Monday, August 20, 2012

A Guide To Interpreting the Book of Revelation

My BA is in Greek and the last Greek class I took was a self-designed course in which I translated the Book of Revelation from the Robinson/Pierpont text. I ended up editing and self-publishing my translation but it could use some revision. I worked my way through Beale's commentary on the Greek text of Revelation as well as a number of other commentaries and articles in theological/Biblical studies journals. The guidelines I'm going to suggest did not come from inside of my own head but rather a synthesis of what I consider the best advice that I've found in various books and articles. But I don't know of any books or articles that bring these all together.

1. Revelation begins with "The Revelation of Jesus Christ." It's not the revelation of the Antichrist or the revelation of the United Nations or the revelation of the nation state of Israel. This is the Revelation of Jesus Christ. If you're reading commentary on the book of Revelation and the author manages to go for quite some time without talking about Jesus there is something completely wrong with his approach. This is "The Revelation of Jesus Christ."

2. Revelation signifies things. In verse 1, in addition to telling us that this is a revelation of Jesus Christ, we are told that the angel that Revelation was "signified" (KJV) by the angel to John. The book begins by telling us that it's going to contain a bunch of signs and symbols. We would be denying what the book says about itself if we were to demand an absolute literalistic interpretation and nobody interprets the entire book literally. If you read the dispensationalists, they pick out certain things to take literally but they don't take the whole thing literally. They think the locusts are helicopters and so forth.

3. Revelation is written in a liturgical format. In 1:3 the book pronounces a blessing upon the reader and the hearers. Throughout the book The book assumes that it is being read within the context of a liturgical worship service where people are gathered to receive Christ's body and blood. The Lamb on the Altar is central to the book. The book itself is arranged in a liturgical format that follows the historic liturgy.

4. Revelation is very sacramental. Revelation 3:20 is a common verse quoted in evangelism but despite what the evangelists say there isn't anything about Jesus knocking on the door of your heart. Jesus is knocking on the door of the church and promises the church that if they open the door He will eat with them in the Lord's Supper. Revelation also contains lots of baptismal language where people are said to wash their robes in the blood of the Lamb.

5. Revelation is purposefully ambiguous. It is not intended to only be relevant to a single group of people at a single point in time. When David penned Psalm 51 he had his sin with Bathsheba in mind but wrote it in such a way that every Christian could take it upon his lips. 666 has something to do with Nero but 666 is not limited to Nero. The message of Revelation is that the Lamb is conquering through the blood of the martyrs even though from all earthly appearances Christ is absent and the church is being defeated. This message has relevance to the church in every age and especially the persecuted church in every age. The imagery associated with the persecutors applies to the persecutors of every age. The point is not to try to find a one to one correspondence between a single image and a single persecutor or to try to predict when a specific persecutor will come. The point is to provide comfort to the persecuted because the Lamb wins.

6. Revelation is classified among what Eusebius referred to as the disputed books of the New Testament (along with Hebrews, James, Jude, 2 Peter, and 2&3 John). It did not receive the immediate widespread acceptance that the Gospels or the letters of Paul did. Revelation and these other disputed books are listed as part of the New Testament Apocrypha by Martin Chemnitz. The term "Apocrypha" shouldn't scare us. Up until the late 1800's English Protestant Bibles contained the Old Testament Apocrypha. The KJV and Luther's Bible both contained the Apocrypha. However, the disputed books are not as clear in what they teach as the undisputed books. The canonical order provides a helpful guide. If you start with Matthew and use Matthew as the lens through which to read Mark and then use Matthew and Mark as the lens through which to read Luke and so on down the line you're far less likely to fall into error. Revelation alludes to a number of other books and assumes you are already familiar with them, the other books do not assume that you have read Revelation. So it doesn't make sense to read Revelation and then try to read Revelation into all other books of the Bible.

7. Because of this, Revelation should not be used as your first stop in determining the correct eschatological position. You should look to the Gospels first and work your way out to Revelation and never base a doctrine completely on some line from Revelation and/or some disputed dating of Revelation. Christ has called us to trust and believe what He says, not speculations. We can learn a lot about Jesus in the Book of Revelation (it is the Revelation of Jesus Christ, remember?), but it's not some kind of handbook on eschatology. The purpose is to comfort the persecuted, not to provide secret codes.

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