If Revelation isn’t to be understood literally, then how is it to be understood? As I said in the last post, it is “Apocalyptic” literature; it reveals something in word pictures. This kind of descriptive language shouldn’t be all that unfamiliar to us; we do it all the time without realizing it. We might be describing something to a friend as say something like, “Oh man, you should have been there, it was great. It was like…” If you’re sharp, you will have noticed that I just did it twice: “something like”.
When we use expressions such as “as though”, “as if”, and ”like” we aren’t speaking literally, but rather we are making a comparison of a place, person or event to something else that the listener or reader can identify with and understand.
John had a difficult task in reporting what he saw, because he saw things that human beings don’t usually see; how can you describe something to someone, when what you have seen is something they have never seen? About the only thing you can do is to find either a metaphor or frame of reference that the person is familiar with and make comparisons. Now, add another problem: John is describing things that there are no human words for, heavenly things. Yep, he had a tough job!
Now watch, I’m going to do the same thing as John, by giving you an analogy to communicate to you his problem, only I’m going to make the analogy up myself…
John’s problem was like this: Suppose we could go back in time and meet up with Benjamin Disraeli (British Prime Minister from 1874 to 1880) and bring him to the present day. Then, we put him in a rocket and send him to the International Space Station for a week, bring him back to earth, and send him back to Victorian England with the assignment of writing a newspaper article describing his story. What could he write that people would understand? Nothing he did, experienced or saw was within the realm of possibility in his time; nothing that had been explained to him was either. If he took notes on the terminology used, nobody would understand him: “What is a computer? What is a life support system… what is a re-entry vehicle?”
His only alternative would be to use 19th century British frames of reference to make comparisons between what he saw and experienced with things they could understand in his effort to communicate his experience to the people of that time and place.
If you are a regular here, you will know that I have used similar scenarios several times to describe this problem, and you might wonder why I don’t come up with a new one, say with you going 200 years into the future and reporting back to us… Think about that… I can’t come up with that scenario because I have no idea what you would see, so how can I describe what you couldn’t describe!
Yep, John had a big job.
John did what Mr. Disraeli would have to do; he used metaphors and other references to things that his first century readers could understand. Many of these come from the Old Testament, many come from Jewish intertestamental writings, and a few come from daily life.
So, you might ask how we know what these mean, since so many of them don’t make much sense to modern readers. The answer is that we word search. I’ve gone through this process in previous posts, so I won’t take you through examples again, but the short answer is that you search the Scriptures for other occasions when the same image is found and see what’s going on there. I had a fun experience with this when I was writing my doctoral dissertation on issues relative to Revelation. It really wasn’t all that hard, but it was long and tedious. I felt like a prosecuting attorney (notice I’m doing it again) who has sent a subpoena for documents in a case. The object of my investigation sends a whole truck full of cases of documents, and I had to pour over them page by page, document by document, day after day, week after week to find the evidence I needed to make my case. The reason? To get all the way through Revelation, you’ll need both Old and New Testaments, all of the intertestamental manuscripts and the entire writings of the Early Church Fathers; tens of thousands of pages, and in those days, it was all hard copy. But when you get done wading through all of that, you have a very clear notion of what is going on… and something absolutely wonderful. In these posts, I’ll give you the short version of what I found; don’t worry, anybody can understand it. You see dear reader, as is so often the case, Revelation really isn’t all that complicated; once you get used to format it’s written in.
In the next post, I’ll discuss the structure of the book, and then after that… away we go!