1. Introduction to the Book of Revelation


Revelation is important because it is the last divinely inspired Bible book that was written. It is rightly positioned as the Bible’s final book. As the New Testament opens with the four Gospels relating to the first coming of Christ, so the book of Revelation closes the New Testament with the general theme of the Second Coming of Christ.

According to Profs. Walvoord and Zuck (The Bible Knowledge Commentary) the book of Revelation is also the climax of many lines of revelation running through both testaments, and it brings to a conclusion the revelation of many prophecies yet to be fulfilled.

In Revelation, the Second Coming of Jesus, and the seven years of the tribulation period immediately preceding it, are revealed more graphically than in any other book of the Bible. In the book of Daniel the period between Daniel’s time and the first coming of Christ is described in detail, while less detailed references are also made to the Antichrist, the great tribulation, and Christ’s reign on earth after His Second Coming. In Revelation, however, the great end-time events are elaborately revealed, while the prophetic perspective is extended to include the creation of a new heaven and a new earth. Revelation, therefore, expounds upon and gives the final unfolding of future events that are described in Daniel and other prophetic books of the Bible.

Authorship

In Revelation 1:1 it is clearly stated that the book was written by the Lord’s servant, John. Most evangelical scholars accept the fact that the apostle John is the author of the book. When John received these visions he was in exile on the isle of Patmos. He was deported by Caesar Domitian who ruled as a tyrant in Rome from 84 to 96 A.D. Domitian was a second Nero who tried to completely obliterate Christianity. He demanded the worship of Caesar. Christians who refused to submit themselves to this practice were gruesomely tortured and killed.

This Caesar exiled John to Patmos who, as an old man, ministered to the congregation in Ephesus. That is how John landed on the small, rocky island of Patmos in the Aegean Sea between Asia Minor and Greece. He stayed there until the death of Domitian in the year 96, after which he was allowed to return to Ephesus. The book of Revelation was written in the year 95 or 96 on this island.

The burning question that must have troubled John was most probably: “What will happen to the church of Christ in the midst of all the persecution?” In answer to this question, he received from heaven visions of future events while on this lonely island. In these visions not only Satan’s great battle against the kingdom of God is revealed, but also the final triumph of Christ over the powers of darkness. The glory and dominion of God is sharply contrasted with the rebellion, judgements and condemnation of sinners and their deceivers – the Devil, the Antichrist and the false prophet.

The purpose of the book

The purpose of the book is to reveal things that will occur shortly before, during, and directly after the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. In accordance with this purpose, the greatest part of the book is devoted to the events of the last seven years before the Second Coming of Jesus, as described in chapters 4 to 18. The Second Coming itself is dramatically depicted in Revelation 19, followed by the millennial reign of Christ in Revelation 20, and the final judgement at the end of it. In Revelation 21–22, the eternal state is revealed.

The book of Revelation consummates the prophetic themes discussed in other books of the Old and New Testaments, particularly the book of Daniel and the prophetic discourse of the Lord Jesus. Important theological pronouncements are made – not only on the subject of eschatology (the doctrine about end-time events), but also on the doctrines of justification, sanctification, dedication, works of faith, and the perseverance of the saints in the face of fierce struggle and persecution in a degenerating world. Knowledge about God’s end-time program, as well as the future expectation of the coming of the heavenly Bridegroom, is given as a strong incentive towards holy living and an unwavering commitment to Christ. Peter says:

“Therefore, since all these things will be dissolved, what manner of persons ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God” (2 Pet. 3:11-12).

The day of the Lord

The visions which John received are clearly placed in the context of the day of the Lord. He says: “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day” (Rev. 1:10). This expression refers to the experience in which a person is transformed into a state in which God communicates with him personally in a supernatural way. That was also the experience of Ezekiel (Ezek. 2:2, 3:12, 14), Peter (Acts 10:10-11, 11:15) and Paul (Acts 22:17-18).

There are people who wrongly associate the expression “the Lord’s day” with a Sunday or even with the Sabbath. Nowhere in the Bible is a Sunday described as “the day of the Lord,” but always as “the first day of the week” (cf. Mt. 28:1, Mk. 16:2, Lk. 24:1, Jn. 20:1 and 19, Acts 20:7, 1 Cor. 16:2).

The expression “the day of the Lord” clearly has an end-time (eschatological) meaning. Several of the Old Testament prophets referred to it. The visions which John received on Patmos are clearly also related to the coming day of the Lord. John speaks of the day of the Lord as the time when He will pour out His judgements over the wicked. Panic-stricken people will call on the mountains and rocks, saying: “Fall on us and hide us from the face of Him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of His wrath has come, and who is able to stand? (Rev. 6:16-17). In Revelation 16:14-16 the battle of Armageddon is described as “the battle of that great day of God Almighty.”

Isaiah says in chapter 2:12 that on the day of the Lord everything proud and lofty will be brought down and the Lord alone will be exalted in that day (v. 17). In chapter 13:6-9 he says that the day of the Lord will come as destruction from the Almighty. This day will be cruel, with both wrath and fierce anger, to lay the land desolate; and the Lord will destroy its sinners from it. In chapter 34:8 he calls the day of the Lord a day of vengeance and a year of recompense.

Joel says in chapter 1:15 that the day of the Lord shall come as destruction from the Almighty. In chapter 2:11 he says: “For the day of the Lord is great and very terrible; who can endure it? In chapter 3:14 he says that in that day there will be multitudes in the valley of decision.

In Zechariah 14 the great wars that will be waged in and around Jerusalem during the great tribulation are specifically associated with the day of the Lord. In this chapter the Second Coming of Jesus is also described, when His feet will stand on the Mount of Olives (Zech. 14:4-5). He will be followed by a heavenly host and enter into judgement with His enemies.

Malachi says in chapter 3:2: “Who can endure the day of His coming? And who can stand when He appears?” In chapter 4:1, 2 he says: “For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, and all the proud, yes, all who do wickedly, will be stubble. And the day which is coming shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts… But to you who fear My name the Sun of Righteousness shall arise with healing in His wings.”

In 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 Paul refers to the day of the Lord that will come like a thief in the night. Peter makes the same reference in chapter 3:10-12 of his second Epistle.

It is clear that the expression “the day of the Lord” always has and end-time meaning, and in most cases refers to the judgements of God that are described in the book of Revelation.

Dispensations in the Bible

To clearly understand the time-frame of the Day of the Lord one needs to be acquainted with biblical dispensations. In the Bible, the divine history of humanity is ordered within the framework of seven dispensations. It commences with the creation of Adam and Eve in Eden and culminates in the new heaven and new earth where an eternal, perfect existence will prevail. The 7 dispensations are:

1.      The dispensation of innocence in Eden.

2.      The dispensation of the conscience after the Fall.

3.      The dispensation of the law in the Old Testament.

4.      The dispensation of grace in the church age.

5.      The dispensation of the Antichrist’s reign.

6.      The dispensation of Christ’s millennial kingdom.

7.      The dispensation of perfection in eternity.

The beginning and end of a dispensation are always marked by dramatic events associated with the unfolding of a new aspect of God’s plan for the ages. They are also accompanied by intensified demonic activities as Satan then tries everything in his power to upset God’s plan. The main characteristics of the seven dispensations are as follows:

1. The dispensation of innocence

The very first dispensation in which Adam and Eve found themselves was that of innocence in Eden. God had forbidden them to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and warned that they would surely die should they eat of its fruit (Gen. 2:17). They were innocent, as they had no knowledge of good and evil and were not ashamed of their nakedness (Gen. 2:25). With great cunning Satan deceived Adam and Eve into rebelling against God by disobeying Him. They foolishly heeded Satan’s advice and yielded to his evil influence, thus becoming sinners. Spiritual death immediately set in, while they also physically became mortal. The dispensation of innocence ended with the Fall, which was the result of Satan’s deception.

2. The dispensation of the conscience

For a long time after the Fall humanity had no law and could only distinguish between good and evil by way of the voice of conscience. Various people pursued righteousness in accordance with their inner convictions and whatever personal revelations God gave them. Some of them, like Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph became preachers of righteousness. At times during this dispensation evil was so intense and pervasive that God’s anger was kindled against humankind. During the Flood all but eight people were destroyed. Through the calling of Abraham, God started to prepare a special people of His own, the nation of Israel, to live in accordance with His laws.

At the end of the dispensation of the conscience, when Israel were about to receive the law of God and move into a new dispensation, Satan launched an incredible attack against them from the kingdom of darkness. He employed all his powers of deception to avert the next unfolding of God’s divine plan for humanity. While Moses was on Mt. Sinai to receive the law, Israel were deceived into rebelling against God by practising idolatry, thereby rendering them unfit to receive God’s law. God threatened to destroy them, but Moses interceded for Israel. He was so shocked at the sight of the golden calf that he broke the tablets on which the law was written, but God graciously wrote them again.

3. The dispensation of the law

With the introduction of the dispensation of the law a much clearer distinction was made between good and evil. Not only in the Ten Commandments, but through a great number of other laws and decrees, God defined righteousness and sin. Satan concentrated on Israel to induce them to sin, in an effort to subvert and nullify their calling as a special people of God. His efforts were greatly intensified when the time came for the Messiah to be born. Satan must have been extremely infuriated with the announcement from heaven that the Messiah’s Name would be Jesus and that He would save His people from their sins (Mt. 1:21). Satan then took possession of Herod and incited him to massacre all male children under the age of two years in an effort to destroy Jesus. When this evil plan failed Satan then tried to tempt Jesus to sin in the wilderness and afterwards relentlessly attacked Him through the hostile leaders of Israel. He wanted to eliminate Jesus and obliterate the gospel of the kingdom of God. But the devil’s plans backfired on himself because, through His death, Jesus destroyed “him who had the power of death, that is, the devil” (Heb. 2:14). God’s divine plan proceeded unaltered.

4. The dispensation of the church

With the outpouring of the Holy Spirit the church age was ushered in. The Holy Spirit was given to guide people into all truth, to convict them of sin and righteousness, to regenerate them, and also to endue them with power from on high to serve Christ in a spiritually dark world. The knowledge of good and evil was increased through spiritual discernment (we have enlightened eyes of the mind), but still not to its fullest extent: “For we know in part, and we prophesy in part” (1 Cor. 13:9). Despite Christians now having a strong weapon against Satan, his efforts to thwart God’s plan intensified as, for many centuries, he has conducted an all-out war against Christ’s church using Roman emperors, the medieval Roman Catholic Church and, later, secular humanism, communism, the inter-faith and new age movements, in an attempt to destroy it – which has also failed.

We are at the very end of the church dispensation and it is once again a time of increased demonic activity with a great falling away in many churches: “Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits and doctrines of devils” (1 Tim. 4:1). Satan intends to pervert the

church of Christ, tries to prevent the virgins getting oil (type of the Holy Spirit) in their lamps and lulls them to sleep before the Bridegroom comes at midnight. (Mt. 25:1-13) By establishing a false church (an ecumenical alliance between degenerate Protestantism, Catholicism and the non-Christian religions), as well as the promotion of a culture of sin (including abortion, homosexuality, drunkenness, and immorality of all sorts), a climate is created which is conducive to the appearance, acceptance and worship of the Antichrist as universal messiah and “man of sin.” (2 Thes. 2:3)

5. Dispensation of the Antichrist’s reign

When the one who withholds – i.e. the Holy Spirit indwelling the true Church – has been taken out of the way during the rapture, the Antichrist will be revealed (2 Thes. 2:6-12). Strong delusion will prevail on earth and the masses will blindly believe the lies of the Antichrist. Evil will develop to its fullest extent and there will be no limits to blasphemous and sinful conduct. The second half of the Antichrist’s reign of seven years will be a time of unprecedented demonic activity: “Woe to the inhabitants of the earth and the sea! For the devil has come down to you, having great wrath, because he knows that he has a short time” (Rev. 12:12). Towards the end of the seven years of tribulation the Antichrist and the false prophet will, under the instigation of Satan (Rev. 16:13-14), muster a great multinational force to fight against Christ when He descends to Jerusalem to defend and rescue Israel at His Second Coming. This battle will not be a long one as the Antichrist and the false prophet will be captured and cast alive into the lake of fire. The devil will be chained and confined to a bottomless pit for one thousand years (Rev. 19:19–20:3).

6. The dispensation of the millennial kingdom

During the Millennium the glorified believers will rule with Christ. They will have perfect, immortal bodies, perfect joy and perfect knowledge. But the end of this dispensation will also be characterised by tremendous demonic activity. Satan will be let out of prison to make a last desperate attempt to thwart the completion of God’s master plan. He will then act as a catalyst to the rebellious, unsaved people (and there will be many) living during the Millennium, whom he will deceive into joining him in his final battle against the kingdom of light. This vain effort will lead to the final doom of Satan, his hordes and all unsaved people of all dispensations on the Day of Judgement (Rev. 20:7-15).

7. The dispensation of eternity

This dispensation will be endless. In the new heaven and on the new earth “there shall by no means enter it anything that defiles, or causes an abomination or a lie, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s Book of life” (Rev. 21:27). The lake of fire where Satan, his demons and all lost people will be confined, will also exist for all eternity.


Methods of interpretation

The prevailing confusion among many Christians about biblical dispensations results from using wrong methods of interpreting Scripture, which often do not recognise the true meaning of the prophetic word. By so doing, they relegate many of the clear pronouncements about the future to the status of mere symbols and abstract concepts with no literal meaning, so spiritualising literal prophecies.

The thousand year reign of peace that will, according to Revelation 20, be instituted after the Second Coming of Christ is, despite the evidence that has been cited, still a subject of great controversy. In terms of their divergent views, Christians are grouped in different doctrinal schools. Those who interpret the book of Revelation in a literal, dispensational way, are called millennialists. This term is derived from the Latin word for thousand which is mille. It refers to Christians who believe that there will be a literal thousand year reign of peace on earth after the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. A synonym for the term millennialist is chiliast, which is derived from the Greek word for a thousand, chilios. People who do not believe in a literal thousand year reign are called amillennialists or antichiliasts. They are also inclined to change the meanings of many other biblical statements and concepts by spiritualising what is clearly meant to be taken literally.

Because of these controversies a number of different principles of exegesis (interpretation) are applied in regard to the book of Revelation. Some of them deviate so far from the basic meaning of the text that it seriously compromises the divine inspiration of the book. The following are the four most common ways of interpreting the book:

1. Historic premillennialism (AD 33-400)

Until about the end of the 4th century, this was virtually the only view of end-time events. It held that a literal Antichrist would emerge in the end-time and that the church would go through the tribulation period. This would end with Christ’s Second Coming, at which the just dead would be raised and raptured to heaven with living believers. They would immediately return to earth with Christ to rescue the repentant Jewish remnant who had accepted Him as their true Messiah. He would then destroy Antichrist with his hordes and establish His kingdom of one thousand years on earth. All but one of the church-fathers who wrote on prophecy held this premillennial view, and in the 2nd century Justin Martyr wrote that to teach otherwise was heretical!

2. Amillennialism (AD 400 to date)

This is the practice of the extensive spiritualisation of biblical statements. It is a form of interpretation that was devised by the Alexandrian school of theology in the third and fourth centuries and which regards the entire Bible as an allegory to be interpreted in a non-literal sense. This interpretation of the Bible was later restricted largely to end-time prophecies by Augustine, who interpreted Revelation as a chronicle of the spiritual conflict between God and Satan, being fulfilled in the present church age. A liberal variation of this view in modern times considers Revelation simply as a symbolic presentation of the concept of God’s ultimate victory.

Theologians who follow this approach do not believe in a literal Millennium; consequently they are described as amillennialists. By spiritualising a biblical concept it is deprived of its face value, after which another meaning is read into it. This method of interpretation is also called replacement theology in terms of which Israel can be taken to mean the church (a claim made by many churches), Jerusalem can become anyone’s home-town, Babylon can be applied to America, baptism can be equated with salvation and the 144 000 saved Jews of the tribulation can be applied to the millions of Christians of the entire church dispensation. Certain other concepts, such as the rapture, are simply argued away without replacing them with anything else.

3. Postmillennialism (mid AD 1600’s to date)

According to this school, the world will progressively become a better place through Christianisation, thereby ushering in the Millennium of the church age. At the end of the “golden age” of a Christianised world, Christ will return for the final judgement. There will, according to the postmillennialist interpretation, be no further dispensation of the kingdom of God on earth with Jerusalem as world capital.

4. Modern, dispensational premillennialism (early AD 1800’s to date)

J.N. Darby (born 1800 in London) was an eminent British theologian who is credited for re-establishing dispensationalism in the church. In the book When the Trumpet Sounds (p. 127-8), Prof. Floyd Elmore of Ohio, USA, says that John Darby had the greatest impact upon the study of biblical prophecy in the last 150 years, and that he was a choice servant of God who was used to impact the church’s understanding of biblical prophecy. He says that, “Darby is the acknowledged father of systematised dispensationalism and a key modern developer of the pretribulational rapture.”

This approach is followed by conservative scholars who hold the view that everything described from Revelation 4 to the end of the book are future events. The contents of Revelation 4-18 describe the last seven years preceding the Second Coming of Christ and particularly emphasise the great tribulation, occurring in the last 3˝ years before His coming. After the Second Coming Satan will be bound and the millennial reign of Christ established on earth.

Because Christ returns before the Millennium, this view of prophecy is termed “premillennialism”. We are not now in the Millennium, and Satan is, quite evidently, not yet confined to a sealed pit – not even in a symbolic sense! Premillennialism honours the literal meaning of Scripture, except when the context clearly shows that a particular concept must be interpreted symbolically. An example of symbolism is the red dragon with seven heads, which the Bible itself identifies as the Devil. However, when the Bible speaks about Israel, the great tribulation, the Antichrist, the false prophet, the battle of Armageddon, the binding and incarceration of Satan after the Second Coming, there is no justification whatsoever for explaining away the meanings of these concepts through allegorising or spiritualising them. The golden rule is: When the plain sense of the word makes common sense, then seek no other sense.

Evaluation of the different approaches

To the amillennialists and postmillennialists, the prophetic message of Revelation has lost its literal meaning and relevance as a result of spiritualisation. The chronology of the book is not recognised since the one thousand year reign of Revelation 20 is regarded as a symbolic expression of the church age between the first and second comings of Christ. Hence, they say the tribulation took place in the church age, either in the fist century or during any other time. They say that the devil, though bound, is not totally contained and is still able to move around and do his evil business. Some amillennialists and postmillennialists maintain, quite unrealistically, that the devil is completely bound and no longer a threat to be reckoned with! On the extreme fringe there are those who believe that there is no devil and no hell – these concepts should, according to them, also be spiritualised!

Furthermore, the amillennialists and postmillennialists do not believe in the physical and spiritual restoration of the people of Israel according to Old Testament prophecies. In terms of replacement theology, they regard the church as the new Israel, or the spiritual Israel. Many of the end-time prophecies are allegorised and in a doubtful way relegated to historical periods when they are said to have been finally fulfilled. As far as they are concerned, the prophetic message of Revelation has become largely inapplicable to our generation because of its alleged historical fulfilment.

In the same vein, important signs of the times such as the institution of a cashless monetary system, the ecumenical alliance of world religions and the emergence of the new world order of the Antichrist are played down as biblically insignificant. The result of this attitude is often that church members lose their ability to spiritually discern the fulfilment of end-time prophecies and consequently abide by a secular assessment of contemporary affairs. Under these circumstances the expectation of the soon coming Bridegroom and a heavenly vision of Christ as “the bright and morning star” (Rev. 22:16) fades into the background. However, it must be said that some amillennialists are exemplary Christians despite their particular view of prophecy.

Premillennialism places a strong emphasis upon the basic truths of the Scriptures and fosters a clear concept of God’s divine plan for future events. Christians who hold this view interpret current affairs in the world in the light of the prophetic word, and, therefore, have the spiritual ability to see a biblical pattern in contemporary events. They avoid the typical amillennial pitfall of complacency that arises from the self-imposed assumption that the devil is either partly or completely bound, that Christians are taking over the world for Christ, that they will soon be able to sit back and enjoy the benefits of the kingdom and that Christ’s coming for the final judgement is only a far distant prospect. Instead, they view themselves as strangers and pilgrims in a world that “lies under the sway of the wicked one.” (1 Jn. 5:19) They therefore expect an intensified struggle between the powers of light and darkness.

Premillennialists are also aware of the solemn hour in which we live, and are convinced that the dispensation of the church is rapidly running out. Under these circumstances, they make the best use of their time to warn others to prepare themselves to meet the Lord. Greater evangelistic zeal is thus encouraged as opportunities for giving effect to the Great Commission will soon end. Furthermore, the prophetic word urges people to continuously conduct their lives according to biblical standards of holiness, in preparation for the return of Jesus. They also long for the coming of the heavenly Bridegroom, who will take them to their heavenly mansions which He has prepared for them.

Views of the church-fathers

To confirm that the Millennium is not merely symbolic, but a literal period of future history, it may be helpful to establish what John taught about his visions when he was released from Patmos and proceeded with his ministry in Asia Minor. Early church-fathers who were his students clarify the matter and indicate that this subject was often discussed. The following are some of the statements of church-fathers on the Millennium and related matters:

Papias, the bishop of Smyrna, was a student of John and learned firsthand about the author’s own interpretation of the book of Revelation. The teaching of this church-father is very important as he is the link between the millennialist view and the apostles. Papias taught that after the resurrection of the dead there will be a reign of Christ on earth for a thousand years when He will personally sit on the throne. The earth will experience a time of unprecedented fertility and there will be great prosperity under Christ’s beneficent rule with His saints. Early in the second century, Justin Martyr wrote: “A certain man among us, whose name is John, one of the apostles of Jesus, prophesied in a revelation that he had that those who believe in our Lord Jesus Christ will be in Jerusalem for a thousand years.”

Another church-father, Polycarp, who was one of the youngest students of the apostle John, was a very devoted Christian who also died as a martyr. On the authority of John he taught that the earth will be very fertile during the Millennium and yield abundant crops. Another view of significance is that of Irenaeus who was a student of Polycarp. He said that the reward of the just would be that they will be resurrected from among the dead when the world is renewed and made fertile. His view was that each of the six days of creation indicates a thousand year period, and that after six thousand years of world history have expired it would be followed by the seventh day, which would also be a thousand years.

This last-mentioned view was entertained by various church-fathers, among them Cyprian, Barnabas and Lactantius. In this regard, the Schaff-Herzog Encyclopaedia says that the general view of the church-fathers was that the Lord will appear at the end of the sixth millennium to establish His kingdom on earth. The general view was that this kingdom, which correlates with the Sabbath of Creation, will continue for one thousand years.

Persistence of the allegorical interpretation

Despite the clear testimonies of the apostle John, the early church-fathers and the Bible’s own, very obvious message, the allegorical interpretation of biblical prophecies has permeated virtually the entire church. Theologians have deprived churches of the literal message of the Bible by wrongly interpreting it. Hamilton, an amillennialist himself, admits this problem in his book, The Basis of Millennial Faith: “Now we must frankly admit that a literal interpretation of the Old Testament prophecies gives us just such a picture of an earthly reign of the Messiah as the premillennialists picture.” The critical question is not whether the Bible teaches such an earthly kingdom – because it clearly does – but how the relevant prophecies should be interpreted.

McDonald (Dictionary of the Christian Church) defines an allegory as follows: “The use of language to convey a deeper and a different meaning from that which appears on the surface.” An allegorical interpretation must be clearly distinguished from a symbolic interpretation. The Bible often makes use of symbolic language – also in the prophecies. A symbol always has a literal anti-type as it is used to explain something about a specific person or event. From the way in which it is used, it is clear that a symbol means something else. Examples of symbols to describe certain characteristics of Christ are the Lamb, the Lion, the light of the world, the bright and morning star, the true vine, etc.

In cases of allegorical interpretation, the relevant Scripture has a clear and obvious meaning, but the reader decides that he wishes to read something else into it, thereby assigning a figurative meaning to the Scripture. The allegorical interpretation, therefore, does not subject itself to the authority of the Bible by deriving its meaning from it, but approaches Scripture with a preconceived idea by reading something else into the Bible.

Angus & Green (The Bible Handbook) also refer to this danger when they say: “There is an unlimited scope for fancy, if once the principle be admitted, and the only basis of the exposition is found in the mind of the expositor. The scheme can yield no interpretation, properly so called, although possibly some valuable truths may be illustrated.”

Bernard Ramm (Protestant Biblical Interpretation) adds to this caution: “To state that the principal meaning of the Bible is a second-sense meaning, and that the principal method of interpretation is spiritualising, is to open the door to almost uncontrolled speculation and imagination. For this reason we have insisted that the control in interpretation is the literal method.”

O.T. Allis, who also spiritualises the Bible, is keenly aware of the negative results that it may yield when he says: “Whether the figurative or spiritual interpretation of a given passage is justified or not, depends solely on whether it gives the true meaning. If it is used to empty words of their plain and obvious meaning, to read out of them what is clearly intended by them, then allegorIsing or spiritualising is a term of reproach which is well merited.”

One of the great proponents of allegorical interpretation was Origen (born AD 185). He was strongly influenced by the Greek philosophy of Plato and tried to synthesise the Bible with abstract philosophical thinking. He identified the following three levels of interpreting the Bible:

The somatic or literal interpretation, which is sufficient for the simple-minded.

The psychological or moral interpretation for more advanced people.

The pneumatic or allegorical interpretation for those who have wisdom.

People with wisdom should find their way through all the symbols and ascend to the level of the mysterious. This approach paved the way to various kinds of deception and metaphysical speculation. In terms of this premise it is obvious why Origen did not believe in a literal kingdom of Christ on earth. With this approach he became the founder of allegorical exegesis and amillennial thinking. Like Augustine almost two centuries later, he regarded the church age as the dispensation of the kingdom.

Augustine (AD 354 to 430) perpetuated the serious exegetical and amillennial errors of Origen in his Confessiones and his book on the kingdom of God – The Civitate Dei. He also studied and accepted neo-Platonist thought. Augustine has the doubtful honour of having been highly regarded by prominent reformers such as Calvin and Luther, while also being venerated as the most eminent Christian scholar by the Vatican. The latter celebrates a feast to his honour on 28th August every year!

The modern church is still profoundly influenced by the heathen (Platonist) philosophy of the inter-testamental period and also by its similarly mistaken interpretational methods of spiritualising and allegorising the Bible.

The literal method of interpretation

Fortunately, there is a growing group of evangelical scholars in modern times who are reverting to sound principles of interpreting the inspired and inerrant Word of God. Dwight Pentecost (Things to Come) gives the following definition of the literal method of interpretation:

“The literal method of interpretation is that method that gives to each word the same basic meaning it would have in normal ordinary customary usage, whether employed in writing, speaking or thinking. It is called the grammatical-historical method to emphasise the fact that the meaning is to be determined by both grammatical and historical considerations.”

The strongest proof of the literal interpretation is the way in which the New Testament makes use of the Old Testament. Good examples are the many prophecies about the birth, life, work and death of Christ that were all literally fulfilled in the New Testament.

Despite this overwhelming evidence about Jesus as the promised Messiah, the Pharisees and scribes decided to suppress the truth and lie to the people. Why did they do that? Hal Lindsey says that any person who does not realise that his most important problem is an inward, spiritual problem, prefers a political above a spiritual saviour.

It is still the same today. Many churches openly disregard the Bible’s literal message and engage in an ecumenical process of uniting church to society – inadvertently preparing for the world’s false political ‘saviour’, the Antichrist. The spiritualisation of biblical prophecies is clearly a trick by Satan to make people forget about the great spiritual Saviour of the world, Jesus Christ (Jn. 4:42), who will soon return to save the remnant of Israel and the nations (Mt. 24:30) and establish His millennial reign on earth.

At Christ’s first coming most Jews, especially the hierarchy, ignored the many prophecies about Him, so failed to recognise their true Messiah. Israel paid dearly for their neglect of prophecy: “For the days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment around you, surround you and close you in on every side, and level you, and your children within you, to the ground; and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not know the time of your visitation” (Lk. 19:43-44). Christ’s prophecies have and will all come true – literally!

A similar situation prevails concerning His Second Coming. Literal prophecies of His coming are either ignored or wrongly interpreted, thus depriving Christians of their proper future expectation – often leading to some focusing attention on political and social ideals. Jesus Himself said it will be as in the days of Noah and Lot. Those not truly born again will pay a very heavy price in tribulation and divine wrath by being left behind to endure the Antichrist’s reign of terror after Christ comes to take away His bride at the rapture.

To those who remain true to the Lord Jesus and expect His coming imminently, there is the real hope of returning to this troubled world with Christ when he establishes His millennial reign on earth after the tribulation period.