Getting the Right Doctrine from the Wrong Text: Misreading the Book of Revelation

Interpreting the Bible is not always easy, and that’s especially true when it comes to the book of Revelation. Peter admits that there are “some things hard to understand” (2 Pet. 3:16; also Heb. 5:11). Sticking with the actual text is a No. 1 priority. An interpreter can’t go beyond what’s actually in the text.

For example, I was following comments about the meaning of Genesis 6:3 in which the following is found: “My Spirit shall not strive with man forever, because he also is flesh; nevertheless, his days shall be one hundred and twenty years.”

Some interpret the 120 years to refer to the upper limit of the lifespan of humans, while others argue that it refers to the number of years God would abate His wrath in light of man’s sinfulness at that time before the flood

Some comments claimed that the 120 years should be multiplied by the number 50, the number of years in a biblical generation and the Jubilee number, thus, totaling 6000 years. From this added element, the commenter went on to add even more to what is not in the text by claiming that we are about to enter the seventh millennium, specifically, the thousand years of Revelation 20:4: from creation to the birth of Jesus there were 4000 years, and from the time of the birth of Jesus until the year 2001 (or earlier if Jesus was born around 5 BC) 2000 years. You can see a problem: This would put us at least 17 years in the thousand years of Revelation 20:4.

The biggest problem, however, is that there is nothing in the text about multiplying 120 by 50 years and then extrapolating to claim that it’s all about events in the distant future from Noah’s day. Bruce K. Waltke offers a contextual interpretation:

a hundred and twenty years. This is probably the span of time between this proclamation and the flood (see 5:32; 7:6), rather than the years of an individual’s lifespan. God’s judgment is seasoned by grace (cf. 1 Peter 3:20). The 120-year delay allows time for people to repent and provides testimony of the coming judgment through Noah and the huge ark.1

Here’s one I ran across in my study of Bible prophecy as it relates to the destruction of Jerusalem that took place in AD 70. Consider Acts 2:16. “This is what was spoken of through the prophet Joel,” a reference to the events of that day. To get around this clear statement, Thomas Ice adds the word “like” to the passage: “But this is [like] that which was spoken by the prophet Joel.”2 The word “like” is not found in the passage.

Many more examples could be given. But there is another way to misinterpret the Bible. Trying to prove a doctrine from a text when the text is not about that doctrine even though the doctrine may be true and proved from other passages.

The following is a recent example:

Conservative Christian brothers and activists Jason and David Benham believe that the verses on the “great harlot” in the book of Revelation can be linked to the sexual perversion sweeping society today.

“This year, given the current sociopolitical context of the sexual revolution, the ‘great harlot’ in Revelation 17 jumped off the pages at us,” they wrote earlier this week on WND.com. (Christian Post)

The Bentham brothers are correct that “sexual perversion” is taking place in our country, but is Revelation 17:1-2 dealing with today’s “sexual perversion,” or is “sexual perversion” being appropriated to describe political collusion between the “great harlot” and the “scarlet beast” (v. 3) upon whom the woman sits? To use Revelation 17-18 to condemn sexual perversion is to miss the point Jesus is making. Revelation is about covenant betrayal by first-century Israel.

The issue of sexual perversion can be found in passages like Romans 1:18-22; 1 Cor. 5:1-2; 6:9-11; 1 Timothy 1:8-11) and can be used to describe what’s taking place in our day as it was happening in the first century.

Revelation 17-18 is using sexual symbols and language to describe how first-century Jerusalem colluded with Rome against the body of Christ. This isn’t the first time this type of comparison had been made. Consider the following from the book of Ezekiel:

Son of man, make known to Jerusalem her abominations and say, “Thus says the Lord GOD to Jerusalem, ‘Thus you were adorned with gold and silver, and your dress was of fine linen, silk and embroidered cloth. You ate fine flour, honey and oil; so you were exceedingly beautiful and advanced to royalty…. Then your fame went forth among the nations on account of your beauty, for it was perfect because of My splendor which I bestowed on you,’” declares the Lord GOD. “But you trusted in your beauty and played the harlot because of your fame, and you poured out your harlotries on every passer-by who might be willing” (Ezek. 16:2-3, 14-16).

Ezekiel 16 (take time to read the entire chapter) reads very much like Revelation 17 and 18 (also Ezek. 23:29-30; Nahum 3:4-6). Similar to the way Jerusalem prostituted herself to the nations under the Old Covenant, Jerusalem in the lead up to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 prostituted herself to Rome and the nations. When the Jewish leaders were given the chance to release Jesus and accept Him as their king, the chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar” (John 19:15). The Jews didn’t stop with Jesus. They colluded with Rome to persecute the followers of Jesus. This is why that generation is described as a “perverse generation” (Acts 2:40):

[T]he Jews specifically charged Christians with resistance to Roman rule. Acts 17:6-7 recounts how the Jews dragged Christians before the Thessalonican city authorities charging that “they all act contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus.” . . . The Jewish community was using the Roman judicial apparatus to stir up trouble for the Christians.3

The “scarlet beast” is first-century Rome and the “great harlot” is Jerusalem, “the great city” (Rev. 17:5, 18; 18:10, 16, 17, 18, 19, 21). Jerusalem was New Testament Babylon, the great city where Jesus was crucified, also identified as Sodom and Egypt (11:8). The “great harlot” (Jerusalem/Israel) was going to be judged (17:1), an event that took place in AD 70 and is described in detail in the Olivet Discourse (Matt. 24:1-34)4 and symbolically in the book of Revelation. The events in the book of Revelation were about “the things which must soon take place” (1:1) because “the time is near” (1:3).

If time permits, I’ll continue defending the position that Revelation 17-18 are not describing events in our future but are describing what was about to happen in that first-century generation to the city of Jerusalem and the nation of Israel.

The Bentham brothers are correct about today’s sexual deviance, but they miss the mark by referencing Revelation 17-18. While the events described in Revelation 17-18 are about first-century events, it does not mean there is no contemporary application. When the church colludes with the present powers against the Word of God, whether they are political, religious, educational, or economic powers, it has prostituted itself and become a harlot. The same judgment that fell on Jerusalem in AD 70 could fall on today’s apostate churches and their leaders.

  1. Genesis: A Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 117. []
  2. Thomas Ice, “Acts,” Prophecy Study Bible, ed. Tim LaHaye, Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers, 2000), 1187, note on Acts 2:16. []
  3. Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., The Divorce of Israel: A Redemptive-Historical Interpretation of Revelation, 2 vols. (Dallas, GA: Tolle Lege Press, 2018), 2:411. []
  4. Gary DeMar, Wars and Rumors of Wars (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision Press, 2017). []
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