Book of Revelation: Method of interpretation part 2.
Now the first rule which we must apply is that we must take into account the Christians it was written to. I will never understand this book until I can get inside the heads of the people it was written to. I must hear this book through their ears, with an understanding of their life and times.
Let’s suppose as so many still do that this book is awaiting a future fulfillment. If that is the case, then I have got to find that plainly stated to those first-century readers. They must understand that. When they would have heard this book read to them, they would have to close it and say, we understand that there is nothing in this book for us, it awaits another 2000 years or more before its fulfillment, and so shelve they and every successive generation must also put it away. Because if God wrote this book to the church of the early 21st century or to a time yet future to now and did not tell those first-century readers, then He is cheating them. They thought it was for them. It says, ‘Write to the churches in Asia, Write it to THEM’.
In fact I would go so far as to say that the only way I read it is by reading it over their shoulder. It was written to them, basically not to me. It was only written to us as the whole Word of God was written to us. But I will never understand it until I understand what it meant to the first receivers of the letter.
The second great guard that we put up in our interpretation, is that the book promises a unique blessing to everyone who reads it. Revelation 1:3 ‘Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of the prophecy’. Now that suddenly takes it out of the context of the first century because it does not say “blessed are all the first century readers” So then we discover that it was first of all written to the first century church, but also to anyone who reads this book it will be a blessing. If a first century Christian reads this book he is going to be blessed (not terrified or worried or upset). This is the only book in the New Testament that promises a blessing to anyone who reads it. So here is a special blessing to any first-century Christian who reads that book. Secondly, anyone in 1300 or 1500 or 1900 or the year 2525 if they read this book they will be blessed with the same unique blessing because it is an open-ended blessing.
Our third rule of interpretation is concerned with eschatology. I doubt very much those first-century Christians facing such severe persecution were interested in the Common Market of Europe or who the anti-christ was. They were not people who were vaguely curious about the future, and I don’t think you could have gone to these people and said we are going to have a prophecy crusade and talk about the end-times or the front page headlines of the New York Times to find out what God was up to with the end of the world. They weren’t interested in prophecy crusades, they might be dead tomorrow morning because they confessed Jesus as Lord.
Who is interested in an era of history that hasn’t even come yet? If God says you are going to read this book but it is all about a far distant future, then God mocks them when he says you are going to be blessed. When I come home having been beaten up and my wounds are still bleeding, and I come home and find they have ransacked my house and I find my children living in caves – who cares who the anti-christ is? If I am going to read a book that is going to bless me, it has got to meet me in my pain, has got to meet me in my despair – as I look around and see what has happened to the Church – where is it? I am the only one left! This book has got to meet me where I am at.
So whatever interpretation we find in this book it must be intensely practical and pastoral to people under persecution and it must meet the church under persecution in AD 95 or in AD 1540 or in 2053. Wherever we find ourselves in history God says, Here is a blessing, and He gave it under the worst situation, so wherever we find ourselves this book promises to bless.
When I come to any book of the Bible I must ask myself, ‘what kind of literature is this?’ If I wrote to you a novel or wrote you a book of poems you would read my novel very differently from the way you read my poems…at least I hope. When you read a book of the Bible you must ask, What kind of literature is this? The very first verse tells me. It says ‘He sent and signified it. The original Greek word there is ‘He sent and made it known by signs and symbols’. He made it known by signs, symbols, and tokens.
It was done by a certain mode of communication which was sign, symbol or token. Whatever I find here it is a symbol. So I shall find cities – I shall find a city called “Jerusalem” I shall find a city called “The New Jerusalem”. I shall find Babylon. I shall find a river called the Great Euphrates. I will find a great horrific beast. I will find a little woolly lamb and I will also find another lamb as it had been slain, that is full of eyes and horns. In fact the more I look at the pictures of this book the more grotesque they become. I find a woman sitting on a beast, lumbering across the desert, and she has a cup full of blood.
Now as I approach this book, I have to get one thing in my head, it tells me this is not an ordinary narrative. This is not straightforward novel form. This is a book of signs and symbols. So when I meet a city called Jerusalem, even though I do not know what it is, I know it is not Jerusalem. For a symbol is pointing away to something else. When I meet a city called Babylon I may not know what it is pointing to, but I know it is a sign, it is not the city of Babylon itself. When I see a beast in all its grotesqueness, I may not find what that beast is pointing to, but let me not say it is a literal beast because I was warned to begin with it is full of signs, symbols and tokens.