Theories of Interpretation

Through the centuries there have been multiple ways to interpret the book of Revelation. This particular article will target what I refer to as the Biblical Sufficiency Method. This mode of interpreting is based on the principle and the truth of 2 Timothy 3:16-17.

All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.

In this short passage Paul writes to Timothy that all scripture is:

    1. Directly from God (word for word)
    2. Perfect instruction
    3. Everything necessary to make one complete in all that is good
    4. All sufficient – one needs nothing beyond the Bible for spiritual life

This brings us to the conclusion that the Bible needs no outside help.

If the Bible is all-sufficient and if nothing else is needed to understand the Bible or to make a Christian complete, then the same would hold true with Revelation as being part of scripture. What does 2 Timothy 3:16-17 mean for interpreting Revelation? It means that either Revelation will explain itself or other parts of the Bible will work with Revelation to help explain its mysteries. The Bible works as a unit and is its own interpreter. Someone who explores for extra-biblical help may find things which can offer some insights into the times or culture of the Roman empire that Christians would face. These can be of help and add support to give a better perspective onto life and conditions of the times but they cannot solve any important mystery or riddle that has any bearing on the meaning of the book. But if the Bible is sufficient one does not actually have to have the extras to understand the message. If we must have the extras then the Bible is not all-sufficient. Simply put: The Bible needs no help for us to understand it. It demands nothing more than itself. Scripture will help interpret scripture. It will solve its own mysteries.

Certainly one could go outside of the Bible to confirm it by way of history, science, geography, etc. But all those fields are of man’s eventual discovery. By definition they are faulty and slow. It is understood that man did not know the earth was actually a sphere and hanging in space on nothing until the Renaissance. Yet Isaiah and Job knew. They both predate the Renaissance by over two thousand years.

Isaiah 40:22 It is He who sits above the circle of the earth, And its inhabitants are like grasshoppers, Who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, And spreads them out like a tent to dwell in.
Job 26:7 He stretches out the north over empty space; He hangs the earth on nothing.

The point is one did not have to have some expert confirm this to know it must be true. One did not have to wait for NASA photos to get the truth on the matter. All one had to do was to pay attention to the Biblical text. The Bible is not dependent on outside help for us to understand it.

            Here is a challenge recently given: The vision of Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 2 speaks of four kingdoms each following the other. In the time of the fourth kingdom God would set up His own kingdom (Daniel 2:44) which would outlast any other. Can you know what the four kingdoms are without outside help? Does the Bible itself reveal the four kingdoms or must we go to historical accounts outside the Bible? The first three kingdoms are named in Daniel. The Last kingdom is described in Daniel but named in Luke. God’s kingdom is mentioned all through the New Testament. But it is promised in Mark 9:1 as coming in the lifetime of those standing before Christ hearing Him that day.

Kingdom 1 – Babylon identified in Daniel 2:37-38
Kingdom 2 – Media/Persia identified in Daniel 5:28
Kingdom 3 – Greece identified in Daniel 8:2
Kingdom 4 – Rome identified in Luke 2:1, John 11:48 (and plenty of other verses)
Kingdom 5 – God’s kingdom established in the days of Rome as identified in Mark 9:1, Colossians 1:13 and Revelation 1:9

            Did we actually need outside help to know what these kingdoms were? Checking history helps but there was a time when no historical information was possible since this is prophetic. Daniel 2 reveals world events centuries before it all came to pass. Daniel reveals the names of the first three and described the fourth. That last one would remain a mystery until it is revealed in time. We have far more information today than Daniel ever had because the Bible is now complete.

Let us look at the seven churches of Asia as they existed in the first century. Revelation was written to them. Unless someone was present who was inspired to interpret the reading of Revelation (and I grant that as a possibility for that time period) there is no way that anyone could have understood all the visions in Revelation in the great details offered by various writers through the centuries. The seven churches of Asia could not have used the Biblical text to identify each event in what would be the future. There is no way they could have understood that the fifth trumpet would represent event X in the year Y. But somehow modern writers seem to know. Though the seven churches of Asia could be affected by the events which are described in symbols they could not have identified the exact place, the exact incident or the exact time these things would be. Is this a contradiction of the self-sufficiency of the Bible? Not at all. Why? It was not necessary nor was it the purpose of the book of Revelation to have the seven churches of Asia (or anyone) know the actual time, place, action and result of each event. The point is that Revelation may not be a listing of specific, onetime events which are now recorded in history. There are some things which are obvious, evident and supported by the text of the Bible such as the historical description of the righteous on the earth in Revelation 12 and final judgment in Revelation 20. But not all things in Revelation are prophetic of a specific event in time which could be understood. They are lessons with a purpose. If you cannot know the specifics from the Biblical text then you certainly cannot know it from an outside source. What the seven churches of Asia could easily understand are the main lessons. That is what prepared them and prepares us completely.

  1. Overcome (Revelation 21:7),
  2. Be faithful unto death (Revelation 2:10),
  3. Though everything seems out of control in reality God is in complete control.
  4. God can and will use an endless array of methods to turn man back to Him. Or he may use any means necessary to punish man.
  5. The faithful are known by God and rewarded (Revelation 3:5)
  6. The wicked are punished by God

Let us consider that if the seven churches of Asia could not have known the secrets of every detail in Revelation then neither can we. The only way we understand the mysteries of the Old Testament is that they are solved for us by subsequent scripture – often in the New Testament. There will be no more scripture to explain what we cannot know from Revelation. What we have is it. There is no more. let us look at an example of this. The words found in Isaiah 7:14-15 foretells the birth of the Messiah.

Isaiah 7:14-15
14 “Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel.
15 “Curds and honey He shall eat, that He may know to refuse the evil and choose the good.

Those in Isaiah’s day could not have taken these two verses alone to known the virgins name, the Son’s actual name or when or where exactly this would occur. From this prophecy Isaiah could not have known. One could have gone to Micah 5 for the where. Micah was contemporary to Isaiah. One would have to wait another hundred years or so for Daniel 9 to to be written to obtain the when. For the complete answers one would have to wait six hundred years or so as it would all be revealed in Matthew 1:18-25.

Matthew 1:18-25
18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: After His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit.

19 Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not wanting to make her a public example, was minded to put her away secretly.
20 But while he thought about these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.
21 “And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name JESUS, for He will save His people from their sins.”
22 So all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying:
23 “Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which is translated, “God with us.”
24 Then Joseph, being aroused from sleep, did as the angel of the Lord commanded him and took to him his wife,
25 and did not know her till she had brought forth her firstborn Son. And he called His name JESUS.

Now let us look at Revelation 9:1-12 for a comparison. This is a completely different situation.

Revelation 9:1-12
1 Then the fifth angel sounded: And I saw a star fallen from heaven to the earth. To him was given the key to the bottomless pit.
2 And he opened the bottomless pit, and smoke arose out of the pit like the smoke of a great furnace. So the sun and the air were darkened because of the smoke of the pit.
3 Then out of the smoke locusts came upon the earth. And to them was given power, as the scorpions of the earth have power.
4 They were commanded not to harm the grass of the earth, or any green thing, or any tree, but only those men who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads.
5 And they were not given authority to kill them, but to torment them for five months. Their torment was like the torment of a scorpion when it strikes a man.
6 In those days men will seek death and will not find it; they will desire to die, and death will flee from them.
7 The shape of the locusts was like horses prepared for battle. On their heads were crowns of something like gold, and their faces were like the faces of men.
8 They had hair like women’s hair, and their teeth were like lions’ teeth.
9 And they had breastplates like breastplates of iron, and the sound of their wings was like the sound of chariots with many horses running into battle.
10 They had tails like scorpions, and there were stings in their tails. Their power was to hurt men five months.
11 And they had as king over them the angel of the bottomless pit, whose name in Hebrew is Abaddon, but in Greek he has the name Apollyon.
12 One woe is past. Behold, still two more woes are coming after these things.

This is a mystery and it is meant to be a mystery. There really is no way to accurately fit this into one historical event on the earth. The seven churches of Asia could not have known what this represented beyond the lesson. if scripture does not supply the knowledge then we are simply left to surmises and to our own opinions and that can get us into trouble. We may very well be wasting our time if we set ourselves to guessing the historical events which Revelation may or may not be representing. We could be dabbling into a dangerous and pointless hobby while missing the message (and certainly not enhancing the message).

Let us play a small game as a way of illustrating the point. We will call this The Game of Beneficial Conjecture. I have to ask the question (I do not mean to insult anyone): what advantage is it to have come to a conclusion that the fifth trumpet (Revelation 9:1-12) must mean the Visigoth invasion of Rome in 376 A.D.? How does this add to the lesson? The seven churches of Asia could not have known this as they read the book for the first time or even the fiftieth time. Yet the book was written to them and was completely useful and valuable to them. Now in our game let us change the supposition: The fifth trumpet now describes the Plague of Justinian in 541 A.D. So let us look at the results with this change. How has the meaning benefited for our advantage to where we can gathering more from the lesson? Nothing was actually added. It did not help. Let us change our conclusion radically: The fifth trumpet of Revelation 9 represents the rise and recognition of AIDS in the twentieth century. How did this help the seven churches of Asia to know this? Why would Christ prepare them for this? How does this little fact help us beyond the text of Revelation 9? How was the lesson expanded, enlightened and benefited? It is not. The lesson simply is not helped. The only thing that could come out of this is that the one speculating is seen as insightful, scholarly and impressive to admirers and possibly expand their fan base and book sales.

In all three cases in our game nothing was added that was of any real value. How is the meaning of Revelation 9 helped by knowing it represents the Visigoth invasion, the Plague of Justinian, AIDS, or anything else. One could go to the argument of proven prophecies and apologetics – these conclusions could be used to demonstrate that the Bible must be from God. There are plenty of prophecies in the Bible that require no speculation. Most people would never be convinced by speculation as well-meaning as it may be. There are many scriptures where we are given the prophecy and then latter the fulfillment in time. What we see in our game is that in all three cases Revelation 9 is conveniently fitted with any available historical event yet none of them benefit the original lesson of the text. All three conclusions are speculation. Any conclusion as to a specific historical happening described by Revelation 9 is conjecture and assumption. There must be proof and there is none. If we were intended to know the identities of these events we would have been told by scripture. Is it possible that Revelation 9 was given with no one event in mind? Is it possible that the lesson is in a similar line and purpose as the parable in Luke 12:16-21? It is not a telling of an actual event per se, but a warning,  a lesson of extreme caution, a principle to understand and the assurance that God will judge. We simply need to look for the message rather than force-fit a point from history. We can skim the surface for the message or we can plunge deep for the message. But conjecture does not reveal the message ever.

The keys to understanding scripture has always been found in other scripture. This is not a knew idea. The Bible works progressively to prepare us for the next book or set of books. The answer to the mystery of Malachi 4:5-6 is found in Matthew 11:13-14, 17:12-13 and also in Luke 1:17.

The mystery of of Malachi 4:5-6

Malachi 4:5-6
Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet Before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD. And he will turn The hearts of the fathers to the children, And the hearts of the children to their fathers, Lest I come and strike the earth with a curse.”

The key found in Matthew 11:13-14

Matthew 11:13-14
“For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to receive it, he is Elijah who is to come.

The key found in Matthew 17:12-13

Matthew 17:12-13
“But I say to you that Elijah has come already, and they did not know him but did to him whatever they wished. Likewise the Son of Man is also about to suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that He spoke to them of John the Baptist.

There can be no doubt that through the years some people would understand that Malachi could not possibly be referring to the literal Elijah. Elijah the Tishbite who was introduced in 1 Kings 17 was no longer on the earth and left his prophetic duties to Elisha 400 years before Malachi was born. There would have been plenty of discussions as to the meaning of this verse. Would Elijah return or is this prophesying about a person who would be a type of Elijah. Could it be that Elijah would show back up? Who would recognize him if he did? In Matthew 16:13 Jesus asks a question. “Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?” One of the answers was that some believe Him to be Elijah. That is interesting. Jesus did not claim to be Elijah. His name was not Elijah (everyone would have know that). He was born in their time and a relatively young man at that. One would expect that Elijah the Tishbite would just show up the same way as he left. Those who believed Jesus was Elijah obviously did not expect the literal Elijah the Tishbite to return to the earth. But they did understand that someone like Elijah – perhaps same demeanor, same courage, similar bearing – would arrive. The problem is that through the centuries no one could have known who Malachi was writing about until Gabriel returned to the earth. Then the answer is given to the man who would become the father of John the Baptist.

Luke 1:17 “He will also go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, ‘to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children,’ and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

Gabriel speaks of John the Baptist. He says that John would be in the spirit and power of Elijah. Then he quotes part of Malachi 4:6 ‘to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children.’ Before this point no one except God actually understood the identity of the Elijah mentioned by Malachi. Now the answer is given to Zacharias the priest through Gabriel. How far did this information go? There is no knowing but when we get to Matthew 11 Jesus identifies who John is to a large crowd. In Matthew 17 His disciples did not know.

God provides the answers, methods and the principles to understand His words. the name Elijah was used as a type in Malachi 4:5 to describe John the Baptist. The Bible employed this particular method by using a name in the past from its text as a type (Elijah) and then explaining it – “Elijah to come” is John the Baptist who came in the spirit and power of Elijah. This is a prophetic devise. Revelation will continue in the established patterns set by earlier scripture.

The book of Revelation uses the same devise. It can employ names in the identical way as types or allusions. The Bible uses a vocabulary unique to itself (this will be discussed in more details in a future article). In Revelation 2 there are three names used as types: Balaam, Balak and Jezebel. To someone ignorant of the Bible these names would be meaningless and therefore the passage is misunderstood. But to the Bible student, to the Christian each name bears a distinct meaning because each one of these names refers back to an actual person who’s actions, character and history is recorded in previous scripture. The names are used as types. “Jezebel” is used as a type to describe a woman in Thyatira. Because the Bible has used types before we can know that the woman’s name in Thyatira is not actually Jezebel but that she behaves in the same way as Jezebel. The life of the original Jezebel is recorded in enough details (1 Kings 16 – 2 Kings 9) that her name can easily be used in this way. The name Jezebel carries a meaning only from inside the Bible. If Revelation 2:20 had not used a name like Jezebel but rather used a name unknown in any biblical text such as Gertrude then it would be obvious that the Bible was not using the name as a type since the type had not been defined. In this case Gertrude would probably be the woman’s real name.

The term “the doctrine of Balaam” would be understood immediately by those in Pergamos when the book was first read and it is easily understood today by the same process. The Bible brought out an established term in an established method to describe a false teaching found in Pergamos.

Revelation will do this sort of thing repeatedly from a wide range of literary devises. The Bible is filled with a host of elements: figures of speech, components of logical, literary devices, literary arts, etc.  It has demonstrated this through 1,400 years of writers. It utilizes these elements in such a way (usually in progressive teaching) as to reveal their meaning, purpose and proper usage. This is just a beginning list of elements found in the Bible.

  1. Metaphor – John 10:7
  2. Simile – Hosea 6:4
  3. Refutation – 1 Corinthians 15
  4. Syllogism – Romans 10:13-15
  5. Historical Narrative – Genesis
  6. Commentary – 1 Kings 13:18
  7. Parable – Matthew 13
  8. Sarcasm – Job 12:2, 1 Kings 22:16
  9. Apostrophe – Ezekiel 6:3
  10. Paronomasia – Micah 7:18 (completely obscured outside the Hebrew language)
  11. Rhetorical Questions – Psalm 113:5
  12. Poetry – Psalms
  13. Reductio Ad Absurdum – Isaiah 44:9-20
  14. Juxtaposition – Proverbs 10:8
  15. Allegory – Judges 9:7-15
  16. Imagery – Daniel 7:4
  17. Anthropomorphism – John 12:38
  18. Synecdoche – Hosea 8:11
  19. Metonymy – Genesis 49:10
  20. Hyperbole – Isaiah 41:15
  21. Personification – Job 38:12
  22. Unreliable Narrator – 2 Samuel 1:2-15
  23. Connotation – Luke 13:32
  24. Extended Metaphor – Ezekiel 16
  25. Parallelism – Proverbs 11:10
  26. Symbolism – Zechariah 5:7-8

The Bible is truly the master and ultimate teacher. It presents a devise, solves the devise (sometimes in multiple ways) by showing how it is to be used correctly and also that it has been used incorrectly by some. Then when we get to the last book – Revelation – it brings out these devises expecting us to know how to handle them to find the message nested inside. Though Revelation does not use all the elements above it does utilize multiple element in its text. It does not seem to implement any new devise absent from the rest of the Bible. Each book or section of the Bible prepares us for the next to come. The Bible has prepared us for its last book which brings out what we should have learned in the first 65 books. To the unskilled and untrained the message of Revelation remains hidden in plain sight.


to be continued…

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