The interpretation of the prophetic portions of God’s Word, specifically Revelation and certain passages in the Old Testament, is complex and has always been hotly debated. Thus, I will state at the outset that I hold my views on this subject somewhat tentatively, and I respect conservative Bible teachers who differ with me in matters of eschatology.
After that disclaimer, I now admit that I’m inclined to believe that the historic premillennial position, which normally includes a post-tribulational rapture, is the position most consistent with the overall teaching of Scripture. Historic premillennialism dates back to Justin Martyr (100-165 AD) and Irenaeus (140-203 AD). In fact, the vast majority of interpreters during the second and third centuries were “chiliasts” (from the Greek word for a thousand).
Historic premillennialism holds to a literal earthly millennium, but it is different from dispensational premillennialism, which originated in the nineteenth century within the Brethren movement in England and whose distinctives first appeared in the writings of John Nelson Darby (1800-1882) and were popularized in the United States in the Scofield Reference Bible.
According to the latter view, Jesus’ future return is in two stages — before the tribulation to rapture believers and again after the seven-year tribulation at the onset of the millennium establishing His 1000-year reign. Though I don’t profess to be a Bible scholar, it appears to me as I study the Bible that these two events (rapture and reign) are simply two aspects of the single second coming of Christ.
Perhaps the best commentary on the book of Revelation from the historic premillennial viewpoint is A Commentary on the Revelation of John by George Eldon Ladd. Ladd, a longtime professor at Fuller Seminary and author of many books, was one of the most influential evangelical New Testament scholars of the 1900s. As one blogger recently wrote, “Ladd broke through the sterile debates about whether the kingdom of God was a present, spiritual reality or a future, earthly reality. He popularized a view of the kingdom as having two dimensions: ‘already/not yet.’” In other words, the kingdom of Christ was inaugurated at His first coming and will be consummated at His second coming.
As some of you may know, there are four primary methods of interpreting the book of Revelation: (1) “preterist,” which offers hope to the early Christians in light of the challenging circumstances of their day; (2) “historical,” which views Revelation as a symbolic prophecy of the entire history of the church down the ages to the end times; (3) “idealist,” which avoids the problem of finding any historical fulfillment and simply sees the book as a symbolic portrayal of the spiritual conflict between God and Satan; and (4) “futurist,” which interprets Revelation, for the most part, as dealing with future events.
Ladd can best be described as “a moderate futurist” with some elements of the preterist position blended in. Because many of the prophecies of the Old Testament (as well as Jesus’ Olivet Discourse in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21), have both an immediate fulfillment and a long-term fulfillment, Ladd believes that much of Revelation has a double fulfillment, one that would be meaningful to first-century believers in their historical context and also a second end-times fulfillment that speaks to Christians of all generations. “These two are held in a dynamic tension often without chronological distinction, for the main purpose of prophecy is not to give a program or chart of the future, but to let the light of the eschatological consummation fall on the present (2 Peter 1:19).”
Though Ladd definitely sees Revelation as inerrantly inspired by the Holy Spirit, he believes that most of the book belongs to a class of chiefly Jewish (and later Christian) literature called “apocalyptic.” As with any genre of literature in the Bible, the rules of interpretation for that genre must be followed. Ladd observes that “apocalyptic pictures are not meant to be photographs of objective facts; they are often symbolic representations of almost unimaginable spiritual realities.” Here is a simple example offered by Ladd: “God does not sit on a throne; he is an eternal Spirit who neither stands or sits or reclines. The picture of God seated upon his throne is a symbolic way of asserting the kingship and sovereignty of the Deity.”
Application of Revelation
Besides interpreting the text of the Revelation, Ladd stresses its application in the life of believers. Commenting on Revelation 22:7 (“Behold, I am coming soon! Blessed is he who keeps the words of the prophecy of the book”), Ladd writes, “The prophecies of the Revelation were not written to satisfy intellectual curiosity about the future; they were written that the church might be able to live in the will of God by keeping the words of the prophecy. The church of the first century, the church of the last generation, as well as the church of every age finds herself caught in the struggle between Christ and the Antichrist. John wrote his prophecy not only to inform the church about the events of the consummation but to admonish her to steadfast and unswerving loyalty to Jesus Christ in the face of demonic pressures and persecution.”
As I worked my way through this commentary with Bible in hand, I was gripped over and over again by how Christ-centered, how God-centered, the book of Revelation is. He is pictured as the almighty Sovereign, the eternal One who “lives forever and ever.” This is a reminder that although evil may seem to dominate the affairs of human history, God’s purposes cannot be frustrated. This should give us great hope as we persevere through suffering in this fallen world.
For a final recommendation of this commentary, I quote the late Merrill C. Tenney, former Dean of Wheaton Graduate School: “Ladd has succeeded in producing a volume which will meet the need of the average reader. The style is plain; highly technical discussions have been avoided, though the author has obviously done a great deal of research; and the attitude is fair through all the discussion.”