Bishop Polycarp of Smyrna was a mere middle man. Polycarp stuck slavishly to Paul. Polycarp demonstrated little to no originality. For the most part, he just parroted whatever the Apostle Paul once said. When he wrote his pastoral epistle to the Church in Philippi, Bishop Polycarp essentially cut and pasted. He could have saved himself a lot of time by simply re-gifting a copy of one of Paul’s old epistles.
Am I fabricating or exaggerating? If you do not believe me or simply want to see if I am exaggerating a bit, go online to EarlyChristianWritings.com and find the Epistle of Polycarp under the Church Fathers tab. Feel free to let me know what you find there.
Why do I bother to inform you of this, you ask? Well, because Polycarp’s parroting of Paul demonstrates an extremely high view of Paul’s authority. It shows that Polycarp considered Paul’s writing to be indisputably binding and unquestionably authoritative. Within one generation of their production, Paul’s epistles were considered scripture on par with the Old Testament scripture. Bishop Polycarp considered Paul’s pastoral epistles to be the very Word of God, so he treated them as such. He copied them slavishly and transmitted them exactly.
Safe to say that Polycarp had an MO, a modus operandi. The sacred writ is to be treated as sacred writ. You must stick to it. You quote it. You defer to it. You teach others to do the same. And you must never, ever alter it. It is never to be violated nor compromised.
Bishop Polycarp must have harped on that point. “You have been entrusted with the Word of Truth, my disciples. Pass it along faithfully and without deviance.” I can imagine Polycarp said something much like that. Alright then, you get it; don’t you? Polycarp was a parrot.
Polycarp’s parroting MO was very probably passed along to his underlings and after-lings (if I may coin a word). I think that is entirely safe to assume. And if it is so, they might have been similarly jealous for the doctrines that they received, since the scriptures and their derivative doctrines cannot be separated.
Therefore, if one of Polycarp’s after-lings claims a received doctrine to be true, perhaps we should be hesitant to think that it is not true.
One of Polycarp’s after-lings was a Greek guy named Irenaeus. Irenaeus became a Bishop himself, the Bishop of Lyons. Irenaeus believed in the Rapture and says so in his book Against Heresies, Book Five, Chapter 29, paragraph 1, in the penultimate sentence. You can find that online at EarlyChristianWritings.com, as well.
If Irenaeus learned the doctrine of the Rapture from Polycarp, you should know that Polycarp also knew John the Beloved/Elder — the narrator of Revelation. Polycarp knew him personally. The train of transmission was from John the Elder to Bishop Polycarp to Bishop Irenaeus. That is a very short train of transmission. And the implications of that are worth mulling over. Perhaps we should not be too quick to dismiss the Rapture as ridiculous.
By its very nature, the Book of Revelation is cryptic. Like a secret code, it is meant to be progressively figured out. Like a jig-saw puzzle, it is meant to be pieced together until it slowly coalesces into an increasingly coherent whole. That should be somewhat self-evident.
Here are some safe assumptions about the Book of Revelation:
Since the Author has a vested interest in the integrity of the text, and since the Author has the ability to safeguard its integrity, you can assume that every single received word of the text is actually meant to be there. Besides conjunctions (perhaps), no word is merely incidental or superfluous. And even some of the conjunctions can be very important. Every word in the Book of Revelation counts. Some count considerably more than others; but every word does indeed count.
You can assume that identifiable word groupings — phrases — are even more important and meaningful than single words alone. This is true even of very short phrases, such as those comprised of two words. For example, if a noun has an adjective, that adjective definitely matters and must not be overlooked. Furthermore, the phrase must be held together when an effort is made to decode the meaning of a particular passage. As pedantic as it may sound, this is a highly and hugely important exegetical insight. Every phrase counts. And phrases count even more than single words.
You can assume that the symbolism within the Book of Revelation will be used consistently throughout. Know this, because it is important. Symbolism, once established, remains consistent throughout the text. It means the same thing whenever it reappears. However, that is not to say that a symbol cannot be developed through the narrative. Individual symbols can be developed, and sometimes are. Sometimes symbols are developed so that they take on additional layers of meaning. But each established symbol has a single consistent meaning at its core. If this were not so, the Book of Revelation would be completely indecipherable.
You can assume that the narrator will drop interpretive hints throughout the text. Indeed, he does just that. He drops hints and even gives straightforward interpretations. That is because the Author wants the text to be deciphered, even if it takes centuries for the Church to complete the task. The Author would not have revealed the Revelation if He did not want it deciphered.
You can assume that the text, when interpreted correctly, will communicate a coherent, necessary, and edifying message. Not only that, you can assume that the message will not contradict the rest of Scripture. That is because the ultimate Author of the Book of Revelation is the same ultimate Author of the rest of the Bible. If not, the Book of Revelation is a spurious, misleading prophecy, and thus does not belong in the Bible. But the Church has long since accepted the Book of Revelation as legitimate and canonical, and with good reason.
You can assume that the rest of Scripture will help a diligent interpreter unlock the symbolism in Revelation. I cannot overstate this. I cannot overstate this. Can I overstate this? No, I cannot. I cannot overstate this. Please do understand how important this point is. It is crucial. Catching and pondering the many, many scriptural references and allusions is vital, vital, vital. It will unlock the Book of Revelation like nothing else. I cannot overstate this. Missing this is precisely how most interpreters go wrong.
You can assume that knowledge of its immediate geographical and historical context will help unlock the meaning of the Book of Revelation. I have a degree in history and have read much about the historical situation in which Revelation was written. It really, really helps make sense of the text. I would go so far as to say that you cannot effectively understand the Book of Revelation without studying its original historical context. Knowledge of the Roman Empire will help you.
You can assume that typology will help an interpreter make sense of the Book of Revelation. History does not repeat itself; but it does rhyme. Typology takes that insight seriously. What happened way back when will happen again — not exactly, but similarly.
You can assume that Almighty God is truly behind the Book of Revelation and that Jesus Christ really did appear to the narrator, John the Elder. It is prophecy, after all. And only God can preordain future events. Oh yeah — you can assume it foretells future events, even future events from our vantage point in history.
Those, then, are what I consider safe assumptions for someone who would interpret this particular text.
Does the Book of Revelation actually belong in the Bible?
For a while, the canonical status of the Book of Revelation was debated. From the second century to the early fourth century of the Church, Christian leaders were divided on whether the Book of Revelation truly belonged in the New Testament. Revelation was suspect back then for the same reason it is suspect now. The Book of Revelation confuses people. It is hard to understand, and thus lends itself to conjecture and attracts overly-enthusiastic ecclesiastical loony birds. It took a while for a general consensus to emerge that yes, weird though it may be, the Book of Revelation is an authentic prophecy. It is a genuine word from Christ, legitimately inspired by the Holy Spirit. Jesus Christ himself really did appear in an authoritative canon-closing vision to an apostle named John while he was in exile on the Island of Patmos.
The fact, though, that some prominent early Christian Bishops were uncertain and hesitant about accepting the legitimacy of the Book of Revelation might prompt latter-day skeptics to second-guess its legitimacy anew. A question quietly crystalizes: “What if they got it wrong? What if those old Churchmen erred when they recognized Revelation as canonical?”
In response to that doubt, I think it is necessary to start by pushing back with a simple assertion: They were not wrong when they gave the Book of Revelation canonical status. They were right. The prophecy rightfully belongs in the New Testament.
Okay… but my pious opinion and bland assertion will probably not convince anybody. Why should anyone take an unknown blogger’s word for it? So perhaps I ought to do a bit more work to convince my readers.
The first and most obvious test of its legitimacy is its historicity. As a piece of literature, is the Book of Revelation historically accurate? Or does it betray historical inaccuracies? The answer to that is yes, it is entirely historically accurate, and to a degree that does away with any doubt. The more a serious scholar researches the Book of Revelation, the more she or he realizes that it fits exactly in the time and place it claims for itself. No imposter came along later and wrote a bit of fiction that was spuriously spun as legitimate. A skeptic will look in vain for historical inaccuracies. There aren’t any. Go ahead and look into the archeology and cross-reference all the historical records. The Book of Revelation passes the test of historicity with flying colors. It is historical.
Someone could reply, “Well, maybe so. Maybe it is historical legit; but just because the Book of Revelation is historical does not necessarily mean that John the Exile really had a genuine and authoritative vision of Jesus Christ. He might have just been delusional or tripping. Other than its historicity, on what basis should the Book of Revelation be accepted as canonical?”
Theology. The intricate and nuanced theology of the Book of Revelation establishes it as orthodox and legitimate. This is precisely the point where those crusty old Churchmen had a distinct advantage over many latter-day skeptics. Most of them knew the Bible very well. And their thorough knowledge of the Bible gave them the ability to detect theological deviations.
Here I will turn to an illustration: Years ago I heard a sermon in which a preacher addressed the question of spiritual counterfeits. How can someone recognize a fake, a counterfeit? As an analogy, he claimed that the people who specialize in currency — in bank notes — are so familiar with the design and construction of authentic bank notes that they can spot the mistakes of counterfeits, and usually with ease. I do not actually know if the preacher was right about that, given that stores here now routinely test bank notes with special ink (and it annoys me when they do), but whatever. His intended point is valid and insightful all the same: Extended and habitual familiarity with the authentic makes it far easier to detect what is inauthentic. Those old Churchmen had extended and habitual familiarity with the content of the Bible. And by virtue of their extended and habitual familiarity with the other 65 books of the Bible they were able to come to a consensus: The Book of Revelation is indeed authentic prophecy. It passes the test of scrupulous theological scrutiny.
How can you be confident of that for yourself, though? Honestly, this point is where determined homework is simply unavoidable. You cannot know with any degree of confidence that the Book of Revelation is actually theologically sound unless you first know the other 65 canonical books of the Bible. This time I will confidently assert that point on the authority of my own extended and habitual familiarity with the Bible. The Book of Revelation definitely belongs in the canon of Scripture. I believe you will come to exactly the same conclusion as you grow in your own knowledge of the Bible.
Am I done? I thought I was. But I realize that I need to add one more point.
Academic knowledge, while necessary, is not enough. Academic knowledge is necessary, but not sufficient. There is an intuitive, subjective aspect to spiritual discernment that must be recognized and acknowledged. A theologian named Karl Barth once spoke about hearing the voice of God in Scripture. He said that one can know that the Bible is truly God’s word because God speaks through scripture. Barth even acknowledged that his claim could be called circular reasoning: “I know that the Bible is God’s word because I hear the word of God in the Bible.” Yes, that is a circular argument. But experientially, it is true. I do subjectively hear God speak through the Bible. No, I do not hear God speak audibly; but somehow I do discern the living word of God through Scripture. And it must be said to be subjective, because it only happens on a person-to-person basis. It happens to me, as an individual person, as I delve into Scripture.
Those crusty old Churchmen had exactly that experience as they read the Book of Revelation, I dare suggest. Individually, they each experienced a nod from God. “Yes, this is the real thing. This is actually Jesus speaking, speaking to each one of us through this document.” Moreover, what validated each one’s subjective experience was the subsequent discovery that others had had the same subjective experience. And that is exactly how the Holy Spirit works — back and forth, individually and corporately, within a believer and in between believers. I hope and pray you have the same subjective experience as you read and listen to the Book of Revelation and the other 65 books of the Bible.