Let the Word Speak!

Background for Revelation

Who

Many commentators believe that the author of this letter was John the Apostle, who also was the author of the Gospel of John. Mainstream church officials through the ages have attributed this letter to John. Others point out similarities in concepts and phrases with other of John’s writings, and question whether any other first century leader would have dared refer to himself as simply “John.”

Other commentators point to another John, known as “John the Divine.” They base this difference on (a) the direct reference to the author in Revelation vs. the oblique references in the Gospel, (b) an elegant use of Greek in the gospel vs. a poignant but clumsy use in the Revelation, (c) the emphasis in Revelation that the author was a Prophet without claim to being an Apostle, and (d) the time lag.

While I prefer to think the author is John the Apostle, it is fortunate that the identity of the author doesn’t matter much to the content.

Where

At the time of the vision, and most likely the time of the writing, John had been exiled to the Isle of Patmos by the Roman government. This move showed the recognition by Rome that John could not be allowed to continue preaching, but that his martyrdom would be too much of an inspiration to the Christians. Therefore, they purposefully isolated him. We must conclude that the Roman guards carefully limited his access to outsiders, and carefully censored any materials John sent to others.

Patmos was used as a prison colony, with the prisoners used to work the mines on that island. There is no indication that John worked the mines, possibly because of his age.

To Whom

This letter was explicitly addressed to seven churches in Asia Minor, which is now western Turkey. Acts discusses the spread of the Gospel to Asia, by now well established. The area shared Eastern philosophies with Israel while having close ties to Rome, but at a significantly long distance from Rome.

We believe the first section of the letter addressed real issues and problems at real churches in Asia, churches with which the author was very familiar and probably where he served before being sent to exile.

However, the number “7” was of overwhelming significance to the Christians. Seven is the sum of three (representing the Trinity) and four (representing the four corners of the earth), so seven symbolizes a completeness of both heaven and earth. Therefore, John’s choice of seven communicated to the rest of the Christian faith that this letter is truly for all Christians everywhere.

What

This book shows the skill at which it was constructed at many levels, presenting traditional messages and methods with radical alterations and emphases in a way to evade the stifling grip of John’s captors and censors. This multi-dimensional artistry is inspired!

Letter

John likely had two purposes for sending this Revelation as a letter. The first was likely for deception — the censors would look less seriously at a letter than they would an authoritative book. Likewise, John’s use of symbols that appear bizarre when taken literally could have reassured the censors that this old man’s lunatic visions would hurt his credibility with the Christians in Asia. However, these symbols would have been well understood by his audience, given the frequent references to the Old Testament and to common symbols of the early Christian subculture.

However, the choice of letter form also emphasized the focus, the timeliness, and the urgency John felt about his writings. From this form, we should assume that John didn’t mean this book to be used as fodder for debates but as a call for an immediate response.

Prophesy (in Biblical terms, not ours!)

John repeatedly refers to the prophesies in the book, a term that was not used in the traditional apocalyptic form. John’s intent was, in the spirit of Isaiah and Jeremiah, to challenge the Christian church to look at what they were doing and acknowledge the results if they continued without change. This is closer to a modern “futurist” than it is a tabloid, “Jeanne Dixon” style of future guessing.

Apocalypse

Our culture has no equivalent to apocalyptic literature. The role culture and context plays in understanding meaning cannot be overestimated. This point was illustrated in one of the commentaries I read, as follows: school children in the 1960s were shown a tree-lined street in Moscow, and asked to interpret. They mused that the trees were to hide military activity, or were erected to keep slave laborers busy. Presented with tree-lined streets in Washington DC, they commented on the beauty and shade.

Apocryphal literature was written to be shared with the people, not to be cloistered in the synagogues for dissection. It was written to be heard, not read, and to be presented in dramatic fashion.

Our earliest examples of Jewish apocalyptic literature include Daniel and Ezekiel, both at the time of the exile of Judah to Babylon and the fall of the Southern Kingdom. These visions of a triumphant God gave encouragement to a defeated people.

Between 200 BC and 200 AD, many apocalyptic books were written, attempting to protest the occupation by Rome of Israel. However, this rebellion in literature and in action contrasts with the recognized benefits of the “Pax Romana” and the privileged status given to the Jewish faith by the Romans.

So, what John has done is to take a literary form that would confuse the censors, but would resonate clearly with the minority status of his audience, calling them with urgency to draw on God for their strength and to celebrate in the final triumph of God over the evil in the world.

Another Contemporary Style Conflict

Interestingly, the opening to Revelation makes clear that the significant person of this book was Jesus, as the giver of the Revelation, not John, the recipient. The repeated emphasis of the person of Jesus, finishing with the ultimate triumph of God in the New Heaven and New Earth, contradicts a pattern of self-centeredness in modern worship. Our songs often celebrate how “we have been redeemed” more than they celebrate the Redeemer. We fall in line with societal norms that emphasize our value, empowerment, and self-esteem, which can contradict Jesus’ teachings of humility.

I read a parable of a Christian teacher using Zen-like methods with two students. One told the teacher, “I am humble,” to which the teacher replied, “No, you are not.” The second student told the teacher, “I am not humble,” to which the teacher replied, “You are correct.” The point was we cannot achieve humility when our thoughts start with us rather than with God.

Based on our human-centeredness, portions of the Bible, and portions of the book of Revelation, confront us with large-scale human suffering, to which we seek for an explanation. To this, the book of Revelation reminds us that true service is about God, not about us, and that the final triumph of the all-loving God is the relevant fact, not human knowledge or human rationalization of the events leading to that point.

Historical Background

The first indication of the time significance of this book is the traditional placement of it as the final book in the Canon. As such, it provides a “book end” to the creation story in Genesis, and provides a sense of conclusion to the message told throughout the Bible.

Placement of this book in the history of the early church follows from this timeline:

  • Death and resurrection of Jesus
  • Pentecost with the Apostles and disciples in Israel
  • The persecution by the Jews and the spread of Christians to neighboring areas
  • The growth of gentile churches and the missionary journeys of Paul
  • Nero (54 – 68 A.D.), marked by persecution and Paul’s second imprisonment
  • ”Normal” emperors Vespasian (69-79) and Titus (79-81), who repealed emperor worship
  • Domitian (81 – 96), during which time Revelation was written.

Domitian reestablished emperor worship, and demanded that people refer to him as “Our Lord and God Domitian,” a sacrilege to Christians. Under his reign, Christians were frequently the target of mob violence.

However, archaeological findings within the last twenty years dispute the long-held assumption of widespread state-sponsored persecution of Christians, as under Nero. Instead, orders and correspondence from Domitian indicate a “don’t ask” policy that would imprison Christians for a time if they refused to acknowledge his deity, but otherwise didn’t care what they did.

The significance of this different historical interpretation is massive! By the traditional thought, Revelation was a ray of hope to Christians facing extermination. Using this new interpretation, we would have a church that finds it inconvenient to be a Christian, and at time dangerous, but nowhere near as much as in their past. Those that once provided first-hand knowledge of Jesus are gone, as are most that would tell of Paul, Apollos, James, Peter, or the other great leaders. It is a “modern” church in which the mightiest threat is “harmless” compromise.

This interpretation rings true in John’s warnings to some of the seven churches. It also adds a twist of modern relevance to the book of Revelation that is not present in any other book in the Bible, as John calls the church to recognize the threats of “going along.”

Recap

Revelation is a foreign style of literature, that contains many elements that we cannot decode or interpret, based on the loss of information and the changes in culture.

It’s purpose is not of predicting the future, but of calling for action in the church at the time of the writing and down across the ages, especially given the similarities of the challenges of the church in 95 A.D. with the challenges of today.

The message of the book serves to remind us that God is in charge, not us, and that God will ultimately prevail.

Copyright © 2014 Jonathan Morris
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