Safe Assumptions

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Safe Assumptions – Audio Version
“I am the First and the Last.”

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. 

“And from the seven spirits which are before his throne…”

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.     

Per Revelation 1:20, Lamp-stands or Menorahs symbolize Churches.

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.

Arguing with Galileo

Tuesday, May 19th, 2020 — Happy Birthday, Honey!

Arguing with Galileo, Audio Version
Medieval Sketch

“Before answering the adversaries’ arguments,” a contemporary observer reported of Galileo’s debating style, “he amplified and reinforced them with apparently very powerful evidence which then made his adversaries look more ridiculous when he eventually destroyed their positions.”

Dava Sobel: Galileo’s Daughter

When he would debate an opponent, Galileo would not only summarize his opponent’s position, he would “amplify and reinforce” their arguments. Then Galileo would demonstrate the flaws in their position, point by point. Galileo often left his opponents feeling humiliated. In the mind of their audience, there was no question who had thought through the topic better.    

A few days ago a friend of mine suggested I find and watch a recently-released Bible prophecy video. If I were to watch the video, he wanted to know what I think of it. I told him I would look for it online, which I did, with some trepidation and measured skepticism. Still, out of respect for my friend, I did look for it. I found it and watched it. I watched the entire video. Sigh.

Sad to say, a lot of the Bible prophecy-related material online is under-informed junk or worse. I say that based on years and years of studying such material. I feel quite conflicted whenever I receive suggestions or recommendations from friends. But I will often go ahead and watch or listen or read whatever they suggest. Candidly, I usually expect the suggested material to be bad or, at best, bland. And it usually is. But every once in a while, I am pleasantly surprised.      

“Well, you do know that a lot of people approach your blog exactly the same way.” 

Sigh. Yes, I do know that. And honestly, well they should. There is so much under-informed and misleading #prophecy junk online, people should be understandably wary that what I say here might be more of the same. Still, I hope they give me a chance and read or listen anyway.

But it can be discouraging. Sometimes I wonder if I ought to just avoid everything related to Bible prophecy, the Book of Revelation, and the End Times. Most pastors, professors, and bloggers avoid these topics like the plague, except in times of plague, which might be now. With Coronavirus, people show an uptick in interest — albeit, wary interest.

It is admittedly confusing. If someone has not studied through all things End Times, how can they possibly know what is believable and what is not? That’s a good and necessary question. After watching the recommended video, I did follow through with my friend. And he said as much. He has not studied all this, so it’s hard to discern what is right and what is wrong. A lot of the material presented in the video did sound biblical and thus seemed kinda convincing.

In response, here’s what I suggested: Look for whether a presenter ever mentions or shows awareness of alternate positions and interpretations. Like all other prophetic material, the Book of Revelation requires careful interpretation. Does the presenter seem to be aware of alternate interpretations? If all you hear is a dogmatic take on what a particular passage must mean, be very cautious. That should at be a yellow flag. Granted, sometimes a presenter will deliberately avoid mentioning alternate interpretations. Listeners do want a succinct message, so a presenter might opt to KISS, to keep it simple and straightforward. But intellectual integrity will sometimes require a careful interpreter to present viable alternate interpretations.

Here’s another thought: a good interpreter will be able argue their position like Galileo. A good interpreter will understand alternate positions thoroughly and will be able to explain them accurately, even to the satisfaction of an opponent. An excellent interpreter will thereafter be able to explain why his/her interpretation is indeed superior to alternate interpretations.

The Bible-prophecy video I watched failed on these points. The presenter showed very little knowledge of alternate interpretations. He only presented his own camp’s interpretation. A skilled debater with an adequate grasp of the relevant prophetic material would be able to delineate multiple factual and logical flaws in his interpretation, to put matters very politely.

As I write these blog posts, I am attempting to strike a balance between KISS and what I hope is adequately careful scholarship. Frankly, it ain’t easy. It can be a hard balance to find. But I hope to argue somewhat like Galileo, albeit with more tact.  

Revelation 1:3