THE REVELATION:PURPOSE AND LITERARY GENRE
NOTE: This essay is the first of three chapters in my book, The High King of Heaven, dealing with the Revelation. My goal here, and in the two essays to follow, is to help you tackle what may be the most difficult chapter in the Bible: Revelation 20, John’s vision of the 1000 year reign of Christ. As you will soon see, I believe the Revelation is best characterized as the Grand Finale of All Scripture. Hopefully, these humble preludes will enable you to hear and enjoy that special music as never before.
At the beginning of our journey, we identified three fundamental flashpoints of controversy in the Great End Time Debate: The Kingdom of God, the Millennium, and the Consummation. Happily, our close study of the Kingdom supplied welcome insights into the other two questions.
Having learned that the Kingdom appears in two simple stages—the Kingdom of the Son (i.e., the heavenly, mediatorial reign of Christ) followed by the Kingdom of the Father (i.e., the glorified World to Come)—we realized that the thousand years of Revelation 20 cannot be a third, intermediate stage of the Kingdom sandwiched between the other two, as premillennarians assert.
Similarly, having learned that the two stages of the Kingdom are separated by a single Consummation at the Parousia of Christ, we realized that the Consummation cannot be fragmented into multiple comings, resurrections, and judgments, as premillennarians also assert. In short, our study of the Kingdom has gone far towards resolving the End Time Debate in favor of the classic amillennial view of Salvation History.
It remains, however, for us to probe Revelation 20 itself. If it does not describe a future millennial reign of Christ on earth, what exactly does it describe? If, as I have suggested along the way, it speaks of the Kingdom of the Son, is there anything in the Revelation broadly, or in Revelation 20 itself, to support this view? Our purpose in Part 4 of our journey is to find out.
Let us begin, then, by getting a feel for the Revelation as a whole. In particular, let’s see if there is anything in the purpose, literary genre, and structure of the book that will help us better understand the Millennium of Revelation 20.
The Purpose of the Revelation
We begin to discern the purpose of the Revelation when we consider the circumstances in which it was given.
The year, according to most scholars, is around 95 A.D. John, in all probability the last living apostle, is now in his 80’s (John 21:21-23). Because of his faithfulness in preaching the Gospel, the Roman authorities have exiled him to a penal settlement on the island of Patmos (1:9, John 21:21-23). It has been over 60 years since Christ’s ascension. The Lord is tarrying, and among many believers the expectation of his Parousia is waning (2 Peter 3:1f). The demonic emperor Nero (A.D. 54-68), a vicious persecutor of the Roman Christians, has come and gone. Titus has decimated Jerusalem (70 A.D.). Under Domitian (A.D. 81-89), persecution has spread throughout the Empire and reached Asia. More is now looming (2:3, 10, 13).
Beyond this external threat, there are internal perils as well. Heretical “Christian” sects have grown in size and number, whose members are seeking to penetrate the orthodox churches and draw away disciples (2:2, 6, 14-15, 20-24). Some churches are even tolerating them in their midst (2:14f, 20f). Meanwhile, others are in decline: The love of certain Christians is growing cold (2:4, 3:1-2); others, having thus far escaped the fires of persecution, are falling in love with the world, and sinking into apathy and hedonism (3:14-21). The situation is dire. The faltering Church needs a word from the Lord.
The Revelation as a Gift to the Universal Church
The Revelation—all 22 chapters—is just such a word. Notably, at the very outset it is described as a gift: a gift from God the Father—through Christ, through the Spirit, through angelic mediation, and through the apostle John—to the seven churches of Asia (Rev. 1:1-6, 9, 22:8). Seven, however, is the biblical number of perfection or completeness (Gen. 2:2,3). The meaning is clear: God gave the Revelation, not just to the seven churches of Asia, but also to what the seven churches represent: the complete Church, the Universal Church. Likewise, the seven lampstands symbolize the one universal Church, especially in her present ministry as the Light of God and Christ to a world sunk in deep spiritual darkness (Rev. 1:13, 20). (1)
With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that history bears out this important truth. Like the seven churches, the universal Church has always had strengths and weaknesses; like the seven churches, it has always faced persecution, deception, and temptation; and like the seven churches, it has therefore always needed the Revelation. The book is, then, a great gift from the head of the universal Church, to the universal Church, for the help of the universal Church. Note carefully an important implication of this truth: the Revelation was not meant to be a closed book: not when it was given, not now, and not ever (Rev. 22:10). The Lord desires his whole Church—past, present, and future—to understand, obey, preach, and profit from the Revelation.
And that includes chapter 20, as well!
The Revelation as a Prophecy to the Universal Church
John also describes the Revelation as a prophecy (Rev. 22:10, 18). Now according to the apostle Paul, he who prophesies speaks to men for edification, exhortation, and comfort (1 Cor. 14:3). This short definition wonderfully captures the flavor—and the purpose—of the Revelation. Everywhere we turn, we hear the exalted Christ prophesying to his Church. Everywhere we find him teaching, warning, and encouraging her, so that she may “overcome” all opponents and safely enter the completed Kingdom at his return (2:11, 2:26, etc.).
Since this idea is so important—namely, that the Revelation is essentially an extended prophecy—let us develop it a little further by looking at the three fundamental ways in which the High King of Heaven here prophesies to his beloved Bride.
1. The Prophet Teaches His Church
First, Christ teaches the Church. Here I especially have in mind the way he builds up the Church Militant in her understanding of her true place in the world and in history; in other words, the way in which he gives her a biblical worldview.
In this regard, Revelation 12 is central. It begins with a vision of the Bride, God’s elect of all times and places. From the very outset, we see her as God sees her: She is a heavenly Woman with an earthly mission (12:1). In her OT embodiment, she gives birth to the promised Seed of the Woman—to Christ (12:5a; Gen. 3:15). When she does, the Dragon and his demonic minions try to kill the infant Jesus, but cannot (12:4). Yes, they succeed in putting the Lamb of God to death, but they altogether fail in “devouring” him, for he rises from the dead and ascends to the Father’s own right hand, where he now sits as High Prophet, Priest, and King of heaven. And from that heavenly seat he shall soon come again, this time to act the part of a shepherd against the enemies of his flock, shattering them once and for all with a rod or iron (12:5b, Psalms 2:9, 23:4).
For now, however, the Woman (i.e., the Bride in her specifically NT embodiment) must remain upon the earth. Therefore, in an eschatological Exodus from the Domain of Darkness, she flees into the wilderness of this fallen evil world (12:6). There she will remain for “1260 days” (or “a time, times, and a half a time,” or “42 months,” Rev. 11:2, 12:14, 13:5). Recalling the prophet Elijah’s three and a half year exile in the wilderness, these symbolic numbers mark the entire inter-adventual era—the Era of Proclamation—as a season of exile and tribulation for the people of God (1 Kings 17:1f;). They will not, however, endure it alone: The Lord will faithfully nourish and aid his people all throughout their long wilderness sojourn, even as he did Israel and Elijah in theirs (12:6, 14-16).
But what exactly will the Church in the wilderness be doing as she awaits Christ’s return? The answer is found in verses 7-12: She will be waging war. Yes, the text itself says that Michael and his angels will wage war against the Dragon and his angels. But on closer inspection, we realize that this is simply a picture of heaven’s part in a war that the saints will be waging on earth. It is a not physical war, but a spiritual (2 Cor. 10:4, Eph. 6:12). It is the fulfillment of the Great Commission; the proclamation of the Gospel; the declaration of the saving power of the blood of the Lamb; the faithful testimony of the people of God to the Person and Work of the Christ of God (12:11). As they preach and teach—and as God’s elect everywhere hear the truth and receive it—the Kingdom of Christ continually pours into the earth (12:10). As it does, the kingdom of Satan, who formerly deceived and ruled the whole world, is continually spoiled and cast to the ground (Mt. 12:29). Hence Satan’s fury against the Woman; hence the Groom’s diligent watch-care over his beloved and persecuted Bride (12:13-17).
Here, then, in a prophetic vision of stupendous theological reach and power, we find Christ teaching the Church Militant who she is, what she is about, what she can expect, and upon whom she can count, as she makes her way out of eschatological Egypt, through the eschatological wilderness of Sin, and into the eschatological Promised Land. Fittingly, this rich chapter stands in the middle of the book, for in many ways it supplies us with the keys to the whole book. Thanks be to God for such a wonderful prophetic gift!
2. The Prophet Exhorts His Church
Secondly, the Lord exhorts the Church. In particular, he exhorts her by teaching and warning about four great enemies she will encounter over and again during her long journey through the wilderness of this world.
The first is the Dragon, that serpent of old who is called the devil and Satan (12:9). He—along with his host of evil angels—is the invisible spiritual ruler of the fallen world-system through which the saints must pass on their way to the Promised Land. As we have seen, this teaching pervades the NT. However, in the Revelation the Spirit draws upon various OT texts to depict the world-system as an unholy trinity; an unholy idol that fallen, rebellious, and deceivable mankind is all too inclined to worship. It is comprised of the Beast, the False Prophet, and the Harlot. As we are about to see, these OT symbols correspond to God-given institutions, originally designed for the good of mankind, but now co-opted and corrupted by the Dragon (13:1, 4, 16:13). Ever since the Fall, he is the one enemy lurking behind the other three. Let the saints understand and beware (1 Peter. 5:8).
The second enemy is the Beast (13:1-4). This is the political or governmental face of the world-system (Daniel 7:1f). The NT teaches that civil government is a good, post-fall gift of God, designed to restrain evildoers through a faithful administration of his retributive justice (Rom. 13:1f). However, it also teaches that sin can and does corrupt human governments, sometimes to such an extent that they become unconscious instruments of the Satanic (2 Thess. 2:1f, Rev. 13:2, 4). When this occurs, deceived sinners will worship the Beast, rather than God (13:4). And when this occurs, the Beast will wage war against the people of God who, out of loyalty to their heavenly King, refuse to worship the Beast, and urge sinners to turn away from it towards Christ (11:7, 13:7, 17:14).
In the Revelation, Christ repeatedly exhorts his people concerning the Beast. Above all, he warns them not to receive his mark—his name, or the number of his name—on their right hand or on their forehead (14:9, 11, 15:2, 20:4). Here again the Spirit draws upon OT imagery to speak symbolically to God’s NT people (Ezekiel 9). The saints now have the seal of the living God on their foreheads (7:3). In other words, because of their faith in Christ they now belong to the Father; they are his adopted sons and daughters, carrying his Name (Rom. 8:15, 1 Peter 1:17). How then shall they give their ultimate allegiance, whether in thought (symbolized by a mark on the forehead) or in deed (symbolized by a mark on the hand), to any mere man or human institution? Note also that in Scripture six is the number of man (Gen. 1:26ff, Rev. 13:18, NIV), and three is the number of God Triune. Therefore, 666 is the number of man seeking to supplant the triune God; the number of man audaciously representing himself as the proper object of all human worship (13:16-18). The implications are clear: Men take the mark of the Beast whenever and wherever they worship the anti-christian, self-deifying State. And again, throughout the Revelation Christ warns his own that they must never do this evil thing.
Additionally, the heavenly Prophet exhorts his people not to succumb to the threats or actual persecutions of the Beast, even if this means the loss of work, supply, reputation, or life itself (2:10, 13:17). He buttresses this exhortation with a two-fold promise: The Lord will always be at his suffering people’s side, and he has already prepared a victor’s wreath for each one who overcomes (2:10, 12:14-16). Note carefully that in Revelation 20, as elsewhere in the book, Christ again exhorts the whole Church concerning the Beast: Those who refuse to receive his mark (of ownership), but instead remain faithful until death, will enter heaven as disembodied spirits, there to reign in life with their High King until he comes again at the end of the age to raise them from the dead and bestow upon them the glories of the World to Come (20:4-6). More on this later.
The third enemy is the False Prophet, also called the Beast from the Earth (Rev. 13:11-18, 16:12-16, 19:20, 20:10). A careful reading of the relevant texts shows that this beast symbolizes, not simply false religion, but false religion willingly pressed into the service of the self-deifying State. Energized by Satan (13:11), and authorized by the State itself (13:12), those people who function as the False Prophet use both coercion (13:12, 16-17) and religious deception (13:14-15) to set up “an image” to the Beast. That is, they seek to organize, implement, and encourage the worship of the State and/or the person in whom the State is embodied at any given moment in history.
The False Prophet is present throughout the entire Era of Proclamation. In John’s day he was embodied in “ . . . the emperor cult and the Commune of Asia, a council of distinguished representatives promoting loyalty to the emperor.” (2) In our own day, he rears his head wherever government propagandists encourage the adulation of the King, the Fuehrer, the Chairman, the Ayatollah, or the President. Notably, Revelation 13:13-15 implies that in some instances Satan will actually empower the False Prophet(s) to deceive men with miraculous signs.
Most assuredly, this will be the case at the end of the age. The Gospels and epistles warn us that when the (final) Antichrist arises to deceive the whole world, he will perform “false signs and wonders” (Mt. 24:24, 2 Thess. 2:1-2, 9-12). Not surprisingly, we receive the same warning in the Revelation: John sees three unclean spirits coming out of the mouth of the Dragon, the Beast, and the False Prophet. They are demonic spirits, performing signs and going abroad to the kings of the whole world, in order to assemble them for the battle of the Great Day of God the Almighty (16:12-16). As I will argue later, Revelation 20:7-10, in remarkably similar language, predicts this very thing one final time. Clearly, the High Prophet of Heaven very much desires his Church to be fully prepared for the last (embodiment of the) Beast, the last False Prophet, and the Last Battle.
The fourth and final enemy is the Great Harlot, also referred to as Babylon the Great and the Great City (17:1, 3, 5, 18). The relevant chapters make it clear that the Harlot represents the economic, commercial, and cultural face of the world-system. As such, she is not so much a persecutor or religious deceiver as she is a seductress (17:4). In former times, she tempted the world through such luxurious commercial centers as Babylon, Tyre, and Sidon. In John’s day, she tempted it through Rome. In our own she tempts it through wealthy, pleasure-mad cities now situated all over the globe, and also through omnipresent electronic wizardry wherein she bares her ample bosom and offers herself freely for a simple click.
John sees that at any given moment the entire world-system is in bed with the Harlot, spiritually speaking: Nations, kings, and merchants—all have fallen to her allurements (18:3). As a general rule, she likes to collude with the Beast and the False Prophet, doing all she can to persecute the Church (17:6) and entice saints and sinners alike with her sorceries (i.e., fake, demonic spiritualities, 18:23). Accordingly, no sooner do we begin to learn about the Harlot, than we hear the prophetic word of the Lord to his Church: “Come out of her, my people, that you may not share in her sins, and that you may not receive of her plagues” (18:4, 3:14-22). As he speaks, the saints receive both warning and promise: Satan’s woman, the Harlot, is doomed to destruction. In part, it will come at the hand of the Beast himself, who will one day turn against her (17:14-18). However, in far greater part it will come at the hand of Christ, who, in a single hour, will make her utterly desolate (18:19) and render her an eternal prison house of Satan and his demons (18:2). Meanwhile, Christ’s Woman—comprised of all who hear his call, flee the Great City, and loyally cling to him in faith—is destined for final rescue and restoration; is destined to become a Holy City and a glorious Bride, forever dwelling with God and Christ under brand new heavens in a brand new earth (19:7-8, 21:2). Let all the saints be warned . . . and take heart.
3. The Prophet Comforts His Church
Finally, the heavenly Prophet uses the Revelation to speak comfort to his Bride. Yes, as trembling Christians well know, the Revelation repeatedly issues warnings of inevitable tribulation and certain judgment. However, the more they read, the more they realize how much comfort is offered along with those warnings, and how many different forms that comfort takes.
For example, at the very outset of the book, Christ comforts his pilgrim people with a majestic vision of his own divine nature, covenant faithfulness, and Messianic glory (1:9-20).
He then comforts them with manifold assurances of his presence in, and faithful watch-care over, all his churches, even as he manifests the tough love that he feels for each one (2:1-3:22).
He comforts them with rich, symbolic representations of his heavenly, mediatorial reign, the saints share in it, and his absolute sovereignty over all remaining history (4:1-5:14).
He comforts them with scenes of the spirits of departed believers safely home in heaven, praying for divine justice, and waiting eagerly for the resurrection of their bodies at his return to the earth (6:9-11, 20:4-6).
He comforts them with portraits of his own Parousia in power and glory at the end of the age (14:14-20, 19:11-21).
In conjunction with that, he also comforts them with visions of ultimate justice: of final rewards for the faithful saints, and of final retribution against the persecuting and God-hating “inhabitants of the earth” (6:9-17, 11:11-19, 15:1-4, 16:17-21, 20:7-15).
Similarly, he comforts them with several “sneak-previews” of the glorified Church surrounding the throne of God Triune, exultantly lifting up the eternal worship that will fill the World to Come (7:9-17, 14:1-5).
And, of course, he comforts them with two luminous chapters supplying mysterious, thought-provoking glimpses of the (eternal) life of the saints in the new heavens and the new earth (Rev. 21-22).
Summing up, we have seen that the great purpose of the Revelation is prophetic; that in it, God, through Christ, speaks to the universal Church in order to teach, warn, exhort, and comfort her, so that she might make a worthy and triumphant pilgrimage through the wilderness of this world into the eschatological Promised Land.
This is highly relevant to Part 4 of our study for the very important reason that it naturally and powerfully inclines us to an “ecclesiastical” interpretation of Revelation 20. In particular, it suggests that Revelation 20 cannot possibly be what many premillennarians claim it is: a divine afterthought, in which the Spirit suddenly shifts his focus from the Church to ethnic Israel, and from the Church era to a future Millennium. No, just like the rest of the book, chapter 20 must also focus on the Church, and on the present evil age through which the Church makes her difficult pilgrimage (Rev. 12). As we have just seen, this conclusion flows naturally from the One who gave it (the Head of the Church); from the ones to whom he gave it (the seven churches, emblematic of the universal Church); and from the purposes for which he gave it (to teach, warn, and comfort the Church). Moreover, as we shall soon see, it also flows naturally from a careful study of the structure, contents, and symbolism of Revelation 20 itself.
The Literary Genre of the Revelation
The Revelation is an outstanding example of a literary genre called biblical apocalyptic. The Greek word apocalypsis conveys the idea of the removal of a veil, so that something once hidden is now revealed. There is, then, as sense in which one might say that all Scripture is “apocalyptic,” since in all Scripture there is an unveiling of special God-given truths that sinful man could not otherwise know, understand, or enjoy. However, as a general rule, theologians use this word far more narrowly. That is, they use it to speak of a particular kind of Scripture. For interpreters such as these, biblical apocalyptic may be defined as a species of predictive prophecy in which the Holy Spirit—using vision and symbol—unveils divine truth about the course, character, and consummation of Salvation History.
In our discussion of OTKP, we have run across this kind of literature more than once. For example, chapters 24-27 of Isaiah, which focus on final judgment and final redemption on the Day of the LORD, supply an outstanding example of pre-exilic apocalyptic. From the season of Israel’s exile we have Daniel 7, which is likely the single greatest OT depiction of the course and character of Salvation History. From the same era we also have Ezekiel 38-39, which is likely the single greatest OT depiction of the consummation of Salvation History; of the Last Battle and the Day of the LORD. Finally, from post-exilic times we have the visions and prophecies of Zechariah, all of which again make rich use of symbols to display both the course and conclusion of Salvation History.
In the NT, apocalyptic texts are less plentiful, seeing that in NT times there is an unveiling of all that God had previously hidden under type, shadow, and symbol. Nevertheless, the NT is not without its apocalyptic elements. Some of Jesus’ parables have an apocalyptic feel to them (Mt. 13:36-43, 47-50). His Olivet Discourse, alluding as it does to a number of OTKP’s, contains the marks of biblical apocalyptic (Mt. 24, Mark 13). Similarly, Paul’s discourse on the Consummation, written to the Thessalonian Christians, draws frequently upon OT apocalyptic texts, even as it teaches us on distinctly apocalyptic themes (2 Thess. 2).
And then there is the Revelation—a book that is manifestly apocalyptic, (almost) entirely apocalyptic, and uniquely apocalyptic vis-à-vis the rest of Holy Scripture. Do we wish to understand it properly? If so, we cannot ignore its genre. Nor can we ignore the unique way in which it embodies this genre. Therefore, drawing upon the definition given above, let us take a few moments to examine the Revelation as a true but biblically unique instance of biblical apocalyptic. Under four separate headings, I would argue that it is:
A Predictive Prophecy
We have already discussed some of the ways in which the Revelation is a prophecy; the ways in which it teaches, warns, and comforts Christ’s Church. However, in doing so it frequently incorporates predictions of historical events yet future to the reader/hearer. Therefore, this long prophecy clearly falls into the category of biblical apocalyptic.
It is, however, biblical apocalyptic of an extraordinary kind. Why? Because in making its predictions about the future, it tells us little or nothing new about the future. That is, it tells us little or nothing that was not already foretold in OTKP under type, shadow, and symbol; or it tells us little or nothing that was not already unveiled, explained, and practically applied in the Gospels, the Acts, and the Epistles.
Think for a moment about the prophetic themes we just discussed. In the Revelation, Christ gives John—and the Church—visions of the Dragon, the Beast, the False Prophet, and the Harlot. How are we to understand them? The answer is: We could not possibly understand them unless Christ, in the rest of the NT, had already given us keys by which to unlock their meaning; unless he had given us straightforward didactic teaching about all four. And the same is true of OT apocalyptic. How are we to understand the visions and prophecies of Isaiah, Daniel, Ezekiel, and Zechariah? The answer is: We cannot, apart from the revelations of the Didactic NT. The latter is the hermeneutical key to the former.
This point cannot be overemphasized. Yes, like all biblical apocalyptic, the Revelation contains predictive prophecy. But because of its unique place in the biblical canon—because it serves as the Grand Finale of all Scripture—the things it predicts in vision and symbol cannot be new. For if, in the Revelation, God meant to give us new truth about the future (e.g., new truth about a seven year Tribulation, or the career of the Antichrist, or a future millennium, etc.), he would also have had to give us more didactic revelation by which to interpret the symbols used to convey the new truth. But he did not. Instead, he simply closed the canon with the Revelation. Therefore, we may safely assume that the truth hidden beneath its symbols is old truth, and that everything we need to understand those symbols has been given to us previously in the rest of the NT. In short, the Revelation is not a puzzle to be figured out; rather—for those who know their Bibles and understand NT eschatology—it is a celebration to be enjoyed. I will have more to say on this important point below.
Singing the Glory of the High King of Heaven
Biblical apocalyptic is predictive prophecy with a particular theme. It likes to explore the course, character, and consummation of Salvation History, and to do so in ways that encourage God’s suffering people with the hope of final justice and redemption: of final rescue from the powers of evil, final retribution against the agents of evil, and final restoration to the promised covenant blessings of God.
In our study of OTKP, we saw the manifold ways in which the Spirit developed these great themes in OT times. In prophet after prophet, he spoke of a final regathering of God’s people; of their final restoration to the Promised Land; of the coming of the Messiah; of the advance of his kingdom in the Days of the Messiah; of the conversion of the Gentiles; of ongoing victory over God’s enemies; of the Last Battle, the Day of the Lord, the resurrection of the dead, and the eternal World to Come. Importantly, these themes are the sum and substance of NT eschatology, as well. However, in the OT “true truth” on these themes remained largely veiled under symbolic, typological language. Moreover, because of this veiling, the exact sequence of the great eschatological events also remained obscure. For this reason, God himself pronounced OTKP in general—and OT apocalyptic in particular—a closed book; but a closed book that would indeed be opened in the last days (Jer. 23:20, Dan. 12:4, Heb. 11:1).
When, however, we reach the NT, the wraps come off. The mysteries of the Kingdom are revealed. The heart of Salvation History (the Eternal Covenant in Christ) is disclosed. The character of Salvation History—that it consists of successive administrations of the Eternal Covenant—is manifested. And the course of the Salvation History—the stages in which it unfolds, and the key events proper to each stage—is illumined once and for all. As a result, God’s people hold in their hands, at long last, the key to understanding all Salvation History, all OTKP, and all OT apocalyptic.
But if this is so, why, in the Revelation, would God revert to the use of biblical apocalyptic in order to prophesy to Christ’s pilgrim Church? I have already suggested an answer to this important question: He did so because he desired not only to teach, warn, and encourage the saints one final time (just as he had in the rest of the NT), but also to give them the Grand Finale of all Scripture. That is, he desired to weave the Christ-centered history, poetry, prophecy, and doctrine of the whole Bible into the final movement of the great symphony of Scripture. In the eyes of the High Poet of Heaven, biblical apocalyptic was apparently the perfect vehicle for doing this very thing.
We must, however, look a little closer. Yes, like all biblical apocalyptic the Revelation has as its theme the course, character, and consummation of Salvation History. But here again it is unique, this time because its focus is largely on a particular portion of Salvation History: the Heavenly Mediatorial Reign of Christ. Or, to state the case more precisely, its focus is largely on the Exaltation of Christ; on all the eschatological acts and events by which the Father is pleased to honor the One who, out of love for him and his people, humbled himself even to the point of death on a cross (Phil. 2:1-11).
In a moment we will examine the structure of the Revelation, in order to see exactly how God accomplished this cherished goal. Here it suffices to say that in this unique expression of biblical apocalyptic God was pleased to draw upon all previous biblical revelation in order to focus the saint’s attention on the High King of Heaven: on his resurrection, ascension, and session at the right hand of the Father; on his absolute sovereignty over all the subsequent events of history; on his infallible declaration of the Gospel—through the Church Militant—to “the (sinful) inhabitants of the earth:” on his faithfulness to his persecuted pilgrim people; on his continual judgments against their enemies; on his rush to the rescue of his little flock in the days of the Last Battle; and especially on his glorious Parousia at the end of the age, when he himself will execute final judgment, administer final redemption, and bring in the new heavens and the new earth, the eternal home of God and the redeemed.
Does all of this help us to understand Revelation 20? Indeed it does! For if the theological focus of the whole book is on the High King of Heaven—on the course, character, and consummation of his heavenly, mediatorial reign—how likely is it that this one chapter suddenly takes up the theme of a future earthly reign? No, the Revelation is a predictive prophecy that through and through sings the glory of the High King of Heaven. To see this is to see the meaning of Revelation 20 as well.
Communicated By Way of Vision and Symbol
This is the third element of biblical apocalyptic, namely that it uses vision and symbol to communicate prophetic truth about Salvation History. But once again we find that the Revelation does this in a unique way, since it uses vision and symbol, not to veil truth yet to come, but simply to celebrate truth previously unveiled in the Gospels, the Acts, and the Epistles. Therefore, its language is not really “mysterious,” since in the Didactic NT we already have the keys by which to understand it. It is, however, still symbolic, with the result that we must interpret its images symbolically, rather than literally.
If there were any doubt about this, it should be quickly dispelled simply by looking at the first verse of the Revelation. There we learn that God “ . . . sent and signified (the Revelation) by his angel to his servant John” (1:1). The Greek word for “signify” is semaino, a verb closely related to the noun semeion, meaning “sign.” So then, in choosing this particular word to describe the prophecy as a whole, the Spirit teaches and admonishes us to interpret the Revelation as a book of signs or symbols. If we will obey him, we will not go far wrong.
It is true, or course, that all interpreters, whatever their eschatological persuasion, are ready to acknowledge that the Revelation contains symbols. However, some interpreters, while agreeing that the Revelation contains symbols, refuse to acknowledge that in virtue of its literary genre it is in fact a book of symbols, a book that must therefore be interpreted symbolically from start to finish.
The result of this refusal is in an inconsistent hermeneutic. For example, pressured by the obvious, the prophetic literalist will readily concede that the sword coming from Christ’s mouth is a symbol for the word of God (1:16); or that the Spirit symbolizes the exalted Christ as a Lamb with seven horns and seven eyes in order to remind us that our Sacrifice for sin is now the omnipotent and omniscient High King and High Priest of Heaven (5:6). When, however, the literalist comes to the 144,000 of all the tribes of the children of Israel (7:4); or to the two witnesses who prophesy and (briefly) perish on the streets of the Great City (11:8); or to Christ’s admonition to the saints against taking the mark of the Beast (13:16-18); or to the gathering of the kings of the whole world at the Mountain of Megiddo (16:14) . . . then he suddenly abandons the symbolic hermeneutic for a literal, thereby abandoning a consistent method of interpretation for an inconsistent. More than once I have heard literalists complain that a symbolic, typological hermeneutic will leave the prophetic interpreter “at sea,” bobbing up and down on the swells of mere subjectivity. But perhaps it is really the literalist who is at sea, bobbing back and forth at his own good pleasure between two diametrically opposed approaches to the interpretation of apocalyptic literature in general, and the Revelation in particular.
If, then, we hope to understand the Revelation—and especially chapter 20—we must recognize that it is indeed a unique instance of biblical apocalyptic; that it communicates previously revealed NT truth in vision and symbol; that it does so consistently, in all portions of the book (save for chapters 2-3, where didactic teaching predominates); and that in order to understand it, we must consistently adopt an appropriate hermeneutic. That would be the NCH, according to which we see all biblical prophecy as using types, shadows, and symbols to communicate “true truth”—NT truth—about Christ, the Eternal Covenant, and the two-fold spiritual Kingdom he introduced under that covenant. When we do, we will immediately understand the 144,000, the Two Witnesses, the Mark of the Beast, the Battle of Armageddon, and the thousand year reign of Christ proclaimed in Revelation 20.
Serving as the Grand Finale of All Scripture
I have argued that the Revelation is indeed an instance of biblical apocalyptic, but also that it is a unique instance, appearing as it does at the end of the Bible, where it serves as the Grand Finale of all Scripture; of all special revelation. Since this point is so important for a proper understanding of the book as a whole, let us pause to consider it more closely.
Think for a moment of your favorite symphony. Now think of its final movement. What is it that makes the final movement a grand finale? Three simple answers come to my mind.
First, it appears at the end of the symphony: There is no more music to come.
Secondly, it reprises all the themes heard in the previous two or three movements. However, when it does, it does so very “grandly.” That is, it skillfully, artistically, and majestically weaves together all the earlier motifs, so that we not only hear them again, but also hear them afresh; hear them in new, startling, and beautiful relations with one another; hear them in such a way that the whole symphony is somehow poured into the last part of the symphony.
And thirdly, because it is a grand finale, it does not typically introduce new musical themes, but rather devotes itself more or less exclusively to a fresh, inspirational recapitulation of the old.
All three of these observations apply to the Revelation, and in a way that helps us understand the book to its very depths.
Like a grand finale, the Revelation appears at the end of the great symphony of biblical revelation. Doubtless it was the last book of Holy Scripture to be given by God. Appropriately enough, it therefore appears as the last book of our Bible. Moreover, its contents veritably scream to us that it should be the last book, since it so thoroughly is taken up with the Last Things: the character and course of the Last Days, the Last Battle, the Last Resurrection and the Last Judgment, all of which occur at the Last Coming of the Last Man, the glorified Lord Jesus Christ. The claims of Church History’s false prophets notwithstanding, Christians find it unthinkable that God, having given us a book like this, should give us any more, as indeed the Revelation itself implies (Rev. 21:18-19). The Revelation is the Book of the End, and so rightly belongs at the end of the symphony of Scripture as its final glorious movement (1:8, 2:26, 21:6, 22:13).
Like a grand finale, the Revelation also incorporates and skillfully weaves together ideas and images from the preceding movements of Scripture, whether OT or New. Here, biblical allusions abound, whether to the Garden of Eden, Moses, the Exodus, Elijah, Mt. Zion, the Temple, the birth of Jesus, the cruelty of Herod, the preaching of the disciples two by two, Christ’s resurrection, ascension, session, heavenly reign, and Parousia. Indeed, the Revelation cites or alludes to so many biblical texts that when we delve into it we immediately find the center columns of our reference Bibles bulging at the seams! Westcott and Hort counted nearly 400 references to the OT, and many later commentators argue that they found too few. In Revelation 12 alone, there are quotes from, or allusions to, Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy, Psalms, Song of Solomon, Isaiah, Hosea, Micah, Daniel, Zechariah, Matthew, Luke, John, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, 1 Peter, 1 John, and Jude. All of this makes it clear that the Revelation is not historical narrative, law, poetry, gospel, or epistle. Rather, it is something unique, something completely new under the biblical sun: It is a final prophetic word to the universal Church, clothed in raiment from all that has gone before it, and so serving not only as a prophetic word, but also as the Grand Finale of all Scripture.
If this is true, the implications are truly important. For if the Revelation is indeed the Grand Finale of all Scripture, then we ought not to expect it to introduce any new doctrines. It is not the purpose of a grand finale to introduce new themes, but rather to recapitulate the old. And when we closely examine the Revelation, that is precisely what we find. Here, there is nothing new; nothing other than what Christ and the apostles have already taught us in the Didactic NT; nothing new about the Holy Trinity, the creation, the Fall, the Eternal Covenant, the nature and structure of the Kingdom, or the Consummation at Christ’s coming. What we do find is the Spirit speaking again—and over and over again—about all these “old” things. However, he does so in new and wondrous ways; in beautiful, powerful, and supremely inspiring visions and symbols; in a Grand Finale that incorporates and weaves together all that has gone before in Holy Scripture, even as it celebrates, one final time, the glory of the High King of Heaven.
The implications for the End Time Debate are easy to see. If the Revelation really is the Grand Finale of all Scripture, how likely is it that just a few measures prior to its end (i.e., in chapter 20) the Lord Jesus would suddenly introduce a completely new eschatological theme (i.e., a future earthly stage of the Kingdom lasting a thousand years); a theme that would radically modify, if not completely overthrow, all he had previously taught us in the Didactic NT about the nature and structure of the Kingdom, the Consummation, the relationship of the Old Covenant to the New, and the proper interpretation of OTKP?
The answer: NOT likely. Why? Because to do so would be to destroy the Grand Finale, belatedly and unexpectedly transforming the final movement of Scripture into the vehicle of a whole new movement; a new movement that must radically transform the Christian’s understanding of every movement that preceded it, even as it postpones the completed Kingdom—and the Christian’s completed joy—for an extra thousand years!
No, not likely at all!
We conclude, then, that a good understanding of the literary genre of the Revelation is most helpful for resolving the millennial controversy.
Yes, this book is an instance of biblical apocalyptic, but it is a unique instance.
Yes, it contains predictive prophecy, but it predicts nothing new.
Yes, it gives us the course, character, and consummation of Salvation History, but it tells us nothing new about them, preferring instead simply to exalt and sing the glories of the One who dwells at the center of them all.
And yes, it communicates in symbols, but in symbols whose meanings are old; symbols whose meanings have been disclosed previously in the Didactic NT, so that (for God’s NT scribes) the Revelation is an open book, and not a sealed one.
For all these reasons, it appears that Revelation 20 cannot possibly be introducing new truth about a future millennial stage of the Kingdom; new truth that would radically modify, upend, and overthrow the old. Rather, Revelation 20—and indeed the book as a whole—must simply be giving us the Grand Finale of all Scripture. It must be recapitulating and celebrating old truths, albeit in a new and breathtakingly beautiful way; a way that, fittingly enough, exalts him who is the living heart of all divine revelation: the High King of Heaven, the Lord Jesus Christ.
1. In the Revelation, the seven lamps before God’s throne—also called the seven spirits of God—symbolize the one Holy Spirit. Seven is the number of perfection; lamps give light. The symbols appear to mean that the Father and Son have given the one Spirit of Truth a perfect, many-faceted ministry to the saints, by which he will guide them into the true Light, bringing them to Christ, keeping them in Christ, conforming them to Christ, and equipping them to serve Christ (Rev. 1:4, 3:1, 4:5, 5:6; John 16:13, Acts 2:33, Rom. 8:29, 1 Cor. 12::1f, 1 Thessa. 5:23).
2. The Reformation Study Bible, p. 1862.