Last Things (Eschatology)

Understanding Revelation

The study of the End-Times (Eschatology) is complicated due to the genre of the texts which include prophetic and apocalyptic literature. The interpretations of these texts can vary widely with no real consensus of the meaning. I do not recommend the study of Eschatology for the new believer or the beginning student. A student needs to have grasped the fundamental teachings of proper bible interpretation, also known as hermeneutics. Once he/she has advanced to this level then they are better equipped to enter into a study of this bible literature. Many persons who are concerned that we are entering the end-times or tribulation period will attempt to read and interpret this literature with little to no training. The result will most likely be a false reading of scripture. To help readers understand the difficulty with interpreting prophetic and apocalyptic literature I am providing the introduction of Gordon Fee’s on the book of Revelation for your edification.

“Readers of the New Testament experience something of a shock when they come to the book of Revelation—at least once they get past the first five chapters, which are quite manageable. Even the two scenes in heaven in chapters 4 and 5—which may be a bit different, to be sure—are still manageable. At chapter 6, however, with its four colored horses, souls under the altar, and great earthquake, everything changes. At this point most contemporary readers have a sense of being thrown into a strange new world, and those who from a sense of duty keep on reading to the end find themselves in a constant struggle to stay with it. It is not difficult to understand horses or beasts as such, but colored horses and beasts with seven heads and ten horns do stretch the imagination—especially so for those who draw mental pictures as they read.
So the first task for any reader of a book is to understand (or at least anticipate) the kind of literary genre of the writing; and that is where in this case everything tends to break down. People understand what letters are, and how they function, and so have access to the New Testament Epistles. For the most part they are also able to recognize the style and poetry of the Old Testament Prophets—although with a degree of difficulty at times, to be sure. Thus the images themselves for the most part lie within the worldview of the reader, and that because the images are expressions of reality. But with Jewish apocalyptic writings (Daniel 7–11 and much of Ezekiel) all of that changes, since many of the images are intentionally bizarre and thus their meaning is uncertain.
What one must understand before reading John’s Revelation is that he has purposely set out to write something that has not been done before, something that he sets up his readers to understand at the very beginning. Thus in 1:1 he identifies what he is about to write as an apocalypse, translated “revelation” in the NIV, which in 1:3 he refers to as a prophecy. But in the next two verses he begins again with all the formal aspects of an ancient letter. So the reader is given these three different pieces of information at the outset. What is unique about John’s Apocalypse is the fine blending of each of these three kinds of literature—apocalypse, prophecy, letter—into a single whole piece.
We begin, then, with the Revelation as an apocalypse, a word used to describe a kind of literature that flourished first among Jews and then Christians for roughly the four-hundred-year period between 200 BCE and 200 CE, although its roots lie much earlier. The taproot of apocalyptic was deeply embedded in the Old Testament Prophets, which means that whatever else, these writers, including John, were concerned about judgment and salvation. But the prophets, in contrast to the apocalyptists, were not primarily writers. Rather, they were first of all spokespersons for Yahweh, who only later set their spoken words to writing. The apocalypses, on the other hand, are carefully structured and worked out literary works from the start. Part of the reason for this is that apocalyptic was born during the time of powerful world empires, which was often a time of persecution for the Jewish community. These writers, therefore, were engaged in a kind of subversive literature, prophesying cataclysmic judgments on their persecutors—God’s own enemies—who at the time of writing appeared so powerful that there was no hope for their collapse except by divine intervention. Thus these writers no longer looked for God to bring about their redemption within history; rather, they pictured God as bringing a cataclysmic end to history, which also ushered in a redemptive conclusion for God’s people.

The substance of apocalyptic included several recognizable literary devices. First, regarding their form, the apocalyptists were recording visions and dreams. Whether or not there were actual experiences of dreams simply cannot be known. Second, their language, especially their imagery, was deliberately cryptic and symbolic. Thus, for example, the apocalyptist “sees” a woman clothed with the sun; and whereas one understands both a “woman” and the “sun,” the combination is not an expression of any known reality. Similarly, the apocalyptist sees a beast p xiii having seven heads and ten horns; and while we understand what a “beast” might be, and what “heads” and “horns” are, human beings have no experience of them in this combination. Third, the apocalypses tend to be formally stylized, which often includes the symbolic use of numbers. Time and events are divided into neat numerical packages, as in John’s Apocalypse, where the three major sections (chs. 6–7, 8–11, 15–16) are all sets of 4-2-1, with a twofold interlude between the last two (sixth and seventh) in each case.
While John is true to the genre in each of these first three characteristics, he differs radically from them in the final two—and that because he is not just an apocalyptic writer, he is himself a Christian prophet who is speaking directly to his own generation. Thus, in contrast to other apocalypses, all of which come to us under pseudonymous names, John identifies himself from the outset—and does so as a fellow traveler and fellow sufferer with those to whom he writes. Because of his abandonment of pseudonymity, he also abandons the fifth feature of all prior apocalypses, namely, the command to “seal up” what he has written for it to be read at a “later time.” This is a literary device the earlier apocalyptists employed so as to give their own document a sense of “hoary age,” so that what they were writing to their contemporaries appeared to come to them from centuries past. By way of contrast John is explicitly told not to “seal it up” (22:10), precisely because John understands what he has written to be “the words of the prophecy of this scroll” (22:18).
John, therefore, is not simply anticipating the End, as were his Jewish predecessors and contemporaries; rather, he knows the End to have begun with Jesus, through his death, resurrection, and ascension. Absolutely crucial to all of this is his understanding of the Spirit as having come to be with God’s people until the End, and thus as the way the Risen Lord continues to be with them. Other apocalyptic writers wrote in the name of an ancient worthy, because theirs was the age of the “quenched Spirit”; hence prophecy, which comes by the Spirit, had ceased. But John belongs to God’s “new era,” evidenced by the coming of the Spirit. Thus John says about his book that he “was in the Spirit” (1:10–11), and that what he writes is “this prophecy” (1:3; 22:18–19); and this because “the testimony of [the risen] Jesus is the Spirit of prophecy,” that is, that the message given by and about Jesus is the clear evidence that the prophetic Spirit has come.
The result is that John has given the church a combination of apocalyptic and prophetic. The book is cast in the mold of apocalyptic: it was born in (or on the brink of) persecution; he intends to speak about the End; it is a carefully crafted piece of literature, using cryptic language and also the imagery of fantasy; and it is ultimately dealing with salvation and judgment. But above all else it is prophetic in intent and content. Thus it is a word from God to their present situation, but written against the backdrop of the future, with its certain judgment and salvation. At the same time this book comes as an epistle, written to and for the churches in their present situations. Whatever else, it is not a word sealed until the end of time; for John, with the death and resurrection of Christ, the End had already begun. He writes for the encouragement (and watchfulness) of churches that stand on the brink of a holocaust about to be let loose on them by the Roman Empire.

John’s purpose thus seems eminently clear. He is told to write what he has seen (in these visions), which is about “what is and what is about to happen” (1:19). The beatitude (1:3) is for the one who reads this aloud to each congregation and for those who listen and keep what is written. Since one cannot “keep” judgments on others, this seems clearly to be a call for them to “keep the faith” in light of what they are about to experience at the hands of the Empire. And that leads us to the questions of why, when, and who.”

Fee, G. D. (2011). Revelation (pp. xi–xiv). Eugene, OR: Cascade Books.

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