Wednesday, June 2, 2021
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.