February 5, 2008

The book of Revelation - Week 1

Welcome to our study of Revelation. This blog will be a place where anyone interested in the book of Revelation can follow along with the Passage class at GSUMC (for more information on Passage School of Theology, go to http://www.gsumc.org/ and follow the "classes and groups" link on the left-hand side of the screen). Each week I'll post the text for the week followed by some comments on the background, allusions or context of the passage. This won't be an exhaustive commentary (or even a bad attempt at one!) by any means. To go deeper into Revelation, I encourage you to begin taking Passage courses and eventually BS 366 - The Book of Revelation with us. So, now that all the fine print is out of the way, let's get going!

First things first…

This is the book of Revelation—not “Revelations”! Sorry; pet peeve of mine! Whenever I hear someone say something like, “well, you know what it says in Revelations…” I immediately become skeptical of their authority to teach a book without even knowing it’s title. It might as well be Charlie Brown's teacher talking to me at that point.
Revelation. No “s” involved.

The word “revelation” is the Greek word “apocalypsis” which means “unveiling” or “revealing” (thus “revelation”). One of the most amazing (and saddest) ironies in the history of Biblical theology is that the very book written to make things clear is probably the most misunderstood and divisive book in the entire Bible! And while some of this is due to sinful divisiveness or pride in interpreting, much of it is due simply to a lack of awareness of not only the book’s 1st century Greco-Roman historical context, but also unfamiliarity with the Hebrew Bible and Second-Temple Jewish literature from which the imagery of Revelation draws so heavily. Any reading of Revelation that does not take these into account will almost certainly veer off course and be far from what the Holy Spirit intended to teach through this Inspired account.

So just what did Jesus want to “unveil” to John and his fellow 1st century Christians? And why did He choose an apocalyptic vision as the vehicle for conveying it? And even if we are able to answer these questions, one more, just as crucial, arises—what does Revelation have to do with Christians like us who are millennia removed from the time it in which it was written? Is is an old book meant only for 1st century Christians, or is it a blueprint of end-times events which we are currently seeing play out in the news every day? Or is it something completely different? These are some of the questions we will be exploring together throughout the coming weeks. Hopefully by the end of the book, we will have a good enough understanding of what Jesus revealed to John—and just as important, what He did not reveal!

Details to know when studying Revelation:

1. Revelation is believed to have been written during the reign of the Roman Emperor Domition around 90 AD, though some notable Biblical scholars have proposed a date sometime in the 60s AD before the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple (70 AD) and during the reign of the Emperor Nero. Those dating it to Domition see the references to Nero in Revelation (we’ll see them as we go) as being symbolic of all persecuting rulers, such as Domition, who would arise after--and in the manner of--Nero. Those dating it to Nero see it as predicting the persecution that is about to take place (or is currently taking place) at the hands of Nero and his Empire. Either view, however, ultimately arrives at the same overall conclusion as to the meaning and message of the book.

2. Revelation belongs to the Biblical genre of “Apocalyptic”. Apocalyptic writings date as far back as the OT prophets Daniel and Zechariah, and were extremely popular during the 1st few centuries BC and up through around the 2nd century AD. Apocalyptic writings usually consist of visions (and sometimes interpretations of them) given to a human recipient by a heavenly messenger which seek to provide clarity, encouragement, and comfort to a persecuted minority at the hands of an oppressive ruling majority. Apocalypses were never intended to only communicate events that would happen at the end of time; but rather, they were written to communicate current or imminent events that the community or nation was about to experience. This is one of the biggest mistakes many readers—especially many so-called “prophecy experts”—make when interpreting and teaching Revelation. This often (though in fairness, not always) results in wild scenarios of raptures, credit card chip implants and even protests against peace attempts in areas of the world they see as having “end times significance”! (All three of these, for example, have been taught by three extremely prominent Evangelical Christian leaders in the public eye within the last 20 years. This is beyond unfortunate...it's irresponsible).

[For a full critique of the interpretive framework which leads to such teaching, I wholeheartedly recommend Ben Witherington’s “The Problem with Evangelical Theology” published a little over a year ago. Witherington is Professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, KY one of the foremost NT scholars of our time.]

3. It was not uncommon for Roman Emperors such as Nero or Domition to declare themselves Divine and adopt titles such as “Lord” [kyrios], “Savior” [soter], or “Son of God” [huios tou theou]…and even demand worship from the people at the cost of their lives.

4. Apocalyptic literature was never meant to be read “literally.” This is worth repeating because an entire segment of Evangelical Christianity beginning in the 1850s began to insist that the literal meaning of Biblical text was the only valid meaning, unless it was absolutely impossible to read it literally (such as Jesus being called a “Lamb”). This was an extremely unfortunate conclusion on the part of those who did not know that the nature of Apocalyptic writing are primarily non-literal and highly symbolic. However, due to the popularity of many Christian teachers and pastors who hold to this method of interpretation, the “literal” reading of Revelation (and other Biblical apocalyptic texts) became the default approach among many Evangelical Christians. To this day, there are various Bible colleges and Seminaries which accept only the “literal” interpretation of Revelation and many otherwise solid Christian leaders and teachers have adopted and continue to perpetuate this approach.

5. Apocalyptic literature uses certain well-known symbols and metaphors, often drawn from the Hebrew Bible, to convey ideas, traits or circumstances in a vivid visionary manner. Some examples of these are:

menorahs (lampstands),
the colors white, black and red,
books/scrolls and their seals,
the Sea/Abyss,
cosmic bodies (Sun, Moon, stars),
a woman,
jewels and precious stones and metals,
thunder, lighting and earthquakes (theophany)
double-edge sword

There are many others, but these are some of the most frequently occurring (and often bizarre) ones found in Revelation.

6. Revelation was meant to be read aloud during worship gatherings among the early churches throughout Asia Minor. It was sometimes read all the way through, and sometimes divided into multiple sections and read aloud by a leader in the church. Thus, the importance of listening to Revelation rather than merely reading it silently.

Finally, let’s talk numbers…

No one can read Revelation and not notice the reoccurrence of certain numbers throughout the vision. 3, 4, 7, 12, 10 and their multiples appear everywhere. But what is their significance? In his commentary on Revelation, Ian Boxall does an excellent job summarizing the use of numbers in John’s apocalyptic vision:

Three seems to have a special association with the divine. It is present implicitly in the divine name ‘who was and who is and who is coming (a tripartite formula which occurs three times in Revelation, at 1:4, 8 and 4:8…). Similar threefold descriptions of the divine are found in Judaism and in the wider Greco-Roman world. The pattern of three woes at 8:13 highlights the divine origin of these judgments upon unrepentant humanity (also 16:19). Elsewhere in Revelation, the divine is parodied by the triumvirate of the dragon, monster and false prophet, from whose mouths come three demonic frogs (e.g. 16:13; 20:10).

Four is often associated with the earthly created order, built into its very structure (e.g. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.11.8: the world in which we live has four zones and four principal winds); there are also four elements from which the earth is composed, and four seasons. In Revelation, the created world is represented by the four cherubim around God’s throne (e.g. 4:6, 8; 5:6, 8, 14), while the altar in the heavenly temple has four horns (9:13). The number is appropriately associated with those who execute judgments on the earth: four angels stand at the earth’s corners restraining the four winds (7:1; cf. 20:8), while another four are bound at the River Euphrates (9:14-15).

Seven seems to have been regarded as a sacred number in the ancient world, andone which evoked completeness or perfection (it being the number of days in theweek and of the planets, therefore built into the structure of the universe). For Jews, it reflected the seventh day (Gen. 1:1-2:3). Furthermore, it is the sum of three and four (associated with the divine and the universe respectively). Seven plays a key structuring role in the Apocalypse: notable in the seven messages (2:1-3:22), the seven seals (6:1-8:1; cf. 5:1, 5), the seven trumpets (8:2-11:18) and the seven bowls (15:5-16:21). Interestingly, two of these septets are divided into four and three, thus highlighting the significance of these two numbers: the four horsemen are set apart from the remaining three seals (6:1-8); the last three trumpets are associated with the three woes (8:13). Elsewhere in Revelation there are seven spirits (1:4, 3:1; 4:5; 5:6), seven angels/stars (1:16, 20; 2:1; 3:1; 4:5), seven congregations/lampstands (1:4, 11, 12, 20; 2:1), seven trumpet-angels (8:2, possibly to be identified with ‘the seven spirits’), seven thunders (10:3-4), seven bowl-angels (15:1, 6-8), and seven kings (17:9-10). There are also seven unnumbered beatitudes scattered throughout the book (1:3; 14:13; 16:15; 19:9; 20:6; 22:7; 22:14). The Lamb has seven horns and eyes (5:6). Again, the divine is parodied by the dragon and the monster from the sea, who both have seven heads despite their demonic nature (12:3, 13:1; 17:3).

Related to seven are two additional numbers. Half of seven is three and a half (derived from Daniel’s three and a half years of persecution: e.g. Dan. 7:25; 12:7). As half of a complete number, it represents a limited, incomplete period of persecution for God’s people, in which they will be preserved from spiritual harm though not from suffering. It is found in its variants of ‘a time, times and half a time’ (12:14), ‘forty-two months’ (11:2; 13:5), and ‘1,260 days’ (11:3; 12:6), and the two witnesses rise from the dead after three and a half days (11:9, 11). One less than seven is the number six. If seven denotes completeness, then the number six falls short of this as a number of incompleteness or imperfection. This may be one of the resonances of the ‘number of the monster’ at 13:18, which is 666 (though the four creatures have six wings: 4:8, influenced by Isa. 6:2).

Twelve is the product of three and four. Its association with the zodiac in the ancient world is significant, revealing it as a number embedded into the cosmos. Like seven, it also symbolizes completeness (the twelve tribes of Israel at 7:5; the twelve stars of the woman’s crown at 12:1, possibly also symbolizing the zodiacal signs). Revelation’s description of the new Jerusalem is shot through with the number twelve, symbolizing the order and perfection of this visionary city: twelve gates made of twelve pearls, with twelve angel guards; twelve foundations; twelve names written on both its gates and foundations; twelve kinds of fruit on the tree of life (21:12, 14, 21; 22:2). Moreover, its twelve gates are divided into four sets of three (21:13). Multiples of twelve are also important. There are twelve thousand sealed from each of the tribes of Israel (7:5-8): the symbolic significance of the resulting 144,000 points to a number of inclusion, ‘a huge number, which no one could count’ (7:4; 14:1, 3). Similarly, order and perfection are signified by the multiples in the description of the new Jerusalem: the length, width and height of the city are 12,000 stadia, while the measurement of its wasll is 144,000 cubits (21:16, 17).

Other numbers also occur in Revelation, though with less regularity. Among the most important are the following.

Two is the number of witness in the Jewish tradition, based on texts such as Deut. 19:15. Appropriately, Revelation describes the prophetic ministry of two witnesses (11:4, 10).

Five is a natural round number, being the number of fingers on the human hand, and
therefore having the significance of ‘a few’. In Revelation, the demonic scorpions are allowed to torment people for five months, i.e. for a limited period (9:5, 10).

Ten is another round number with a sense of human completeness, and is regularly
used in Jewish texts to measure time. In Revelation, the faithful in Smyrna will be tested for ten days, a limited period of time (2:10; cf. Dan. 1:12, 14). Elsewhere, the dragon and the monster have ten horns (12:3; 13:1; 17:3, 7), the horns of the latter representing ten kings (17:12, 16)…Multiples of ten include one thousand, denoting a large number (e.g. 5:11; 7:5); related to a period of time, it is used of the ‘millennium’ or thousand-year reign of Christ (20:2). [1]

Buckle up…

Revelation is a wild, unpredictable, thrilling and ultimately comforting ride. So now that we’ve had a quick review of some issues, images and numbers we’ll soon be encountering on the journey, we're ready to hit the road.

Until next week,


[1] Boxall, Ian, The Revelation of St. John (Black's New Testament Commentary). Hendrickson, Peabody. 2006. (pp. 90-92)

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