Interpreting Biblical Apocalyptic (21): The Adventist Approach to Revelation

A problem that previous Adventist discussions have not adequately addressed is the relationship of Revelation to the larger genre of apocalyptic prophecy. It is been largely assumed that Revelation is of the same character as that of Daniel (apocalyptic prophecy) and that its visions are, therefore, to be uniformly interpreted as unconditional prophetic portrayals of the sequence of both Christian and general history from the time of Jesus to the end of the world. This assumption has not, however, been found compelling by specialists in the field.

The Daniel and Revelation Committee of the General Conference (1981-1991) gradually shifted on this point as we looked at the evidence of Revelation from 1986 through 1991. In a volume published just before I joined in the Committee (1986), William Johnsson, in his article on the nature of prophecy (DARCOM, vol. 3, 282) provided only two paragraphs on Revelation (282). He states there that Revelation concerns things which “shall be hereafter” rather than just “may be” (Rev 1:19). The book portrays how God will bring an end to the world order, rescue His people and produce a new heavens and a new earth where righteousness dwells. These statements suggest the thinking that at least parts of Revelation, and probably the whole, are certainly apocalyptic in nature.

Kenneth Strand went much further in this direction. He states (published in 1992) without argument that Revelation, along with Daniel, is generally classified as apocalyptic prophecy in contrast to “classical prophecy.” He then goes on to list the characteristics of apocalyptic prophecy. Kenneth A. Stand, “Foundational Principles of Interpretation,” 11-19. Strand does soften this assertion somewhat on page 22, however. He notes the epistolary nature of the seven letters to the churches in chapters 2 and 3, giving Revelation “a certain flavor of exhortation,” an element of conditionality. He limits this exhortatory character of Revelation, however, to the seven letters and to occasional appeals and does not apply its conditionality to the prophetic forecasts of Revelation.

My own work in the same volume (1992) states that Revelation is both prophetic and apocalyptic, but I don’t address the implications of that distinction. Jon Paulien, “Interpreting Revelation’s Symbolism,” in Symposium on Revelation– Book I, edited by Frank B. Holbrook, Daniel and Revelation Committee Series, vol. 6 (Washington, DC: Biblical Research Institute, 1992), 78-79. One reason for this mild contradiction is that DARCOM was disbanded in 1991 at a time when General Conference committees were being downsized, and was never able to complete its work. Strand’s opening articles were added later, being a compendium of his earlier work, but were never seriously discussed in the committee. I don’t know whether the publication of these chapters represented the editor’s attempt to counter my thesis or simply to fill out things the Committee never got to, with the contradiction not noticed.

As was the case with historical versus mystical apocalypses, Revelation seems to smoothly blend characteristics of both general and apocalyptic prophecy. It is written to a specific time and place and the audience is clearly local and contemporary (Rev 1:1-4, 10-11, 2:1 – 3:22). Revelation 22:16 clearly states that the entire book was intended as a message to the churches. Its message was intended to be understood by the original audience (Rev 1:3). It is not, therefore, simply a replay of the genre of Daniel, where there are texts that postpone understanding: Dan 8:27; 12:4, 13. On the other hand, the break between the old order and the new is radical and complete, just like that of Jewish apocalyptic (Rev 20:11 – 21:5). Prophetic action along a continuum can also be seen in passages like Rev 12 and in 17:10. So the genre of Revelation is not nearly as cut and dried as seems to be the case with Daniel.

2 thoughts on “Interpreting Biblical Apocalyptic (21): The Adventist Approach to Revelation

    1. Jon Paulien Post author

      Not sure that was the primary issue that got him into trouble, but sometimes we get in trouble for agitating ideas that people are not yet ready to hear (Rev 16:12).


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