Revelation and Empire

Despite the fact the book of Revelation is usually mined for what it has to say about future events, it is not a “roadmap for the future.” It is, rather, an exhortation written to very real churches to encourage them to live a different kind of life in the shadow of the Second Coming. This life means enduring persecution for their belief in Jesus and their non-belief in an imperial system that was becoming increasingly hostile to that faith.

View_of_ancient_PergamonThere are many examples of this in Revelation, but I will offer one from the letter to Pergamum (Rev 2:12-17). In Rev 2:13 the church is commended for not renouncing their faith even though one faithful witness was put to death.  The city is described as the place where Satan has his throne (v. 13) and “where Satan lives” (v. 14).

There are several suggestions for what is meant by “Satan’s Throne” (in fact, David Aune lists eight major possibilities). The Temple of Zeus Soter overlooked the city, and this throne was well known in the ancient world. On the other hand, this may refer to the Imperial cult represented by two temples to Emperors Augustus and (later) to Trajan.

In support of this view, it is observed that the term “throne” is used as an “official seat or chair of state” in the New Testament, Pergamum was the center of Satan’s activities in the province of Asia much the way Rome becomes the center for Satan’s activities in the west. The Temple of Augustus in Pergamum was built in 29 B.C., and was the first of the imperial cults in Asia Minor.  In TJob 3:5b pagan temples are called “the temple of Satan.”

Even though the imperial cult is strong in their city, the church of Pergamum remains true to the Lord’s name, even to the point of death. Nothing is known from scripture about the martyr Antipas, which is a shortened form of Antipater.  The title given him is “faithful witness,” title given to Jesus in Revelation 1. Eventually Pergamum will become known for several important martyrs.  The fact that the city was the center of the imperial cult would make the Christian refusal to accept the cult a serious crime.

There is a principle running through several of the letters in Rev 2-3 that the witnessing church will be a persecuted church (Beale, Revelation, 427).  Since the church has had a reputation for being a strong witness in the community, the church has had to face persecution, perhaps in the form of financial hardship and other social complications; but more importantly, members of their community have been killed for their faith.

Apple-CapitalismLet me draw this back to the application of Revelation to the present church. How should the modern church “resist” the culture of this world? In western, “first world” countries this would look different than in some parts of Africa or Asia where the church is illegal and being persecuted for their faith. It is possible that the lack of persecution in the west is an indication that we have embraced culture and are no longer “faithful witnesses” like Antipas?

How would this “resist the culture” theology play out in modern American Christianity? It seems to me evangelicals have seized on some social issues and ignored others. Recently, resisting and protesting changes in same-sex marriage laws are the only place it appears Christians resist culture–but what about rampant consumerism or American exceptionalism? How do we adopt Revelation’s theology of resistance on a wider range of issues?

Should We Read Revelation Literally?

How is it even possible to approach the book of Revelation a literal hermeneutic? The presence of such bizarre symbolic language seems to preclude the possibility of reading the book literally. The presence of highly figurative language does not preclude the possibility of literal meaning. “The prophecies predict literal events, though the descriptions do not portray the events literally” (Klein, Blomberg and Hubbard, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 369).

To take an example from modern language, a news reporter might attempt to describe a speech by the President as well done, something which exceeded all expectations, etc. To do this, he says “The president ‘hit one out of the park.’” Most Americans will understand perfectly well what the phrase means, hitting a home run is “ultimate success,” a literal event, although it is described in a metaphor, symbolic language.

Really? That’s It?

To use a simple example in Revelation, chapter 12 describes a red dragon which persecutes the child of a woman. The dragon is clearly Satan, an image which is fairly obvious from the context (and interpreted for us by John in 12:9). Is Satan really a big red dragon? Probably not, but the image suggests things about Satan which are in fact true.

The function of a metaphor highlights certain aspects about a “great red dragon” which are true about Satan, but not everything about the dragon is true of Satan.  The difficult problem for the reader is sorting out what John intended to highlight and hide when he chose that metaphor.

When Revelation refers to something with straightforward language, we ought to take the words at face value. For example, Revelation 2-3 refer to seven churches, the ought to be read as real churches rather than epochs of church history.

Literal interpretation of Revelation does not deny figures of speech in the book. When the Bible says “like a…” it is clear that a figure of speech is being employed and that we should try to understand what the author meant by that figure. In each of the following examples, there is a metaphor / word picture which is interpreted for us by the text. Revelation 1:20 refers to seven stars and seven lampstands. The plain interpretation of these verses is that the stars are the angels of the seven churches and the lampstands are the churches themselves.

There are a few examples which are more difficult to know how far to press the “literal” meaning. For example, is the temple in chapter 11 a literal temple in Jerusalem, or a “spiritual temple,” such as the Church? When chapter 16 describes a great battle in Armageddon, should we understand the location as the literal valley of Megiddo?

The problem for readers of Revelation will always be entering into the metaphorical world of John.  The more we understand that world, the better we can answer questions about how his metaphors originally functioned.

What are other potential examples of “clear” or “unclear” imagery in Revelation? Are there elements of the book we simply cannot understand at this point in history? If so, how does “all Scripture is profitable” apply to Revelation’s more difficult elements?

if-You-Should

Can We Read Revelation Literally?

Because of its unusual character, Revelation has been approached from a number of interpretive principles, some of which raise serious questions concerning its value as divine authoritative revelation. All of the methods used by evangelicals today have a high view of scripture. Most commentaries beast_of_revelationuse the grammatical-historical method of biblical interpretation and each claims to be developing a theology of Revelation which is applicable to the first century audience, the present modern audience, and every reader of Revelation in church history. But everyone who seriously tries to read the book of Revelation struggle with the question of how interpret the apocalyptic symbols of the book.

The differences between the views have to do with theological assumptions (millennial positions) and hermenutical assumptions (how literally do we take Revelation?) These elements are interwoven, so that a preterist is normally post-millennial and takes Revelation in a fairly literal way, although the symbols are interpreted as referring to A.D.70. An idealist, on the other hand, is often a-millennial and very non-literal in their approach. Futurism is the most literal, with some unfortunate extremes in interpretation. But not all futurists want to identify the Antichrist nor to they all claim “Revelation is about to be fulfilled.”

Let me offer a somewhat embarrassing example of literal interpretation gone wild. Hal Lindsey’s now famous identification of the scorpion / locust from the Abyss as helicopters with tail-gunners. Lindsey is an example of an allegorical approach to the text rather than a literal approach since his goal is to “read into” the text modern warfare.

This is ironic since Lindsey came from a Dispensational tradition which valued literal interpretation, especially when reading Old Testament prophetic texts. This point is made more generally by Malina and Pilch, who comment that all popular modern approaches to the book of Revelation are in some way allegorical – it is hard to disagree with them on this point! (Social-Science Commentary on the Book of Revelation [Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000], 215). To interpret a scorpion as a helicopter is no less allegorical than a 16th century commentary identifying the scorpions the rise of Islam.

When we read Revelation, we need to employ the “hermeneutics of humility” (Osborne, Revelation, 16).  We must approach the book as best we can, employing all the proper tools and methodologies, but ultimately there will be elements of the book we cannot understand because of our distance from the first century.

So is it impossible to read Revelation “literally”?   I think that it is not only possible, but required if we are to make sense of the book.

The real problem is properly defining what “literal interpretation” means. Literal interpretation does not mean that we take the words as the read on the page, but rather we recognize when the author intentionally used metaphors or other figures of speech and attempt to read those metaphors as he originally intended them.  Returning to my helicopter illustration, I would say that there is no way that John intended us to hear the metaphor of a locust rising from the Abyss and understand a modern military machine.  He intended something – our job as readers is to figure out what that original intention was.

How would this understanding of literal interpretation help us to read Revelation?

Revelation as Resistance Literature

Despite the fact the book of Revelation is usually mined for what it has to say about future events, it is not a “roadmap for the future.” It is, rather, an exhortation written to very real churches to encourage them to live a different kind of life in the shadow of the Second Coming. This life means enduring persecution for their belief in Jesus and their non-belief in an imperial system that was becoming increasingly hostile to that faith. In Revelation the church is called to resist the culture, not through underground military action, but by being faithful witnesses to Jesus despite persecution.

There are many examples of this in Revelation, but I will offer one from the letter to Pergamum (Rev 2:12-17). In Rev 2:13 the church is commended for not renouncing their faith even though one faithful witness was put to death.  The city is described as the place where Satan has his throne (v. 13) and “where Satan lives” (v. 14). There are several suggestions for what is meant by “Satan’s Throne” (in fact, David Aune lists eight major possibilities). The Temple of Zeus Soter overlooked the city, and this throne was well known in the ancient world. On the other hand, this may refer to the Imperial cult represented by two temples to emperors Augustus and (later) to Trajan.

In support of this view, it is observed that the term “throne” is used as an “official seat or chair of state” in the New Testament, Pergamum was the center of Satan’s activities in the province of Asia much the way Rome becomes the center for Satan’s activities in the west. The Temple of Augustus in Pergamum was built in 29 B.C., and was the first of the imperial cults in Asia Minor.  In TJob 3:5b pagan temples are called “the temple of Satan.”

Antipas of PergamumEven though the imperial cult is strong in their city, the church of Pergamum remains true to the Lord’s name, even to the point of death. Nothing is known from scripture about the martyr Antipas, which is a shortened form of Antipater.  The title given him is “faithful witness,” title given to Jesus in Revelation 1. Eventually Pergamum will become known for several important martyrs.  The fact that the city was the center of the imperial cult would make the Christian refusal to accept the cult a serious crime.

There is a principle running through several of the letters in Rev 2-3 that the witnessing church will be a persecuted church (Beale, Revelation, 427).  Since the church has had a reputation for being a strong witness in the community, the church has had to face persecution, perhaps in the form of financial hardship and other social complications; but more importantly, members of their community have been killed for their faith.

Let me draw this back to the application of Revelation to the present church. How should the modern church “resist” the culture of this world? In western, “first world” countries this would look different than in some parts of Africa or Asia where the church is illegal and being persecuted for their faith. It is possible that the lack of persecution in the west is an indication that we have embraced culture and are no longer “faithful witnesses” like Antipas?

Is Revelation about the Past, Present or Future?

I have written about various approaches to Revelation in the past (see these posts on historicism, preterism, and futurism). Let me summarize these positions here, if you need more, follow the links.

Preterism argues that Revelation refers only to events of the first century, although there may be a hope for a final return of Christ in the future in the book. Futurism believes that most of Revelation predicts events in the future (a real tribulation full of judgment, etc.) Idealists and Historicists both see Revelation as referring to the present age, but in much different ways. The old historicist method saw the symbols of Revelation as referring to events in history, while idealism tends to see the symbols as referring to the struggle of good and evil in this world.

Homer Not AgainFew people would argue in favor of historicism as it was practiced prior to the early nineteenth century and I am unaware of a commentary from a major publisher that would advocate for the view. Preterism has become very popular recently and there are quite a few monographs that could be described as idealist/preterist. This may be part of a sometimes violent backlash against the popularity Left Behind series and the nonsensical hatred of dispensationalism as a heretical teaching hatched in the pit of hell.

Following the lead of George Ladd, many commentaries on Revelation reject a single approach to the book in favor of some combination of the three main views. Ladd, for example, combines idealism and futurism. He held that most of Revelation was future, but only after chapter 6. Chapter 6 is symbolic of the general flow of the church age, similar to the idealist position rather than the historicist. Greg Beale’s commentary attempts to be a “redemptive-historical form of modified idealism.” He attempts to read the symbols very much like an idealist, but includes a future aspect as well. The beast of chapter 13, for example, is representative of all the “anti-christs” throughout history, but also points to the ultimate Antichrist of the future. For Beale, the idealist view is primary, the futurist is secondary.

Grant Osborne concurs with Beale’s approach, but emphasizes the future aspect of the prophecies. Osborne defines apocalyptic as “the present addressed through parallels with the future” (22). For example, Osborne feels the three and one half year great tribulation in Revelation serves as a model for all previous tribulations the church has faced.

C. Marvin Pate writes as a contemporary dispensationalist attempting to read Revelation as a book about the future, to be understood as literal, but also to address some of the excesses of the dispensational approach. The criticism of dispensational futurism have merit; dispensationalism needs to “reinvent itself” in order to deal with the critique from Reformed writers (primarily a-mil and idealist / preterists.) This “re-invention” is modeled along the catchphrase “already / not yet” as applied to the Kingdom of God in the Gospels by C. H. Dodd and later by George Ladd.

It is therefore possible that creating a “four views on Revelation” style rubric then forcing a commentary through that grid creates an interpretive environment that misses some aspect of Revelation’s message. By making it entirely past, we miss the prophetic element. But by making it entirely future, we miss the application of the book to the present age.

Is there a specific way a “blended” view might help shed light on a particular portion of Revelation? Is there are section of the book that is better read as referring to both the past and the future? Or are we forced to choose one or the other?

Reading Revelation – Does Genre Matter?

Reading Revelation

Revelation is a “prophetic account in letter form of the ultimate end of this age in apocalyptic terms that are culturally foreign to most of us.” Walt Russell, Playing with Fire: How the Bible Ignites Change in Your Soul (Colorado Springs: Navpress, 2000), 254.

The book of Revelation claims to be prophetic (1:3; 22:7, 10, 18, 19; 22:18-19). If it is prophecy, it is a specific form known as apocalyptic. Yet the book has a number of features which imply it is also a letter, including seven letters in the chapters 2-3. This blending of genres is somewhat unique in the New Testament, although 2 Thess 2 has some apocalyptic elements, and the Olivet Discourse has prophetic and apocalyptic elements

In his commentary on Revelation, dispensationalist Robert Thomas rejects the possibility of blending two or more genres. He argues strongly for Revelation as prophecy in the tradition of the Old Testament. For Thomas, the book claims to be “prophecy” and no other genre. His motivation for this rejection is likely some of the baggage that normally comes with the genre “apocalyptic.” Frequently apocalyptic literature is described as history re-written as prophecy – not really prophecy. Since he is committed to futurism and literal interpretation o the symbols of the book, he is resistant to allow the genre of apocalyptic to whittle away at his futurist interpretation.

Thomas seems to protest too much the idea of blending genres. This is a common phenomenon in the epistles (Paul makes use of hymn material in Phil 2, for example.) One might argue that Isaiah “blends” the prophetic and apocalyptic genres in 24-27, Ezekiel in 37-39, etc. As Grant Osborne says, “it is impossible to distinguish between prophecy and apocalyptic….” (Revelation, 13).

Similar to Osborne, Gordon Fee uses this blending of genre to distance Revelation from some of the conventions of apocalyptic literature (Revelation, xii). Since John is writing prophecy as well as apocalyptic, he does not select a name from antiquity and create his apocalypse in his name. John has experienced the new age of the Spirit and is creating a book which applies to the present experience of the readers. Fee points out that most apocalyptic literature is “sealed up” for a future time when the Spirit of God will make the symbolism clear, But in Rev 22:10 John is specifically told not to seal up the prophecy!

Does the literary genre of Revelation matter? How do we take all three genre into account? How would the book be interpreted differently if it is only prophecy, as opposed to apocalyptic? How does the appearance of a letter effect the way we might read the book?

 

The Problem of Prophecy

I am currently teaching a two-week intensive class on Daniel and Revelation.  I have toyed with the idea of renaming the class “Introduction to Apocalyptic” even if such a title would scare a few students away.  I approach the class from a hermeneutical perspective and try to give some strategy for reading Daniel and Revelation as examples of biblical apocalyptic.

For a text book I chose Brent Sandy’s Plowshares and Pruning Hooks (IVP, 2002).  I find this little book a helpful primer for not only apocalyptic, but also for the hermeneutics of metaphors. Maybe I am hoping for too much here, but I think that a solid understanding of how non-literal communication will help us steer clear of the traps ensnare many interpreters of Revelation.  (I used three metaphors in that last sentence intentionally)

In his second chapter, Sandy lists seven “problems” the reader must face when reading the prophetic books of the Old Testament.

1. Predictive of Poetic? Some language in a text is used to describe a writer’s current situation in poetic language. Yet other language may be used to predict something in the future (near or distant). Sandy uses Psalm 22 as an example. To what extent is the language of this psalm describing the Psalmists own state of dereliction, yet there are other elements which seem to predict the cross.

2. Literal or Figurative? For me, this is less of a problem since I have been emphasizing the metaphoric nature of language. It is virtually impossible to express thoughts without using implicit or explicit imagery. Some statements are propositions (such as the prophet describing a real historical event) Other times the prophet uses hyperbole to describe something. One of Sandy’s examples is Isa 48:4: “your neck muscles are like iron.” This is a clear image, the person does not have an iron neck. Yet it expresses a very real situation. So is this literal or figurative?

3. Exact or Emotive? Sometimes prophets predict things which will happen just as predicted. When Jonah said, “in three days Nineveh will be destroyed,” he meant that literally. When Isaiah said “a child will be born,” he meant that a child was about to be born. But in many other cases a metaphor will be used to stir an emotion or call to mind a feeling (usually of fear or dread).

4. Conditional or Unconditional? Predictive prophecy often has a conditional aspect, even if that is not explicitly stated. This is the case in Jonah’s prophecy that Nineveh would be destroyed. But other times the prophet describes a coming event which is certain. This is the case of the progression of empires in Daniel 2 and 7. There is no question that these empires will rise and fall.

5. Real or Surreal? This is more of a problem for apocalyptic literature, since many of the images used are by their nature surreal and other-worldly. There is little doubt that Daniel did not want us to imagine a literal bear with a mouth full of ribs. But when he describes a “sanctuary,” does he have in mind the real Temple in Jerusalem?

6. Oral or Written? For a prophet like Isaiah, the oral delivery of a prophecy is important – he delivered a message to a specific king at a specific time with a specific intention. But Daniel is not addressing a particular king, the book is a literary work which may verbally allude to other texts. To what extent is a prophet “preaching” or “researching”?

7. Fulfilled or Unfulfilled? From our perspective, a prophecy may be said to be “fulfilled” even if it was not from the perspective of the prophet. Certainly our presuppositions about the nature of the church and Israel will come into play here, but it is possible to read a text like Daniel 9 (the seventy-sevens) as wholly fulfilled or as partially fulfilled with aspects yet to come.

Sandy’s questions are more difficult for apocalyptic literature.  I am tempted to declare “it is all surreal” and walk away from a text like Daniel 8:1-14, yet the writer of this apocalyptic vision intended something by it.  The difficulty for us is determining the function of the metaphors.  The writer chose to describe real events as rams and goats battling on a great plain for a reason, by paying careful attention to the point of the metaphors the reader will be closer to the meaning intended by the author.