John Wesley wrote of Revelation, “Oh how little do we know of this deep book! At least how little do I know!” (Journal, 4:540). Elsewhere he confessed, “I by no means pretend to understand, or explain all that is contained in this mysterious book” (Notes, 650). Likewise, Adam Clarke “resolved for a considerable time, not to meddle with this book, because I foresaw that I could produce nothing satisfactory on it” (Clarke, 966).
Wesley and Clarke sought to explain the book literally. They both included summaries that applied the symbols of Revelation to historical events after the first century. Their interpretations succumbed to anti-Catholicism, however, when they identified the leopard beast of 13:1-10 as the Roman Catholic church (Wesley, Notes, 696-98; Clarke, 1020).
Varied interpretations of Revelation emerged from nineteenth-century holiness revivals. Charles Dillman notes that “no single eschatological view can be baptized exclusively Wesleyan” (Dillman, 534). Premillennial approaches have characterized the Christian and Missionary Alliance, Pillar of Fire, and the former Pilgrim Holiness Church. The Church of God (Anderson, Indiana) has followed an amillennial position: D.S. Warner and F.G. Smith articulated an elaborate church historical approach that depicted the birth of the Church of God in 1880-81 as the fulfillment of the 1,260 days of Rev 12:6. Otto F. Linn, in 1942, published the first historical-critical exposition of Revelation among twentieth-century holiness writers, followed by Harvey Blaney in The Wesleyan Bible Commentary (1966). Ralph Earle, Beacon Bible Commentary (1967), combined the historical-critical, the church-historical, and the futurist views.
I assume that Revelation has a contemporary and future message as well as a first-century meaning. Then, now, and the future—these are the inescapable time frames for readers of Revelation. To understand its message, we must begin by trying to state what John meant when he originally wrote. But the Bible's message should not be locked into its first-century setting. The themes of Revelation continue to have an abiding value. Moreover, the book continually speaks of the future coming of Jesus Christ. That second coming of Christ cannot be ignored. The text points us toward the future.
The symbols function with several layers of meaning. For instance, Babylon refers to the city of Rome whose armies burned Jerusalem in a.d. 70. The Roman Empire is the first-century version of the Neo-Babylonian Empire that destroyed Jerusalem in 587 b.c. Also, Babylon refers to any city in history that becomes a center of idolatry and power used against the church. The leopard beast (13:1-10) has three meanings. It recalls Antiochus IV of Dan 7; it refers to Domitian in John's day; and it applies to any political ruler who persecutes the church in any age.
This amillennial stance occasionally will be contrasted with the futurist/millennial approach of J.B. Smith.
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