Wednesday, December 28, 2016

An Introduction to Revelation 20:1-6

The Structure of Revelation

The interpretation of the Book of Revelation is fodder for perennial debates amongst notable theologians both from the Reformed as well as the Dispensational persuasions. In chapters 10 to 14, my objective is to discuss Revelation 20:1-6, which I believe is relevant and important for our study of the general resurrection, the final judgment, and the millennium. Unfortunately, this portion of Scripture is one of the most, if not the most, disputed segment of the Revelation of Saint John.

Personally, the method of interpretation which I believe to be most consistent with the entire tenor of Scripture is that espoused by William Hendricksen in his commentary More Than Conquerors: An Interpretation of the Book of Revelation.[1]

Hendricksen understands the book of Revelation as consisting of seven parallel sections, each of which depicts the church and the world from the time of Christ’s first advent to His Parousia.[2] He writes,

“The book of Revelation consists of seven sections. They are parallel and each spans the entire new dispensation, from the first to the second coming of Christ.”[3]

The seven sections are presented as follow: Christ in the midst of the lampstands (1:1 - 3:22); the vision of heaven and the seals (4:1 - 7:17); the seven trumpets (8:1 - 11:19); the persecuting dragon (12:1 - 14:20); the seven bowls (15:1-16:21); the fall of Babylon (17:1 - 19:21); the great consummation (20:1 - 22:21). This method of understanding Revelation is known as progressive parallelism. Despite being parallel to each other, each of these sections provides eschatological revelations not presented in other sections. Each section furnishes us with a different perspective of the new dispensation, with varying detail and clarity.

For example, the last section (Rev. 20:1 - 22:21) gives us a vivid description of the final judgment, also known as the Great White Throne judgment, which is only briefly mentioned in the second (Rev. 6:12-17) and the first (Rev. 1:7). References to the final judgment are also found in the third (Rev. 11:18), the fourth (Rev. 14:14-15), the fifth (Rev. 16:19-20), and the sixth section (Rev. 19:11-21). Each of these sections furnishes us with different pictures and information concerning the Parousia and the final judgment. In fact, the judgment scene is progressively unveiled from section one to section seven, where the vision of the Great White Throne reveals the final defeat of Satan, death and hell. “The seventh or final section (chapters 20-22) not only describes the final judgment, but in this description drops much of the symbolism of the earlier visions. Nothing is vague or indefinite and little is clothed with symbolism (20:12 ff.). The joy of the redeemed in the new heaven and earth is described much more circumstantially than, for example, in 7:9 ff. The book has reached its glorious climax.”[4]

In his fourth proposition, Hendricksen writes, “The seven sections of the Apocalypse are arranged in an ascending, climactic order. There is progress in eschatological emphasis. The final judgment is first announced, then introduced and finally described. Similarly, the new heaven and earth are described more fully in the final section than in those which precede it.”[5] Thus, the term progressive parallelism was used.

Hendricksen further classified the seven sections into two groups or divisions. The first division (chapters 1 to 11) consists of three sections, while the second division (chapters 12 to 22) consists of four. In the first division, the apocalypse of John describes how the Church of Christ is persecuted by the world. Nevertheless, the Church is protected, and eventually emerges victorious. The deeper, spiritual background behind this struggle is unveiled in the second division. This division elucidates that the conflict is actually spiritual warfare between Christ and the devil. “It is the outward manifestation of the devil’s attack upon the Man-child. The dragon attacks the Christ. Repulsed, he directs all his fury against the Church. As his helpers, he employs the two beasts and the great harlot, but all these enemies of the Church are defeated in the end. It is evident that the sections which comprise this second group (chapters 12-22), though synchronous, present a continued story. The dragon, the beasts, the harlot (note the order) assail the Church. The harlot, the beasts, the dragon (again, note the order) are overthrown.”[6]

The Revelation of John concludes with the defeat of the devil, and the ushering in of the New Heavens and the New Earth.

The Genre of Revelation and Hermeneutics

The genre of the Revelation of John is complex, to say the least. The opening verses “appear to suggest three different genre identifications: apocalypse (1:1), prophecy (1:3) and epistle (1:4).”[7] It is difficult, if not impossible, to classify the Book of Revelation under any one genre category. In one sense, it is an epistle from the Apostle John to the seven churches in Asia Minor, especially when we consider his opening address and salutation (Rev. 1:4-5, 9-11). The Revelation of Saint John also belongs to the literary genre apocalypse. This is a unique genre of ancient, pseudonymous Near-Eastern literature whereby the authors assume the names of Israel’s patriarchs or other prominent figures, such as Adam, Abraham, Shem, Zephaniah and Enoch.

In apocalypses, the writers utilize extensive symbolism, and their conception of history is usually dualistic. The present age, together with its wicked and sinful generation, is contrasted with the age to come. The new aeon will begin when God intervenes in human history to establish His kingdom. A state of perfection and sinlessness will then be ushered in by the Messiah.

Kim Riddlebarger notes that “when apocalyptic writers describe the future, apocalyptic itself becomes a form of prophecy. At this point, it should be easy to see how the lines between apocalyptic and prophecy blur, especially since both these elements are obviously present throughout the Book of Revelation.”[8]

When one attempts to interpret prophetic portions of the Book of Revelation, it becomes difficult to distinguish between the two genres in John’s writings, that is, apocalypse and prophecy. John’s visions about the Second Coming of Christ and the future consummation, for example, contain elements of both prophecy and apocalypse. Therefore, the rich symbolism so inherent in apocalypses cannot be ignored when we interpret John’s visions. D. A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo explain:

“John certainly suggests that he stands in a prophetic role, and there is a tendency in current scholarship to view Revelation as a prophecy. But a better suggestion is to find elements of both prophecy and apocalyptic in Revelation. Despite the impression given by some scholars, no rigid distinction between these two is possible. They are combined in many Old Testament books (e.g., Daniel, Isaiah, Zechariah) and in Jesus’ Olivet Discourse. In his consciousness of inspiration and of the authority that he assumes, John is truly a prophet. But his prophecy makes use of the forms current in Jewish apocalypses.”[9]

Dispensationalists have appealed to the literal or plain method of interpreting Scripture, even in the exegesis of the Apocalypse of John. Of course, there is a certain amount of truth in their argument, considering the fact that modernistic and liberal theologians have attempted to avoid the clear doctrines of Scripture with non-literal hermeneutics. Charles Ryrie argued that “if one does not use the plain, normal, or literal method of interpretation, all objectivity is lost. What check would there be on the variety of interpretations that man’s imagination could produce if there were not an objective standard, which the literal principle provides? To try to see meaning other than the normal one would result in as many interpretations as there are people interpreting. Literalism is a logical rationale.”[10]

What, then, is the literal hermeneutics of Dispensationalism? Ryrie explains:

“Dispensationalists claim that their principle of hermeneutics is that of literal interpretation. This means interpretation that gives to every word the same meaning it would have in normal usage, whether employed in writing, speaking, or thinking. . . . Symbols, figures of speech, and types are all interpreted plainly in this method, and they are in no way contrary to literal interpretation.”[11]

According to Ryrie, Dispensationalists do not discount the presence of symbolism in apocalyptic literature; nevertheless, such symbols are interpreted plainly via the literal method of hermeneutics. Likewise, Reformed theologians such as Vern Poythress understand “the word “literal” to mean prosaic, nonmetaphorical, nonfigurative and nonsymbolic. “Literalistic” interpretation tends to find only nonfigurative, literal meanings even when the author intends otherwise.”[12]

This method of interpretation is also known as “flat” or “plain” interpretation. While it may be correct to understand each word of Scripture in its literal sense, this method tends to ignore the literary genre (i.e. apocalypse) of John’s Revelation. John’s visions are not historical narrative. Poythress notes that a literal understanding of individual words in John’s apocalypse is not adequate for a proper interpretation of his visions. Words may have a strict, literal meaning, but the sentences involved may not convey a similar literalness. Poythress writes,

“One major aspect of the problem of defining “literal” is that in many instances words, but not sentences, have a literal or normal meaning. Moreover, for both words and sentences context is all-important in determining meaning at any given point in an act of communication. What contexts are to be looked at, and how they are to be looked at, in the determination of meaning is very important.”[13]

Due to the complex genre of the Book of Revelation, we have to consider four levels of communication when we study this apocalypse. The first level is “the linguistic level, consisting of the textual record itself.”[14] This level refers specifically to the words given to John under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The second level is the visionary level, which describes the visual experiences of John. The Book of Revelation, understood at this level, consists primarily of numerous visions revealed to the Apostle. The referential level of communication, which is the third level, attempts to explain the images and symbols found in John’s visions as actual historical references. For example, the beast of Revelation refers to something in human history, perhaps some form of antichrist. Finally “a symbolical level, consisting of the interpretation of what the symbolic imagery actually connotes about its historical referent,” makes up the last level of communication.[15]

The numbers and images found in John’s visions are rich in symbolism and meaning. In the proper interpretation of Revelation, it is essential to discover what the symbolical level of communication is for each vision. Vern Poythress explains the four different levels of communication with the examples of Revelation 5:6-8 and 19:7-8:

“The vision of Christ in 5:6–8 constitutes another example. For this passage, the linguistic level consists in the textual description sent from John to the seven churches (the actual linguistic material in vv. 6–8). The visionary level consists in the visionary experience that John had of seeing Christ represented in the form of a lamb. The referential level is the reference to the living Christ, enthroned at God’s right hand. The symbolic level consists in the symbolic significance of the imagery used. What is connoted by the imagery of a lamb, the seven horns, the seven eyes, the taking of a scroll? Similarly there are four distinguishable levels in the marriage supper of the Lamb in 19:7–8. The linguistic level consists in the textual description of 19:7–8. The visionary level consists in a vision of a bride and fine linen clothing. The referential level involves the glorified saints enjoying communion with Christ after his second coming. The symbolic level involves the significance of communion, joy, and beauty attached to the wedding imagery.”[16]

In their interpretation of Revelation 20:1-6, it is apparent that both Bible Presbyterians and Dispensationalists have failed to acknowledge the visionary and symbolic levels of communication. When we consider the literary genre and immediate context of this passage, it becomes clear that the visionary and symbolical elements so inherent in John’s writings cannot be divorced from the linguistic and referential meanings. The literal meaning of each word in this passage must be understood in conjunction with the context of the entire vision of John in Revelation 20:1-6, which is indubitably highly symbolical.

Earlier on, we discussed the fact that Dispensational interpreters such as Charles Ryrie have feared the loss of objectivity when one abandons the literal method of hermeneutics. But a wooden literalism will only deny John’s visions their originally intended meanings. Although a literal hermeneutics might appear to be a sufficiently objective standard of interpretation, Reformed theologians have advocated a further hermeneutical principle. The analogia fidei mandates the interpretation of highly symbolic or difficult passages of Scripture in the light of clearer ones. By interpreting Scripture with Scripture, the objectivity of the clearer passages will guide the exegete in obtaining a correct understanding of obscure passages.

G. K. Beale elucidates that “it is important to remember the genre of Revelation in approaching 20:1-6, especially the programmatic nature of 1:1, which states the general symbolic nature of the communication from the mediating angel to John. Further, the repeated introductory “I saw” (or similar expressions) throughout the book introduces symbolic visions (e.g., 4:lff.; 12:1-3; 13:1-3; 14:1; 17:1-3) . . . Since “I saw” (εἶδον) introduces both 20:1-3 and 20:4-6, we can assume that there are at least three levels of communication in vv 1-6: (1) a visionary level, which consists of the actual visionary experience that John had in seeing resurrected people and the other objects of his vision, (2) a referential level, which consists of the particular historical identification of the resurrected people and the other objects seen in the vision, and (3) a symbolic level, which consists of what the symbols in the vision connote about their historical referents.”[17]

Keeping in mind the visionary and symbolic levels of communication and by applying the analogia fidei, the exegete must interpret the symbolic and apocalyptic language of Revelation 20:1-6 in the light of how these symbols are used elsewhere in the Book of Revelation, as well as the entire Bible. Thus, Reformed theologians prefer the historical-grammatical-literary-theological hermeneutics (discussed in chapter 2) over a literalistic method of interpretation. This hermeneutical method emphasizes the analogy of faith whereby Scripture is allowed to interpret Scripture.[18]

The rich symbolism so inherent in Revelation has even forced certain Dispensational interpreters to resort to spiritualizing certain words and sentences, and to acknowledge the presence of symbolical meanings within John’s Apocalypse. Ironically, those that advocate a strict literalism in hermeneutics have to reconsider the flexibility of their literalism when interpreting portions of John’s visions. Dr Vern Poythress writes:

“Literalistic interpreters all admit the presence of symbolism when it is obvious and unavoidable. But they begin to differ in the rigidity of their literalism when they venture out into the parts of Revelation that do not offer such direct guidelines. For example, [J. A.] Seiss interprets the star of Rev 9:1 as symbolic of Satan, but the locusts of 9:1–11 are regarded as literal. [John] Walvoord interprets the locusts as a symbolic representation of hosts of demons, while the five months are still literal. Walter Scott and G. E. Ladd allow that the five months as well as the locusts and the star may be symbolic. Literalists understandably fear the introduction of uncontrolled subjectivity, if we are no longer certain what items are nonsymbolic. But in fact it is just as subjective to impose a pedestrian, nonsymbolic reading on a visionary genre to which such reading is alien.”[19]

In summary, sound hermeneutics must comprise the proper understanding of a passage’s genre and context. Apocalyptic literature must be distinguished from historical narratives and didactic letters. In passages of Scripture with visionary and symbolical elements, we must avoid limiting the meaning of the text to the linguistic and referential levels of communications. The only reliable, objective authority for determining the meaning of symbols in apocalyptic literature will be Scripture itself.

Concerning abbreviated references: Please refer to previous posts for more details of repeated references

[1] For an able defense and exposition of progressive parallelism, study William Hendricksen, More Than Conquerors: An Interpretation of the Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House Co, 1967), 16-50. Hendricksen effectively codified his arguments into nine propositions, which are discussed in pp. 22-50 of his commentary. It must be emphasized that Hendricksen’s structural division of Revelation into seven parallel sections must only be accepted as a general approach to John’s apocalypse. There are inherent difficulties with this divisional generalization, which are discussed by Denis E. Johnson in his book Triumph of the Lamb. See Denis E. Johnson, Triumph of the Lamb: A Commentary on Revelation (Philipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2001), 44-47.
[2] The following theologians, amongst others, also hold to a parallelistic view of Revelation: Herman Bavinck, Gereformeerde Dogmatiek, 4th ed., IV, 663-66; Abraham Kuyper, E Voto Dordraceno (Kampen: Kok, 1892), II, 252-290; M. F. Sadler, The Revelation of St. John the Divine (1894); S. L. Morris, The Drama of Christianity (1928); B. B. Warfield, “The Millennium and the Apocalypse,” Biblical Doctrines (New York: Oxford, 1929), 644-646; R. C. H. Lenski, Commentary on the New Testament: The Interpretation of Saint John’s Revelation (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1963); G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1999); Simon J. Kistemaker, Exposition of the Book of Revelation: New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House Co, 2001).
[3] Hendricksen, More Than Conquerors, 22.
[4] Ibid., 36.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid., 22.
[7] D. A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, 2nd ed.(Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005), 713.
[8] Riddlebarger, A Case for Amillennialism, 198.
[9] Carson and Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, 715.
[10] Ryrie, Dispensationalism, 82.
[11] Ibid., 80-81.
[12] Vern Sheridan Poythress, “Genre and Hermeneutics in Rev 20:1-6,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 36, no. 1 (1993): 48 n.15.
[13] Poythress, Understanding Dispensationalists, 79.
[14] Poythress, “Genre and Hermeneutics in Rev 20:1-6,” 41.
[15] Ibid., 42.
[16] Ibid., 43.
[17] Beale, The Book of Revelation, 973.
[18] This is also known as the historical-grammatical-canonical hermeneutics.
[19] Poythress, “Genre and Hermeneutics in Rev 20:1-6,” 51, emphasis mine.