"How We Read the Book of Revelation (the Apocalypse)"
Rodney L. Petersen, Ph.D., Executive Director, The Boston Theological Institute


The author of the Book of Revelation, or the Apocalypse in Latin, is often understood to be "John" the apostle to whom is attributed the Gospel by that name and other letters in the New Testament. Written while in exile off the coast of modern day Turkey either during the time of the Emperor Domitian (c.90-95) or earlier around that of Emperor Nero (c.54-68), the author tells us that the book is the revelation of Jesus Christ, a prophecy of things to come, cast in the form of a letter to seven churches in Asia Minor but meant for wider circulation. An analysis of the text shows that its language is rooted in the Hebrew Scriptures, or Christian Old Testament, and reflects a view that Jesus should be worshipped as God.
Most of the images which have shaped our minds about the meaning and direction of history, relationship of church and state, conception of judgment and nature of the afterlife are found in the book of Revelation. Its symbols are the mainstay of Western art and music. For example, the idea we have that history will evolve into an ideal human community is grounded in the Apocalypse (Rev. 20-22). The penultimate value of the State in relation to the Church finds its grounding here (Rev. 13; cf. Romans 13). The assurance of a second coming of Christ (Rev. 16: 15; cf. Acts 1 :11), the general resurrection of the dead (Rev. 20: 13; cf. Dan. 12:2), and last judgment by Christ (Rev. 20:12; cf. Matt. 25:31-33) are ideas all given shape by the symbolism of this book. Such events are interwoven with secondary images suggestive of a moral decline in history (Rev.18; cf. Matt. 24:37-39; 2 Thess. 2:3-12), the appearance of a power contrary to Christ, called on the basis of a conflated textual tradition from I John with the book if Revelation, "Antichrist" (I John 2:18; 4:3;2 John 7; Rev. 11:7; Rev. 13:1-18), the appearance of final, or adventual, prophets (Rev. 10-11:13) and a first resurrection (Rev. 20:6) in distinction from the second and general resurrection.
The symbolic representation of these ideas is set in a wider context revealed by two mysterious scrolls. The first and larger one (Rev. 5:1, 7-10) is bound by seven seals which, it is said, Jesus Christ alone can open. As the scroll judgment is unsealed (Rev. 6-8:5) a vision of growing judgement is revealed, a vision which itself opens up, after the last seal is loosed, into a further series of seven trumpets (Rev. 8:6-11:19) and then seven bowls of wrath (Rev. 15:7-16:21). Midway through the book a smaller open scroll (Rev. 10:2, 8:11) is given by an angelic figure to a final gospel preacher who is told to eat it and then to prophesy to the nations.
Throughout history our primary ways of reading this material have emerged as people have struggled with how best to understand the Apocalypse. First, some have believed that the book is best read in terms of what it had to say in the first century when it was written. This present, or "preterist," orientation generally finds the book to be in some way a political document that warns the faithful to worship Lord Christ rather than Lord Caesar, portrayed as a beast perhaps bearing the mysterious number "666." This view argues that the use of symbols throughout the book was meant to disguise the fact that certain persons and powers were being referred to about whom it was better not to mention directly. This would be like referring to the USA as an eagle, to Russia as a bear, and to Great Britain as a lion.
The imagery of the Apocalypse took on additional symbolic significance as the prediction of Christ's return receded into the past. A second or "idealist" way of reading the book emerged clearly in the Church Fathers Jerome (c.342-420) and Augustine of Hippo (354-430). The first gave us the Bible in the form by which we generally know it and the second provided the West its foundation in political theory in his book The City of God. Based upon their understanding of the relation between the Hebrew Scriptures and the added revelation through Jesus, it was believed that Christ had opened up a sixth historical age (following five previous ones beginning with creation) in which all of the spiritual blessings given to Israel were now available to non-Jews. The imagery of the book of Revelation described the perennial conflict between good and evil in this sixth age which would extend until the second coming, or advent, of Christ to judge the earth. The spiritual dimensions of this age constituted the Apocalypse-inspired millennial age of spiritual perfection in the Church. This way of reading the book encouraged a general sense of agnosticism respecting when and how the age would end, taking its cue from Jesus's words as recorded in Matthew 24:36.
Efforts at discerning Periods within the sixth age of Christ began to emerge clearly by the time of the English historian Bede "the Venerable" (c.673-735). Bede argued that just as there was differentiated history before Christ (introducing the terminology B.C.) so also there was the differentiated history after Christ, i.e., rather than dating a calendar in terms of Roman Emperors the Lord Christ was to be the point around which history found its meaning. That meaning since Christ was found in third "historic -symbolic" way of reading the book of Revelation whereby the symbolism of seals, trumpets, and bowls of wrath was believed to set forth a progressive development of political and spiritual history. Bede gives us the first of what will be many ways by which to periodize contemporary history. The opening of the first seal reveals the primitive church's triumph over old Rome. The next three seals reveal forms of warfare against the Church. The fifth illustrates the glory of deceased martyrs while the sixth unveils the time of Antichrist's persecution. This is ended by the opening of the seventh seal at which time eternity begins. In other words, the successive conditions experienced by the church as it moves from Christ's first advent to his second coming and judgement are revealed in the opening of the seven apocalyptic seals.
Finally, developing partly in relation to reformist interests in church and state in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, then again from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries, a fourth or "futurist" way of reading the book of Revelation developed whereby most of the symbols in the book are said to pertain to a last seven year period of history prior to the reign of Christ for 1000 years (the millenium) on earth. Whereas the first three chapters of the Apocalypse, comprised largely of letters to seven churches, were meant to be read by the churches of John's day (perhaps also symbolic of future periods of church history), following 4:1 when John is "caught up" in the Spirit, much of the rest of the book pertains to the end of history.


What is meant by the seven seals which bind the first of the two revelatory scrolls is understood as much by the structure of the book or Revelation as it is by which method is chosen to read the Apocalypse. After the seer is caught up into the throne room of God (chapter 4) where God and Christ are worshipped in parallel fashion, we are led (chapter 5) to see that the one on the throne has a scroll in his hand. When an angel asks who is worthy to open the scroll, no one is found. At this the seer weeps. Then one of the elders around the throne says, "Do not weep!" the "Lion of the tribe of Judah," the "Root of David" (Christ) is said to have triumphed. He is worthy to open the scroll and its seven seals. The seer turns and sees a lamb as if it had been slain. It is he who is able to take the scroll and to open its seals (5:5-14).
The opening of the first seal (6:1 -2) reveals a white horse with a conquering rider; the second (6:3-4) a red horse with a rider able to have men slay each other; the third (6:5-6) a black horse with a rider holding a balance in his hand; the fourth (6:7-8) a pale horse with a rider named death; and the fifth (6:9-11) a host of souls under an altar praying and asking God how long it would be until the judgement of the earth.
When the lamb opens the sixth seal a host of natural cataclysms are unleashed. However, in the midst of this two special groups of people are revealed (chapter 7), 144,000 from all the tribes of Israel are said to have been "sealed" and protected from harm and a great multitude said to be washed in the blood of the lamb and to have come out from the great tribulation. For some interpreters of the Apocalypse, the opening of the sixth seal is correlated with the 1260 days, or three and a half years of ministry by end-time prophets (Rev. 11: 3-6) prior to their being slain by the beast from the abyss, perhaps Antichrist or his minion, prior to three and a half years of a false peace under the rule of Antichrist. After this, with the opening of the seventh seal (chapter 8), perhaps correlated with the blast from a seventh trumpet (11:15), judgment comes to the earth and the reign of Christ begins. Prior to that reign a series of judgments reveal by seven trumpet blasts (8:6-11:15) carry us through devastations of increasing intensity. Although punctuated by periods of relief (chapters 7-8:5; 10-11), we are carried through this recapitulating symbolism to the establishment of Christ's kingdom (11:15-19). The balance of the Apocalypse (chapters 12-22) with its imagery of a woman driven into the wilderness, seven headed and ten-horned beasts, war with Archangel Michael, fall of Babylon, and descent of the heavenly Jerusalem, etc. is seen by many to be a recapitulation of chapters 1-11.


It is clear from what has been said that the symbolism of the sixth seal (6:12-17) portends a pivotal age, the time when the moral struggle in society is most intense as those who conceive of themselves as standing with Christ are in conflict with the Antichrist, or those representing a great deception. The text was read in this way by many followers of Francis of Assisi in the thirteenth century. Reading the book of Revelation similarly gave "apocalyptic energy" to aspects of the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century as the Turkish political threat in Europe and papal claims to ultimate spiritual authority were viewed as aspects of antichristian deception.
As historians defending or opposing the Reformation sought historical justification for their efforts the book of Revelation, the historical imagination of the Church, was often drawn into the conflict. For example, John Foxe, defender of Anglican reform in Great Britain, found church history united to political history in the empires envision by king Nebuchadnezzar and the prophet Daniel. (Dan 2:31-45). Correlated with the apocalyptic seals, Daniel's fifth or godly kingdom of the saints (Dan. 7:13-14, 23-27) was believed to be spiritually discerned in the fifth seal, the church under the cross of martyrdom whose victory is only spiritually discerned. For another interpreter, biblical scholar Joseph Mede (1586-1638), at the onset of the Puritan Revolution in Great Britain (1642-1559), two lines of prophecy are revealed in the two apocalyptic scrolls, political history in the first and the inner history of the church in the second.
This conflict over interpreting and applying the history revealed or portended by the book of Revelation continues into modern cultural history. The American and French Revolutions, Napoleonic wars, growth of European Nationalism, conflicts in the twentieth century, and migration of Jewish people to the land of Palestine after World War II have all been events understood through the grid of apocalyptic symbolism. David Koresh and his followers are a part of this larger story. Believing in some way that he was a "Christ" (=Greek, anointed one), Koresh appears to have held open for himself the work of loosing the seven seals, binding the larger of the two apocalyptic scrolls, thus setting in motion the events that would eventuate in the last judgment. How we choose to read the Book of Revelation, whether as preterists, idealists, historic-symbolists, or futurists, tells us what part we play in that story.

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