We Must Create a Context Lest We Fall Back on a Pretext
When I was 12 years old, my brother Joe gave me a Bible for Christmas. He had recently become a Christian and I had seen him reading his own bible in his bed just a few feet from mine. He created in me a curiosity. I had seen plenty of bibles in religion class, but we didn't really study them. That is, we never took them down and read them on our own apart from the context of a class or a religious service. We certainly never attempted to interpret the contents. But I started to carry that Bible with me anyway.
As an altar boy, one of my responsibilities was to kneel for hours in front of the monstrance during the annual Eucharistic perpetual adoration (feel free to look that up if you're curious). When we weren't taking our shift kneeling, we were sitting in pews waiting to kneel. During one of those times in waiting, I decided to read the Bible I had received for Christmas. I had heard about the Book of the Revelation, so I decided to start there. Yikes. While fascinated, I was a bit overwhelmed and lost. Coming at it blindly, it is impossible to understand (and I had yet to know the Lord as my Savior).
How many have come at it blindly, with little or no context, and have come away with fantastic interpretations. Cults and various doomsday groups have enslaved thousands to an odd marriage of pride and fear. Lives have been destroyed and lost by ripping its words from their contexts. I present nothing in these coming studies as definitive or authoritative. I only present my work for your consideration.
The Book is Both Literal and Figurative
As we step into the Book of the Revelation of Jesus Christ in this series, I don't want us to be overwhelmed. There are a number of things we must address lest we find ourselves flailing about and haphazardly trying to interpret its message. In addition to having some understanding of the prophetic works upon which it is built and determining the intended audience, we must step back even further and answer the "literal versus figurative" question.
I don't believe we have to make a choice between a purely literal or a purely figurative (allegorical) position on the book. However, we do need to take a position on whether the book refers to literal events or is just contains clever literature revealed to teach us life lesson (fables having no attachment to actual events). The Bible is not a book like Aesop's fables. The Lord Jesus witnesses to the veracity and historicity of the Hebrew canon from Adam to his own prophetic backdrop. We have no reason to believe John's vision should be seen differently.
The Bible is replete with figures of speech. When the Lord says "I am the door," he is obviously. speaking figuratively. I am a Bible "Literalist," but that does not prevent me from recognizing figures of speech. Obviously, the Lord is not a literal door, but he literally said that he is and he literally acts as a door in regard to a number of things; opening and closing the way.
There are countless figures of speech, but I'll just point to some examples to help us understand that the Bible can speak literally using figurative language.
Simile: Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as dovesThere is a more complex metaphorical version in statements such as:
Metaphor: I am the bread of life.
- Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.
- O generation of vipers!
- Dogs have surrounded me.
- Beware the leaven of the Pharisees.
These verses speak of literal people and things, yet some listeners confused the figure. Various groups asked:
- How can anyone build the temple in three days?
- How are we to eat his flesh?
- Beware leaven because we have no bread?
What they missed is the proper middle ground. The Lord's use of figures of speech refer to very real things. His body would be laid down and taken up again. The doctrines of the Pharisees (the traditions of men) do infect the pure Word of God and expand it beyond its intentions, etc.
When we approach the Revelation, we must see that figures of speech also refer to literal events, people, and things.
And four great beasts came up from the sea, each different from the other.
Then I stood on the sand of the sea. And I saw a beast rising up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and on his horns ten crowns, and on his heads a blasphemous name.
Daniel and John are seeing literal beasts in their respective visions, but we understand the picture to represent a real entity. We do not treat their visions as always seeing literal events or as speaking in fables. Sometimes what John writes is clearly a metaphorical visions, other times he may be giving us his own metaphor for what he is witnessing.
A literal beast before him as a metaphor for a literal event.
I Understand the Revelation is Not Easily Understood
The concepts in this introduction might seem self-evident, but I did want to make it clear that I take a literal approach to the Revelation (as I do all prophecies), while recognizing the challenge in trying to interpret metaphorical language. In explaining that I recognize the book often speaks in metaphors, I am saying that understanding exactly to what those metaphors point is not always easy. Even if know from other scriptures part of the answer, we cannot know the timing or exactly how the full manifestation of the literal will come to pass.
The man clothed in linen, who was above the waters of the stream, raised his right hand and his left hand toward heaven; and I heard him swear by him who lives for ever that it would be for a time, two times, and half a time; and that when the shattering of the power of the holy people comes to an end all these things would be accomplished. I heard, but I did not understand. Then I said, “O my lord, what shall be the issue of these things?” He said, “Go your way, Daniel, for the words are shut up and sealed until the time of the end. -Dan 12:7-9
Just as Daniel wasn't quite sure what he was seeing and hearing because he was seeing future events in metaphorical language, so we must admit that may not clearly understand the pictures given in the Revelation. This is partly because the Revelation is not given directly to us. It will be well-understood by those in a coming age who will need to understand it. Even John "marveled" at what he was seeing.
Think of the prophecies surrounding the Lord's first coming. How many fully understood the prophecies? None. And even after his ascension, further explanation of prophetic truth had to be given via the inspired apostles. So we can't be too hard on ourselves if we don't always come down flat-footed on a particular section or even if we modify our understand as we study more.
But, remember, while there are countless interpretations out there, we are each responsible for only one: our own. Our gracious and loving Father knows we are but dust, and if we humbly seek his guidance with a pure heart apart from our own agenda, he will help us find the truths we need to find in this book in him timing.