Doesn’t a futurist interpretation deny first-century readers any understanding or application?

Many evangelical commentators argue that holding to a futurist interpretation of Revelation ignores the original context in which John was writing. In John’s day, Christians were being persecuted by the Roman Emperor Domitian, and they needed encouragement for their persecution and suffering. Thus if John was writing a book about the end of human history, wouldn’t this neglect the needs of his original audience? Moreover, why (they argue) would John write a book that could only be understood by a future generation—perhaps 2,000 years in the future—rather than a first-century audience? For instance, scholar Craig Blomberg argues,

The most fundamental hermeneutical principle to follow in interpreting Revelation is to look for meanings that could have been intelligible to first-century Christians in Asia Minor, not hidden meanings decipherable only by people centuries later who think they might be living in the days immediately prior to Christ’s return.[1]

Likewise, Osborne writes, “It is highly unlikely that God gave these visions to speak only to Christians of the last fifty years or so (after Israel became a nation).”[2] In response to this view, a number of observations can be made:

First, biblical prophets often made predictions that did not concern their original audience. For instance, Jeremiah made a future prediction that did not concern his immediate audience (Jer. 25:11-12), but it did impact later believers like Daniel (Dan. 9:2-3). Isaiah predicted the coming of King Cyrus to rescue a future generation of Jews—not his original audience (Isa. 45:1). Therefore, it is demonstrably false to think that every section of Scripture needs to be immediately applicable to the original audience. God may have purposes beyond this audience. In fact, later generations would have had a clearer understanding of these predictions than the original audience.

Second, biblical prophets didn’t always understand the content of their own prophecies. Peter writes, “This salvation was something even the prophets wanted to know more about when they prophesied about this gracious salvation prepared for you. 11 They wondered what time or situation the Spirit of Christ within them was talking about when he told them in advance about Christ’s suffering and his great glory afterward” (1 Pet. 1:10-11 NLT). Clearly, according to Peter, the prophets didn’t understand all of their prophecies. Moreover, Daniel explains that he was confused over the content of his own prophecy (Dan. 12:4, 9-10). If the OT prophets didn’t understand their own prophecies, surely their audience would be just as confused. Specifically, God told Daniel: “Go your way, Daniel, for these words are concealed and sealed up until the end time. 10 Many will be purged, purified and refined, but the wicked will act wickedly; and none of the wicked will understand, but those who have insight will understand” (Dan. 12:9-10). In other words, God promised Daniel that believers at the end of human history would be able to know what these prophecies meant, even if he couldn’t.

Third, the book of Revelation did contain some application for first-century believers—even if it wasn’t wholly intended for them. For instance, chapters 2 and 3 were solely devoted to the first-century church. While chapters 2 and 3 were primarily intended for the first-century church, modern readers can still glean application from them. Likewise, while chapters 4-22 are for a future generation of believers, first-century readers could still gain application from these chapters. For instance, Peter writes about the end of history (2 Pet. 3:10-11), but he makes immediate application for the believers at the time (see v.14). In the same way, when we read about past churches (e.g. Corinth, Thessalonica, etc.), we can draw present application. The same is true about the future predictions of the believers at the end of history. We can also draw present application—even if we’re not living in that epoch of history.

Moreover, since Christ could return at any time (Mt. 24:36), the early Christians lived in a constant state of expectancy. They weren’t sure if Christ would return in their lifetimes, but they believed that he could return. Thus, from their perspective as first-century readers, the events of Revelation could’ve been fulfilled (c.f. Rev. 1:1). Retrospectively, we know that this didn’t happen, but they didn’t know that at the time. The same is true for our age in history. God wrote the book of Revelation in such a way that all generations in the church would wonder if it was about them, providing a constant source of expectancy and application in the lives of all believers.

Fourth, even interpreters who insist on this view point out that the first-century readers couldn’t understand everything in the letter. For instance, in regards to the number “666” of Revelation 13:18, Osborne writes, “In the final analysis, we must remain uncertain regarding the actual meaning of 666. The above discussion is as far as we can go; only first-century readers knew, though it is hard to say how much they knew.”[3] Here, Osborne seriously doubts whether the first-century audience could understand this symbol. But if they couldn’t understand this, then who can? From a futurist view,[4] believers at the end of human history will be given special insight into these things that we might lack currently (Dan. 12:10).


[1] Blomberg, Craig. From Pentecost to Patmos: an Introduction to Acts through Revelation. Nashville, TN: B & H Academic, 2006. 513-514.

[2] Osborne, Grant. Revelation. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. 2002. 11.

[3] Emphasis mine. Osborne, Grant. Revelation. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. 2002. 521.

[4] I hope not to harp on Osborne’s perspective too harshly or misrepresent his view here. He himself holds to a futurist view, and I found his insights into Revelation extremely helpful throughout his commentary. However, I disagree that everything in Revelation should be read purely through first-century interpretive lenses.