The book of Revelation can be a confusing and frightening read for many people, Christians included. It certainly is the strangest book in the Bible from a modern Western viewpoint. No wonder it has elicited such varied interpretative schemes throughout the millennia. The question naturally arises, “Who reads Revelation correctly?”
Enter Vern Poythress, the man (along with theologian John Frame) who has refined the idea that multiple perspectives in theology often get us closer to the truth. (Multi- or Tri-) Perspectivalism is a much larger philosophy that may be applied to any topic. New Testament scholar, author, and renowned educator Poythress applies multiple perspectives to a reading of Revelation and discovers a coherence, compelling understanding of this most mysterious Bible book. In his The Returning King: A Guide to the Book of Revelation, Poythress examines the Apostle John’s recorded vision in such a way to make it accessible and understandable to anyone—even children!
As an expansion of the his study notes found in the New Geneva Study Bible (renamed the Reformation Study Bible) and later revised in the Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible (online at IIIM Seminary Study Bible), the author devotes the first third of his book to introductory matters. The rest of the book is in nontechnical commentary format.
Chapter 1 sets out the author’s approach to Revelation. In essence, he believes that anyone can understand the books basic message, but we must approach it as a “picture book” and not a “puzzle book.” Children and other people unfamiliar with Revelation usually have an easier time with the book because the genre of apocalyptic literature is designed to appeal to the imagination of regular folks. Scholars and prophecy students approaching Revelation as a message to expertly decode quickly get bogged down in the weeds and lose sight of the grand message: Jesus wins!
In chapter 2, the four primary schools of interpretation are examined: (1) Roman empire (preterist); (2) Second coming (futurist); (3) Church history (historicist); and (4) Repeated pattern (idealist). Poythress notes the strengths and weaknesses of each school, argues that the Church history school has the fewest strengths (one being the recognition that the text is a narrative with a beginning, middle, and climax), and concludes that when beginning with the Repeated pattern view, the preterist and futurist strengths may be incorporated to fill out the big picture of Revelation. His assessment is that Revelation had a first fulfillment during the first century Roman empire period, the principles of spiritual warfare repeatedly manifest themselves throughout church history, and it will have a final fulfillment culminating in the Second Coming of Christ in the future.
Chapters 3 through 5 explain content and style (3), the author and date of writing (4), and the book’s occasion and purpose (5). His discussion of Revelation’s content and style is topical. The major themes he identifies are:
- The Lamb
- Theophany (God’s appearing)
- Spiritual War
- Bipolar Contrasts: purity and corruption, beauty and ugliness, truth and deceit
- Witness and Martyrdom
- Reward and Punishment
- Apocalyptic style
Applying multiple perspectives, the author demonstrates in chapter 6 that Revelation may be outlined in a number of helpful ways. There is no one right way to identify the book’s structure because the text is evidently a tapestry of complex, interwoven beauty. Thus is may be profitably analyzed as a letter with formal clues indicating three visions from different vantage points. There is a Vision of Christ (1:10-3:22), a vision in heaven (4:1-16:21), and a vision in the wilderness (17:1-21:8). Revelation may also be viewed from its rhetorical structure. “What you have seen” (1:9-10), “What is” (2:1-3:22), and “What is to be” (4:1-22:5). In the “What is to be” section, there are seven cycles of events that tell of the divine judgment leading up to the end, followed by an eighth and final cycle that culminates in the arrival and installation of the New Jerusalem). Furthermore, there are complementary chiastic structures found throughout the book, combining to form a literary masterpiece.
Perhaps the most intriguing contribution to the discussion about how to read Revelation is Poythress’s concept of counterfeiting. Throughout Revelation, the reader/hearer is confronted with false, evil, and ugly things that can appear true, good, and beautiful. The dragon is the counterfeit of God the Father. The first beast is the counterfeit of Christ. The second beast is the counterfeit of the Holy Spirit. The prostitute is the counterfeit of the church (the bride of Christ). Babylon and Rome are counterfeits of the New Jerusalem. And so on. The benefit of seeing counterfeits in the story is to be aware of their danger so as not to follow them. Thus the church ought not be fooled by counterfeits, and should only settle for the real thing (that which is really true, good, and beautiful).
One of the best things about this book is the free resources online. Poythress provides enough to satisfy the curious and satiate the advance student.
The Returning King (full HTML text)
Studying Revelation (class PDF slides)
Course Materials on Revelation (various formats)
See also my Revelation Bible Study page that supplements studying Revelation using Poythress’s The Returning King