The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place.Verse 7 mentions Jesus return,
Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him.Verse 19 adds,
Write therefore the things that you have seen, those that are and those that are to take place after this.This means that Revelation discusses things happening around the time it was written and in the future. It need not solely mean immediately, that is the first generation after Jesus' resurrection; nor end-times, the last generation before Jesus returns. It potentially covers affairs from the time of John's vision until Jesus' return.
Briefly classifying the 4 major schools:
- Preterism*: Most of the prophecies of the Bible find their fulfilment in the first generation after Jesus' resurrection; that is, by 70 AD.
- Historicism: The prophecies of the Bible are fulfilled in various persons thru-out history until the return of Christ.
- Futurism: Most prophecies of the Bible find their fulfilment in the last generation before Jesus returns.
- Idealism: The symbols are predominately symbolic of ideas and most do not correspond to any specific event.
I think that preterism, historicism, and futurism all offer a potentially valid approach. Idealism may get us thinking more carefully about what the symbols refer to, but it fails to recognise and apply genuine prophecy.
Because I am not attached to any one particular option I read some passages with an immediate (preterist) fulfilment, and others with a distant (futurist) one.
There is agreement among the schools in some aspects. Most interpreters identify the churches in the early chapters as representing real churches that existed in the time Revelation was written. Antipas was a martyr. Jezebel was a false prophetess. The Nicolaitans were a false sect. These should all be understood as literal people from the first century. Likewise they agree that Jesus returning in the clouds has yet to happen (Acts 1:11).
Here are some examples where each school is probably correct. Other schools may not necessarily disagree with the interpretation here, but the interpretation is most in line with the approach of the particular school.
In the Olivet discourse Jesus refers to those escaping when they saw Jerusalem surrounded.
“But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, and let those who are inside the city depart, and let not those who are out in the country enter it, for these are days of vengeance, to fulfill all that is written. Alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days! For there will be great distress upon the earth and wrath against this people. They will fall by the edge of the sword and be led captive among all nations, and Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled. (Luke 21:20-24)I think this is best interpreted as occurring at the time of the destruction of the temple 66–70 AD under Vespasian then Titus. Interestingly there was a break in the fighting when Vespasian returned to Rome to become Emperor before Titus took over the seige. At this time many Christians, remembering Jesus' words, fled Jerusalem.
The best example of this school of interpretation is Daniel's visions. His vision of the 4 beasts in chapter 7, then the ram and the goat in chapter 8, then the kings in chapter 11 refer to events that occurred over the following decades and apply to specific kingdoms and people. The beasts are kingdoms
- Lion/ eagle: Babylon
- Bear: Media/ Persia
- Leopard/ bird: Greece
- Terrible beast: Rome
The final defeat of Satan, the new heaven and Earth, the judgment of the nations are all events at the end of the age. They are best viewed as future events.
Here are some problems with the schools.
Not all of the Olivet discourse was fulfilled in the first century. Antichrist(s) may be yet to appear.
Though Daniel offers a good example of the Historicist view, I have not read convincing interpretations of Revelation along these lines. The rise of Islam, the Great Schism, the Catholic/ Protestant split; none of these are clearly seen. I am also not certain about the allegorical application of the letters to the 7 churches to the global church thru the ages. Even if true, it is not the primary meaning.
Disagreement with the number of the beast applying to Nero. Forcing a strict chronology on Revelation. Not applying parts of the Olivet discourse to the destruction of Jerusalem in the first century.
As mentioned previously, I would apply aspects of each of these as I see them apply to a specific passage. Based on the specifics of the prophecy and how events have panned out I would say some events have already occurred, and some are yet to be. Some of the difficulty in recognising the Messiah in Isaiah may have related to seeing him as both a suffering servant and a conquering king. These do not seem compatible, yet we know they are. He came first to suffer and die for our sins. He was raised victorious over death. He is seated at the right hand of God, and will return again to enforce his dominion. Let us not make this mistake, failing to realise that some aspects of prophecy were fulfilled in the first generation after Jesus ascended, and others in the last generation before he returns, and perhaps even some in between these generations.
*I am using preterism to mean partial preterism. I consider full preterism (hyper-preterism) with its claim that the return of Christ was in the first century and was therefore spiritual to be false.