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Approaching Revelation

December 9, 2006

A few remarks on the book of Revelation, the genesis of which goes back to a conversation I had with a Bible translator many years ago. Since Revelation is notoriously difficult to interpret, I remarked that it must also be difficult to translate. To my surprise, he answered that no, it was just about the easiest book. Why is this? To truly translate a text means first interpreting it. Why should this not hold for Revelation?

It then hit me that in Revelation we are faced with one type of communication embededed in a completely different type. The first is the visionary experience with its esoteric content, representative imagery, and abundant scriptural allusions. The second is the literary framework around it, consisting of John’s report of this visionary experience. In the latter the action is simple and highly concrete: seeing, hearing, speaking, animals, weather, and so on. It is with the former, the elaborate visual panorama that John witnessed that the true difficulty in interpretation lies. John is the author of the framework (under inspiration), but the authorship of the vision, if we are to believe the text, is divine.

It seems to me that the above observation is the absolutely essential starting place for any true understanding of Revelation. However, it is decidedly not where the majority of scholarship starts, because the book’s self description is not taken by these interpreters at face value. This is a matter for a separate post, but the prevailing conception entails an appeal to “apocalyptic genre,” which essentially treats the book as false prophecy.

So the interpretive task for revelation, though involving literary analysis, mainly lies elsewhere. Standard literary criticism, as if the intricate details of Revelation were carefully crafted by John, is sure to lead us astray, since he himself is a recipient of the communication act and may himself have limited understanding of the contents. We are assured that “no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. (2 Peter 1: 20-21) Antisupernatural bias will prove a stumbling block for dealing with Revelation, whether in terms of the liberal scholar who discounts both inspiration and the prophetic or the cessationist conservative, who holds a “high view” of the Scriptures, but has little use for dreams and visions.

Yet Scripture gives us guidance even with these. Numbers 12:6-8 provides insight into the prophetic process: “If there is a prophet among you, I the Lord make myself known to him in a vision; I speak with him in a dream. Not so with my servant Moses. He is faithful in all my house. With him I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in riddles, and he beholds the form of the Lord.” The revelation John receives is of both kinds: he sees Jesus, his own dear friend during his days in the flesh, now exalted and glorified, and he is also given a panoramic puzzle, a “riddle” in the terms of Numbers 12.

A prophet is required to faithfully report the Lord’s message, but may not himself be able to fully interpret it. “The prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories.” (1 Peter 1:10-11)

We need to look at how dream and vision is to be interpreted, and this means listening to Joseph and Daniel. When Joseph’s fellow prisoners were faced with dreams to interpret, he said to them, “Do not interpretations belong to God? Please tell them to me.” (Genesis 40:8). When Pharaoh asks him to interpret his dream, he replies: “It is not in me; God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer.” (Genesis 41:16) Daniel speaks similarly to Nebuchadnezzar: “No wise men, enchanters, magicians, or astrologers can show to the king the mystery that the king has asked, but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries, and he has made known to King Nebuchadnezzar what will be in the latter days. (Daniel 2:27-28)

Both Joseph and Daniel went on to explain much of what was revealed through others through a gift of interpretation operating through them. A similar situation occurs with tongues in the New Testament: “Therefore, one who speaks in a tongue should pray for the power to interpret.” (1 Corinthians 14:13) In interpretation of this type, standard critical tools, analysis of sources, considering the sitz im leben and such have limited usefulness. The prophesy has an interpretation, which is a mystery in God’s own keepting, and yet it is intended to be known at least in part by God’s people, through the Holy Spirit: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” (Revelation 2:11)

Having an ear to hear begins with paying careful attention. “Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it.” (Hebrews 2:1) There is decreasing clarity as we move from the words of any prophecy, to interpretation, then to application, then to timing. What is primordial in the process and open to all is close observation of the text. “You see but you do not observe,” Sherlock Holmes chides, and the same is true of even standard exegesis. For the book of Revelation it is perhaps truer, if that is possible, than for other books of the Bible: our primary task is being as thoroughly familiar as we can be with the particulars of the prophecy.

Prophetic words are to be meditated on, mulled over, prayed about, watched for. Mary remembered the prophetic words and events from Jesus childhood, and she “treasured up all these things in her heart.” (Luke 2:51) Some aspects may be known ahead of time, but the total picture ultimately awaits the time of its fulfillment.

This is why it is absurd to argue about the interpretation of a predictive prophecy before its fulfillment, because only then can its meaning be definitively known. Many of the prophecies about the coming of Jesus were not even recognized as prophecies in advance, e.g. “Out of Egypt I called my son.” (Matthew 2:15) Despite their careful inquiry the prophets did not put it all together about him. Was “the prophet” (Deuteronomy 18:15) the same as the Annointed One? (Daniel 9:25-26) Are these the same as the Suffering Servant? (Isaiah 53) They did not know the answers, and they were not meant to know. They were simply not given enough pieces of the puzzle.

Yet we are welcomed to try and tease out the details. “It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out. ” (Proverbs 25:2). Sometimes there is even an invitation: “This calls for wisdom: let the one who has understanding calculate the number of the beast.” (Revelation 13:18) “When you see the abomination of desolation standing where it ought not to be (let the reader understand)…” (Mark 13:14) Yet ultimately the purpose of the prophecy is not to give us all the details of the future, but for another reason.

Paul tells us that prophecy is for “upbuilding and encouragement and consolation.” (1 Corinthians 14:3). Peter was given a prophecy by Jesus about “what kind of death he was to glorify God.” (John 21:19) He did not know by this prophecy the day of his death, but he did know: (1) that his own desire to follow the Lord even to the death would be fulfilled by God’s power, though Peter himself had failed (c.f. John 13:37), (2) that God would perfect his love in Peter (1 John 2:5, 4:12, 17-18; c.f John 21:15-17), (3) that he was indistructible until that day (c.f. Acts 12:5-6). Would such knowledge give strength and courage?

Perhaps Peter looked in the mirror from time to time looking for gray hairs since the prophecies were for when he was “old?” Keeping an eye on the times around us is an obvious sign that we take the prophecy seriously. It is quite a different thing to place too much confidence on charts and schedules, since we just may have a few of our interpretations a bit off.

The book of Revelation is meant to edify, encourage, and console believers as we wait for Jesus’ return. Joining together in considering how it is may be fulfilled accordingly ought to be a source of fellowship, not of discord, “for we know in part and we prophesy in part” (1 Corinthians 13:9). Teaching Revelation therefore needs to focus on knowing the text well, with interpretation playing a secondary and always tentative role.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Alan Bandy permalink
    December 9, 2006 4:32 pm

    Hey Marvin,
    I enjoyed reading your post. It is obvious that you have spent some time studying and reflecting. I have a of questions. What do you mean by this statement concerning genre: “This is a matter for a separate post, but the prevailing conception entails an appeal to “apocalyptic genre,” which essentially treats the book as false prophecy.”?

    Classifying it as an apocalyptic genre does not equate a “false prophecy.” While many apocalyptic writings are “false prophecies” this does not mean that the genre itself constitutes a false prophecy. Genre conventions are merely literary characteristics common to a family of writings. These characteristics set the tone for interpretation. For example, since the Book of Revelation exhibits characteristics concordant with the apocalyptic genre then it entails the use of symbols and metaphors. As such, I would not want to read the Apocalypse the same way that I would read the Gospels, which is more like a historical narrative.

  2. December 9, 2006 8:32 pm

    Well, I suppose the comment is a bit cryptic, and I probably shouldn’t have dropped it in there like that. I’ve been working a few things over in my mind on the subject, and though I am far from thoroughly understanding the subject, my impression is that a lot of the approach taken by some interpreters is rather wrong headed. A soon-to-appear post should clarify this, but basically you have a body of texts that look like Revelation or like Daniel but are not inspired. Generally they are pseudonymous and pseudo-predictive, recasting historical events in predictive language. These we identify as apocalyptic, and then posit the Revelation as one in their genre. So in essence we interpret Revelation in comparison with these pseudo-prophetic documents. I don’t think this approach is likely to lead us in the right direction. It is as if we take the non-canonical gospels (since they represent the majority of the genre), analyze their characteristics and then interpret the canonical ones on the basis of what we discover about the other ones. Of course, that is being done as well. And I don’t think the results of this are particularly reliable, if one takes inspiration seriously. Well, I hope to explain it better when I get the post up

  3. December 1, 2008 7:12 pm

    Hi Marvin,

    Found your link on your gvcf page and enjoyably followed through the posts on Creation and then down through to this one. I agree that the scriptures should be a place where those who share a faith should come together, but oft’ is the case where it is instead a place to split the hair and not leave the meaning to the Inspirer.

    In pondering Revelation I have always found it puzzling – God is quite a great puzzler. I enjoy the imagery and can certainly relate to those who cry out in Rev 5 – “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty.” Frankly, I can only hardly wait. If I could push a button and take my family with me and be beyond the veil I would knock down whomever was in the way to get to that button.

    So much in Rev. is left to figure or try to figure. I had some very adamant pre- and post- friends in college and it was then that I decided that if the best scholars could not agree that there is indeed a puzzle and not enough info to make a decision this side of the Kingdom fully having come and our Earth all made new. Can hardly wait…

    Thanks for writing!

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