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REVELATION: A DIFFICULT BOOK

Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr. —  Leave a comment

One does not have to be a televangelist in order to properly interpret the Book of Revelation. But it helps. Apparently. To read the overwhelming mass of paperback commentaries on Revelation written by dispensational populists, one would think Revelation is a breeze to interpret. “Just interpret it by using the plain, simple method of literalism” and all your problems are gone. These populists are encouraged by the more noteworthy, academic dispensational scholars, such as Charles Ryrie. In his commentary on Revelation, Ryrie speaks of the “furuist or plain interpretation”: “Perhaps saying ‘normal’ or ‘plain’ interpretation would be better than ‘literal'” (Charles C. Ryrie, Revelation (Chicago: Moody, 1968), 9.

Reading the first word in the book might lead one to adopt such a naive approach. In the Greek, Revelation’s first word is its title: apokalupsis, which means “unveiling, revelation.” Despite this title Revelation is undoubtedly the most difficult to interpret, most hotly debated, and most abused book in all of Scripture. The book is so perplexing that John himself could not understand portions of it (Rev. 7:13-14; 17:6-7). Indeed, its abuse seems directly attributable to its difficulty: The less theologically astute and exegetically trained the “commentator,” the more confident his assertions — and, sadly, the greater the sales of his books.

Walter F. Adeney noted that “imagination runs riot with the elaborate fancies of this marvelous book.”1 Anthropologist and commentator Vacher Burch in his thought-provoking Anthropology and the Apocalypse lamented: “The Book of the Revelation of Jesus Christ is the most difficult writing in the New Testament. No plainer proof of this is needed than the fact that most often it has been artificially sequestered so as to yield strange chronology and stranger sense, by the ignorant and the wise. The long history of its interpretation seems to demonstrate that the majority has desired it to be only a semi-magical writing.”2

With evident concern, Donald W. Richardson observed that “the ‘lunatic fringe’ of thinking on the times and seasons and last things of history has always reveled in the Revelation.”3 With a concern akin to that of Richardson, Greville Lewis complained that “through the centuries this book has been the happy hunting ground of the cranks who believed that its cryptic messages were meant to refer to the events of their own troubled age.”4 William Barclay follows suit when he stated that Revelation has “become the playground of religious eccentrics.”5

Quite naturally, then, Revelation has perplexed the great Christian exegetes of history. The Latin church father Jerome (A.D. 340-420) lamented long ago that it contained “as many words as mysteries.”6 Martin Luther (1483-1546), the famed reformer and untiring interpreter of Scripture, originally rejected Revelation as non-canonical, complaining, “My Spirit cannot adapt itself to the book.”7 Fellow reformer Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) refused to take a doctrinal proof-text from Revelation.8 Even John Calvin (1509-1564) omitted Revelation from his prodigious commentary on the Bible. R. H. Charles (1855-1931), in his celebrated magnum opus on Revelation, states that it took him twenty-five years to complete his commentary.9

Though they concur in little else, leading interpreters agree on the difficulty Revelation presents to the would-be exegete:

• Terry: “No portion of the Holy Scripture has been the subject of so much controversy and of so many varying interpretations.”10
• Reuss: “Ideas of the Apocalypse are so widely different that a summary notice of the exegetical literature, mingling all together, would be inexpedient.”11
• Warfield: Revelation is “the most difficult book of the Bible: it has always been the most variously understood, the most arbitrarily interpreted, the most exegetically tortured.”12
• Vincent: “This document has given rise to voluminous controversy.”13
• Swete: “To comment on this great prophecy is a harder task than to comment on a Gospel, and he who undertakes it exposes himself to the charge of presumption. I have been led to venture upon on what I know to be dangerous ground.”14
• Beckwith: “No other book, whether in sacred or profane literature, has received in whole or in part so many different interpretations. Doubtless no other book has so perplexed biblical students throughout the Christian centuries down to our own times.”15
• Robertson: “Perhaps no single book in the New Testament presents so many and so formidable problems as the Apocalypse of John.”16
• Beasley-Murray: “Revelation is probably the most disputed and difficult book in the New Testament.”17
• Ladd: “Revelation is the most difficult of all New Testament books to interpret.”18
• Walvoord: “Attempts at its exposition are almost without number, yet there continues the widest divergence of interpretation.”19
• Morris: “Some of the problems of this book are enormously difficult and I certainly have not the capacity to solve them.” Indeed, it is “by common consent one of the most difficult of all the books of the Bible.”20
• Johnson: For “the modern reader” Revelation “is the most obscure and controversial book in the Bible.”21
• Pate: “The Apocalypse is arguably the most controversial book in the Bible. . . . A hermeneutical thicket awaits the interpreter of Revelation.”22

As is lamented tongue-in-cheek: Wherever you find five commentators on Revelation, you will find six different views.

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Notes

1. Walter F. Adeney, A Biblical Introduction (London: Methuen & Co., 1911), 2:467.
2. Vacher Burch, Anthropology and the Apocalypse (London: Macmillan, 1939), vii.
3. Donald W. Richardson, The Revelation of Jesus Christ (Richmond: John Knox, rep [1939] 1964), 12.
4. Greville P. Lewis, An Approach to New Testament (London: Epworth, 1954), 244-245.
5. William Barclay, The Revelation of John, Vol. 1 in The Daily Study Bible (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 1.
6. Cited in Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, rep. n.d. [1910]), 1:826.
7. Cited by Martin H. Franzmann, The Revelation to John (St. Louis: Concordia, 1976), 7. Luther was ambivalent with regard to Revelation, as is evident in his gradual and reluctant acceptance of it. See: Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, edited by Jaroslav Pelikan (St. Louis: Concordia, 1957), 24:366 and 35:400.
8. Ibid.
9. R. H. Charles, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Revelation of St. John (ICC) 1:ix.
10. Milton S. Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, n.d.), 466.
11.  Eduard Wilhelm Reuss, History of the Sacred Scriptures of the New Testament (Edinburgh: T and T Clark, 1884), 155.
12.  Eduard Wilhelm Reuss, History of the Sacred Scriptures of the New Testament (Edinburgh: T and T Clark, 1884), 155.
13. Marvin R. Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament, vol.2: “The Writings of John” (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, rep. 1985 [1887]), 16.
14. Henry B. Swete, Commentary on Revelation (Grand Rapids: Kregal, 1906 [rep. 1977]), xii.
15. John T. Beckwith, The Apocalypse of John: Studies in Introduction (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1919 [1967]), 1.
16.  A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman, 1933), 269.
17. G. R. Beasley-Murray, The Book of Revelation, in R. E. Clements and Matthew Black, eds., New Century Bible (London: Marshall, Morgan, and Scott, 1974), 5.
18.  George Eldon Ladd, A Commentary on the Revelation of John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), 10.
19.  John F. Walvoord, The Revelation of Jesus Christ (Chicago: Moody, 1966), 7.
20. Leon Morris, The Revelation of St. John (Tyndale New Testament Commentary) (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1969), 13, 15.
21. Alan F. Johnson, Revelation (The Bible Study Commentary) (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983), 9.
22. C. Marvin Pate, in Pate, ed., Four Views on the Book of Revelation, 172, 173.

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Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.

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Ken is a Presbyterian pastor and the author or co-author of over thirty books, most on eschatology. He has been married since 1971, and has three children and several grandchildren. He is a graduate of Tennessee Temple University (B.A., 1973), Reformed Theological Seminary (M.Div., 1977), and Whitefield Theological Seminary (Th.M., 1986; Th.D., 1988). He currently pastors Living Hope Presbyterian Church (affiliated with the RPCGA) in Greer, SC. Much of his writing is in the field of eschatology, including his 600 page book, He Shall Have Dominion: A Postmillennial Eschatology and his 400 page, Before Jerusalem Fell: Dating the Book of Revelation (his Th.D. dissertation). He contributed chapters to two Zondervan CounterPoints books on eschatological issues: Three Views on the Millennium and Beyond (edited by Darrell L. Bock) and Four Views on the Book of Revelation (edited by C. Marvin Pate). He also debated Thomas D. Ice in Kregel's The Great Tribulation: Past or Future? His books have been published by American Vision, Baker, Zondervan, Kregel, P & R, Greenhaven Press, Nordskog, Wipf & Stock, and several other publishers. He has published scores of articles in such publications as Tabletalk, Westminster Theological Journal, Evangelical Theological Society Journal, Banner of Truth, Christianity Today, Antithesis, Contra Mundum, and others. He has spoken at over 100 conferences in America, the Caribbean, and Australia. He is a member of the Evangelical Theological Society and a Church Council Committee member of Coalition on Revival.

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