The book of Revelation polarises Christians. Some become obsessed with ‘cracking its code’ while others throw it into the too hard basket. Thankfully, recent advances in biblical theology enable us to liberate this enigmatic book from both mistreatment and obscurity.
The prophecy is attractive to some because of its mystery, its beauty and its terror, and also because interpreting it promises access to divine knowledge about future events. But when it comes to its application in everyday life, most pastors are unwilling to venture beyond the letters to the seven churches in their preaching, since these offer some easily identifiable and practical moral advice.
A practical book
The truth is that Revelation is, in many ways, one of the most practical books in the Bible. It reveals how sin, when left unchecked in the lives of individuals, leads not only to judgment for individuals, but also to the corruption of a church, and, ultimately, judgment of that church at the hand of Jesus:
But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. (James 1:14-15)
But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. (Revelation 2:4-5)
The book of Revelation follows this pattern from the ‘birth’ of sin to its ‘maturity’ in death. All of the ‘budding’ sins that Jesus rebukes in the sapling churches of Asia (Revelation 2-3) are revealed in ‘full flower’ in the great city that was corrupting and tormenting them (Revelation 17-18). Jesus pictures this centre of worship and commerce as a woman who has not only broken her vows by committing adultery but also indulged in theft, sorcery and bloodshed – corruptions that rendered her ripe for judgment. As in the world before the flood, the sins of individuals, left unchecked, had grown into systemic evil, an institutionalised rebellion against God.
The pastors who had failed to judge their local ‘Balaam’ (a false prophet) and ‘Jezebel’ (a spiritual harlot) in the early chapters are, in the remaining chapters, shown a culture that, instead of being a light to the world, had become the very source of religious and political corruption. The prophecy was an exhortation for these shepherds of the saints to exercise church discipline on behalf of their Lord. Failure to deal with sin in the sanctuary (priesthood) leads to bloodshed in the land (kingdom). Failure to speak the truth to power leads to intervention by God in the world (prophecy). The churches – as fresh plantings of a new beginning – were to judge, so that they might not be judged in like manner.
Cultus – that is, our system of belief or worship – inevitably shapes culture. The Church of Christ leads the world – for good or for ill – so the failure to make this connection between the early and latter parts of the book of Revelation not only robs Christians of the true interpretation of the prophecy but also of the wisdom that enables its proper application.
Furthermore, the Revelation actually teaches us how to read the rest of the Bible. Everything the prophecy contains is a reference to someone or something found somewhere else in the inspired texts, revealing the ultimate form – the adult ‘fruit’ – of every seed planted throughout Scripture. What is wrongly perceived as cryptic symbolism is simply an employment of literary allusion that enables the author to load a single word or phrase with the entire import of any momentous event in covenant history. For instance, the infamous ‘image of the beast’ and the number ‘666’ are simple condemnations of the priests and kings of Israel. The first is a reference to the golden calf fashioned for the High Priest after Moses had ascended Mount Sinai, a condemnation of the Herods who continued to build the Temple after the ascension of Christ. The second points the hearer to the beginning of the downfall of King Solomon, who, in blatant disobedience of Moses’ laws for godly kings (Deuteronomy 17:14-20), amassed 666 talents of gold in his first year. This explains the call for wisdom and understanding in Revelation 13:18 – the priest-kings of the new era were to be wiser than Solomon:
The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here. (Matthew 12:42)
This use of allusion is the primary method used by the prophets to apply the lessons of previous historical events to contemporary moral challenges. When Ezekiel condemns Israel as Egypt and Sodom, his point is not lost on us. However, when John refers to the great city as Egypt, Sodom and Babylon, a place ‘where their Lord was crucified,’ somehow it goes right over our heads. Instead of the book being a revelation – an exposure or uncovering – not only of the ascended Christ, but also of hidden corruptions of the sort revealed in the early chapters of Ezekiel, the historical identity of this spiritual Babylon remains a mystery.
Reading the prophecy without reference to previous Scriptures is like watching the movie Shrek without any knowledge of nursery rhymes and fairy tales. We simply will not get its pointed jokes or comprehend its cutting ironies. The Bible’s gradual accumulation of historical objects, people and events as symbolic references means that, by the time the reader gets to Revelation, every word is a hyperlink. If we want to understand the book of Revelation, we must remember that it is at the end of the Bible, not the beginning.
The structure and nature of covenants
However, the biggest hurdle faced by modern interpreters is our ignorance of biblical literary structure. For ancient readers, the shape of the story was every bit as much a method of allusion as its contents. There is nothing random or arbitrary about the shape and contents of the book of Revelation. The prophecy is meticulously arranged according to a pattern found throughout the Bible, one that was established in the first chapters of Genesis.
This formula is the shape of ‘covenant’, and it can be seen in the commissioning of Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Israel and, of course, Jesus. Every covenant in the Bible was a mission on earth established via a legal treaty with heaven, a ‘tour of duty’ with a definite beginning (a call) and a definite end (a reckoning). God used covenants to change the course of history, so it should not surprise us that the historical events that resulted from these seminal occasions – all ratified with the shedding of blood – recapitulate in flesh (humanity, family, tribe and nation) the pattern that was initially spoken as word to the chosen man. All of Scripture is founded upon a single literary blueprint that works through a fivefold legal ‘architecture’:
God, the uncreated one, introduces Himself. He is above His creation as its lawmaker. As the originator, He is the boss.
He then defines the relationship between Himself as the master and His beloved servant/s. This step establishes a tiered authority structure, with God’s chosen delegate/s acting as mediators between heaven and earth.
God then stipulates in detail the methods for carrying out the mission. The Laws of God, when obeyed in faith, bring fruitfulness and prosperity. When disobeyed they bring barrenness and plagues.
This step outlines the possible outcomes as blessings and curses. Those given authority will be assessed, and their works on God’s behalf called into judgment. The Oath concerns voluntary submission to heaven (priesthood) and the Sanctions concern the resulting dominion (or lack thereof) upon the earth (kingdom).
God then describes a future role with greater authority for those who have been faithful in smaller things, since they have demonstrated sound judgment. Those who have been unfaithful are cut off, and their inheritance is given to the righteous.
The testing of Adam follows this formula. It is then expanded upon in the progression of events in Genesis 1-5, which describes the creation of the world by God (Transcendence), the promise of authority to Adam (Hierarchy), his disqualification (Ethics), the usurping of priesthood by kingdom in the murder of Abel by Cain (Oath/Sanctions) and finally a genealogy from Adam to Noah (Succession).
This pattern works at multiple levels, but most obviously it describes the progression in the five books of Moses and the logic behind the composition of the book of Deuteronomy. But, most importantly for our discussion, it is the deep structure of the book of Revelation. The final prophecy is a ‘serving of papers’ whose judicial authority is founded upon earlier decrees. The Word of God is ‘profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness’ because it is ‘breathed out’ by God (2 Timothy 3:16), yet, as we seek to interpret the Bible, the nature of the Scriptures as legal documents must not be overlooked. Just as every planting of seed promises a harvest, so every establishment of a covenant with God promises a reckoning: condemnation for the wicked and vindication for the righteous. This is why Paul, who suffered greatly at the hands of his own people, could say,
I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that day what has been entrusted to me. (2 Timothy 1:12)
The question is, what day was Paul referring to? Although there were eternal consequences for the Jews who rejected Christ as a false prophet, the Apostle was also expecting a decisive and imminent vindication of the Gospel against them here on earth, fulfilled in the judgment of Jerusalem in 70AD.
Covenant accountability: blessings and curses
Despite ignorant claims to the contrary, the God of the Bible is not temperamental, racist or murderous. Every judgment is based on a previously dispensed accountability. Every covenant brings with it not only accountability, but also an opportunity for mercy. We see this in the judgment of Adam, who, thanks to the very first shedding of atoning blood to provide tunics of animal skin (‘atonement’ literally means ‘covering’), did not die on the day that he sinned. Cain was also spared the immediate consequences of murdering his brother. The alleged ‘genocide’ of the Canaanites was an outpouring of judgment upon those who had centuries earlier rejected the testimony of Abraham, and the Lord later judged Israel in the same way for the same sins. As with Adam, Cain and the entire antediluvian world, God was long-suffering with Israel, waiting until the righteous had ‘filled up’ their sufferings and the wicked had ‘filled up’ their sins. Just as the enduring prophetic witness of Noah left humankind without excuse, the witness of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel not only delayed the ultimate ‘cutting off’ of Israel’s kings, but also vindicated the character of God as both just and merciful before all nations.
The language of covenant accountability is found in all the prophets, and they are often misunderstood because they are not read in the light of the blessings and curses of the Mosaic Covenant. For instance, Elisha set bears upon the children of the people of Bethel, home to one of Jeroboam’s calf idols, not because he was personally affronted by their insults but because he was an administrator of the covenant. They disrespected him because they were idolaters. In the light of Leviticus 26, Elisha’s apparent capriciousness is revealed to be not only a just recompense upon covenant breakers, but also a warning of greater calamities to come:
Then if you walk contrary to me and will not listen to me, I will continue striking you, sevenfold for your sins. And I will let loose the wild beasts against you, which shall bereave you of your children and destroy your livestock and make you few in number, so that your roads shall be deserted. (Leviticus 26:21-22)
Crucially, this language of accountability is also found in the parables that Jesus spoke to the Jews. Jesus’ words were given in a very specific context: they constitute a ‘covenant lawsuit’ against those who were accountable to God under a distinct historical administration. The ‘testimony of Jesus’, both before and after His resurrection, was every bit as much a lawsuit against the rulers of Jerusalem as the legal witness of the biblical prophets before Him. Joel McDurmon writes:
Most people don’t realise that many if not most of Jesus’ parables were intended not as general morality tales, but as particular pronouncements of coming judgment and change. Jesus was warning Jerusalem to repent and to accept its new King (Jesus) or else fall under ultimate condemnation of God. In fact, much of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels pertains primarily to that pre-AD 70 crowd, and without reading it in this light, we misunderstand it. And when we misunderstand it, we misapply it.
((Joel McDurmon, Jesus v. Jerusalem: A Commentary on Luke 9:51-20:26, Jesus’ Lawsuit Against Israel.))
Mike Bull is a graphic designer in the Blue Mountains of Australia, and author, most recently, of Moses and the Revelation. This post was originally found on Ethos.org
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