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Revelation of the Apostle John
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1.Understand that this vision was given, written and distributed to certain Christians residing in a certain place at a certain time in history. Whatever interpretation we adopt ought to consider this fact: The tribulation of which the book refers was already happening (1:9), at least in part. Those churches in Asia (the original readers) would be blessed by reading this book (1:3). How could, for example, prophecies about the USSR, the catholic popes or any event in our present century, as some people speculate, help those brethren in the first century? To the contrary, this vision was for them and could be applied by them to their lives. Revelation was written to be understood by the Christians to whom it was addressed. Therefore to understand Revelation, we need to have some understanding of the background of the times and living conditions of the Christians to whom Revelation was directed.

2. Understand that the book of Revelation deals with prophetic events and these events would happen "soon." This is clearly affirmed several times in the book itself. Almost 2,000 years ago (first century A.D.), it is said that these things prophesied would happen soon (1:1; 22:6). The time was already at hand when John wrote the book about 2000 years ago (1:3; 22:10). See the question of "do not seal the book" (Daniel 8:26; 12:4, 9 and Revelation 22:10). To seal the prophecy of Daniel meant that the prophesied events revealed to him were not to be made known to the people because they referred to the distant future. That "distant future" was about 400 years. Jesus himself preached at the beginning of his ministry "Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matthew 4:17). Soon afterward he said, "Assuredly, I say to you that there are some standing here who will not taste death till they see the kingdom of God present with power." (Mark 9:1). This illustrates what Jesus meant when he said something was "at hand."

The usefulness of Revelation for us today is not in the events revealed (those events would occur near the times in which they were written) but in the principles of encouragement and eternal victory for Christians in difficulties. These principles and words of encouragement for faithful Christians always apply to us but the prophesied events in Revelation are not to be literally applied to our day. It is understood that the events of the prophesies of Revelation have already happened.

One might consider that God's timetable is not man's timetable or that "one day with the Lord is like a thousand years for us." That is true (2 Peter 3:8), but when God specifies a time period to men in men's language, we would expect Him to use words that men would understand. This is especially true when the message is written to certain people at a certain time in history, distributed to them and they are told to observe the things written. Considering all this, if Jesus told them these things would happen soon because the time was at hand, we would consider a 2000-year delay as a failure.

3. Understand the symbolic language. This book is the record of a vision that the apostle John had on the island of Patmos near to the end of the first century A.D. The vision was in the form of symbols and figures. He saw dragons, beasts, Jesus with a sword coming out of his mouth and eyes of flaming fire, a third part of the sun being extinguished and life still continuing on earth. They cannot be understood literally but they do represent people, places, things, events, principles and truths. To understand figurative language, we have to interpret the meaning of the symbols. Sometimes the interpretation is given in the book itself. In these cases it is definitive. Sometimes the symbols are similar to others found in the Bible and the meaning is easy to understand. In these cases, we can have a certain confidence in the interpretation. Sometimes we must interpret the symbols based on our understanding of the Bible message in general, the history of the time when it was written and even just plain old good sense. In these cases each one has the right to his opinion. This does not mean that we can't understand symbolic language; only that we ought not to be so dogmatic when it is a matter of our own human reasoning.

a. Some examples of when the interpretation is found in the book itself:
1. One similar to the son of man (1:13, 17-18).
2. The seven lamp stands (1:13, 20).
3. The seven stars (1:13, 20)
4. The two witnesses (11:3, 4)
5. The dragon (12:9)
6. The 144,000 (14:4)
7. The sea beast (17:8)
8. The ten horns (17:12)
9. The harlot (17:18)
10. The seven heads (17:9).

b. Some examples when the interpretation is found in other parts of the Bible:
1. The seal of God (Revelation 7:1-4 and Ezekiel 9:1-9)
2. The son of man (Revelation 1:1-20, Daniel 7:9ff; 10:5, 6; Ezekiel 1:7, 26ff; 3:2)
3. The throne in heaven (Revelation 4; Isaiah 6:1 and Zechariah 5:1-3)
4. The book of life (Exodus 32:33; Psalm 169:28; Malachi 3:16; Isaiah 22:22)
5. Measure the temple (Ezekiel 40:3; Zechariah 2:1ff)
6. Eat the book (Revelation 10:5-11 and Ezekiel 2:8-3:14)
7. Banquet of birds (Ezekiel 39:16-20)
8. Gog and Magog (Ezekiel 38; 39)
9. New heaven and new earth (Isaiah 65:17ff; 66:22ff)

4.One key is to understand the historical context when the book was written; that is, what was going on in the world in the days of the people to whom the book was given. In this case, the Roman Empire dominated the world. Toward the end of the first century A.D., they began a forced religion of emperor worship. Domitian, the eighth emperor, assumed the title of "Lord and God of the Universe." Whoever refused to recognize this would suffer for his refusal. Thousands of Christians had been tortured and martyred. The Empire and the church had entered into mortal conflict and the Christians, without political power, weapons or armies, influence in the government or financial resources, faced-off the "king of the world" and conquered! The price of the victory was high, but they overcame.

The Roman Empire dominated that period of history militarily, socially and culturally. It ruled from Britain to Africa to the River Euphrates. Its armies maintained their control over many nations. Military conquest and commerce defined the Empire. Luxury, along side of poverty and slavery contributed to its moral decay. Chapter one of Romans gives a sample of this.

Rome also was a center of religion. Superstition (Roman gods) and ritualism left the people morally empty and so Christianity found a fertile field for evangelism. But Rome, to create a sense of unity among conquered peoples and to hold power over the ones they conquered, created an imperial religion, constructing heathen temples and making gods out of the emperors. The emperor was considered as divine. To worship the emperor represented an act of loyalty to the Empire. Augustus refused such worship in Rome, but he allowed it in the provinces. When this practice came in contact with monotheistic religions like Judaism and Christianity, persecution began.

Caligula (37 - 41 A.D.) tried to enforce it, putting his images in the temples around the Empire, but he died before it took root. In the last year of his reign in Rome, Nero (54 - 68 A.D.) ordered the persecution of Christians for being a threat to the Empire. After the death of Caligula, none of the emperors actively promoted this worship until the time of Domitian. However, temples were being erected for this end throughout the Empire during the first century.

Domitian (81 - 96 A.D.) not only led the persecution in Rome, but in all the Empire. He declared himself to be "Lord and God" before his death, demanding that his subjects adore him. Their refusal constituted irreverence and an act of treason. The test of loyalty to the Empire, as well as to the emperor, was the greeting: "Caesar is lord". They were forced to burn incense on the altar. To refuse was disloyal. Doing it was proof that a person was not a Christian. Many did it to save their lives. Soon, under Domitian, Christianity was declared an illegal religion. The Empire readied itself to enforce worship of the emperor and to punish the Christians.

It was in the Roman province of Asia Minor that emperor worship was more developed. There were groups of Roman officers called concilia, whose purpose was to promote the worship of the emperor. They built images of the emperors and altars for his worship. Traveling from city to city, they heard accusations against any who refused to confess, "Caesar is lord." These would be taken before the concilia where they could make this confession publicly. If they did not they would be condemned as atheistic traitors of the emperor and the Empire, their properties could be confiscated and their appropriate punishment applied, including death.

Paul enunciated the principle that caused the great conflict between the church and emperor Domitian. Even before this confrontation Christians refused to worship Domitian so they were hated and persecuted (1 Corinthians 8:5-6). Lies circulated regarding Christians to defame them. Examples: "They practice incest, brothers and sisters marry," "They drink blood during their meetings," etc. Not only the Empire turned against the church, but also the ones who commercialized heathen religious objects and people of other religions opposed the true faith.

The historical context is found in secular history but also inside of the book of Revelation. To know this history is so important for a good interpretation of the vision that we need to see chapters 12, 13 and 17, before continuing.

5.The date of the vision is important to confirm the historical context. There is no consensus concerning the date but there are three main ideas:

At the time of Nero (54-68 A.D.)
Those in favor of this theory interpret 11:1, 2 as meaning that the Temple of Jerusalem had not yet been destroyed at the writing (it occurred in 70 A.D.).

Against this theory, there is no evidence that the persecution under Nero was more than only local. There is no evidence that the persecution was taken to the provinces. The biggest difficulty with the dating in the period of Nero is the lack of evidence that Nero worship was actively promoted. Also, the temple mentioned in 11:1, 2 may well be symbolic in a symbolic book.

At the time of Vespasian (69-79 A.D.)
A most natural interpretation of 17:9-11 referring to the already fallen five kings would be: Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero. The "one is" would be Vespasian and "the other has not yet come and when he comes, he must continue a short time" would be Titus who reigned only two years. "And the beast that was, and is not, is himself also the eighth, and is of the seven, and is going to perdition," would then be Domitian.

See 17:8, 11. "The beast that you saw was, and is not, and will ascend." When Revelation was written, the beast was not. If the beast represents imperial Rome that persecuted the church (Nero and Domitian) then Revelation could not be written during their kingdom.

At the time of Domitian (81-96 A.D.)
Irenaeus, pupil of Policarp, wrote: "We will not risk ourselves by pronouncing positively the name of the Antichrist, because if it was necessary that this name be disclosed at this present time, it would have been announced by him who saw the Revelation. Because 'he' (John?) or 'that' (the Revelation?) was seen... close to the end reigned it of Domitian" (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 5:30:3). This is the main basis for thinking that Revelation was written in the reign of Domitian. Obviously, the subject is not so definitive. The historical context of the book (the conflict between the church and the Roman Empire) was prophesied in the book but the vision was received when this conflict was still a prophecy. The time of the book seen in the letters to the churches in chapters 2 and 3 reflects a persecution by the Jews in Asia instead of by the Romans.

6. Any interpretation of Revelation depends greatly on the method used. Through the centuries, many methods had been considered, each one based on a specific theory, resulting in many different interpretations. No other book of the New Testament has been interpreted in so many different ways. Consider five main ways Revelation has been interpreted:
a. The Past or Preterist Method - In the strict meaning of the term, this means that all of Revelation was fulfilled in the past, in the days of the Roman Empire. The basic premise here is that the Revelation is a picture of the conditions of the Empire in the last part of the first century.

Revelation must be studied and interpreted taking into account the historical circumstances of the author and those to whom it was given and taking into consideration that the intended purpose of the book was to console those readers. John wrote mainly for the encouragement and edification of the believers of those days and treated to events that related to them. So, Revelation is a book with spiritual meaning anchored to a specific historical situation. However, as it happens in most prophecy, the underlying truths are truths in present days as it was in those days. To the extent that the reader sees the teachings that encouraged Christians to remain faithful to Jesus Christ when the forces of the evil tried to overcome them, the value of this book, in any age, is understood. However, when one loses sight of the historical background and purpose of the author in that context, almost any kind of interpretation of symbols can be made. It is necessary to place Revelation in its appropriate literary and historical context in order to read it with understanding. Perhaps no other book of the New Testament is so dependent on its historical background for its interpretation.

The symbols represent people, events, truths and principles. The internal evidences of Revelation indicate that this method of interpretation is the most coherent and effective for a correct understanding of the prophecies contained in the book.
b. The Futurist Method - The interpretation method based on this theory sees Revelation relating to events immediately preceding and following the second coming of Christ. This idea considers the Revelation as entirely eschatological, a book of prophecies not yet fulfilled, and insists that everything be interpreted as literally as possible. It is from this idea that Dispensationalism came, being systemized and popularized by the Schofield Bible. This theory says that Jesus came the first time to establish the Kingdom, but, because of his rejection by the Jews, the church was established as a parenthesis (substitute) in history until the time when the Kingdom would be set up on Earth. This group also considers apocalyptic Israel as literal and so insists on a literal restoration of the kingdom of Israel.

The problem is that Revelation is highly symbolic throughout, and to interpret it literally is impossible. The value of the book would be mainly for the Christians who lived close to Christ's second return instead of those to whom it was addressed
c. The Historical Method - This method considers the Revelation as a summary of the history of the church (or the history of the humanity during the period of the church), since the time of John until the end of time. The idea is that events that from the days of John until the end of time are described in the book. Through this method people such as Napoleon, Saddam Hussein, the Pope, and Adolph Hitler and events such as WW II, the fall of the communism, the union of the European countries and the creation of "Euro," European common currency, are seen in the book.
d. Philosophical Method - This method of interpretation says that Revelation is a poetical book that only teaches spiritual truths but does not refer to past or future historical events. The basis for this method of interpretation is in the idea that the Revelation is a discussion concerning the underlying forces of events, but not a discussion of the actual events. In each case, the symbols are understood as referring to conflicts that could be repeated over and over. They may or not have continuity. Therefore, the main emphasis is on the presentation of the perpetual conflict between good and evil.

7. A key to interpret the Revelation is to recognize a good outline of the vision, especially in chapters 14-21. Being able to see a plan or an order in the development of the vision should help us perceive the connection between the historical context, the language used and the purpose of the book. In the following outline, notice especially chapters 14-21.

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