Episode 26: The Book of Revelation (1) Foundations
Our first anniversary seems like a good time to start a new series! Paul and Dan are tackling the Book of Revelation together. It’s mysterious and confusing, but Paul and Dan start by putting it in its place in the Biblical story – right at the transition from the Apostles to the next generation who are taking the early churches forward into … whatever comes next! They lay the foundations by establishing what kind of book it is and defining an approach which aims to hear the text as it would have been heard by the churches of Asia to whom it was first read. Join us in listening to the message of this amazing piece of literature!
Dan and Paul kick things off by talking about how the book of Revelation has continued to fascinate and intrigue. It is a bizarre and mysterious book, with vivid imagery and memorable content. Google search rankings on some iconic phrases within the book, (e.g. Armageddon, the mark of the beast and 666), are consistently high, proving an enduring interest in the final book of the Bible!
Paul notes that the strange imagery and content in the book tends to encourage interpreters to sense some mystery and the need to decode a hidden message. This is one way in Revelation is commonly read and interpreted today. However, the aim of this series of podcasts is to make the book less mysterious. In fact, Paul points out that a common phrase within the book, “He that has an ear, let him hear”, assumes that people should be able to listen to and understand its message easily. To try to make the book of Revelation more approachable, he explains that we ought to pay attention to three T’s; Type (of writing – or genre), Time (and the historical context), and Target (audience). To help further, they agree, as they work through the series, to demystify jargon that can so easily make biblical interpretation difficult to grasp!
Dan and Paul turn first to the background to understand the moment in history when the book of Revelation was written. There are some details right at the start of the book that help to date it to the period of time after the ascension of Jesus to heaven, and towards the end of the era of the apostles, when only a few were still alive.
The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw. Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near.
John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne,Revelation 1:1-4
The whole book is a message that Jesus passes on to his servant John via an angel. It’s a message that is specifically directed to seven churches in the Roman province of Asia, (modern day Turkey). Looking further ahead in verse 9, we see that John, the author, is in exile on the island of Patmos as a consequence of publicly claiming to be a Christian. This helps us date the book to the end of the first century when persecution of Christians was becoming increasingly intense. It’s also a pivotal period in the history of the church. Believers had been living in hope and expectation of the return of Jesus. As time went on, the apostles were one by one dying, and the anticipated kingdom had not been fully established, the community was coming under increasing pressure.
Whatever the correct interpretation of this book is, it needs to have some relevance to the target audience in the seven churches of Asia at this particular moment in history and in context of the overall story of the Bible. Remembering this will guide the approach in the coming episodes.
Who wrote the book of Revelation and when?
Paul notes that the author is only identified as John, a servant Jesus Christ; someone who was clearly known by the believers in the seven churches. We don’t know for sure if this is John the apostle or not, but this is clearly not a false name or pseudonym. The date of the book has been debated and usually revolves around whether the book is written before or after the siege and fall of Jerusalem in AD70. (This has a bearing on how the book is often interpreted!) The majority view is that the book of Revelation originates from somewhere in the reign of Domitian, (AD81-96), which is a time of intense persecution of Christians and rising influence of the imperial cult.
What type of book is it?
Dan and Paul next discuss what the book of Revelation actually is! Several options are on the table. Firstly, it is often described as an apocalyptic book – which is a term, (taken from the Greek word translated as ‘revelation’ itself), used to describe several visionary and symbolic books within and outside of the Bible. These books generally anticipate God’s revelation and action within the world at some point in the future. Most of these, (e.g. the books of Enoch), are written under pseudonyms and they therefore don’t fully correlate with the book of Revelation, even though there are definitely similar features.
One thing we can be certain about is that this whole book is a letter which was sent to seven churches in the first century AD. Bearing this in mind is essential for interpreting the book. But it is also described in the opening verses as a prophecy. Remembering the Old Testament prophetic tradition of calling on the hearers to act, (see episode 1: Prophecy & Faith), Revelation 1:3 does exactly this, recognising those who not only hear the words but also keep them as blessed.
Paul summarises by suggesting that the book of Revelation is a letter, containing prophecy, using apocalyptic symbols and imagery from the Old Testament.
There have been many, varied interpretations of the book of Revelation, so Dan and Paul briefly discuss the main approaches, explaining the jargon along the way. They notice that there is a family of interpretation that treats the text as a code that needs to be deciphered to understand events that have either happened in the past, are currently happening, or will all happen in the future.
However, taking the three T’s seriously, remembering the type of book, the target audience and the time of writing, Paul suggests that this will guide us to taking a more analogous application. That means viewing the descriptions and the imagery in the book as ways of communicating a powerful message to believers of Christ, and not necessarily trying to see direct correspondence to specific events, either in the past or the future. The churches in Asia were experiencing the pressure of Roman persecution and this approach aims to work out what the book spoke to them, which will help us work out what we can understand and learn from the book in our modern day context.
Dan and Paul finish this introductory episode by looking at task ahead, pondering some of the opening visionary scenes of Revelation 1:10-17, in which John sees this visionary character “like a son of man” standing among seven golden lampstands. There is much to look forward to in the following episodes!