate the Jews; yet, their continued survival, especially now surrounded by their enemies, is evidence that God is on their side.

Nils and I debate these issues, not only because we have fun challenging each other, but also because we want to remain alert regarding what is happening in the world, so that Christ’s day does not take us by surprise (Matt. 24:42-44).  The Apostle Peter summed it up pretty well when he said we should hasten the day of Christ’s return by keeping busy every day in “holy acts of conduct and deeds of godly devotion” (2 Peter 3:11 NWT), which activities lend themselves quite nicely to adopting a Panmillennialist viewpoint.