In the daily blog post I summarized the ways in which faithful Christian scholars interpret the middle section of the book differently. In regard to the section between the opening of the sealed scroll and the final defeat of Satan (Rev 6:1-20:6) I wrote, “Some say it all happened in the past, some say that it will all happen in the future, and some say that it is a picture of the judgment that is generally happening in the church age.” I will give more explanation of those various views here. This is not intended to have scholarly precision, but to try to introduce the reader to the interpretive disagreements.
The material under discussion is a series of judgments that are given in sets of seven. There are seven seals on the scroll, seven trumpets and seven bowls of wrath. All of these are pictures of judgment. In the middle of this are several pictures about the church wrestling with their spiritual enemies. Some scholars think that there are meant to be seven pictures, but they are not numbered in the text. These pictures include things like “The Woman and the Dragon”, and “The Beast.” Again, the question is when are these things are supposed to happen.
(1.) The first view, which we will label the preterist view, is that these events primarily describe a judgment that happened in the past. This view has been important in history, but is not as mainstream today. The preterist view of Revelation says that the sequences of judgment are meant to describe the Fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD. (Others could hold this view and focus on another type of judgment which was experienced by the early church, such as the persecution of Christians by the Roman Empire.) This view would still affirm that the closing section of Revelation remains in the future, but would place the primary emphasis on something that affected John’s original audience. It has the advantage of making sense of the admonition Jesus gave to those historic churches in chapters 2-3, “Behold, I am coming soon.” In summary, this first view places the focus on past events in history, and deemphasizes the connections to the final judgment.
Personally, I think that this view has some real merit. I am convinced that other NT prophecies function in this way, such as the Olivet Discourse in Matthew 24. This prophecy of Jesus is directly related to the destruction of the temple in the context of the Gospel of Matthew. At the same time, Jesus directs his disciples to turn their attention forward to “the end of the age” when he will return. However, I think that linking the judgments of Revelation too much to the destruction of Jerusalem also misses the historic context (churches in Asia Minor) and diminishes the conceptual link to the final judgment.
(2.) The second view, which we will label the premillennial view, is that these events primarily describe a judgment that has not yet happen and will happen at the end of history. This view was made famous in books like, “Left Behind” and it is probably what most people think about when they read Revelation. The premillennial view takes its name from the reference to a 1,000 year period in which Satan is bound and the church flourishes. They believe that this represents a future period of time which is after the return of Christ, but before the final judgment. During this time, some of the promises to Israel will be fulfilled in literal ways. This view is associated with a way of reading Scripture that tends to diminish the connection between Israel and the church and looks for a way for God to literally fulfill all OT promises about the land, the temple, the people, etc. By contrast, some Reformed Scholars take a modified approach (Historical Premillennial), but many favor the first of third options.
Personally, I think that this view misses the historic context of the letter and also strives too much to make Biblical prophecy have a literal fulfillment when that is not the purpose. By placing this book almost entirely in the future, it robs us from the comfort and challenge that it is meant to bring for us now. Instead, it tends to promote an unhealthy speculation about when Jesus will return as it looks to map the scrolls, trumpets, and bowls of wrath onto modern day events. Jesus, himself, said that no one knows the hour or the day, thus discouraging this sort of speculation.
(3.) The third view, which we will label the amillennial view holds that the scrolls, trumpets, picture stories, and bowls are not meant to map onto a single event in history, but are general descriptions of how God works throughout the church age. In this view, the beginning of the sequence (opening the first seal) is conceptually linked to the experience of the early church. They were living in a time in which the judgment activities of seals, trumpets, etc., had begun. God was shaking his church (Hebrews 12:28.) But, this will continue through various cycles of renewal throughout the entire age of the church and will culminate in the final defeat of Satan, some day in the future. The name “amillennial” comes also from the interpretation of Rev. 20:2 in which Satan is said to be bound for a 1,000 years. Instead, of looking for a 1,000-year period which will happen after Jesus returns, this view understands the number to be symbolic. That is, 1,000 years represents the entire age of the church. In this understanding, Satan is bound right now, therefore the church is able to grow and expand. But we anticipate some great climactic battle in which Satan attacks the church with full fury before being finally defeated.
Personally, I hold this view to be the most attractive. It allows us to use the judgments of chapters 6-20 as an interpretive grid that can fit any conflict in which the church finds herself engaged. In this sense, it really did apply to the early church and the original context as they wrestled with Roman persecutions. So, it is not surprising to see ways in which the various prophecies seem to relate to aspects of the Roman Empire. (See Greg Beale’s massive tome, The Book of Revelation, for more details.) However, the meaning of the text is not exhausted by the first century context. It continues to apply in every cycle of opposition and persecution that the church experiences. In this sense, we are not looking for one single, particular beast (though this may take particular from as we move toward the end of history). Rather, we are taught to recognize that there are always beastly and demonic powers at work in the midst of human persecution. There is more to the struggles of the church than meets the eye. Just as Jesus is present in the midst of his church (Rev 1:12), so too, Satan stands behind the dark sweep of human history. And yet, we can be assured of his certain and ultimate defeat. Therefore, we are encouraged to stand fast. “Blessed are those who overcome.”
 There are a whole lot of nuances to these views, I will try to be general. Furthermore, there are important distinctions within these views. For example, there are huge differences between the Historic Premillennial view and Dispensational Premillennial view. But I am trying to write a blog post, not a book. So, forgive me if I miss some things when I generalize this.
This blog is part of the ministry of City Reformed Presbyterian Church. Unless otherwise noted, the entries are written by Matt Koerber. This is part of a project that our church is doing as we read through the narrative sections of Scripture between early January and Easter 2020. New entries will be scheduled to drop automatically at 5:00 am on the scheduled day.