The following article, along with the ‘Wagon Train’ allegory (by Edgar Parkyns), sets forth the historicists’ interpretation of The Book of Revelation.
“It’s a beautiful letter but the middle part puzzles me so badly I can’t make head or tail of it.”
My Introduction (Rick)
Many and varied are the interpretations of the Book of Revelation. Some would admit to not really understanding the meaning and purpose of this book at all, whilst others will state with confidence that thus and thus is unquestionably the message and interpretation thereof. It is not at all my intention to enter into debate on this subject here, I would though like to share with you this delightful allegorical story, which when I first heard it was a great blessing to me.
This story has been told in the context of teaching what is known as the Historic Interpretation of the Book of Revelation (as with other interpretations there are doubtless several variations on this theme). One element that is of informative interest in this allegory is the mention of the origins of two other perspectives that have been offered as interpretations of the Book of Revelation. It may be helpful if I just mention in advance the names connected with these views, and what those views are.
Luis De Alcazar, (1554-1613) of Seville, Spain – taught that all the events of the Book of Revelation occurred in the first century A.D. In other words, it essentially has nothing to teach us today. This view is known as preterism. So far as I know there are few who still hold to this belief today (?).
Francisco Ribera (1537-1591) of Salamanca (also in Spain) – taught that the central events of the Book of Revelation were all yet to come. Such happenings would take place during a special seven-year period after the ‘rapture’ of the Church. This view is known as futurism.
It was my personal experience for some years into my Christian life that the only view I ever heard of (from books, tapes and conversations with other Christians) was the futurist view. Many are the variants on this theme including: pre, mid and post tribulation rapture etc. It was only in listening to some tapes on the subject of Church history (by Edgar Parkyns) that I came across the historic teaching on Revelation.
If preterism says that it is all done, and futurism says it is all to come, then historicism says: It started to happen from the time that the Book of Revelation was first written, it has continued to happen throughout the Church’s history, it is still happening now, and (finally!) it will continue to happen until Jesus returns – (and some parts glimpse beyond that to!). In other words (I quote Mr Parkyns from memory) – “Revelation is a love-letter written to The Church, for The Church, concerning The Church.”
I have no wish to argue, battle or cajole on this subject. I only hope that if you are unaware of the historical understanding of this Book that this following piece may give you some feel for it. If you are someone who is already determinedly futurist in your outlook then maybe, just maybe, you are yet unaware of the origins and reasons for why this interpretation was first taught. This narrative alludes to those origins. Either way I do hope that all will appreciate the simple picture that this story illustrates. It has been transcribed from tape.
The Wagon Train – An Allegory by Edgar Parkyns
During the years 1850 to 1890 there was a tremendous trek westwards across the plains from the eastern United States to the far west as folks looked for new homes in that magnificent territory. I want you to imagine that a young bridegroom has gone out west to prepare a home for himself and his bride, and in due course he is going to receive her. This is an analogy of Jesus going to prepare a place to receive His Bride, the Church.
The bride stays in New York for some time getting ready, and then she joins a wagon train going west. It’s rather a mixed wagon train, with all kinds of people in it; but the only way to cross that area is in such company. Her bridegroom has sent her a letter from away out west, but the letter doesn’t arrive in time to meet her as she sets off. It reaches her after she has begun her journey and has already experienced a few skirmishes with Red Indians in the Great Lakes area. She finds that her letter has been opened – those responsible in the camp have examined it but, not being able to understand much of it because it is written in code, they let her have it.
As soon as camp is formed for the night and she can get away into her covered wagon, she lights the paraffin lamp and reads her beloved’s letter. How her heart thrills to the glorious description of him on the opening page. And then there are some very straight words of exhortation to her, how she is to behave and keep herself pure, and she takes all that to heart for she realises that there are many temptations as well as dangers on this journey.
But then she comes to a section of the letter, which absolutely bewilders her, about beasts and horns and mountains and all kinds of horrors. It just doesn’t make sense, and so she hurries through that and comes to the closing part. She is very thrilled with what she reads there – it describes the time when her beloved will meet her. He comes riding onto the scene and takes her to be with himself. There is a description of the heavenly home, and the glories that will follow. She is thrilled with her letter and puts it away with a thankful heart.
At the earliest opportunity, next time they’ve formed camp, the wagons drawn into a ring, she gets away and looks into her letter again; and it puzzles her, all that middle section. Whoever is this woman in scarlet? Whatever is that terrible beast? “I hope I don’t meet him”, she thinks. Day after day she puzzles over the letter, and becomes more and more separated from the rest of the camp. They wonder whatever is happening to her, until someone says “Look here, there are a couple of Jesuit priests in the camp, why don’t you go to one of them and tell him what’s troubling you?” She says, “Thank you, I think I’ll do just that.”
She goes across to meet one of the Jesuit priests. He says he’s been waiting for her to come to him as he’s seen that she’s very troubled, and asks what it is that she wants to say. “Well”, she says, “it’s like this – I have a letter…” “You’d better give me your whole confession”, he says, “then I can put you right.” “Oh no”, she replies, “it’s not that. It’s a letter from my husband. It’s a beautiful letter but the middle part puzzles me so badly I can’t make head or tail of it.”
He says “My dear, I know your husband quite well, and the leader of our whole party knows him very well, he’s one of his closest friends. So let me have a look at your letter, I’ll be able to explain it for you.” So this Jesuit, whose name happens to be Alcazar – he’s a Spaniard – takes the letter and looks at it. In due course he comes back to her and tells her there’s nothing to worry about as her husband was writing about the skirmishes with the Red Indians that took place just as they were leaving New York, only the letter didn’t reach her in time.
When she requests her letter back, the priest replies, “Well, I don’t think it’s good for you, it’s obviously been making you ill” and it is with great difficulty that she finally gets it back with half a promise not to read it any more. But still she is not content. She thinks, “What on earth did my beloved write this long letter to me for, if it was all about those few little fights with Indians that we had at the beginning of our journey?”
Eventually she goes to the other Jesuit priest, whose name is Ribera, and tells him the story and he again offers to hear her confession. She explains about her letter and how the other priest said it covered things, which had already happened, and she gives her reasons why she doesn’t feel that’s a sensible explanation. He takes her letter, and when in due course he returns it, he tells her that the middle part is all about the future – after her husband has met her and taken her away. He says “You’ll be raptured; I know it’s not written plainly in the letter, but then of course it’s one of those letters; you’ll be caught away before any of these things happen.”
“But what about the great beast that comes out of the sea?” she asks. “You’ll never see him, he lives in a lake on the far side of the Rocky Mountains. Now come along and enjoy yourself with the rest of us.”
So she thanks him and accepts this very reasonable explanation, especially on such strong authority, and presently joins in the fun. There’s a magnificent woman in scarlet there, who introduces her to the leader of the group, who has been longing to meet her. They have some grand parties together and soon she’s in the thick of the fun and wondering why she ever moped away trying to understand that letter when it didn’t really concern her at all.
She gradually forgets the promises she made to her beloved; they fade into the background. She becomes more and more enamoured with the leader of the party. He tells her about her husband and says, “In fact, I’m his very best friend, I know all his secrets, and I’m here operating on his behalf so you can trust me.” And she does trust him, until one night after the revelry she’s almost seduced, and flees shaken and in tears. She rushes out to the perimeter of the camp and sees against the skyline two men keeping guard. She watches them for some time and then they see her and, drawing near, they say “You should be back in camp you know, it’s not safe for you out here.”
She says she can’t go back as she can’t trust anybody. The guards reply “You must go back, your husband told you to go this way – you’ll just have to go.” “But I don’t know what to do, can you help me? It’s my husband’s letter that puzzles me.” “Well” they say, “I dare say we could explain that letter to you. We know your husband well and we promised to keep guard of this camp and look after you. But wouldn’t it be better if you found out the meaning for yourself? If we explain it to you, you may not believe us. Have you got any of your husband’s old letters?” “Yes”, she says “a whole bundle full!”
“Right – re-read your husband’s old letters and look for clues, and we think you’ll find the meaning of this one you’re holding. Read them, Genesis to Jude, the old letters – the clues are all there.”
So she goes back, thanking them, keeping herself separate from the revelries of the camp, especially from that scarlet woman. She looks in the old letters and begins to find clue after clue. She looks again at her husband’s letter and it begins to make sense. She realises that the very people who deceived and almost seduced her were written about in the letter and she failed to recognise it.
From then on, she begins to notice the terrain as they cross a river, as they reach a mountain, as they meet a dangerous party of Indians, and she looks in the letter and there they are fitting into place one after another. Oh the excitement of it! She’s getting near the end of the journey; she can keep herself pure now as she looks at the letter and watches events as they pass by so rapidly; her whole attitude is changed. She now has a new joy and assurance and feels that she is in control of the situation. She watches those two men on the exterior of the camp and signals to them happily. They can see now that she is going to endure to the end.
Situations grow tense, the enemy is drawing in and the evil in the camp is coming to light. Disaster seems to be rushing in on every hand. Suddenly, over the horizon, comes her beloved with a thousand cavalry, riding across the hills to her rescue to take her home. At last her troubles are over – the letter has done its work.
The following is some further explanation on this subject given by Edgar:
A Message for the Church Age
Now, I suggest that the above allegory illustrates what the Book of Revelation is about. It was to show the early Church things that would shortly come to pass, but is also to show us things that will lead right up to the Second Coming. Those who follow the Bible will get to know what it is about and will be warned in their time.
The early Church realised this and from their martyrs’ memoirs it is clear that they drew much of their strength from the Book of Revelation. If you had asked them in the 3rd century where they found themselves in Revelation they would have replied “Under the fifth seal (Revelation 6.9) – we’re the first company of martyrs but there’s another company to follow”.
The early Church was guided through her bitterest hours of suffering with the help of the letter that Jesus wrote. There are many references to it in their writings. They thought that Christ would come soon, as indeed He intended every generation of Christians to think, and this hope is present in all the New Testament. All Christians should be like those who stand with loins girded and lamps trimmed – those who watch for their Lord. He didn’t want any generation to fall asleep and say “The Lord is not coming in our time”.
The Book of Revelation was written with concealed meanings, to unfold its secrets little by little as they were needed down through the centuries until that blessed time when He shall appear. If we can see history as I believe God foresaw it then it begins to make a glorious pattern and piece by piece it fits into place. We will find where we are and what is expected of us in our day.
Remember Revelation 1.19, where God gives John a threefold vision, “Write the things which you have seen” (i.e. the vision of the Lord Jesus Christ in chapter 1) “and the things which are” (i.e. the condition of the seven churches of Asia) “and the things which will take place after this” (i.e. things that were mostly in the future for John, but have in many cases passed into history from our standpoint). Jesus time and again pointed out to His disciples how prophecy had already been fulfilled, often under their very noses, when they were looking for the answers in the future. It is a common failing not to recognise prophecy already fulfilled in history. Our natural tendency is to make guesses about the future – it’s hard work to look into history and see whether the wonderful pattern given in Revelation can be overlaid onto history and give meaning to it. I believe it can.
Futurists and Preterists
The concept of everything in Revelation being in the future has been widely held since the middle of the 19th century. But before then, from about the 11th century, the historical (or `historicist’) interpretation of Revelation was prevalent. This view sees the prophecies of Revelation 6 to 19 as relating to the whole of the Church age from apostolic times to our Lord’s coming. This interpretation views the Roman Catholic church system as the fulfilment of the visions of the beasts, the prostitute and Babylon (Revelation chapters 13,17 and 18), and it names the papacy, heading that Church system, as the predicted Antichrist, or man of sin. This view was held with conviction by the Reformers of the 16th century. Before long this historical understanding of the Book of Revelation was received as a self-evident and fundamental truth among Protestant churches everywhere. For example, the Epistle Dedicatory printed at the front of our King James (Authorised) Version of the Bible refers to the pope as `that man of sin’. King James thought it quite safe and in agreement with popular opinion to allow the translators to have this printed at the front of the Bible.
Now during the Reformation, the Bible began to be freely circulated – more and more people were reading the Book of Revelation, and seeing these things for themselves. The Roman Catholic Church couldn’t prevent this, so they had to produce their own alternative interpretations of Revelation to deflect the witness of the Bible against them.
The Roman Catholics began the Counter-Reformation to try to rescue their Church from the ruin facing it during the Reformation. The Jesuits were devoted servants of the papacy, and they tried several ways to bring the people of Europe back to the Roman Church – by education, persecution, diplomacy; such gross diplomacy, in fact, that they were turned out of every country in Europe for political intrigue. And it was Jesuits who put forward alternative explanations of Revelation to mislead people, and thus relieve the papacy of its condemnation by Scripture.
I mentioned the names of two Jesuits prominent in this area in my introductory allegory. One was called Alcasar (of Seville in Spain), who in 1614 began to teach that everything in Revelation was fulfilled in the days of pagan Rome (this is what is called the `preterist’ view). But he didn’t get a lot of success among the evangelicals.
Another Jesuit named Francisco Ribera (1537-1591), of Salamanca (also in Spain), put it all in the future; he was the father of the futurist view, which lay dormant for over 250 years. Ribera’s views found their way into the Protestant camp in the early 19th century. J.N.Darby and the Plymouth Brethren were among the early Protestant exponents of this view. Their literal interpretation of Bible prophecy and their ideas on the timing of the rapture and the Lord’s Second Coming (which we’ll look at later) attracted them to this futurist system of interpretation.
In the early 19th century there was a great spiritual vacuum in Britain and America. In addition, the tremendous upheavals then sweeping across Europe – the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars – were causing many to feel that the Lord’s Coming must be very near. All sorts of teachings about the end times sprang up to fill the emptiness that people felt. An outstanding example is the terrible Millerite fiasco in the USA in the 1840s. A man named William Miller (the founder of the Adventists, the forerunners of the Seventh-Day Adventists) fixed the date of the Lord’s Return as 22 October 1843. His followers gave property away, left crops to spoil in the fields and climbed into the hilltops to await their rapture. (The disappointed Miller didn’t give up and fixed the date a year later, in 1844.) People like J.N.Darby, Edward Irving and others also found in that spiritually starved generation a ready audience for their futuristic ideas. All the cunning of that Jesuit, Ribera, has had its fruit in the publication of lots of extraordinary literature.
Acknowledgements and book details:
All of the above (with the exception of my own introduction) has been taken directly from the book ‘His Waiting Bride’. This book was edited and arranged by Robert and Carol Betts (taken from messages given by Mr E.F. Parkyns) and has been reproduced here with their permission and help – Thank you!
Related Reading ~ Book Review: His Waiting Bride ~ Edgar Parkyns