Let the Word Speak!

Introduction

While many well-respected Christian leaders, including Martin Luther, have dismissed the book of Revelation as confusing and misleading, many others have found deep meaning and hope in this book across the centuries. Our goal in studying this book is to find that meaning as well.

There are some fundamental principles to keep in mind in order to understand Revelation:

John wrote this book for first century Christians

This may seem like an obvious statement, but the key to reading and understanding Revelation is to keep from reading it as a contemporary literary work. For starters, this book was written in the apocalyptic tradition, one that used bizarre imagery to speak on an emotional level, and one for which we have no counterpart in the twentieth century. An apocalypse is as foreign to a twentieth century audience as a science fiction book would be to a first century audience.

The book is prevalent with familiar images for the first century Christians that are unfamiliar to us. Fortunately, many of these images come from the Old Testament, so we can make up for our relative lack of familiarity with scriptures with extra study. Other images, other idioms, and other shared experiences are completely out of our understanding.

John intended for this book to be understood

Many scholars want to interpret colossal secrets into the difficult passages of this book, and draw out of juxtapositions of images and parallels across history complex schemes of interpretation. However, there are no hidden secrets in Revelation, either for the first century Christians or for us.

John did not want his audience to study for months to unlock what he was saying. In fact, each time where John does identify a topic as a “mystery,” he goes to great lengths to explain what it means. He wanted them to draw assurance immediately from his apocalypse, and he made certain that they – and we – could do that.

Understanding Revelation requires patience

It’s a lot more work for us today to get at the meaning in Revelation than it is the other New Testament books. I have compared studying Revelation to eating celery – you get nutrition, but you have to chew a lot. This is partly due to the cultural differences in first century audiences and us and partly due to the emphasis on fantastic imagery in apocalyptic literature.

We can’t forget that we today are a very hurried, impatient people. John’s original audience didn’t listen to 3-minute Top 40 hit songs and didn’t solve family crises in a one-hour television drama. Most of the early Christians could not read, so they were eager listeners, with what we would consider today phenomenal memories. They relied more than we on communal worship to learn, to be stimulated, and to be challenged, and they would hear the Word of God read and preached for hours at a time. Remember that Paul once lead a worship service that lasted all night!

In that context, John intended the book of Revelation to be read to the churches in Asia Minor in one sitting – cover to cover. The people wouldn’t dissect the passages the way that we tend to do, but they would be very familiar with the images and the meanings, and they would understand the parallels and structures that tie the book together.

While studying Revelation, in the way that John wrote it for the first century Christians, is a lot of work, but it can be done, and it brings us face to face with issues of God’s judgement and grace, and with the hope that we should have always in our Lord Jesus Christ.

Does Revelation predict the future?

Let me rephrase this question: does Revelation tell us what we can expect for the final battle of Armageddon on earth? Does it predict the rise of the Russian army against the nation of Israel? Isn’t the reformation of the nation of Israel in 1949 a sign of the second coming predicted in Revelation? Shouldn’t we study Revelation carefully to see what will happen to the world in the coming decades?

In my opinion, emphatically no.

John’s apocalyptic writings, just as those written by Daniel, Ezekiel, and Isaiah, were written to the people of the prophets’ time to encourage them to be strong and faithful in the face of particularly difficult times. When read and studied in the context of those difficult times, these books make sense, and carry a message for us similar to the more traditional scriptures. For me to interpret these scriptures as predicting events unique to our time, I would have to find passages in the scriptures that make no sense until interpreted against twentieth century experiences, and I have not come across any such passages.

Many people, however, choose not to find complete meaning to Revelation within it’s first century context, and instead they search for interpretations that make sense only in our culture. In Appendix A and Appendix B, I give a summary and my assessment of two popular current day interpretations of Revelation, Hal Lindsey’s Apocalypse Code and Robert Van Kampen’s The Code. Both of these use as the primary foundation of their books the principle that the imagery in Revelation must be interpreted in twentieth century contexts and as literally as possible. In essence, they argue that Christians in all the centuries before have been totally confused by Revelation because they don’t live today. However, their bias towards modern explanation for first century figurative language is dangerously close to the industrial age scientific bias that brought us the “In Search Of” phenomenon during the 1970s, the movement that tried to portray apocalyptic literature and many of the miracles of the Old and New Testaments as “best effort” descriptions of space craft and aliens by our ignorant ancestors.

The antidote for such cultural bias is a careful reading of Revelation, along with references back into the Old Testament, to see the material from Israel’s past that John used to reassure the churches in Asia Minor. It is that task that this paper seeks to accomplish.

Copyright © 2014 Jonathan Morris
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