The Revelation: Images of judgement and hope

These are my notes on Chapter 13 (of 13) of “How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth” (2nd edition) by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart. This is a book on common-sense guidelines on interpreting and applying the Bible.

Most of the hermeneutical problems in Revelation stem from the symbolism and the fact that the book deals with future events, but at the same time is set in a recognisable 1st century context.

Humility is necessary when approaching Revelation. Additionally, one should avoid dogmatism for there are many variations on interpretations.

The nature of the Revelation

Revelation is a blend of 3 distinct literary types: apocalypse, prophecy and letter. Moreover, apocalyptic is a genre without a contemporary equivalent.

The Revelation as apocalypse

Apocalypse as a genre was popular from about 200 B.C. to 200 A.D. Apocalypses had the following common characteristics:

  1. Apocalyptic was born either in persecution or great oppression. It therefore looked forward to the time when God would bring an end to history, an end that would mean the triumph of right and the final judgment of evil.
  2. Unlike most of the prophetic books which compiled previously spoken oracles, apocalypses are written works from the beginning.
  3. The content of apocalyptic is presented in the form of visions and dreams, in cryptic and symbolic language. To give the book a sense of age pseudonyms were often used, attributing the writing to ancient worthies (e.g. Enoch, Baruch, etc.)
  4. The images of apocalyptic are often forms of fantasy rather than of reality. The fantasy may not appear in the items themselves (beasts, heads, horns, etc.) but in their unearthly combination.
  5. Most of the apocalypses were formally stylised, with time and events divided into neat packages. The symbolic use of numbers was very common. The result was that visions were carefully arranged in sets, often numbered. The numbering didn’t necessarily indicate the sequence of occurrence.

Revelation presents all these characteristics, except that it isn’t pseudonymous.

The Revelation as prophecy

John calls his book “this prophecy” (1:3; 22:18-19) and intended it to be a word from God to the church in their present situation. (Remember that ‘to prophesy’ means to speak forth God’s word in the present.)

The Revelation as epistle

The characteristics of a letter form are present in Revelation (see 1:4-7; 22:21). This means that there is an occasional aspect to Revelation, i.e. its writing was prompted at least in part by the needs of the churches to which it is addressed.

The necessity of exegesis

This is a repetition of principles encountered in How To Read The Bible For All Its Worth thus far:

  1. Seek the human author’s and the Holy Spirit’s original intent. The primary meaning of Revelation is what John intended it to mean, which in turn must also have been something his readers could have understood it to mean.
  2. Since Revelation intends to be prophetic, one must be open to the possibility of a secondary meaning, inspired by the Holy Spirit, but not fully seen by the author or his readers.
  3. Any keys to interpreting the Revelation must be intrinsic to the text of Revelation itself or otherwise available to the original recipients from their own historical context.
  4. Here are some suggestions regarding the imagery:
    1. John derived images from the OT and ancient mythology, and transformed them under inspiration.
    2. Some of the imagery is constant, some is fluid (e.g. the lion turns out to be a lamb, 5:5-6). Some images refer to specific things (the seven lampstands are the seven churches, 1:12-20), others are general.
    3. When John himself interprets his images, these interpreted images must serve as a starting point for understanding others (cf. 1:17-18, 20; 12:9; 17:9, 18)
    4. One must see the visions as wholes and not allegorically press all the details. The whole vision is trying to say something; the details are either (1) for dramatic effect or (2) to add to the picture of the whole so that the readers will not mistake the points of reference.
  5. Apocalypses in general and the Revelation in particular seldom intend to give a detailed, chronological account of the future. John’s concern is that, despite present appearances, God is in control of history and of the church.

The historical context

First, try to read it all the way through in one sitting to get the big picture. On a subsequent reading, pick up all the references that indicate that John’s readers are “companions in his sufferings” (1:9). These are the crucial historical indicators.

For example, in the seven letters note 2:3, 8-9, 13; 3:10, plus the repeated “to the one who overcomes.” The fifth seal (6:9-11) reveals Christian martyrs who have been slain because of the word and the testimony (exactly why John is in exile in 1:9). In 7:14 the great multitude who will never again suffer (7:6) has “come out of the great tribulation.” Suffering and death are again linked to bearing “the testimony of Jesus” in 12:11 and 17.

The main theme of the book is that for the church, things would get worse before they got better (6:9-11). But God is in control of all things (1:17-20) and judgement will be poured out on those who have afflicted God’s people.

The literary context

To understand any one of the specific visions in the Revelation it is especially important not only to wrestle with the background and meaning of the images (the content questions) but also to ask how this particular vision functions in the book as a whole. The book is structured as a whole, and each vision is an integral part of the whole:

  • Chapters 1-3 introduce us to most of the “characters”: John (1:1-11), Christ (1:12-20) and the church (2:1-3:22).
  • In chapter 4 the church is told that God reigns in sovereign majesty, while chapter 5 reminds them that God’s Lion is a Lamb who Himself redeemed humankind through suffering.
  • Chapters 6-7 begin unfolding the drama with the first set of seven visions.
  • Chapters 8-11 reveal the content of God’s judgement.
  • In chapter 12 we’re told of Satan’s attempts to destroy Christ and of his own defeat instead.
  • Chapters 13-14 show John’s original readers that the vengeance took the form of the Roman Empire. But the empire and emperors are doomed (chapters 15-16). The book concludes as a “tale of two cities” (chapters 17-22)—one condemned and another where God’s people dwell eternally.

 The hermeneutical questions

Like the prophets, Revelation speaks of things that are yet to be. From our point in history most of those events are in the past. The hermeneutical problems aren’t too great in this regard. Our difficulties lie in the fact that in prophecy, the temporal world is often so closely tied to the final eschatological realities. For example the fall of Rome in Revelation 18 seems to imply the final end as part of the picture. What do we do in such cases?

  1. We need to learn that pictures of the future are just that—pictures. They express a reality but aren’t to be confused with the reality, nor are the details of every picture to be fulfilled in some specific way.
  2. Some of the pictures that were intended to express the certainty of God’s judgement must not be interpreted to mean “soon-ness”.
  3. The pictures where the temporal is closely tied to the eschatological must not be viewed as simultaneous.
  4. Although there are probably many instances where there is a future dimension to the picture, we have not been given the keys to extract them. Case in point: the antichrist.
  5. The pictures that are intended to be totally eschatological are still to be taken as such (11:15-19; 19:1-22:21). The fulfilment of these pictures will be in God’s own time and in His own way.

Bonus link

Here’s a pastors’ workshop on preaching apocalyptic, complete with instruction and model sermons.