How should we treat Christians who interpret the book of Revelation differently than we do?

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Well, the book of Revelation, at least since it was adopted into the Canon, has proven notoriously difficult to interpret. The early church fathers had good, solid, church tradition evidence that the book of Revelation was written by the apostle John, but because they didn't understand what it meant, they were so puzzled by the meaning of its visions, it almost didn't get into the Canon. Now of course, by God's providence, they're discovering what's canonical, not determining, so understanding that. But there was some resistance, or at least some puzzlement, some hesitation, to adopt the book of Revelation into the recognized canon of God's inspired Word because of puzzlement over what it meant. John Calvin wrote commentaries on almost every book of the Bible but specifically does not write a commentary on the book of Revelation because, as brilliant an interpreter and skilled an interpreter as John Calvin was, he confessed, "I can't make heads or tails out of what most of it means." So, with that kind of background, we probably should approach the book of Revelation with a certain level of humility, with a certain recognition that there are puzzling elements there. It's highly inappropriate for anyone to come to the book of Revelation, declare themselves wise. I mean, I know that there's a couple of phrases in Revelation that say, "Let him who is wise recognize," but let's also remember that it's a very dangerous thing to declare oneself wise in one's own eyes. So don't be too quick to identify yourself as the one that's wise, that can interpret Revelation.

So, it may be wisest for us all to approach the book of Revelation recognizing that it's God's inspired Word, but there are elements in it that will likely remain puzzling until Jesus comes back. We know in hindsight that no one saw the prophecies regarding the Messiah, and the Messiah's first coming, being fulfilled the way they were fulfilled. Some interpreters recognized, well, there are two sets of descriptions; whether he's going to be suffering or whether he's going to be victorious, but they didn't know. Some thought, well, maybe it depends on whether we're obedient or disobedient as to which one he'll be. But no one saw one Messiah, two comings. No one saw a Messiah coming as God-man who would rise from the dead and fulfill the other ones in the second coming or something. Well, it makes perfect sense in hindsight, most of them, but nobody saw it coming in foresight exactly the way it was fulfilled. It's likely to be the case, regarding the prophecies of Christ's second coming, and the time period between now and the second coming, that they'll make perfect sense in hindsight, but none of us will be able to have a batting average of 1,000 when it comes to interpreting them in foresight.

There's one other element on that. One of the unfortunate byproducts of the modernist-fundamentalist controversy, of the early twentieth century, was that the premillennialist stream among the early fundamentalists believed that one of the fundamentals should be considered the second coming of Christ, by which they assumed a second coming in which a 1,000-year earthly kingdom would be set up, such that they mistook those who did not affirm a premillennial return but did affirm a bodily return, mistook them as liberals, those who denied authoritative teaching of Scripture and whatnot. We Bible-believing, evangelical Christians are notorious for drawing lines, well-meaningly drawing lines, at the wrong place. Well, here was one place where that happened. There is a line of demarcation, but it's bodily return of Christ, not necessarily premillennial return. Recognizing that, biblical prophecy and its interpretation is an area where we should really just allow more latitude to one another, have good robust discussions, disagreements, arguments, but with the understanding that the authority of Scripture isn't at stake.

Answer by Dr. Todd Mangum

Dr. Todd Mangum is Professor of Theology and Academic Dean of Biblical Theological Seminary.