Sunday, October 12, 2008

Interpreting Revelation

to_chain_the_beast.jpgReading Duvall & Hays' Grasping God's Word has been a fascinating experience for me. The book provides me with the latest method in biblical studies. They are reinforcing the traditional methods that scholars find to be still valid. They also present some of the more effective approach to studying the different literary genres of the books of the Bible.

Here Duvall and Hays suggest specific principles in interpreting Revelation. The following are mostly direct quotes from their book:

Read Revelation with humility. We should resist "Revelation-made easy" approaches. Revelation is not easy. People who must satisfy their curiosity or people who are unwilling to live with any uncertainty are those most likely to read into Revelation things that are not there. Beware of interpreters who appear to have all the answers to even the smallest questions. "Experts who claim absolute knowledge about every minute detail of Revelation should be held in suspicion. Reading with a humble mind means that we are willing to admit that our interpretation could be wrong and to change our view when biblical evidence points in a different direction.

Try to discover the message to the original readers. Discovering the message to the original audience is top priority with any book of the Bible, but especially with this one. When it comes to reading Revelation, the tendency is to ignore the first Christians and jump directly to God's message to us. Some people use today's newspapers as the key to interpreting Revelation. But as Keener notes, this approach does not fit well with a high view of Scripture.

The best place to begin is with the question: What was John trying to communicate to his audience?" If our interpretation makes no sense for original readers, we have probably missed the meaning of the passage. Fee and Stuart remind us of how important it is to discover the message to the original audience: As with the Epistles, the primary meaning of the Revelation is what John intended it to mean, which in turn must also have been something his readers could have understood it to mean.

Don't try to discover a strict chronological map of the future events. Don't look for Revelation to progress in a neat linear fashion. The book is filled prophetic-apocalyptic visions that serve to make a dramatic impact on the reader than to present a precise chronological sequence of future events.

Take Revelation seriously, but don't always take it literally. Some who say we should interpret Scripture symbolically do so in order to deny the reality of scriptural truth or a historical event. When they say that something is figurative or symbolic, they mean that it is not real or that it never happened. That is not the intention of this book. We insist that picture language with its symbols, images, and figures is capable of conveying literal truth and describing literal events. Picture language is just another language vehicle, another way of communicating reality. In our way of thinking, Revelation uses picture language to emphasize historical reality rather than to deny or diminish it.

Pay attention when John identifies an image.
When John himself provides a clue to the interpretation of an image, we should take notice. In other words, we should pay close attention when John identifies or defines the images for his readers. We can not assume that images like lampstands would always refer to the churches. John may use the same image to refer to different things.

Look to the Old Testament and historical context when interpreting images and symbols. Revelation uses language at several different levels:

Text level: words written on the page
Vision level: the picture that the words paint
Referent level: what the vision refers to in real life

One of the most difficult aspects of reading Revelation is knowing what the images and symbols refer to. Even when we understand what is happening at the text and vision levels, we may not know what Revelation is saying, but we are often not sure what it is talking about.

The two places to go for answers are to the first-century historical context. Revelation uses much of Old Testament imagery. The book is filled with echoes and allusions to the Old Testament. In fact, Revelation contains more Old Testament references than any other New Testament book, with the Old Testament appearing in almost 70 percent of Revelation's verses. Psalms, Isaiah, Daniel, and Ezekiel make the most important contribution to Revelation.

Above all, focus on the main idea and don't press all the details. This last interpretive guideline is perhaps the most important of all. With most literary genres in the Bible, we begin with the details and build our way toward an understanding of the whole. With revelation, however, we should start with the big picture and work toward an understanding of the details. As we seek to identify the theological principles, we should focus on the main ideas.

The details of any particular section will heighten the impact on the reader but will not change the main idea. Resist the temptation to focus on the details so that you miss the main idea. Don't let the main point of each section or vision fade from view. As has been said, when reading Revelation, the main thing is to make the main thing the main thing.

*The image is from Meta-Logic Cafe'.

Duvall & Hays, Grasping the God’s Word: A Hands-On Approach to Reading and Interpreting, and Applying the Bible, pp. 288-294

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