Approaches to Revelation

Editor's Note: The following has been adapted with permission from Seven Churches, Four Horsemen, One Lord, a forthcoming title by James Montgomery Boice.  

To which period of history should John’s prophecy be applied? This is a problem that confronts us early on, because as early as the first paragraph of the book, John refers to his visions as “the things that must soon take place” (v. 1) and pronounces a blessing on those who read his prophecy and take it to heart, “for the time is near” (v. 3). Really? More than nineteen hundred years have passed since John wrote these words, and the end times do not seem to have come yet. Or have they? The question leads us to think about the four main approaches that scholars have taken to John’s prophecy.

The Historicist Approach

This is the historic Protestant interpretation of the book. It sees Revelation as a pre-written record of the course of the world from the time of the writer to the end. There is much to commend this view. For one thing, much if not all prophecy is about what is to come. For another, numerous phrases in the book suggest an unfolding future outlook, such as Revelation 1:19, in which John is told to write down “the things that you have seen, those that are and those that are to take place after this,” or Revelation 4:1, in which a voice from heaven calls to him, saying, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.” Proponents of this view have generally understood the seals, trumpets, and bowls as foretelling such successive historical events as the invasion of the Christianized Roman Empire by the Goths and the Muslims, the corruption of the medieval papacy, the founding of the Holy Roman Empire under Charlemagne, the Protestant Reformation, and even the age of Napoleon or the Nazi era or the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The main problem with this view is its subjectivity. Its proponents invariably see the events of Revelation reaching a culmination in their own time and the second coming of Jesus as virtually around the corner. Besides the fact that there has been little agreement among those who hold this view, Jesus has obviously not yet returned. These interpretations also usually ignore what has taken place in lands other than those in the Christianized West.

The Preterist Approach

The word preterist comes from the Latin verb praeterire, which means “to go before” or “to have happened in the past.” Used in regard to Revelation, this term means that the events prophesied in the book (and in such other New Testament passages as Matthew 24) have already occurred. Preterists are concerned with taking references to time, such as “soon” (Rev. 1:1), “the time is near” (Rev. 1:3), and “this generation will not pass away until all these things take place” (Matt. 24:34), literally. How? By maintaining that the fulfillment of these prophecies has already occurred as a result of God’s judgment on Jerusalem, through its destruction by the Romans in AD 70. It is true that some preterists believe that the final chapters of Revelation look forward to the second coming of Christ, but even these see the bulk of John’s prophecies as having been fulfilled in the fall of Jerusalem.

There are several problems with this view. For one thing, if Revelation and other prophetic passages are about the past, then we are left with no real words about the future. The disciples’ question “When will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (Matt. 24:3) is not answered. Another problem is that the decisive victory described in Revelation’s last chapters did not occur during the destruction of Jerusalem, which is why some preterists break with the pattern and see these chapters as pertaining to the future.

The Futurist Approach

The easiest way to solve these difficulties is to defer the fulfillment of the prophecies of Revelation to the future—to a time shortly before Christ’s return. This is the approach of dispensationalism, but dispensationalists are not the only futurists. This is probably the dominant broad evangelical view. In this approach, chapters 2 and 3 of the book, which contain the letters to the seven churches, are usually seen as a description of the things that are happening now (see Rev. 1:19), while chapter 4 through verse 5 of chapter 22—the bulk of the book—is seen as referring to the end times exclusively. These chapters are understood to teach the following: the restoration of ethnic Israel to its own land, the church’s rapture into heaven, a seven-year tribulation period, the appearance of the Antichrist, the battle of Armageddon, Christ’s second coming, the subsequent millennium, and the establishing of a new heaven and new earth. Futurists tend to take the prophecies more literally than other views do, which is easy for them since, none of these events having occurred, their interpretations cannot be falsified.

The major weakness of this position is that it leaves the book without any real significance for those to whom it is addressed—and Revelation is meant to be significant. “Blessed are those who hear [this prophecy], and who keep what is written in it,” John says (Rev. 1:3).

The Idealist Approach

This fourth approach is sometimes also called the symbolic or spiritual approach. It affirms that the prophecies do not describe actual historical events, whether past or future, but instead use symbols to portray transcendent spiritual realities, such as the conflict between Christ and Satan or good and evil. The strength of this position lies in the fact that Revelation obviously does employ symbols as a literary device and that such symbols can and do have present significance. The weakness of the view is that it denies the book any specific historical fulfillment.

Now, But Also Not Yet!

In one way or another, each of these views has been with us for centuries—and in many cases the positions of their adherents have hardened. This might suggest that there is no way to resolve these matters—that we simply have to take one and get on with it, whether it is right or not. I do not think that such pessimism is warranted. On the contrary, what I observe is a maturing approach to Revelation in many recent commentaries, which can perhaps be best understood as a conservative attempt to recognize and include the best features of each of these four views while rejecting the most problematic aspects of each.

Let me explain how I want to approach Revelation. I have two main guidelines. First, I believe that Jesus himself gives the overall framework for all New Testament prophecy (which the New Testament writers consciously follow) in Matthew 24. In that chapter, he recognizes and prophesies the imminent destruction of Jerusalem but indicates that, as shattering as that event will be, it is not a sign of his immediate coming. There will be many “signs” in history—wars, famines, earthquakes, persecutions, apostasy in the church, and false prophets—but none of these will be genuine signs of his return. This is because his actual coming will be without warning. It will be sudden—like lightning flashing from the east to the west. The conclusion to this discourse is that, since we do not know when Jesus will return, we need to “keep watch” and “be ready.” Jesus uses no fewer than seven illustrations, images, or parables to make this point (see Matt. 24:36–25:46).

My second guideline is from 1 John 2:18, where the same John who, in my opinion, wrote Revelation declares, “Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come.” This means that a biblical prophecy can have a genuine fulfillment in history without that fulfillment necessarily being the prophecy’s final or full fulfillment.

There are examples of what I mean in Revelation itself. For example, John refers in verse 14 of chapter 2 to people who “hold the teaching of Balaam” and in verse 20 to “that woman Jezebel.” These are not reincarnations of that ancient mercenary prophet or that particularly wicked queen. They are examples of what we might call a recurring biblical pattern. You have heard of Balaam; even now there are many Balaams. You have heard of Jezebel, but even now there are many Jezebels. In a similar way, John the Baptist not only was like but in a sense actually was Elijah (see Matt. 11:14).

Let me put it another way. When the Reformers of the sixteenth century identified the pope of their day as the Antichrist and the papacy as the great prostitute of Babylon, that was literally the case for them and for their time. Rome was proclaiming a false gospel. She was the enemy of Christ. This was a true fulfillment. But this does not exclude an even more complete or literal fulfillment of the prophecies concerning the Antichrist and the prostitute of Babylon in the last days. Are there antichrists today? False prophets? There certainly are. But we can also believe that a final Antichrist and a final false prophet will appear before Jesus Christ returns.  

The Kingdom Has Come

I want us to see one more thing before I end this study. It comes from the fact that (although this is difficult to notice in our English translations) the first verse of Revelation is probably a deliberate echo of Daniel 2:28, but with one important change. (We are going to notice many deliberate echoes of Daniel as we proceed). Daniel told Nebuchadnezzar that God had “made known” to him (the word is “revealed,” just as in Revelation 1:1) “what will be in the latter days.” When we remember that this is said in regard to Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of a great statue representing four successive world empires, and that the climax of the vision is about a stone that will strike and destroy the statue and then grow up to become a mountain that will fill the whole earth, we recognize this as a prophecy that the kingdom of Jesus will one day fill the earth. But here is the significant thing: John’s opening echo of Daniel’s words replaces the phrase “in the latter days” with “soon.” In other words, John is saying that, unlike Daniel who was told to seal up the words of his prophecy “until the time of the end” (Dan. 12:9), John’s own words are for now, for our time, because Jesus has come and is building his kingdom in our days.

Years ago, when I wrote a book on Daniel, I was unsure about how to interpret this statue vision. I recognized the destruction of the statue’s iron legs to be the destruction of the Roman Empire, but I did not know whether the growth of the mountain was a picture of what we would call the church age or a preview of the final kingdom of Christ in the very last days. I said at the time that I probably favored the latter.[1]

I do not see it that way now. I still believe in a future fulfillment of the vision. The kingdom of Christ will be a real, literal kingdom in the last days. I believe in a literal future millennium. But I also see the fulfillment in the present, for it is also now, in this age, that Jesus is doing these things. Daniel looked forward to the coming of the Messiah in the future. John is saying that his prophecies are for now—but also for every age of history until the final culmination in the second coming of Jesus and the last judgment. Which is why the opening paragraph ends with a blessing for those who read, hear, and take to heart what is written (see Rev. 1:3). This beatitude is the first of seven in the book (the others are found in Rev. 14:13; 16:15; 19:9; 20:6; 22:7, 14)—nearly everything in Revelation seems to happen in series of sevens. This first beatitude almost perfectly reproduces the words of Jesus from Luke 11:28 (“Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it”) and is matched at the end of the prophecy by a curse on those who do not obey the instruction (Rev. 22:18–19). It is also the only blessing in the Bible that is attached to the reading of a particular book.

The words of this blessing show that Revelation was written not primarily to give information for the mind, as if its goal were only to enable us to figure out what might happen at the end of time or even merely to look back at the past and understand it. It was written to enable Christian people to live for Jesus today. And it requires that they do! The book imparts a moral obligation. Revelation teaches us that the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ (see Rev. 11:15). Therefore, although the kingdoms of this world seem powerful and sometimes even glorious from our point of view, we must know that the world is destined for destruction and that the kingdom of Christ will triumph—and we must live like we believe it. The empire of Babylon collapsed. Rome was overrun by the Huns and the Goths. But the kingdom of our God is forever. Hallelujah! 

James Montgomery Boice (1938-2000) was the pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia from 1968 to 2000. He served as the chairman of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy (ICBI), as assistant editor of Christianity Today, and as editor of Eternity Magazine. James Boice’s Bible teaching continues on The Bible Study Hour radio and internet program, which prepares listeners to think and act biblically.

Related Links

PCRT '20 | Revelation: The Sovereign Reign of the Exalted Christwith Greg Beale, Derek Thomas, Philip Ryken, Joel Beeke, Richard Phillips, and Cornelis Venema

Seven Churches, Four Horsemen, One Lord by James Boice

Revelation (Reformed Expository Commentary) by Richard Phillips

The Bible Study Hour


[1] See James Montgomery Boice, Daniel: An Expositional Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1989), 41–43.