2.7. The Importance of Historical Perspective

As we will see when we come to the various systems of interpretation, maintaining the proper historical perspective is of utmost importance. In particular, two extremes must be avoided: (1) assuming that everything written in the book applies exclusively to our day; (2) assuming that everything written in the book applies exclusively to John’s day. While this may seem obvious to some, it is amazing how often interpretation runs astray of these guidelines by overemphasizing one or the other of these two extremes.

Hindson explains the tendency which is most prevalent in the time of the reader:

There is always a great temptation to read about the future through the eyes of the present! From our current standpoint in history, we presume to speculate on how the events predicted in the Revelation will eventually be fulfilled. The problem is that each generation tends to assume that it is the terminal generation and that the end will come in their lifetime. [emphasis added]1

This has been the bane of historical and futurist interpretations of Scripture and has led otherwise careful interpreters into the trap of date-setting when they should have known better.

[Hal] Lindsey taught that within a generation (a generation equals forty years) of Israel’s becoming a nation again, the Lord would return (Late Great Planet , p. 43). This was based upon his interpretation that the fig tree in Matthew Mat. 24:32 is a symbol for the reconstitution of Israel as a nation. Thus, the generation (Mtt. Mat. 24:34) that saw Israel become a nation would also see the Second Coming. Since Israel became a nation in 1948, many believe that Lindsey implied Christ’s return would occur by 1988. . . . none of Lindsey’s mentors agreed with his view.2

The unfortunate result of such errors has been the discrediting of the most valid interpretive system applied to the book of Revelation: (futurism). This is throwing the baby out with the bath-water.

Another common danger is to see all of Scripture through the eyes of the salvation history of our own experience. For those who have come to Christ since the Day of Pentecost, this is the perspective of the Church.

No matter what part of the Bible may we read, the one object seems to be to “find the Church.”. . . This arises from our own natural selfishness. “We” belong to the Church, and therefore all “we” read “we” take to ourselves, not hesitating to rob others of what belongs to them. . . . On this system of interpretation the Bible is useless for the purposes of Divine revelation. . . . And yet it is on this same principle that the Apocalypse is usually treated. Everywhere the Church is thrust in: John . . . represents the Church; the living creatures, or Cherubim . . . are the Church; the four and twenty elders . . . are the Church; the 144,000 . . . are the Church, the great multitude . . . is the Church; the “women clothed with the sun” . . . is the Church; the man child . . . is the Church; the bride . . . is the Church; the “New Jerusalem” . . . is the Church.3

While we might disagree with some of the foregoing examples, the general tendency is no doubt valid: a tendency to read past distinctions in the text and to read “ourselves” into passages which are really focused on believers in another age. Here we must use caution since “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” (2Ti. 2Ti. 3:17). But whereas all Scripture is profitable, not all Scripture is written to the same specific audience. This is especially true of the prophetic passages of Scripture which are written primarily to those who will live through the times described and only secondarily to the rest of the saints throughout history.4 Here, we are touching on the foundational issues of dispensationalism: a belief that a careful reading of Scripture while recognizing its self-consistent nature results in the understanding that God has dealt with different people in different ways as biblical history and progressive revelation have unfolded. When we ignore these distinctions found in God’s Word, our understanding of His message suffers.

The flip-side of our tendency to find the “church” everywhere in Scripture is a failure to recognize the Jewishness of God’s Word. Especially our lack of familiarity with God’s promises made to national Israel throughout the Old Testament. Even when we have studied these promises of God from the older books, many incorrectly assume these are no longer to be literally understood. Instead they subject them to spiritual interpretation in a vain attempt to replace Israel with the Church. The failure to grasp the Jewishness of much of what transpires throughout Scripture, but especially in the book of Revelation, has led many interpreters astray. No more so than in their attempt to understand and explain allusions made in the Apocalypse using pagan or historic sources which are tangential or even opposed to the principles of God.5 We discuss these and other issues related to the interpretation of symbols in greater depth elsewhere.

Another error to beware of is artificially limiting the scope of the events described within the book of Revelation. The scope can be limited in numerous ways. Historically, there is a tendency to neglect vast ages of time which have a bearing on the visions John sees, but which don’t conveniently fit with the polemic purpose of the interpreter. For example, many Reformers, intent on using every weapon at their disposal to separate from Rome, tended to limit their understanding of the harlot of Revelation Rev. 17:1+ to the machinations of the Roman Catholic system. Geographically, the historical school of interpretation has tended to limit the scope of events portrayed in the book to only those of significance to Western Christianity or even Europe:

To limit [the scope of the Apocalypse] to Popery, or to Christendom (so called) is we believe, wholly to miss the scope of the Book; and committing the mistake condemned by true logic—vis., of putting a part (and a small part too) for the whole. The awful conflict is of far wider extent than this. It exceeds all the general petty views of its scope; as affairs of State transcend those of a Parish Vestry. . . . the scope of the book, . . . is the winding up of the affairs of the whole creation, and the fixing of the eternal states of all things in heaven and on earth. . . . While many fritter away its solemn scenes in the common-place history of Europe, there are others who see beyond.6

The careful interpreter will understand this capstone of God’s revelation as closing up all history covering a worldwide scope and will strive to avoid artificially limiting his interpretation where the text itself does not.7 Anderson has observed, “The bible is not intended for the present dispensation only, but for the people of God in every age.”8 The correct interpretation will recognize the benefit of the entire book of Revelation for all readers of all historic ages and perspectives yet without denying specific prophetic settings peopled by different saints of God in different historic situations. These historical and prophetic scenes are described from both the vantage point of heaven and that of earth:

We have here . . . a doctrine of the history of the consummation . . . an exposition of the nature of history. The book is a revelation of the connection between things that are seen and things that are not seen, between things on earth and things in heaven; a revelation which fuses both into one mighty drama; so that the movements of the human action, and the course of visible fact, are half shrouded, half disclosed, amid the glory and the terror of the spiritual agencies at work around us, and of the eternal interests which we see involved. . . . it becomes more plain that the earth is the battlefield of the kingdoms of light and darkness.—Canon Bernard, Progress of Doctrine in the New Testament9


Notes

1 Edward Hindson, Revelation: Unlocking the Future (Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers, 2002), 2.

2 Thomas Ice, “Harold L. Lindsey,” in Mal Couch, ed., Dictionary of Premillennial Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1996), 242.

3 E. W. Bullinger, Commentary On Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1984, 1935), 1-2.

4 Matthew Mat. 24:1 serves as an excellent illustration. The primary audience of this passage will live during a time when there will be a holy place —a temple standing in Jerusalem (Mtt. Mat. 24:15), will be living in Judea (Mtt. Mat. 24:16), and living under conditions of the Mosaic Law (Mtt. Mat. 24:20).

5 “If we count up the number of Old Testament passages quoted or alluded to in the New Testament, we find that the gospel of Matthew has a very large number, amounting in all to 92. The Epistle to the Hebrews comes higher still with 102. . . . when we turn to the Apocalypse, what do we find? . . . No less than 285 references to the Old Testament. More than three times as many as Matthew, and nearly three times as many as the Epistle to the Hebrews. We ask whether this does not give the book of Revelation a very special connection with the Old Testament, and with Israel? It is undoubtedly written about the people of the Old Testament who are the subjects of its history.” [emphasis added]—Bullinger, Commentary On Revelation, 6-7.

6 Ibid., 111-112.

7 The extreme of historical and geographical limitation is represented by the preterist interpretation which sees the entire book written to 1st-Century readers and concerning events localized in either the fall of Jerusalem or the fall of Rome.

8 Robert Anderson, The Coming Prince (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1957), 171*.

9 Bullinger, Commentary On Revelation, 123-134.