I was originally taught a highly literalist approach to the book of Revelation.
Looking back now I can't help asking myself, 'How could I ever believe that such a book which is so rife with symbols of so many different kinds could ever be read in a literalist manner?'
Of course, even in such a setting, the literalism was, in truth, distinctly selective. Who, after all, would claim literalism for a 'beast with seven heads and ten horns'??
No, truth is that when people set out to impose extra-biblical concepts upon the Bible they will have to 'pick and match' just how they do it - they have to. All the sub-Christian cults and sects stand convicted here, and they just go on doing it, never seeming to learn. In the past, I have used the term 'Adventistic Cults and Sects' here because these groups really do stand under one theological umbrella: you have the Jehovah's Witnesses, the Armstrongists (probably by now at least a hundred groups, all arguing with each other), you have the Seventh Day Adventists (who have - all on their own - spawned some of the most zany and extreme leaders, including David Korresh, and this guy called 'David,' currently out in the New Mexico desert who has set several dates for the Second Coming during 2007, all of which, of course, have failed), also the Christadelphians who use the same overall approach and are probably a more moderate example. Then, at the fairly extreme end of the larger of these groups stand the Mormons, or, if you prefer, the 'Church of Latter-day Saints.' Very different in some ways, yet still remaining very typical of an Adventistic Cult/Sect, with an extreme founder of highly questionable background and influences, who chooses to go to war against established Christian theology, with a high focus on prophecy and individual revelation given to a "God-anointed" leader, who demands utter obedience.
These leaders usually set themselves up as Bible prophecy guros despite usually having a lamentable level of Bible knowledge overall but with a rich appetite for abusing Bible prophecy. They usually base about 90% of their approach on the apocalyptic books of Daniel and Revelation because those books are written in such a manner and style which makes them relatively easy to twist, pervert and to abuse before the eyes of the naive and impressionable.
In my own case, back in those days, I increasingly developed a problem with the old Armstrongist view of the book of Revelation. For one thing, literalism was insisted upon in certain places (The Two Witnesses, for instance, the plagues, all references to the Second Coming), even when it was conceded that other parts of the book were purely symbolic; but it eventually dawned on me that many of the bits which Herbert W. Armstrong considered literal could also be interpreted symbolically, moreover, that would also allow the whole book to stand together better. I noted that, just reading through the text as one might read through a history of progressive events (Armstrongism insisted it should be read in such a way), the book genuinely did not 'hang together' - for one thing, Christ seemed to return, then the text would go on to something else, then Christ would return again and so on; reading the book progressively seemed to offer several 'returns' of Christ! This finally made me utterly convinced that Armstrongism simply did not understand this great book so I decided to put it aside for a number of years until my understanding deepened right across Scripture, and this is what I did. Oh, by the way, during my Armstrongist period I also noted that most WCG ministers were utterly baffled by Armstrong's approach to that book, but they tried their best not to 'let on' or 'to give the game away,' yet one of the things they most feared was a question coming up on Revelation (something I was told on good authority by a high-ranking minister, who also privately agreed with me that Armstrong never understood the book).
1. I am not here attempting to write a complete commentary on this great, though somewhat mysterious, book. I still recommend Hendriksen's 'More Than Conquerors' as probably the best book for that purpose. What I am doing is laying out the basic framework which the writer of Revelation used (seven parallel sections), to record the revelation of Jesus. There is nothing new about this, it has been noted before on many occasions.
2. It is not necessary to understand Revelation in order to be a Christian! We have the Gospels: four separate accounts of the life and mission of Jesus of Nazareth. We also have the New Testament epistles which highlight the outworking of the theology of what Jesus said and did: What He meant, and what it means for us today. Revelation has a somewhat narrower purpose: it was written to warn the early Christians that Christ would not return within a short space of time but that God was working out a grand plan in human history. In the meantime, Christians should expect difficulties and persecution but this would in no way affect their present joy, and certainly not their eternal reward. We should note how the very first verse of this book clearly outlines the book's purpose:
'The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place...' (Revelation 1:1a).
So for Christians who have already received and embraced the Gospel of Jesus Christ, God is giving certain additional information regarding the future. This is not given in a totally clear fashion because of the need to avoid the attention of persecuting governing authorities, so the format of 'apocalyptic' (which God had already made popular) is purposely employed. However, the revelation is clear enough for the first century Christians (and all Christians) to understand.
3. Revelation paints spiritual colours in broad strokes of the brush; attempts to set precise dates for particular verses, or parts of verses, usually shows a lack of understanding of the book's original purpose and too much influence from Adventism. Certainly there is nothing wrong with conjecture (for example, a consideration of where one might currently stand among the seven trumpets), but any attempt to then impose one's ideas upon others is a mistake, indeed, a mistake which too many have already made.
THE SEVEN PARALLEL SECTIONS OF THE BOOK OF REVELATION.
1. The similarites between Revelation 12 and 20 are very striking and the feeling is strong that the approximate same time period is being covered but from differing perspectives, with a focus on differing events during the period; the former focusing on the persecution which believers must expect, the latter focusing on how God's eternal kingdom will never be thwarted but will finally be established upon earth (as it currently is in heaven).
2. According to the third period, the period which is being described is one of forty-two months (11:2), or twelve hundred and sixty days (11:3), but we also find this same time period in the fourth parallel section (chapters 12-14), where it is 'twelve hundred and sixty days' (12:6), or, 'a time, and times and half a time' (12:14) - of course, as all serious Bible students will know, these are periods of exactly the same length. This very strongly suggests that the period of the trumpets being blown (section three), is parallel with section four, in which Christ battles the dragon. So up to this point we have strong indications of parallels between Section Three (the Seven Trumpets), Section Four (Christ battles the dragon), and the final Section Seven (the Great consummation).
3. But there is still more: Section Three (the seven trumpets) shows very strong indications of being parallel with Section Five (the bowls of wrath). How so? Because the first trumpet (8:7) affects the earth, so does the first bowl (16:2), the second trumpet affects the sea, so does the second bowl, the third trumpet refers to the rivers, so does the third bowl, the fourth trumpet refers to the sun, so does the fourth bowl, in both cases the fifth refers to the pit of the abyss, the sixth to the Euphrates and the seventh to the Second Coming! Therefore indications are indeed strong - if not pretty much overwhelming - that the seven trumpets and seven bowls refer to exactly the same events but with different emphases and viewpoints. This again obviously tends to substantiate that these are indeed seven parallel sections.
4. The final defeat of the dragon, the beast out of the sea, the beast out of the earth, and the great harlot are effectively described in two different sections (six and seven), therefore those sections must surely be parallel.
5. The bowls of wrath section (5), ends with a great battle, 'the battle of the great day of God Almighty' (16:14), the next section (6), also ends with a great battle (19:19), finally, in Section Seven, one may read, 'to gather them together to battle' (20:8), therefore it would seem reasonable to conclude that those sections are indeed at least roughly parallel and certainly sometimes actually describe the same events.
One of the great advantages of coming to comprehend the seven parallel sections of the book of Revelation is that this tends to take away the ground from the prophecy extremists; many people abuse Bible prophecy, and especially the apocalyptic writings, by imposing extra-biblical concepts upon them. The view you have just read is based on solid biblical interpretation and a wider appreciation of this approach would make it harder for the extremist 'prophecy guros' to get an audience.
The view which we have just outlined is nothing new, it was understood and accepted by such evangelical luminaries as Warfield, Berkhof, Martyn Lloyd-Jones and several others but it was William Hendriksen who greatly popularized it through his regularly reprinted classic, 'More Than Conquerors.' This view refuses to divorce Scripture from a solid biblical foundation recognising Revelation's links to the Old Testament. Much later (19th century) certain cult and sect founders went to war against solid biblical exegesis and shamelessly used Daniel and Revelation in particular, to introduce all manner of extra-biblical concepts; we must lamentably note that J.N. Darby did pretty much the same thing through his 'dispensationalism.'
We must always note that discerning these seven parallel sections obviously does not answer every single question which may come up on this intriguing book, neither would we pretend that it does, but it does give us a framework which hangs together pretty much consistently and which places us closer to the world of the apostle John who - under divine inspiration - actually penned this book. For any with further questions, I would unhesitatingly recommend William Hendriksen's 'More Than Conquerors' (your local Christian book shop should be able to order it for you).
Robin A. Brace, 2008.
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