Is the Book of Revelation About Rome?

Question from a Site Viewer

I have done some research and I came across a wonderfully informative site for apologetics titled Evidence for Christianity. In a question about the end times, I believe that they have adopted a partial preterism view that is different than your summary of it.

From what I gather, they believe the prophecies of Daniel (all the way until the last chapter) have already been accomplished, with the little horn, (the antichrist), being Domitian. This explains why they focus so much on 70 AD.

And, that Revelation speaks of Rome being taken down (which happened later) sometime around 300 AD.

Dr. Oakes says this about Revelation:

First of all, I am not the world’s expert on the book. But here are a few comments. Except for the last two chapters, Revelation is a vision concerning the events which happened to the church in the persecution by Rome. Twice, the angel tells John that the vision is of events which “will soon take place.” (Revelation 1:1). I think that Revelation chapters 2 and 3 are quite straightforward. Chapters 4-19 are more difficult. This is apocalyptic language. In this kind of biblical literature one must take what is said to be symbolic unless the context dictates otherwise. The visions, with all the creatures, and numbers and so forth are admittedly difficult to understand, but they are about the attacks on the church by the Roman persecutors and the fact that God is in control and that victory is God’s. Rome will not prevail. Judgment will come on the enemies of God’s people. There’s a lot, but this should give you a general idea. Revelation 17 is definitely about judgment on the Roman empire and the persecutors of the church. The fifth king is the persecutor Nero, while the eighth king is Domitian–also a persecutor of the church. The theme of the book is that God is in control and his children may be persecuted but they will be victorious.

Dr. Oakes

What would your response be? Thanks

Tim’s Answer

Thank you for your email.  Dr. Oakes follows a modified partial preterist position.  Rather than seeing everything except the final coming of Christ happening in the 70 A.D. destruction of Jerusalem, he sees the book of Revelation largely as dealing with the destruction of Rome over the following few centuries.  He certainly is entitled to take that view and defend it.

However, I cannot get there when I read the book of Revelation.  I know that Dr. Oakes argues that this is apocalyptic language.  But Scripture never tells us that we should read apocalyptic literature different than other literature.  The basic rule of Biblical interpretation, as with all interpretation of letter genre, is to try to discern the author’s intent.  What did John and God wish to convey to us?

I am convinced that neither John nor God wrote the book trying to obscure matters from His people.  If God wanted to hide matters, He had no need to write them.  Words were written to convey meaning with the intent of creating understanding in the mind of the reader.  So, as John wrote the Apocalypse of Jesus Christ, how would he have expected the ordinary reader to understand his words?  This is a guiding rule I follow in seeking the plain meaning of the text. 

I am emboldened with this approach when I read the earliest church fathers.  Ignatius, Polycarp, Clement, and Irenaeus all follow a similar approach to Scripture.  They use Scripture as if it means precisely what it states.  The plain meaning seems to be their hermeneutic.  And I am encouraged further in this approach when I read the way the Scripture authors use other Scriptures.  They also bring Scripture into their texts using the plain meaning approach.  Jesus Himself when He quotes the Old Testament takes the words at their plain meaning. 

This does not mean that I would disagree with Dr. Oakes that certain word images are intended to be representational.  But I think the text should drive that representational meaning.  The bottom line for me is what would an ordinary person in John’s day understand the various passages of the book to mean?  Again, I think those who had a direct connection to John, such as Irenaeus, give us the best view of what John’s readers would have understood the passage to mean.

Having said this, when I come to the book of Revelation, I find nothing in the history of Rome that comes close to explaining the book. 

In chapter 6, we have one riding out to conquer, and another taking peace from the earth, and a third bringing famine and the fourth bringing death over a fourth of the earth.  After this the sun became black and the moon like blood and the kings of the earth hid themselves in caves from the wrath of the Lamb because, as John records, who can stand in the day of the Lamb’s wrath.  When did this happen in the days of Rome? 

In chapters 8 and 9, a third of the trees were burned, a third of the living creatures in the sea died and a third of the ships were destroyed, the waters were made bitter, a third of the day did not shine and likewise the night, then the bottomless pit was opened to torment the men on the earth for five months, then a third of mankind was killed.  When did this happen with Rome? 

In chapter 11, God sends two witnesses who prophesy for 1,260 days, who are then killed. All nations will see their dead bodies and after three and a half days they rise again and ascend to heaven.  When does this happen in the days of Rome? 

What do the 1,260 days of Revelation 12:6 represent with respect to the place God has prepared for the woman if this happened during Rome’s reign? 

And what 42 months did a mortally wounded one have power over the saints to overcome them, to blaspheme God, and to have authority over every nation?  Rome never had authority over every nation, and in fact was never able to conquer Persia, its long nemesis. 

When did 75-pound hailstones fall on the earth (Revelation 16:21)?  If God did not intend us to understand that in fact a third of mankind would be killed, or there would be 75-pound hailstones, then why would He have said it?  Certainly, God does not lie. 

I do not accept a theory that what God said was not what He intended.  Nor do I accept a theory that when God said that there would be a third of the sea creatures destroyed that this really was not going to happen, but was only symbolic of something else. 

And why would God be so concerned about Rome?  The Persian church suffered far greater persecution under the Persian rulers than the Roman church ever did.  Would God really author a book that provides only hope for one segment of His church? 

What about those persecuted by the Persian Church? What about the Thomasan Church in India, or the Ethiopic Church, or the Georgian Church, or the Armenian Church that suffered so much?  Why would we want to reach an interpretation that the world of Revelation only includes Rome; that the “all nations and kindreds and tongues” in the book only includes the Roman Empire? 

If God was only focused on the Roman Empire, then why provide a special blessing to those who read the book if it has no application to the wider church?  These are simply some of the questions I ask about any view that centers the book on Rome. 

There certainly have been far worse kingdoms than Rome when it comes to the treatment of Christians.  I think of Tamerlane and how this Muslim warrior virtually wiped out Assyrian Christianity and caused grave destruction to Armenian, Syriac, and many other Christian groups. 

I point out that when Zechariah, another apocalyptic prophet, tells us that the Christ would be pierced, that Christ was indeed pierced, literally. 

When Zechariah tells us that they would strike the shepherd and the sheep would be scattered, Jesus tells us in Matthew 26:31 that this would happen when He was stricken on the cross, a fulfillment corresponding to a plain understanding of the apocalyptic prophet. 

When the prophet said that Jesus would come to Jerusalem riding on the colt of a donkey, guess what?  He did just that. 

When Daniel, another apocalyptic prophet states that the Messiah would be cut off, in fact this happened even as Isaiah prophesied that He would be cut off from the land of the living. 

When Daniel said that the Son of Man would come in the clouds of heaven, Jesus picks up this very phrase to tell the high priest that He Himself would descend in the clouds.  And I think He will, as Scripture records that He ascended in the cloud (Acts 1:9). 

So, given the way Scripture itself has interpreted prior apocalyptic literature, I am not inclined to interpret the book of Revelation in a different way.  When Revelation tells us that men will flee to the rocks, I think they will actually do so.  When Revelation tells us that Jesus will return on a horse, I think this will actually happen.  When Revelation tells us that men will blaspheme God because of the scorching heat from God’s judgment, I think this will actually happen.  When Revelation tells us that Satan will be bound for 1000 years, I believe this will actually take place.  When Scripture tells us that the heavens and earth are going to flee from the face of Him who sits on the throne, I accept this as being factually true.  And when Scripture tells us that there will be a new heaven and a new earth, I am looking forward to that as well.  None of these things have happened yet in the history of this world.

Having said the above, I know that there many interpretations of the book of Revelation.  But with respect to most of them, I find no hermeneutic that would provide any basis for understanding what is written. 

If we take the book to be metaphorical, then who has the key to understanding the metaphors?  Is this locked up only for those with the secret knowledge and those they teach?  A metaphorical view leaves the book without grounding as to what anything in the book means.  Each person then can come up with his/her own meaning. 

I realize that a plain meaning view also has some problems.  For instance, the dragon in chapter 12 is explained to be Satan.  Should then we expect to see a dragon or is this vision simply meant to be a representation of Satan who is called a dragon?  Yet, I have no doubt that John actually in his vision saw a dragon.  And we are told that the dragon is Satan and that he is cast to the earth and knows he only has a short time. 

I also recognize that most of my brothers and sisters in the church do not believe like I believe on this issue.  Mine is a minority position. 

But as stated previously, I give great credence to the interpretation by Irenaeus, who was discipled by Polycarp, the great bishop of Smyrna, and a personal friend of the author of the book of Revelation.  Those who would depart from that interpretation that was handed down from the apostles so early in the church I think have the burden placed on them to explain why they find other interpretations compelling. 

I understand Dr. Oakes argument that nearly 2,000 years hardly seems to satisfy the “shortly take place” language of Revelation.  I empathize with that struggle.  But I am not sure that 300 years rather than 2,000 years solves the problem. 

In any event, I note with Peter (2 Peter 3) and Moses (Psalm 90) that 1,000 years is as a single day in God’s sight and that God is not slack, but at the present His forbearance is giving everyone an opportunity to come to a saving knowledge of Him.  When the Father gives the word, the King of Kings will return even as has been long promised. 

Again, I compel no one to believe like I do on this issue.  Each person should read the Scripture, seek the Holy Spirit’s guidance, and engage in the process of discovering what the Word is saying.  This does not mean that we should ignore what the church at large is saying about the passage, but ultimately we will give an account to God as to how we handle His word.  I simply find comfort in a view that makes the most sense to me, represents an easy hermeneutic that anyone can follow, and is the view held by those who bore the earliest testimony in the early church. 

In His service,

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One thought on “Is the Book of Revelation About Rome?”

  1. Greetings,
    I totally agree with you reasoning. I would only add, which I’m sure you didn’t for economy of space, that prophecies also are multi-faceted, can and frequently do have muliple meanings and outcomes. The perfect example is in Matthew which tells us the prophecy in Hosea 11 is about Yeshua, but Hosea tells us it is about Israel. Both are correct.
    Generally ther are 4 ways to interpret Revelation – as poetry or a polemic (the idealist view), as all havin been fulfilled by AD 70 (the preterist view), all is apocalyptic about the end times and the Parousia (the futurist view) and that Revelation deals with all of history from then right up to and including the Day of the Lord, the 1000year reign, the new heaven and earth etc.

    Praise be to the Lord of all.
    Serge Beugels

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