The Futurist Interpretation
claim of a futurist reading is simple: Revelation tells us about what will
happen some time in the future. It has three premises:
Revelation describes has not yet happened.
inspired Word of God, the Bible cannot be wrong.
what Revelation describes must still be future.
What limitations are inherent in a “futuristic interpretation” of Scripture?
The Past‑Historical Interpretation
past‑historical reading, which grows out of the belief that we understand
the message of Revelation only by setting the text in the historical
context in which it was written, emphasizes what Revelation would have
meant in the past. In this reading, Revelation tells us what the
author believed would happen in his time. This approach takes seriously that
the visions of Revelation are found in a letter addressed to specific
Christian communities in Asia Minor late in the first century. As such, the
text was meant to be a message to them, not a message to people
thousands of years later. (p. 276)
“In this reading, Revelation tells us what the author believed would happen
in his time.” How do we hear the voice of God in our historical context?
For all of
these reasons, the past‑historical reading of Revelation affirms that John
was writing about realities of his time. Of course, John was also writing
about the future, but it was a future that he expected to happen soon, not a
future that is still future from our point in time. His message to the
communities to which he was writing was a mixture of warning (especially in
the letters in chapters two and three) and encouragement. About his message,
I will soon say more. For now, I summarize it very compactly as threefold:
appearances to the contrary, Christ is Lord; Caesar and the beast are not.
God will soon
act to overthrow the rule of the beast and its incarnation in Caesar.
persevere, endure, be confident, take heart, have faith.
Caird’s influence on Borg is evident. The Christian Way is a part of
endurance in the midst of struggle. Discuss.
past‑historical reading of Revelation also raises the question of what to
think about the second coming of Jesus. Not just John of Patmos, but other
early Christians as well, believed that it would be soon. The authors of
Mark and Matthew, for example, refer to the imminent coming of “the Son of
Man,” presumably referring to the second coming of Jesus. The gospel of John
also refers to the imminent second coming, though it is not clear that the
author accepts the notion literally. Passages in Paul point to the same
these early Christians were wrong. What are we to do with this? Do we say
that they got the expectation right and that Jesus really will come again,
but their timing was off? For a variety of reasons, I do not think that it
makes sense to expect a visible future second coming of Christ. The belief
can be understood metaphorically, however, as an affirmation that Jesus
comes again and again in the fives of Christians: in the Eucharist, in the
celebration of Christmas each year, in the experience of the Spirit as the
presence of Christ, and perhaps in other ways as well. (p. 279)
“From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead,” we affirm in
What is the truth of this historic statement of faith?
The early Christians were wrong in their expectation. What do we do with
this? What is our authentic voice of faith?
Ever since the
emperor Augustus had brought the devastating civil wars that followed the
assassination of Julius Caesar to an end, ushering in the Pax Romana (the
peace of Rome) and a “golden age,” the emperors of Rome had been given
divine titles. They were known as filius deus (son of god),
dominus (lord), and even deus (god). Augustus was heralded as the
savior who had brought peace on earth. As an inscription from 9
bce in Asia Minor puts it:
divine Caesar ... we should consider equal to the Beginning of all
things ... Whereas the Providence which has regulated our whole
existence ... has brought our life to the climax of perfection in giving to
us the emperor Augustus ... who being sent to us as a Savior, has put
an end to war... The birthday of the god Augustus has been for
the whole world the beginning of good news (the Greek word is
euaggelion, commonly translated “gospel”).
empire, in temples of the imperial cult, worship was offered to the
emperors. Such worship did not preclude the inhabitants from following their
own religion as well. But it did have the effect of providing religious
legitimation to the rule of Caesar and empire.
John proclaims the exclusive lordship of God and “the Lamb” – that is, God
as known in Jesus. John’s first description of Jesus speaks of him as “the
faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings
of the earth.” As “the faithful witness,” he is the Lamb that was slain,
executed by the power of Rome. As “the firstborn of the dead,” he has been
vindicated and exalted by God, disclosing Rome as a false pretender lord.
Now he rules upon the throne with God and has become “the ruler of the
kings of the earth.”
What is the contrast between Caesar and Jesus?
The Revelation of John preceded Constantine.
What endures of the contrast between Caesar and Jesus today?
Caesar and Jesus
book, the honor and praise demanded by Caesar is offered to God and Jesus
instead. Much of Revelation is doxology, and its hymns of praise have been a
fountainhead for Christian hymn‑writers ever since:
holy, Lord God Almighty.
Worthy is the
Lamb that was slain
power and wealth and wisdom
and might and
honor and glory and blessing.
glory and wisdom
thanksgiving and honor
and power and
be to our God
forever and ever.
of the world has
kingdom of our Lord
and of his
and he will
reign forever and ever.
For the Lord
Jesus is Lord;
Caesar is not. John shares this affirmation in common with the whole of
the New Testament. (p. 280f.)
What is the gospel of the Revelation of John?
Rome and the
beast have an ancient lineage. “Babylon the Great” is not simply a symbolic
name for Rome, but for domination systems organized around power, wealth,
seduction, intimidation, and violence. In whatever ancient or modern forms
they take, domination systems are the opposite of the lordship and kingdom
of God as disclosed in Jesus. Thus John’s indictment of empire sounds the
same theme as the central voices of the biblical tradition. As with Moses,
the prophets, Jesus, the gospel writers, and Paul, his claim is stark and
compelling: God is Lord; the kingdoms and cultures of this world are not.
of the New Jerusalem has both historical and trans‑historical elements.
Indeed, its power as a trans‑historical vision may be the primary reason
that Revelation ultimately made it into the Bible. It speaks of the reunion
of God with humankind, thereby overcoming the exile that began in Eden.
There every tear shall be wiped away. The river of life flows through it and
the tree of life is in it. There we will see God. It is difficult to imagine
a more powerful ending to the Bible. (p. 292)
“John’s indictment of empire sounds the same theme as the central voices of
the biblical tradition.”
What echoes of this indictment have we heard in our study?
How is this indictment heard today?
What is the enduring relevance of Revelation?
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