Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Revelation 2, Part One

The letter to the church at Ephesus (vs. 1-7)—Chapters 2 and 3 contain seven letters, one to each of the seven churches in Asia, to whom the book was written. These epistles are direct dictations from Jesus to John. They contain what the congregation is doing well, and where it needs to improve. The first letter was to the church at Ephesus.

The author (v. 1)—Jesus identifies Himself as “He who holds the seven stars in His right hand, who walks in the midst of the seven golden lampstands” (v. 1). We have already seen that the seven lampstands represent the seven churches and the stars are the angels of those churches (1:20). Jesus will be identified differently to each of the churches.

The good (vs. 2, 3, 6)—The church in Ephesus had its good points. They had labored for the Lord, been patient, persevered, and not become weary (vs. 2-3). But the main commendation of the Lord was that “you cannot bear those who are evil. And you have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars” (v. 2). In other words, opposition to false teachers. Interestingly, the church in Ephesus had apparently taken heart to the warning Paul had given to their elders almost a generation before: “Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves. Therefore watch…” (Acts 20:28-31). Opposition to error is a duty of every Christian (Matt. 7:15; Rom. 16:17). The Ephesians to whom Jesus wrote also “hate[d] the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate” (v. 6). This obscure sect apparently held some ideas similar to the doctrines of the Canaanites and their god Baal; the church at Pergamum was censored for tolerating some who believed that teaching (2:14). Iranaeus, a 2nd century Christian writer, claims that the Nicolaitans were founded by Nicholas, one of the seven chosen to serve at tables (Acts 6:5). This isn’t conclusive, however. They are mentioned by several 2nd century writers. It appears that they had some Gnostic tendencies as well. Whatever their exact identity, the Lord hated their doctrine and so did the Ephesians.

The bad (vs. 4-5)—“Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love.” (v. 4). Exactly what that means, we do not know. Perhaps they had lost their zeal and were simply going through the motions of Christianity. One can do what’s right, and the Lord will be pleased with that, but if we do not operate from proper motives, then we also stand to be condemned. Jesus told them to “repent…or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from it place” (v. 5). The Lord was merciful and would give them space to repent, but it must be done.

The promised blessing (v. 7)—“To him who overcomes I will give to eat from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God" (v. 7).

The above structure is followed, with three exceptions, in each of the seven letters—an introduction to Jesus, the good in the church, the bad in the church, and the promised blessing. And each of them also end with Jesus saying “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” In other words, pay attention. The Lord is serious about this.

Revelation 2, Part Two

To the church in Smyrna (vs. 8-11)—Smyrna was a city on the coast of the Aegean Sea, about 40 miles north of Ephesus. It still exists and has perhaps 200,000 people. It was founded by Alexander the Great. The city seems to have been a center of some pagan mystery cults, and that is perhaps alluded to in Christ’s letter to them. We know nothing about the founding of this church.

The author (v. 8)—"These things says the First and the Last, who was dead, and came to life.” Jesus says these things in chapter 1, and it had to be comforting to know that He rose from the dead. Their faith wasn’t in vain.

The good (vs. 9)—Smyrna was apparently a poor congregation materially, “but you are rich” (v. 9)--spiritually, which is what really counts. They had worked for the Lord and endured tribulation, from “those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan” (v. 9). This may be a figurative reference to the pagans of the city and their temple, or more likely, it was truly a bunch of false Jews whose synagogue rejected the true teachings of the Lord. The church was “about to suffer” (v. 10), “indeed, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation ten days.” But Jesus exhorted them not to fear, and to ”be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life” (v. 10). The “ten days” of tribulation is almost surely figurative; they will be persecuted until the time is complete, then they will have no more.

The bad—There is nothing negative said about this church.

The blessing (v. 11)—“He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death."  Each of the blessings that end the letters begins “he who overcomes.” In this case, no eternal punishment.

This is one of two congregation to which the Lord had nothing to censure. There will be one church for which He has nothing good to say.

The church in Pergamos (vs. 12-17)—Pergamos was the chief city of the region of Mycia in Asia Minor. It still exists under the name of Bergama, and has a few thousand inhabitants. In John’s time, it was known for its wickedness—“Satan’s throne” was there. As we shall see, the church there struggled with the paganism and idolatry of the city.

The author (v. 12)—“He who has the sharp two-edged sword”—cutting both ways. This is probably a reference to the word of God.

The good (v. 13)—Jesus recognized that they lived in a very wicked city—“Satan’s throne” (or “seat”) was there. It could be simply that Satan ruled in that town or that a pagan temple existed. The church there had held fast to Christianity, did not deny the faith, and even lost a member, “Antipas, my faithful martyr, who was killed among you” (v. 13). So in the face of tremendous iniquity, the church had not caved.

The bad (vs. 14-15)—Yet paganism had influenced the church somewhat. “You have there those who hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit sexual immorality” (v. 14). This is not necessarily idolatry, just a fleshly influence from the world getting into the church. Some Nicolaitans were also being tolerated in Pergamos, and for this Jesus told them to “repent, or else I will come to you quickly and will fight against them with the sword of My mouth” (v. 17).

The blessing (v. 17)—“To him who overcomes I will give some of the hidden manna to eat. And I will give him a white stone, and on the stone a new name written which no one knows except him who receives it.” This is very obscure. Manna, of course, was what the Israelites ate in the wilderness. Some of it was put into the ark of the covenant, thus hidden. It was very holy and thus a holy blessing is promised here. It is suggested, among other things, that the white stone symbolizes pardon or acquittal. The Roman writer Ovid has some concomitant reference to this.

Revelation 2, Part Three

The church in Thyatira (vs. 18-29)—Thyatira was on the border of the regions of Lydia and Mysia. It exists today under the name of Ak-hissar, or “white castle.” Lydia, the seller of purple (Acts 16:14), was from Thyatira and was converted by Paul and Silas when they were in Philippi. So it’s possible the church in Thyatira got its beginning from that source. It was famous in ancient times for its dyes, and it still is.

The author (v. 18)—“the Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire, and His feet like fine brass.” He sees all and has the power to crush all opposition.,

The good (vs. 19, 24, 25)—They had some good works, love, service, faith, and patience, and “as for your works, the last are more than the first” (v. 19). There were some serious problems in the church, as we shall see, but there were those who did not give in (v. 24). It must have been a severe disturbance, because Jesus told the faithful group, “I will put on you no other burden” (v. 24). And He also tells them “but hold fast what you have till I come” (v. 25). The “but” there might imply a weakening that could lead to succumbing to the error in the church.

The bad (vs. 20-23)—There was apparently a very powerful, influential woman in the church at Thyatira who was seducing many of the members to sin. Jesus calls her “Jezebel,” which was almost assuredly not her true name, but a reference to Ahab’s wife in the Old Testament, the woman who might have been the most wicked to ever plague Israel. So calling her by that name indicates serious iniquity. She “calls herself a prophetess,” and obviously many of the members in Thyatira believed her. But her “prophesy” was ”to teach and seduce My servants to commit sexual immorality and eat things sacrificed to idols” (v. 20). And this is probably literal, not figurative. Jesus gave her time to repent, but she failed to do so (v. 22). She and her followers would suffer “great tribulation” unless they repented (v. 22). Jesus also says “I will kill her children with death” (v. 23). There will be nothing left of her and her spiritual offspring. It will be a lesson to “all the churches,” who need to know that the Lord “searches the minds and hearts.” Nothing is hidden from Him, “and I will give to each one of you according to your works” (v. 23).

The blessing (vs. 26-28)—To the one who overcomes “I will give power over the nations—he shall rule with a rod of iron” (vs. 26-27). Victory in the end. “And I will give him the morning star” (v. 28)—an inheritance in the brightest and most glorious empire ever. The blessings keep adding up for “him who overcomes.”

Friday, March 26, 2010

Revelation Chapter 1

Preface (vs. 1-8)—Chapters one through three of the book form the prologue. Always, when reading/studying the Revelation, keep in mind the circumstances surrounding the book—persecution of Christians by the Roman empire. John himself was “on the island that is called Patmos for the word of God and for the testimony of Jesus Christ” (v. 9), i.e., he had been exiled for the gospel’s sake. The message is that of a risen Lord; victory will be ours if we remain faithful. As noted in the earlier article on “four keys,” verse one informs us that the matters of which John writes “must shortly take place,” and were “signified” to him. The Greek word “must” is dei, which means “moral necessity.” Those who persecute the Lord’s people must be punished. Verse 3 pronounces a blessing on all who “hear the words of this prophecy” (it is hard to be “blessed” if we cannot understand it), and confirms verse 1: “for the time is near”—not 2,000 hence. The interval of time between the beginning of relief and final consummation of things is not given; John’s readers didn’t need that. They needed assurance of immediate relief and a complete final triumph, and Revelation gives them that.

Verse four tells the intended audience: “John, to the seven churches which are in Asia.” They are subsequently listed in verse 11, and separate letters are written to each in chapters 2 and 3.

Verse 5 introduces us to the true author of the book, Jesus Christ (verse 1 begins “The revelation of Jesus Christ…to His servant John”). Jesus is “the faithful witness,” resurrected, and, most importantly for John’s audience, “the ruler over the kings of the earth,” including the Romans. He has made us a kingdom and priesthood, by loosing us from our sins by His blood (vs. 5-6). He has authority over all (v. 6). When He comes with the clouds, “every eye will see Him, even they who pierced Him” (v. 7). This is almost surely a reference to the literal Second Coming, but could refer to His coming in judgment upon the Romans, who would eventually be overtaken by Christianity. “Alpha” and “Omega” (v. 8) are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet; “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty,” is typical Jewish conception of God, in effect, “the eternally existing one.”

So we see in the very first few verses of the Revelation that the Author of Christianity is still alive, He is in control, He’s what He always was and always will be. This had to be a comforting message to those Christians to whom Rome appeared all powerful.

The Son of Man (vs. 9-20)—John knew what his readers were going through. He was their “brother and companion in the tribulation” (v. 9), and, as already noted, had been banished to a small, rocky, barren island in the Aegean Sea. Jesus appeared to him “on the Lord’s Day” (v. 10), and told him, “what you see, write in a book” (v. 11), and send it to the seven churches in Asia that are listed in that verse. The apostle then sees seven golden lampstands (representing the seven churches, v. 20), and “in the midst of the seven lampstands One like the Son of Man” (v. 13). This “Son of Man” was spectacular in appearance. He wore a long, flowing garment with a golden girdle (v. 13); this is the clothing of a priest and king. His hair was like wool, white as snow (v. 14)—pure and holy. “His eyes like a flame of fire” (v. 14)—omniscient, piercing, seeing everything. His feet were like refined brass (v. 15)—strong, able to crush anything in His path. His voice with “the sound of many waters” (v. 15) speak of power and authority, especially with a two-edged sword coming out of His mouth (v. 16). In His right hand, He held seven stars (v. 16, more on that in a moment). He had a face that shone like the sun—majestic and awesome. And, not surprisingly, when John saw Him “I fell at His feet as dead” (v. 17). But the beloved apostle was comforted (v. 17), and Jesus again tells of His eternal nature, and His resurrection. “And I have the keys of Hades and of Death”--i.e., power over death (v. 18). John is again told to write what He sees (v. 19), and, to introduce the second chapter, Jesus informs him that the seven lampstands represent the seven church, each with its own angel (v. 20—the seven stars in His hand).

So, upon reading this, what would John’s persecuted readers think? They would know that the Lord they believed in was still alive, knew their plight, had the power and authority to relieve them, and indeed, He soon would. He is still in command, is in their midst, and holds their destiny in His hand. What a marvelous picture of peace and comfort. Revelation may be the most beautiful book in the Bible, once we understand what the Lord is revealing to us. Chapter 1 is certainly soothing and reassuring.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Four Keys To The Book of Revelation

Thus far I have considered in some detail the basic background to the book of Revelation, especially the nature of apocalyptic literature and the numerical symbolism that is such a key part of it. Before I get directly into a chapter-by-chapter study of the text, I want to look at one more introductory aspect, what I call “four keys to the book of Revelation.” They are all found within the book, in the first two chapters. And once again, failure to grasp these crucial points can lead to significant errors in rightly comprehending John’s message.

The first two keys are found in the very first verse.

Key #1“The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him, to shew unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass.” While some people suggest that the book was written before 70 A.D. in lieu of the coming destruction of Jerusalem, most scholars believe that John wrote around 95 with the Roman persecution in mind. That’s the view I will take in this study. But either way, the things written would “shortly come to pass.” They weren’t going to happen 2,000 years later; 2,000 years from 95 A.D. is not “shortly.” Now, I suppose if one looks at it from God’s perspective, 2,000 years isn’t much. But the book is written for humans to understand, and if you were one of John’s readers in the first century, and you read that the things written in Revelation were going to shortly come to pass,” what would you think? The book is written for beleaguered Christians in the first century, for their aid, and the happenings in the book are for their strength and comfort, not just ours. Any attempt to cast the majority of the book 2,000 year into the future—as premillennial theory does—is missing a major key to understanding the Revelation.

Key #2—Also in verse 1: “and he sent and signified it by his angel unto his servant John.” As I’ve pointed out repeatedly in earlier posts, Revelation is written in signs and symbols. That’s not just the judgment of a human writer, that is the statement of inspired Scripture. Now obviously signs and symbols have meaning; John isn’t writing nonsense. But we must be very, very careful about literalizing, when the book itself says it was “signified” to John. Thus, a literal battle of Armageddon, or a literal 1,000 years is problematic, at best, especially since there is no other location in Scripture—literal or figurative—that give any indication that those two events will ever occur. To build an entire system of theology on basically one passage of Scripture—Revelation 20 and the “1,000 year reign”—is a most hazardous approach to Biblical interpretation. Indeed, it really boggles the mind.

Key #3—In chapter 1:4, we read, “John to the seven churches which are in Asia.” To whom was the book written? That verse tells us—the seven churches of Asia, which are listed later in the chapter, and to whom specific letters are written by the Lord in chapters 2 and 3. What does the book of Revelation mean? Well, first and foremost, it means what Jesus intended for it to mean, but since it was initially written to those seven churches, then we must try to understand it the way they would have. Folks, every book in the Bible was written to somebody, by somebody, for a specific purpose calculated to be understood by its initial readers. And that’s what each of the 66 books of the Bible means. Now, of course, they all have residual meaning for us; God’s principles are timeless. But if we bypass the original readers and try to twist some meaning out of a text that would be totally inapplicable to them, then we have grossly misunderstood what the writer is trying to convey. What did the book of Revelation mean to the seven churches of Asia? That’s what it means and nothing else!! What we gain from it is based upon whatever timeless, divine truths are found in what God first told those Asian congregations. And that is just as true with the book of Romans as it is with the book of Revelation, and every other book in the Bible. I will be at pains to repeat that point ad nauseum through this study.

Key #4“Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life” (Rev. 2:10). There is the theme of the book. Every book has a theme and a purpose, and “faithfulness unto death” is the thesis of Revelation. And that’s not just “faithful until you die of old age,” that's “faithful even if it means your death.” The latter was a distinct possibility to Christians of John’s day, and those who lived in the Roman empire. Persecution by the Romans wasn’t constant, but it did happen, and it could be severe. And thousands of Christians suffered martyrdom at the hands of their pagan masters. That’s what Jesus meant. That theme will be illustrated in the text, as we shall see.

With these keys in mind—keys which I will probably repeat frequently through the study—I believe we have a firmer foundation for understanding John’s message. The events would “shortly come to pass.” Revelation is largely written in signs and symbols. It must be understood the way the churches of Asia, to whom it was initially written, would have understood it. And it must be interpreted in light of its thesis. Folks, there is nothing complex about that. We should approach the book of Revelation the same way we would approach all other books that have ever been written—let the writer tell us who his audience is, what he intends to say, and how he intends to say it. In that regard, what’s different about the book of Revelation from, say, a calculus textbook or a Louis L'Amour novel?

Friday, March 5, 2010

Numerical Symbolism—I

(Note:  again, there are three articles in this series, and I have arranged them below in sequence.  The reader is encouraged to read the older posts first.  I am writing this series with a certain arrangement and organization, and to fully understand these newer posts, it would be well to study the older ones first.)

Part of “apocalyptic” literature is the symbolism of numbers. It’s not just apocalyptic writing that uses numbers like this; remember that Jesus told Peter to forgive his brother “seventy times seven” times, i.e., indefinitely. But certainly the symbolism of numbers is extremely important in the book of Revelation. Indeed, it is impossible to correctly diagnose the book unless one understands that nearly all of the numbers therein are intended to be comprehended in their symbolic, rather than mathematically literal, meaning. In this post, I want to give a brief overview of the symbolic meaning of numbers in ancient Hebrew literature, again, something that is very common in apocalyptic-type literature.

“One.” Man saw a single object and came to associate the number “1” with unity or independent existence. “One’ thus stood for that which was unique and alone. This usage of the number “one,” to my immediate recollection, is not found in the book of Revelation or anywhere else in Scripture, though I stand to be corrected if an instance is brought forth.

“Two.” Amid the dangers of primitive life, with the fear of wild beasts or hostile attack by enemies, man gained courage in companionship. Two are stronger than one; thus “two” came to symbolize strengthening, confirmation, redoubled courage or energy. This number is found often in Scripture. For example, though Jesus sent out His disciples literally two by two in the “limited commission” (Matt. 10), there was symbolism in this: the Jews would understand that the message was being confirmed because two were involved in its dissemination. In Revelation 11:3-12, the truth of God is confirmed by two witnesses who are slain and rise again—a strong witness which prospers, then seems to be beaten to earth only to rise again in heavenly triumph. Also, there are two beasts mutually confirming and supporting each other in the war against righteousness (chapter 13). The meaning is that Satan is very strong, and his message convinces many. Against these two beasts, God has a “twofold” instrument of warfare—the conquering Christ and the sickle of judgment. They are too strong for the beasts to overcome. Thus, symbolically we see the cause of righteousness triumph over evil.

“Three.” This number was a symbol of the divine. The source of this could be the home where primitive man found the most divine things to be father love, mother love, and filial love. As knowledge of God increased, man understood Him as a “godhead three”—Father, Son, Spirit. There appear glimmerings of this not only in the Old Testament, but also in Greek philosophy and dreams. Thus, the most divine aspects of life could be symbolized with the number three. This isn’t often found, if at all, in the book of Revelation.

“Four.” When man looked outside the home, he had no conception of the modern world as we know it. The world was a flat surface with four boundaries. There were four winds from the four sides of the earth. Man believed there were four angels to govern the four winds. In town he placed himself within the confines of four walls. Thus, when man thought of the world, he though in terms of “four,” the “cosmic” number. In Revelation, the four living creatures would represent all the divisions of animal life (all breath praises God). The four horsemen symbolize all the destructive powers of humanity on this earth—powers that were to come in judgment upon the world. The world in which men lived and worked and died was symbolized by “four.”

To be continued…

Numerical Symbolism—II

Let us continue our study of the symbolic use of numbers in apocalyptic literature.

“Five.” Next, man turned from a study of his home and the world about him to study himself. Perhaps the decimal system arose from man studying his own fingers and toes. Be that as it may, early civilizations were cruel, hard, crude. Many men were maimed and crippled through disease, accident, warfare, etc. A perfect, full-rounded man was one who had all his members intact. Thus, the number “five,” doubled to “ten,” came to stand for human completeness. In Revelation, for example, the picture of the complete power of human government was a beast with ten horns. The dragon, the first beast, and the scarlet beast have ten horns each. With the last beast, the ten horns are called ten kings, i.e., complete world (human) power as it appeared (to John’s readers) to belong to Rome with her provincial system. All efforts to find a literal “ten” kings (or Caesars) are destined to fail because the number is not to be understood literally. It symbolizes complete, earthly human power as it appeared to the saints in the first century—who could overthrow Rome? Also, as a multiple, 10 occurs many times in Revelation. “70” is a very sacred number, and “1,000” (10 x 10 x10) is ultimate completeness, fullness, totality raised to the nth degree, nothing lacking. The saints’ “reign” in Revelation 20 has no weakness, but is absolute and entire. That could have been symbolized with simply “10,” but by raising it to third power, God is providing added comfort and assurance. It’s a marvelously soothing message to beleaguered saints in the first century, and just as marvelously misunderstood by so many people today—because they take the number literally. What a tragedy.

“Seven.” Ancient man then began to analyze and combine numbers and came up with some interesting ideas. He took the divine number—three—combined it with the perfect world number—four—and got seven, which was the most sacred number to the Hebrews. The number “seven” is found all through the Revelation—and other Scriptures—expressing sacredness through a union of heaven and earth. There are seven Spirits, churches, golden candlesticks, stars, and sections in the book. When the sacred number seven was multiplied by the complete number, 10, it yielded the very sacred “70.” Thus, there were 70 members of the Jewish high council, and 70 were sent out on another “limited commission” by Jesus. In one of the most beautiful figures in the Bible, referenced in the first article in this series, Jesus presented the idea of unlimited Christian forgiveness when He told Peter to forgive his brother 70 times 7 times.  I have often wondered if God intended some sort of symbolically powerful meaning in the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, which ended the Jewish system of worship and tribalism as it had theretofore existed--and has not existed since.  It happened in 70 A.D.
“Twelve.” Four and three were also multiplied to give 12, which became a well-known symbol. To the Hebrews, 12 represented organized religion in the world. There were 12 tribes of Israel, 12 apostles, 12 gates to the Holy City. In Revelation, the number 12 was reduplicated to 144,000 (12 x 12 x 10 x 10 x 10)—religion combined with human completeness to the nth degree. In Revelation 7 and 15, this pictures the security of a perfect number sealed from the wrath of God visited upon the world. Not one of God’s people will be lost when He comes in judgment. The 12 represents God’s faithful, 10 signifies completeness. Again, 120—12 x 10—could have been used to supply the correct message, but God, by multiplying 12 and 10 out to 144,000 is giving an overabundance of assurance that He will not forget even the lowliest of His people, no, not one. What a beautiful figure this is!

To be continued…

Numerical Symbolism—III

Let me conclude this series with two more very important numbers used symbolically in the book of Revelation.

“3½.” Seven was divided in two to get 3½. 3½ came to express the incomplete, that which was imperfect, restless longings not yet fulfilled, aspirations unrealized, or an indefinite, but finite, period of time. When an apocalyptic writer wanted to describe these conditions, for example, picturing the world as waiting for something which had not yet arrived, or when men in despair and confusion seeking peace and light, he would use 3½. This number actually takes several forms: 3½, “a time, times, and half a time,” 42 months (three and a half years), or 1,260 days (also three and a half years)—all of these have the same meaning. In Revelation 11, the two witnesses preached 3½ years—an indefinite time, filled with much despair. The court of the temple was trampled upon by the ungodly for 3½ years; saints were persecuted 42 months; the woman was in the wilderness 1,260 days. Always this represents the indefinite, the incomplete, a dissatisfied condition. But in it, there was still hope and patient waiting for a better day when truth would win out. A perfect apocalyptic literature-type figure.

“Six.” This last number, very important, needs to be mentioned. To the Jew, six had a sinister meaning. As seven was the sacred number, six fell short of it and failed. Thus, it was an evil number, like “13” is to many people today. Six was the charge that met defeat with success just within its grasp. Thus, in Revelation 13, “666” was evil, failure stretched out the nth degree. Satan’s success at overthrowing God’s people was very close, but ultimately this evil creature failed. “666” is not literally a man; all efforts to identify him as one literal person have been unsuccessful. “666” simply represents evil raised to the highest power; if any one man would be meant, John’s readers would have perceived it to be the Roman emperor, an evil person doing Satan’s work by persecuting God’s saints. By giving him the number “666,” God is saying this one is very evil, and will come close to achieving his wicked goals. But he will ultimately fail, for he falls short of the perfection of “seven.”

It is essential to remember that the numbers in the book of Revelation are symbolic, even when used literally (e.g., the seven churches of Asia represent all of God’s people). These numbers must not be understood with mathematical precision. When you see a number in Revelation, don’t even think in mathematical terms, think in conceptual terms, as John’s readers would have done. That is very difficult for us to do, because we don’t use numbers that way; it’s not part of our language. But it was to John’s readers and that’s the way they would have thought. I tell my history students, on the very first day of lecture, that if they are going to understand peoples of other time periods and cultures, they simply must learn to think like those people. Not easy, in fact, impossible to completely accomplish. But, as best as possible, it must be done to understand the Bible, and especially the book of Revelation. This will greatly aid in comprehending this remarkably beautiful, but obscure, book—obscure to those who fail to understand the historical circumstances and nature of apocalyptic writings.

Note: I must give thanks and credit to Ray Summers, whose book Worthy is the Lamb was the source of most of the material for this series, and also the one on apocalyptic literature. It is, far and away, the best book on the book of Revelation that I have ever studied.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Apocalyptic Literature I: Introduction

{There are three articles in this series and I have put them in sequence below.)

It is literally impossible to fully understand the book of Revelation if we do not understand apocalyptic literature. And indeed, this lack of comprehension is probably the major reason the book has been so widely misinterpreted. The word “apocalyptic” is from a Greek word, “apokalupsis,” which means “unveiling,” or “revelation.” And, yes, it is title of the book of Revelation in the original Greek. The purpose of apocalyptic literature is to make the message of the writer increasingly vivid through signs and symbols, and often very grotesque and frightening symbols they are. Most religions actually have something of this kind of literature within them, so it’s not peculiar to Judaism and Christianity.

But within the Jewish and Christian religions, this genre of literature was prominent from about 200 B.C. to 200 A.D., although there are examples of it earlier and later; Daniel 7 and Ezekiel 1 are illustrations of it in earlier Biblical books. To understand why it became so prominent around 200 B.C., we need—not surprisingly—a little historical background.

We’ve all heard of Alexander the Great. In about 333 B.C., he left Greece and headed east towards the Persian empire. Persia was a huge kingdom at that time and controlled Judea; recall your Biblical history. The Jews were in Babylonian captivity until 536 B.C. when the Persian king Cyrus allowed them to return home. Persia had destroyed Babylon and had taken over to become the great Middle Eastern empire. The Old Testament ends with the Jews under the domination of Persia. Well, in a series of wars in the 330s and 320s, Alexander conquered Persia and replaced it with a great Greek empire. Alexander died in 323 never having returned to Greece, and his great empire was divided among four of his generals. Judea and the Jews fell under the control of the Seleucid family of that division. And it’s from that origin that the apocalyptic literature of 200 B.C. to 200 A.D. began to arise.

Many of the Jews became quite enamored with Greek philosophy, much to the consternation of the more conservative thinkers of that religion (such as Pharisees). But that liberal Jewish element compromised the purity of Judaism and this led a strong backlash—an anti-Greek movement that was determined to keep the religion untainted from foreign influence. Some of this latter, anti-Greek group became mystics, people who see visions and have dreams—and in this case, visions and dreams of a better day, a release from the darkened conditions of the present time; darkened conditions such as the Greek domination and philosophical influence upon Judaism. Remember the book of Daniel; in chapter 7 he sees some vivid, “apocalyptic” scenes because of the captivity of the Jews in Babylon—four horrible, frightening creatures, but then the promise of the coming of the “Ancient of Days,” a deliverer. That’s a very good summary of apocalyptic literature, and quite frankly, that’s basically what it consists of. Think of the book of Revelation.

This form of literature got a big boost in the early 2nd century B.C. when a man named Antiochus Epiphanes ruled Judea (175-164). He was a bitter anti-Semite, the Adolf Hitler of his day. His reign was the darkest days the Jews had known since the Babylonian captivity. He prohibited on the pain of death observance of the Jewish religion. Antiochus put a statue of a heathen god in the temple in Jerusalem; he even sacrificed a pig on the altar. The Jews revolted against Antiochus, led by a family named Maccabee, and they actually will throw off the Greek regime and inaugurate a period of freedom for the Jews which will last about 100 years until the Romans show up. But what’s important for our study here is that the horrors of Antiochus Epiphanes’ reign led to the release of another series of apocalyptic visions from the mystics of the day—stunning, dramatic visions of horror followed by glorious deliverance—the very essence of apocalyptic literature. I’ll look at some of the conditions and purposes of that literature in my next post.

Apocalyptic Literature II: Conditions and Purposes

I explained in the first article of this series that apocalyptic literature was quite common in many religions, and that was true of Judaism and Christianity as well. It flourished in the latter two religions from about 200 B.C. to 200 A.D. I want to discuss in this post some of the background conditions of this genre of literature and then its purposes. I touched on this briefly in the first article, but let me do it in a bit more depth here.

Tumultuous times gave birth to apocalyptic literature. For example, the Babylonian captivity and the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes. And, as we shall see when we get to the book of Revelation, the persecution of Christians by Romans. There were trials, suffering, sorrow, near-despair—these sorts of emotions furnished the soil from which this literature grew. So the writers penned their works in days of adversity. The present time was pictured as one of great persecution, tribulation, and suffering, but, in glorious contrast, the future was a time of deliverance and triumph. God would intervene and lead His people to victory. This is the common theme of apocalyptic writings.

The purpose was to stress loyalty and stimulate faith by revealing the certain overthrow of evil and the final victory of God’s righteous cause. If we know we are going to win in the end, then it’s much easier to endure the trial, suffering, and persecution for a season. The apocalyptic books—and this is crucial—were always written in signs and symbols for the protection of the writer and reader alike; if the persecutors understood the true meaning, that could create even greater danger for those who possessed the literature. I’m not sure that always worked because, as noted, many religions wrote such books, but that was the idea. We find apocalyptic literature among the Jews when they were under foreign domination—again, examples of which are Daniel and Ezekiel in Babylon, and the dreadfulness of Antiochus Epiphanes. And, for Christians, John in the Roman empire.

The writer didn’t really deal with specific events; there would be some of that, but mostly he’s trying to get below the surface, delve to the bottom of the essence of things, find their real significance. If we try to find a precise meaning for every sign and symbol in an apocalyptic book, number one, we’ll fail because they don’t exist, and number two, we’ll miss the true import of what is being written. Look at the whole picture, not at the details—that’s what the author is trying to get us to do. He might sketch the entire course of world affairs with a view to presenting the ultimate triumph of righteousness over wickedness. The forest is what we want to look at first; individual trees might have some significance, but if we get lost in the details, we’ll miss the point. Good vs. evil is the theme, with evil initially appearing to have the upper hand, but the glorious conquest of God’s holy cause assured in the end. Our job is to endure while evil is in the ascendancy; or, as John wrote in what is probably the best summary thesis of the book of Revelation: “be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life” (Rev. 2:10). And that’s not just “be faithful until you die;” that’s “be faithful, even if it causes your death.” Since we are going to win in the end, there’s really no excuse for compromise or surrender.

But can you imagine how comforting that would be to people who were in the midst of such suffering and persecution? “Hang on, God knows what you are going through, you’ll win in the end.” That’s why a futuristic interpretation of Revelation is in err. If, as premillennialism teaches, most of the book hasn’t even happened yet, what good was that going to do the people in John’s day? They needed comfort now; they needed to know that their enemy, Rome, was going to be punished and defeated, that the Lord knew their sorrows and tribulations and would deliver them. That’s what apocalyptic literature was designed to convey. The people in John’s day couldn’t have cared less what was going to happen in Israel or China or the United States in the 21st century; that wouldn’t have helped them in the least. And that’s not why John wrote his book.

And in apocalyptic literature, nearly all of that will be conveyed in weird, or gorgeous, or unreal, terrible features and scenes in visionary form. Signs and symbols, rarely specifics. It’s imperative we grasp that, and the purpose of those signs and symbols.

Apocalyptic Literature-III: Characteristics

I discussed in the first two articles in this series the background, conditions, and purposes of apocalyptic literature. Let me discuss some of the characteristics one will find when reading material of an apocalyptic nature. Some of this will be a little repetitive, but that’s not bad given our basic unfamiliarity with type of writing.

1. Historical significance. There will nearly always be some critical historical situation with which an apocalyptic book is connected. For example, Daniel and Ezekiel in Babylonian captivity. There is a work called The Book of IV Ezra, written in the late 1st century A.D. which laments the destruction of Jerusalem by “Babylon” (Rome). In this book, everything in nature is out of harmony: the sun appears at midnight, the moon will shine at noon, blood will seep from wood, stones will speak, etc. The Book of Baruch was also written in the late 1st century to comfort the Jews after Rome destroyed Jerusalem. One more book I’d like to mention is The Assumption of Moses, written in the 1st century A.D. as a protest against the diversion of Israel’s interests towards political affairs, and to encourage piety while awaiting God’s intervention and triumph. Ray Summers, in his excellent book, Worthy is the Lamb, discusses the language of The Assumption: “The descriptions of the events attending the end is characteristic of this type of Jewish literature [apocalyptic]. The Heavenly One will arise from his throne and he will go forth with indignation and wrath because of the wickedness of men. The earth shall tremble; the high mountains shall be made low, and the hills shall be shaken and fall. The sun shall be turned to darkness; the moon shall give no light but shall be turned wholly into blood. The stars shall be disturbed. The sea will retire into the abyss, and the rivers shall be dried up. The eternal God will appear to punish the Gentiles and destroy all their idols. Israel shall be happy when she looks upon her enemies in hell. She shall rejoice and give thanks to her Creator” (Worthy is the Lamb, p. 12). This is apocalyptic literature; do you see a comparison with the book of Revelation? John wrote within the context of Roman persecution. There is always some critical historical condition behind an apocalyptic book.

2. Generally, pseudonymous authors. Not always—John wrote the Revelation under his own name. However, The Book of Enoch, for example, wasn’t written by Enoch, nor was The Assumption of Moses written by that great man. The authors remain anonymous not for base reasons. They have admiration for the greatness of previous prophets, there is a need for personal safety, there was a desire to emulate prophetic messages in a time when prophecy had ceased. And there were other motives as well, I’m sure. So, for the most part, the apocalyptic works are pseudonymous.

3. The message was presented in visions. I’ve already discussed this, and we have the Revelation as a perfect example. Also, look again at the illustrations in point 1 above. Visions were the chief means of expressing truth. They would vary from scenes in heaven to scenes on the earth. There is an abundance of messengers or angels who are God’s agents in securing the revelation to the seer. And we must not try to interpret these visions literally or to necessarily find specific historical events for each figure used.

4. Predictive. There is a predictive element to apocalyptic literature, but it’s general, not specific. Apocalypses deal with the character of events—good or evil—not the precise details. We must be very cautious in trying to apply specific historical events or people to the symbols of apocalyptic literature. This is done all the time by writers and, not surprisingly, there are hundreds of different ideas at to what a vision might specifically represent. And they are probably all wrong, because the vision dealt in general principles and not exact events. It’s especially difficult for us, who live far removed from the time of writing; those who lived at the time of the message would have had more of an idea of any particulars that might have been intended. But we do need to be familiar with the historical circumstances, at least in general, and seek to try to put ourselves in the shoes of those who first received the message.

5. A dramatic element. The author of the work tries to make the truths taught as vivid and forceful as possible. So there are often very grotesque and terrible symbols: rivers of blood, hailstones weighing 100 pounds, a dragon so large he knocks a third of the stars from the heavens with his tail, death riding on a horse, a woman with the moon as a dress and the sun as a footstool, animals with many heads and horns, a dragon, a beast, and a false prophet, each of whom vomits up a frog which joins in gathering an army. Some of these are found in the Revelation, and other places. But that’s the idea. Exaggerated symbols for the purpose of dramatic effect.

Once we get the nature of apocalyptic literature in mind, and realize that the book of Revelation is simply one example among many in ancient history, then we can have a better idea of what the book is about and avoid some of the egregious errors that have been made in interpreting it.