Amidst the fervor of popular apocalyptic books and unfounded “end times” theology, deSilva has written an excellent book that will help readers thoughtfully and properly approach the book of Revelation. This is a truly unique book that studies Revelation by (1) stating the context in which it was written (Roman Asia in the first century), (2) noting why John wrote what he did to the church, and (3) powerfully applying John’s message to the church today. It is concisely written and carries a genuine spiritual message.
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Heeding Revelation's Warning
By David A. deSilva
Hendrickson Publishers Marketing, LLCCopyright © 2013 Hendrickson Publishers Marketing, LLC
All rights reserved.
Debunking Popular Myths about Revelation
I first read Revelation when I was thirteen years of age, after I had read through the four Gospels and Acts. Like most teenagers I suppose I was allergic to feeling that I was being "lectured," and so the epistolary material of the New Testament did not hold such immediate appeal as the narratives. Revelation was gripping. Its fantastic and mysterious images, its cosmic scope, its astounding pronouncements about the stakes involved in keeping or failing to keep its "word"—Revelation was well crafted to sink its hooks into the reader's mind.
As I sought guidance for understanding, and therefore having a chance at keeping, this "word," I noticed that the people whose guidance I sought tended to have one of two reactions, with very little in between. I went first to the rector of the Episcopal church of which I was a member. He was always open to discussing the faith and the Scriptures, and I had found him to be a great encouragement to me. On this occasion, however, he admitted that he had little exposure to the book, and so he took me to the church library, sat me down with the final volume of the old Interpreter's Bible, and essentially wished me luck. Then there was my maternal grandmother's older sister, whom I simply called "Aunt." Though raised Baptist, she had joined the Seventh Day Adventist church and knew exactly what Revelation was about, from beginning to end. She read about it constantly, and my display of interest prompted a steady flow of conversation and sharing of literature over the space of a decade.
In one setting, then, Revelation was beyond the purview even of the professionals. In the other, it was the interpretive key to the whole canon, the focus for study on the part of every active layperson. In both settings, Revelation was a kind of Pandora's box. In the first setting, it wasn't something that one tended to open. While texts from Revelation might occasionally be read as part of the lectionary cycle, these tended to be only from those portions that spoke of the state of the blessed (e.g., Rev 7:9–17 or Rev 21:1–6 on All Saints' Day). But for the most part, the contents of Revelation were kept safely locked away. In the second setting, every church member was a Pandora, eagerly opening the box and allowing its contents to overrun the world around them, chasing the beast in this or that political figure, following the whore to this or that country, seeing the gallop of the four horsemen in this or that series of news briefs.
This has resulted, most unfortunately, in the loss of the witness of John's voice in the churches. Where Revelation is not read and studied regularly, its silence is evident. Where Revelation is avidly consumed as a playbook for the end times (in which the reader is inevitably always living), John's voice is often equally silent, this time muted by the voice of the interpreter who uses Revelation to speak of things about which John had never imagined, and in the process losing sight of those things that John passionately sought to communicate to the church. The latter have largely dominated public discourse about Revelation.
As people get caught up in the imagery of Revelation and try to find answers to these questions, they often fall headlong into some mistakes, forgetting some of the most basic and most important principles of studying the Bible. In regard to Revelation, in particular, I find many popular speakers and writers, and the many more who follow them, to have been led astray by three basic fallacies—three myths, if you will—about Revelation.
Myth #1: Revelation is about us
This misconception may spring from a wholesome desire to find the relevance of this book for us. Or perhaps it springs out of that general self-centeredness that most of us never quite get over entirely. We often forget, in our rush to turn to Scripture to hear a word "for us," that all of these texts originally spoke a word "for them," that is, for communities of faith removed from us by at least nineteen centuries, and that we are the secondary beneficiaries of the pastoral guidance initially intended for them.
John gives some cues that should serve to remind us, as attentive readers, that this book is not in fact about us. In particular, he signals that Revelation is to be read as a letter, specifically a pastoral letter. After an introductory paragraph in which John does not speak in his own voice, but in an impersonal voice comparable to the openings of the writings of other biblical prophecies (compare Rev 1:1–3 with Isa 1:1; Jer 1:1–3), John's own voice sounds out in words that recall the opening of other early Christian letters: "John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace" (Rev 1:4 NRSV). The standard formula with which letters began ("sender to addressees, greeting") is clearly present. John even uses a modification of the basic "greeting" already familiar from early Christian letters such as those by Paul and Peter—"Grace to you and peace."
One crucial "reading cue," then, is that John writes a letter addressed explicitly to seven real communities of Christians in the Roman province of Asia Minor (now western Turkey). This is reinforced by the divine command that John hears: "Write down what you see into a book, and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea" (Rev 1:11). [Fig. 1.1] John therefore intended his letter to be understood by them, to shape their perceptions of their everyday realities, and to motivate a particular response to their circumstances. The pervasive use of the number "seven" in Revelation suggests that the seven churches are, in some way, representative of the achievements and challenges facing churches across the Mediterranean in the first century and across the globe now, such that the words addressed to them speak to churches beyond this circle. Nevertheless, these seven churches are seven real churches facing particular difficulties and situations, whose response to their world John wanted to affect profoundly. A grounded and responsible reading of Revelation begins with reading it first as we would read Paul's Letters to the Galatians or Philippians or the Letters of the Elder (1–3 John), namely, as a piece of communication that reveals its meaning and message most fully when we immerse ourselves in the contexts and conversations of its ancient audience, when we exercise ourselves to understand it as a pastoral word to them in the midst of their concerns and circumstances.
Myth #2: What Revelation reveals is our future
A second reading cue emerges even earlier in the book, as an anonymous voice declares, "Privileged ... the one who is reading out loud, and those who are listening to, the words of this prophecy, and who are keeping the things written in it" (Rev 1:3; see also 22:7, 10, 18, 19). The contents are presented as "the words of this prophecy" (Rev 1:3), a term that, for better or for worse, we tend to equate first with prediction, communicating murky oracles looking off into the distant future, as in the prophecies of Nostradamus that supposedly spoke of events centuries after the time of the speaker.
This understanding of prophecy as prediction has given rise to three of the major schools of thought in regard to interpreting Revelation—the historicist, futurist, and preterist approaches to the book's "prophecies."
The historicist approach reads Revelation as a prediction of events spanning the period between John's own time and the future, end-time coming again of Jesus and establishing of the new heavens and new earth. The visions reveal the course of history in the long in-between, with the interpreter generally locating himself or herself toward the end of that span.
The futurist approach regards Revelation as consisting of mostly yet-unfulfilled predictions. Some of Revelation may pertain to events contemporary with its author ("the things which are," Rev 1:19), but the vast majority of Revelation's material speaks of the end-time future ("the things which shall be hereafter," Rev 1:19). Thus while futurist interpreters also generally view themselves as living near the beginning of the "last days," they tend to regard most of Revelation's predictions as still ahead of them. The oracles to the seven churches are often read as a means of bridging the distance between John and the present generation, with each congregation representing a broad period in the history of the church. The futurist reading allows for the highest degree of literalism, for example, the expectation that a third of earth's trees and grass will perish. Since this has never actually happened, the historicist reading must temper the literal sense somehow in order to connect the sounding of that first trumpet (8:7) with some past event, while the futurist reading is free to imagine the scene of destruction more literally.
The preterist reading gives more weight to John's consistent emphasis that "the time is near" (1:3; 22:10) and that the visions are imminently relevant (coming to pass quickly: 1:1; 3:11; 22:7, 12, 20). Thus this approach reads Revelation's prophecies as fulfilled in events of the distant past, whether as a prediction of events from John's time to the establishment of the Christian state under Constantine (with the millennium commencing with the legalization and empowerment of the Christian religion) or even events culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem (represented, in this reading, by Babylon) in 70 C.E., which is equated with the second coming of Christ.
All three approaches are based on the assumption that by "prophecy" John primarily indicates that he is communicating predictions about specific events that will yet unfold at some point in his first audience's future, and that this is the interpretative key to the book. They differ only in terms of the time frame of that fulfillment. But is "prophecy" essentially "prediction"?
To answer this, we turn to the prophetic utterances of the Hebrew Bible and to the phenomenon of prophecy within the New Testament and early Christian worship. While such prophecy could include a predictive element, it was also—and perhaps primarily—a declaration of God's action in the present or an announcement of God's evaluation of the present actions of God's people, diagnosing problems and calling for realignment with God's values. Prophecy is essentially a "word of the Lord" breaking into the situation of the Lord's people who need guidance or encouragement or a call to repentance and recommitment.
"Prophecy" was a regular experience in the worship life of the Pauline churches. The new pouring out of the Holy Spirit upon God's people resulted in a renewal of the possibility of hearing the divine voice given utterance by the Spirit through the mouths of those who were possessed by the Spirit (Rom 12:6; 1 Cor 12:10, 28–29; Eph 4:11). While there are certainly elements of prediction involved in some prophetic utterances (for example, 1 Tim 1:18), the primary element appears to have been "edification," the revelation of a supra-mundane perspective that invited a radical re-orientation to one's circumstances, practices, or pursuits. This certainly emerges from Paul's own understanding of the prophetic gift at work (at its best) in the Corinthian churches (1 Cor 14:3–4, 23–25, 29–31). In John's situation, Jezebel's own activity as a "prophet" involves chiefly "teaching" (Rev 2:20) in regard to the boundaries of acceptable Christian practice (although, in her case, those boundaries are considerably wider than John would understand them to be).
In Revelation, the seven "letters" to the seven churches are a prime example of early Christian prophecy. They are better labeled the seven "oracles" to the seven churches, for after the command to John to "write" down the oracle, the actual message to the church begins in a manner recollecting the prophetic formula, "Thus says the Lord" (e.g., "These are the words of the Son of God," Rev 2:18). The risen and glorified Lord speaks a word to the churches through the prophet John, affirming their strengths, diagnosing their weaknesses, calling them to faithful action, threatening judgment upon the recalcitrant, and promising favor for the penitent and faithful. In short, they do precisely what so much of the prophetic corpus of the Old Testament sought to do for the communities of Israel and Judah.
Where a prophet speaks of the future, he or she usually limits the prediction to the immediately forthcoming future, not the distant future: "Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown" (Jon 3:4 NRSV); "There shall be neither dew nor rain these years" (1 Kgs 17:1 NRSV); and the like. John remains within this range, seen in his emphasis on the "imminence" of the confrontations and events he narrates, his conviction that he speaks about "what must soon come to pass" (Rev 22:6; cf. 1:3, 19; 4:1; 22:7, 10, 12, 20).
The modern "prophecy expert" holds that everything presented in the Bible as a forecast of some future event must be fulfilled at some point. If the "prophecies" of Revelation did not match historical events or figures during the first or second century, they must at some point have such a match. This tenet, however, ignores the primary purpose of prophecy, which is not to give hard and fast statements about an unchangeable future, but to evoke faithful response. Jonah proclaimed that "forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown" (Jon 3:4 NRSV). In response to this vision of the future, the city's inhabitants repented and turned to God, with the result that God spared the city (Jon 3:10). Jonah, like the prophecy expert, was still watching "to see what would become of the city" (Jon 4:5 NRSV), and was bitterly disappointed that the prediction was not to be fulfilled. God's purposes for the prophetic word, however, were fulfilled—the repentance of an entire population. Like Jonah's word, Revelation as prophecy seeks mainly to stimulate faithful response among John's audience, not to provide an absolute blueprint for an uncertain future.
Myth #3: Revelation is written in a mysterious code
One of the most basic assertions made about Revelation is that it is written in a coded language—a code, moreover, that modern "prophecy experts" claim that we are somehow in a better position to unlock today than the generations that have come before (see myths 1 and 2!). On the contrary, we are in a far less privileged position when it comes to reading Revelation, since the realities with which it interacts—the features of a landscape very familiar to its first audiences—are for us a quite distant and foreign landscape. If we lived in first-century Ephesus or Pergamum, we would not have to wonder what John could be referring to by the cult of a beast or a prostitute riding astride a seven-headed monster. And if a copy of Revelation fell into the hands of a Roman official of even modest intelligence, the subversive intent of its imagery would not be difficult to grasp in the least.
The third reading cue that John gives us is announced in the very first word of his book: Apokalypsis, from which we get our word, "Apocalypse." The Greek word means "unveiling," not "cryptic encoding." Revelation was not sent to those seven churches as a mysterious text needing to be interpreted: it was sent to interpret the world of those readers. To put this another way, the first readers and hearers did not need a special "key" to unlock Revelation; Revelation was the key by which they could unlock the real meaning of what was going on around them, and so respond to it faithfully. Revelation "lifted the veil" from prominent features and persons in the audience's landscape, so that those Christians could see things in their world as they "really were" in light of the bigger picture of God's purposes for the world and the larger picture of the great revolt against God, which God would ultimately crush.
Excerpted from Unholy Allegiances by David A. deSilva. Copyright © 2013 Hendrickson Publishers Marketing, LLC. Excerpted by permission of Hendrickson Publishers Marketing, LLC.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1. Debunking Popular Myths about Revelation,
Chapter 2. Divine Emperor, Eternal Rome: The Public Story About Roman Imperialism,
Chapter 3. The True Center and the Unholy Scam: John's Biblical Critique of the Public Story,
Chapter 4. Looking at the Immediate in Light of the Infinite: The Seven Oracles to the Churches of Asia,
Chapter 5. John's Proclamation of the One Who Is, Who Was, and Is Coming,
For Further Reading,