What the Bible says to me and how it applies to my life, as important as this is, places the proverbial cart before the horse when it is the first (or exclusive) consideration. Before any biblical text says anything to me, it has already spoken to those to whom it was first written. The conscientious Bible student should therefore begin his/her investigation of any passage of scripture by considering what the inspired writer was seeking to convey to his original audience and how they would have understood the message in the context in which it was first communicated. When this is the preliminary focus, one is in a much better position to correctly interpret and apply the sacred writings as they were intended.
Everything in the Bible is written in a particular context. To be unaware of the context is to significantly increase one’s chances of missing or misunderstanding just about anything recorded in scripture. Context includes:
· Historical context: what has occurred.
· Chronological context: when it has occurred.
· Geographical context: where it has occurred.
· Sociocultural context: how it has occurred.
· Literary context: the manner in which it has been recorded.
Historical context involves both the history in the text and the history of the text, including social, cultural, political, religious, and economic conditions that inform us about people and events in particular time periods and places. “We study history to help account for the distances in time and historical experience” (K. C. Hanson and D. E. Oakman, Palestine in the Time of Jesus 2). The information provided by biblical writers includes individuals, communities, localities, time periods, and happenings that can be verified in the records of history. The Christian movement and its sacred text stand on historically verifiable data. The New Testament contains over 140 eyewitness details and references to more than thirty historical figures, confirmed by archaeological discoveries and ancient secular writings.1 The Christian movement began and flourished, not in a vacuum, but among real people in the first century who could readily test its claims (cf. Acts 26:26; 1 Cor. 15:6). G. Ernest Wright has well said, “the Bible cannot be understood unless the history it relates is taken seriously. Knowledge of biblical history is essential to the understanding of biblical faith” (Introduction to Biblical Archaeology ix).
Chronological context, involving dates and sequence of events, is just as much a part of biblical history as the events themselves. R. L. Cate reminds us, “No matter how much students may dislike the study of dates, history can neither be adequately nor accurately studied apart from dates. Dates are the cement which hold events together and relate them to one another” (History of the New Testament 115). By viewing the scriptures in light of related past or contemporary occurrences, the record is not only confirmed but illuminated. Although assigning exact dates is not always possible due to the imprecision of ancient time reckoning and record keeping, studying chronology is helpful in determining the order of events, how much time elapsed between them, and contributing factors that charted the course of history.
Geographical context concerns the places (lands, mountains, seas, cities, provinces, nations, etc.) where important events occurred. Biblical geography is the canvas upon which God’s scheme of redemption has been painted. C. G. Rasmussen observes, “once one has a basic understanding of the geography of the Middle East, one has a much better chance of coming to grips with the flow of historical events that occurred there…. Historical events were oftentimes greatly influenced by the geographical environment in which they occurred” (Zondervan Atlas of the Bible 13). W. Stiles adds: “Those of us who seek to understand the meaning of the Bible strongly believe in interpreting a passage in its context. But context is more than words…. The more one understands the land of the Bible, the more he or she will understand the Bible itself” (“Bible Lands,” <Link>).
Sociocultural context involves learned behaviors shared by members of a society that shed light on the cultural and linguistic distinctiveness of the biblical writings. Ancient documents “assume that their readers share their world and know what they mean… Our difficulty as modern Western readers is to relate meaningfully to documents that are the products of a radically different world in terms of institutions and values…. Because our social and cultural experiences do not match those of the biblical authors, we can be seriously misled about what they mean” (K. C. Hanson and D. E. Oakman, Palestine in the Time of Jesus 2). The goal of biblical interpretation is to discover what the writings originally communicated to the immediate audiences, so “any adequate understanding of the Bible requires some understanding of the social system embodied in the words that make up our sacred scriptures” (B. J. Malina, New Testament World 1-2; Social World of Jesus xi). If we are unfamiliar with the world of the early Christians, we will not understand early Christianity.2
Literary Context is the connection of thought a passage bears to the larger discussion of which it is part. Each statement in the Bible is surrounded by and connected to additional information that helps determine its meaning. Literary context includes:
· Genre: the type of literature that governs the purpose and meaning of a particular writing. The Bible consists of various literary genres (historical, prescriptive, poetic, proverbial, prophetic, apocalyptic, epistolary), a working knowledge of which aids in determining what biblical authors were seeking to impart.
· Immediate context: the paragraph or general discussion in which a statement occurs.
· Remote context: the entire document or collection of writings of which a statement is part.
· Overall biblical context: how a statement or series of statements relate to the rest of the information in the Bible.
· Layers of context: a passage of scripture might incorporate multiple genres, communicants, settings, and even borrowed materials from other sources. For example, the Gospel of Matthew is generally viewed as biographical but is also kerygmatic in that readers are expected to learn spiritual truths as information is disclosed. Matthew’s record has incorporated genealogical data (chap. 1), narrative (chaps. 1–4), discourse (chaps. 5–7), scripture referencing (2:6, 18; 3:3), apocalyptic imagery (24:27-31), et al. When analyzing Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, in addition to the actual words (in Greek-English translation), consideration ought to be given to the unique perspectives of the speaker and his original listening audience, as well as the inspired author and his first reading audience, inclusive of their respective historical–cultural–religious environments.
1 N. Geisler and F. Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist 270-71.
2 W. A. Meeks, First Urban Christians 2.
Image credit: https://blog.logos.com/2017/02/really-mean-read-bible-context/
Literary Genre and Structure
Three different genres are apparent. First, Apocalypse (1:1)1 – a genre characterized by extensive symbolism, visions,
strong contrasts between this world and the world to come, and victory over
evil. Second, Prophecy (1:3) – combined with apocalyptic elements, it carries on the
tradition of OT books like Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and Zechariah. Third, Epistle
(1:4) – with an opening address and greeting, it functions as a circular letter
to the seven churches of Asia (1:4-5, 9-11), including a specific message for
each one (2:1–3:22).2 “The complicated character of Revelation
therefore suggests that we should not place it neatly into one genre category.
Elements of prophecy, apocalypse, and letter are combined in a way that has no
close parallel in other literature” (D. A. Carson and D. J. Moo, An Introduction to the NT 716-17).
As for the structure of the book, Revelation
is logical in sequence rather than chronological. It begins and ends in
physical reality but includes a panoramic view of heaven and the future. The
introduction (chaps. 1–3) is followed by three series of concurrent judgments
(seals, trumpets, bowls) and depictions of worship in heaven (chaps. 4–16),
concluding with a declaration of triumph (chaps. 17–22).
Methods of Interpretation
Preterist View (lit. “that which has gone by”). This interpretation method holds
that everything in Revelation was fulfilled not long after it was written
(either at the destruction of Jerusalem in 70, or the legalization of
Christianity in 313, or the fall of Rome in 476). The problem with this view is
the great difficulty of interpreting some things in Revelation as having
already been fulfilled (e.g. 20:10-15; 21:4).
Futurist View. This perspective argues that most of Revelation has not yet
been fulfilled, interprets much of the symbolism literally, and is generally held
by those advocating the theory of premillennialism. Problems with this view
include the following. It literalizes symbols that were almost certainly
intended to represent other things (e.g. 7:4; 14:1; 20:4, 6). It fails to
appreciate the relevance the message needed to have for the Christians to whom
it was originally addressed (e.g. 2:1 ff.).4 It ignores the fact
that much of Revelation was to be fulfilled relatively soon after it was
written (cf. 1:1, 3; 22:6).
Idealist View. This view suggests that Revelation is not related to
specific historical events but merely symbolizes the general, ongoing struggle
between the Lord’s church and evil forces. The problem with this view is that
it overlooks Revelation’s claim that it does address actual historical events
and circumstances and prophecies to be fulfilled (e.g. 1:1-3, 19; 22:10-19).
Historical View. This interpretation argues that Revelation deals with
actual historical events, many of which were fulfilled by the time the Roman
Empire fell, but some of which are yet to be fulfilled in the future (e.g.
20:11 ff.). While each of the above interpretive philosophies has its merits,
the last one seems to be least problematic.
Revelation is regarded as having an epistolary frame (see E. S. Fiorenza,
“Composition and Structure” 367-81; J. M. Lieu, “Grace to You and Peace”
172-73; J. L. White, “Saint Paul” 444).
3 See C. S. Keener, IVP Bible Background Commentary 759; B.
M. Metzger, Breaking the Code 11-19;
D. A. Carson and D. J. Moo, Introduction
to the NT 697-700; S. L. Harris, Understanding
the Bible [7th ed.] 519.
4 “Some prophecy teachers have
interpreted and reinterpreted Revelation according to the whims of changing
news headlines. But John’s images would
have meant something in particular to their readers …. Whatever else his words
may indicate, therefore, they must have been intelligible to his first-century
readers …” (C. S. Keener, IVP Bible
Background Commentary 760-61).
Image credit: http://irfanyang.com/2016/09/12/the-four-horsemen-of-the-apocalypse/
Provenance and Destination
John writes from the Mediterranean island
of Patmos (1:9), a rugged, rocky island about 40 miles (24 kms) southwest of
Ephesus in the Aegean Sea, used by the Romans as a place of exile (see Pliny, Natural History 4.23). The document is
written to the seven churches of the Roman province of Asia in the cities of
Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea (1:4,
The two main proposals for dating
Revelation center on the respective reigns of Nero (54-68) and Domitian (81-96). The key pieces of evidence are as follows:
of Christians. The Christians to whom Revelation is addressed seem to have
been suffering severe and widespread persecution that would eventually worsen
(1:9; 2:10, 13; 3:10; 6:9; 16:6; 17:6; 18:24; 19:2; 20:4). Nero’s persecution
lasted from 64 to 68, but it was primarily confined to the city of Rome. The
persecution of Domitian was most intense from 95 to 96, and though the strongest
evidence for it comes from later writers,1 the imposition of emperor
worship during this time (see below) adds more credence to this potential setting
than do the alternatives.
Worship. Christians in the book of Revelation were being pressured to
worship the secular ruling power (13:4, 15-16; 14:9-11; 15:2; 16:2; 19:20;
20:4). The seeds of emperor worship were to some degree evident in Julius
Caesar, Augustus, and Caligula, but it was not until Domitian that the imperial
cult was enforced.2
of the churches. A Christian named Antipas had already suffered martyrdom
in Pergamum (2:13) and members of the church at Smyrna were soon to face
imprisonment and potentially the death penalty (2:10). Spiritual stagnation was
a problem in many of the Asian churches (2:4, 5; 3:1-3, 15-17), and the church
of Laodicea was wealthy at the time (3:17).3 These conditions are
more conducive to the period of Domitian’s reign.
temple of God. John is called upon to measure “the temple of God” (11:1-2).
If this is taken as a reference to the literal Jewish temple in Jerusalem, a
date before 70 would be implied. However, since the book of Revelation is
filled with signs and symbols, the most natural interpretation of this passage
is metaphoric, not literal. Some see a prophecy of the AD 70 destruction of
Jerusalem in the allusion to the “holy city” being trampled for “forty-two
months” (Rev. 11:2). However, when Ezekiel saw his vision of the temple being
measured (Ezek. 40:1–42:20), the temple and the city had already been destroyed
by the Babylonians fourteen years earlier (Ezek. 40:1).
succession of kings. In 17:9-11 eight kings are mentioned, and the one that
appears to have been reigning at the time of writing was number six. If this
passage is taken literally and the succession of kings begins with the first
recognized emperor, an earlier date is then suggested. However, this argument
is not decisive. Are the kings in this vision past, present, or future? Is the
count to begin with Julius Caesar (the first dictator), Augustus (the first
emperor), or Caligula (the first persecutor)? Should the comparatively
insignificant rulers, who were in power for only brief periods (e.g. 68-69), be
counted or not? Should the respective numbers be interpreted literally or
Internal evidence places the most probable
context of Revelation toward the end of the reign of Domitian, i.e., 95-96. This
conclusion is supported by the weight of early testimonies, viz. Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. 5.30.3; Victorinus, Apoc. 10.11; Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 3.18; Clement of Alexandria,
Quis div. 42; Origen, Matt. 16.6.
2 According to the Latin writer
Suetonius (Dom. 13.1-2), Domitian
required his subjects to address him as dominus
et dues noster (‘our lord and god’). See also Dio Cassius 67.4.7; 67.13.4;
and Pliny the Younger, Pan. 33.4;
52.2. The first imperial cult temple in Ephesus was established in the year 89
under Domitian’s rule. In fact, it was during this period that “in some areas –
especially in Asia Minor – governors and other local officials demanded public
participation in the cult as evidence of citizens’ loyalty and patriotism” (S.
L. Harris, Understanding the Bible
[7th ed.] 518).
3 Laodicea was destroyed by an
earthquake in 60 (cf. Tacitus, Annals
14.26-27), and it is commonly assumed that an extensive period of time would
have been necessary for the city to be rebuilt and become prosperous. This
assumption, however, is tentative at best, since the residents of Laodicea were
wealthy enough to rebuild the city without aid from the Roman government. Nevertheless,
the fact that a congregation was in existence in Smyrna may be suggestive of a
later date (see D. A. Carson and D. J. Moo, An
Introduction to the NT 710).
Image credit: https://notesfromtheparsonage.files.wordpress.com/2015/03/600-johnwriting8874.jpg
The title of the last book of the NT comes
from the opening line: Apokálupsis
Iēsou Christou. The term apokálupsis
refers to an uncovering, a revelation, a disclosure of knowledge, thus “A
Revelation of Jesus Christ,” or simply “Revelation” or “The
Apocalypse.” It is probably the last document of the NT canon to have been
written. As the OT book of Genesis is the book of beginnings, the NT book of
Revelation is the book of consummation. Revelation is the only NT document that
deals primarily with prophetic events, and its message is presented with more
symbolism than any of the other NT writings. The theme of the book is VICTORY!
(see 2:7, 11, 17, 26; 3:5, 12, 21; 5:5; 12:11; 15:2; 17:14; 21:7).
The author simply identifies himself as Iōannēs or “John” (1:1, 4, 9; 21:2;
22:8). He is clearly known to the seven churches of Asia, his authority is
recognized, and he communicates as a spokesman for God (cf. 1:1, 11, 19; 10:10;
22:9, 18-19). The composition is in a Semitic style, and the author writes as
if Greek were his second language, indicative of a native of Palestine (see S.
L. Harris, Understanding the Bible
[7th ed.] 517).
There is a close relationship between
Revelation and John’s Gospel and epistles, i.e., common ideas, theology, and
vocabulary. For example, descriptions of Jesus as a lamb, as a shepherd, and as
ho logos (“the word”); frequent use
of antithesis (light vs. darkness, truth vs. falsehood, power of God vs. power
of the world, etc.); common use of technical terms, e.g., alēthinos (“true”), marturia
(“testimony”), nikaō (“conquer”), and
tērein tas entolas (“keep the commandments”);1
symbolic use of the number seven; replacement of the temple; metaphoric
allusions to water and to manna;2 the highest concentration of the
word menō (“abide”) in the NT; etc.
Early testimony, attributing Revelation to
the apostle John, includes the following: Justin [Martyr] (Dial. 81; cf. Apol.
1.28), who for a time lived in Ephesus – location of one of the seven churches
of Revelation; Melito (cf. Eusebius, Eccl.
Hist. 4.26.2) of Sardis – location of one of the seven churches of
Revelation; Irenaeus (Adv. Haer.
3.11.1; 4.14.2; 4.20.11; 4.35.2) of Smyrna – location of one of the seven
churches of Revelation. Irenaeus makes mention of “John in the Apocalypse” (Adv. Haer. 4.14.2; 4.17.6; 4.18.6;
4.21.3; 5.28.2; 5.34.2), further described as “John the disciple of the Lord” (Adv. Haer. 4.20.11; 5.26.1), who leaned
on Jesus’ breast and later published his Gospel while living in Ephesus (Adv. Haer. 3.1.1). Further affirmation
is found in the Muratorian canon, Theophilus of Antioch (cf. Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 4.24), Tertullian (Adv. Marcion 3.14), and Clement of Alexandria
(Paed. 2.119; Quis dives 42; Strom.
Arguments Against the Apostle John’s Authorship
1. There is
no apostolic claim; the writer professes to be a prophet, not an apostle.
2. There are
considerable linguistic differences between the Gospel of John and Revelation.
“The writer seems on the surface to be unacquainted with the elementary laws of
concord. He places nominatives in opposition to other cases, irregularly uses
participles, constructs broken sentences, adds unnecessary pronouns, mixes up
genders, numbers and cases and introduces several unusual constructions” (D.
Guthrie, NT Introduction 940).
theology of Revelation differs from that of the Johannine writings: (a) The God
of Revelation is a God of majesty and judgment; the God of the Johannine
writings is a God of love. (b) In John’s Gospel Jesus is revealer and redeemer,
while in Revelation he is a conquering warrior and king. (c) In John’s Gospel
“the last things” are realized in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, yet in
Revelation the focus is on the Lord’s return at the end of history.
Responses To These Objections
1. If John’s
apostleship was accepted and respected by his readership, there was no need for
an explicit claim to be made. Paul asserted his apostleship when it was called
into question (e.g. 1 Cor. 9:1; Gal. 1:1), but at other times this was
unnecessary (i.e., 1-2 Thessalonians, Philippians, Philemon).
2. The vast
distinction between the genres of the respective documents would easily account
for variations, with special consideration for the highly symbolic
(apocalyptic) nature of Revelation, the special circumstances under which it
was written, and the importance of concealing its true meaning from the enemies
of the Lord’s people. Further, if an amanuensis were employed to pen the
Gospel, and John alone transcribed the book of Revelation, linguistic and
grammatical differences would be understandable. At the same time, Revelation
has a closer affinity to the Greek of the Johannine writings than to any other
emphasis on separate aspects of the divine nature, function, and purpose to
achieve different objectives does not constitute conflicting theologies. D. A.
Carson and D. J. Moo correctly point out: “But the contrasts are both overdrawn
and incapable of proving much. Both the fourth gospel and Revelation teach that
God is both loving and judging, that
Christ is both redeemer and sovereign
Lord, and that ‘the last things’ have both
been realized in Jesus’ death and resurrection (at least in principle) and
await the end of history for their consummation” (An Introduction to the NT 703).
In future posts we will address other
introductory matters pertaining to the book of Revelation.
1 Unless otherwise noted,
English translation is the author’s own.
2 See D. Guthrie, NT Introduction 938-40; F. L. Godet, Gospel of St. John 1:182-90.
Image credit: https://vineyardlifejournal.files.wordpress.com/2012/08/hqdefault.jpg