Last Sunday I began an extended study of the Apocalypse of Jesus the Messiah with a studious, gracious, and interested group of Bible students at the Woodmont Hills Church of Christ in Nashville, Tennessee. It will be a long journey but, I’m convinced, a fruitful one. I will post along the way as I have other texts we have studied (e.g., Mark, Amos, Zechariah; these and others are available through the “Serial Index” menu).
In this initial post I will address three major questions that shape how one reads the last book of the Christian canon.
First, when reading Revelation, we are reading an “Apocalypse.” It is the first word in the Greek text and it identifies the genre of the document. We should read not this as a historical narrative (like Luke-Acts). It is neither history, poetry, or even letter, though it may contain aspects of it. It is an Apocalypse which is an identifiable and popular genre of Jewish literature from 200 BCE to 200 CE. There are many examples of this genre outside of Scripture and even in some parts of Scripture (e.g., Daniel).
When we recognize that Revelation is apocalyptic literature then we are able to read it within its own literary conventions. Every genre of literature has such. Historical fiction, for example, creates certain expectations–it is not academic history but the story is set in an authentic historical situation. In the same way, readers of apocalyptic literature have certain expectations.
At the literary level, it uses symbols and drama to convey its message. These symbols are drawn from cultural (Jewish and Greco-Roman) and canonical images. If we do not understand the literary function of these images then we will make connections that are as distant from the intent of the text as reading a newspaper is from fiction. The symbols, contrary to some interpreters, are not intended to hide the message but actually convey the message. But one must understand the symbols to get the intended meaning.
At the level of its message, it assumes an apocalyptic worldview that shapes the drama of the text. The apocalyptic worldview assumes the transcendent sovereignty of God over the events of history, a dualist conflict between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan in which the people of God experience oppression, and the ultimate triumph of the kingdom of God in the world. This triumph, however, is eschatological in character, that is, it is a vision of the triumph of the reign of God when the will of God is done on earth as it is heaven.
Recognizing the literary and mythic (meaning “worldview”) character of apocalyptic literature, the symbols and images portray the ultimate victory of the kingdom of God over the kingdom of Satan.
Second, when reading Revelation, we read from a particular vantage point. We read it 1900 years after its publication, but the original recipients in Asia Minor (the seven churches of Asia) read it from within the own social location. I’m convinced that we cannot legitimately read the Apocalypse without first reading it with the original hearers and then through that reading see its significance for us in the present. We must read it, as my friend W. B. West used to say, with “first century glasses.”
But even when we do so contemporary readers have used various interpretative strategies to understand the contemporary message of the document. There are, in the most simple (even simplistic) terms, four major reading strategies or hermeneutical vantage points, and each of them has their own different flavors.
- Preterist Readings. Radical preterists believe that everything in the Apocalypse has happened or was supposed to happen within the generation of the original hearers. Even the “new heavens and new earth” was either the new covenant of the Christian dispensation or a new political order rather than an eternal state yet to arrive. Moderate preterists believe that the major substance of the book pertains to the events, culture, and life circumstances of the original hearers though the ending of the book pertains to the eternal state described as a hope that all believers embrace.
- Continuous-Histoprical Readings. Once more common than it is now, this reading sees the whole history of the church dramatically played out in the Apocalypse from its beginning in the ascension of Jesus to the final act of history. These interpreters seek to correlate 1900 years of history with particular scenes in Revelation and often believe that their generation is the last or near the last (whether they lived in the Medieval, Reformation, or Modern eras).
- Futurist. This reading, taking its cue from 4:1-3, understands the major drama of the book as describing the “last days” of the present era with the result that much–if not all–of the book is still future to present readers, or perhaps that certain events within the drama are currently taking place and the end is near. Interpreters, then, seek to correlate present events with the drama of the book from 4:1-19:1 as they look for the second coming of Jesus which they believe is described in Revelation 19 (followed by the millennium in Revelation 20). Interpreters have done this no matter what era in which they lived with the varied results that the beast of Revelation has been the Ottoman Empire, the Pope, Henry VIII, Napoleon, the Kaiser, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Sadam Hussein, etc.
- Idealist. This reading locates the described drama within the context of its original recipients but recognizes a larger story playing in the background. While this Apocalypse reflects the cultural, religious and social dynamics of the struggles of early Christians within a Greco-Roman setting, this is but one slice of a larger dramatic pie. The described conflict has happened before (between Israel and Canaanite culture, for example) and will happen again (evil will always find cultural, political and social expression as it assaults the Kingdom of God). Generally, idealists do not see any specific predictions or futurist dramas in the text. Rather, the drama present in the text is symbolic of repeated assaults on the kingdom of God throughout human history in different social, political and cultural contexts.
Choosing between these various reading strategies is complicated but ultimately unavoidable. While the correct approach may not lie in only one but in some combination, one will tend to emerge as dominant. Readers will have to choose which perspective best suits the text and there will be occasion to consider the options as we walk through it. Presently, I lean toward the Idealist strategy with a strong tint of moderate preterism.
Third, what is the major problem that gave rise to the Apocalypse itself? Why did the seven churches of Asia need a “revelation”?
The most popular and historic answer to that question is that the seven churches needed encouragement, comfort, and hope in the face of persecution. Clearly this is part of the story as the presence of martyrs in the text indicates, and this should not be underestimated. The church lived in a hostile culture if not always hostile empire (in terms of imperial persecutions). The church was commonly subject to economic boycotts as well as mob and official regional violence. The strains and stresses upon the believing community were tremendous. The Apocalypse certainly offers a hope that encourages them to persevere in faith.
But some contemporary interpreters have questioned whether this was the main problem. For example, in the seven letters to the churches martyrdom is not a prominent topic. Instead, the most consistent point is the failure of most of the churches to maintain a viable, faithful witness in the midst of a cultural pressure to compromise their faith. All the churches, save two, are rebuked.
It appears the more significant problem is how Christians were compromising their faith. They were struggling to live faithfully in a hostile culture. One can imagine–and in some parts of the world today it is a reality–how economic boycotts and threats of mob violence might move believers to accommodate their faith to their surroundings in order to remove or mitigate the hostility.
So perhaps the message of Revelation is not so much about comfort and hope in the face of persecution (though that message is there) but the call to radical discipleship that refuses to make peace with the surrounding culture for the sake of respectability and economic benefit. And the siren call of the latter is much more seductive than the stark reality of the former. Perhaps that is the more demanding message for Western Christians while the former is one faced daily by other Christians in various parts of the world.
Stone-Campbell Note: in recent years we have been blessed with literature on Revelation from several authors, including Archer & Ridgell, Oster, Stevenson, and Fair (all of which I have read with profit).