I was in the Seattle Art Museum (aka SAM) there other day. A gentleman came out huffing and puffing, “That was the biggest pile of rubbish I’ve ever seen.” We were at the Miro exhibit. Miro was a Spanish painter whose mastery of shapes and colors was renown. People were pouring in to see the exhibit, even when this gentleman was coming out disappointed. Although this exhibit did not feature the best work of Miro, it certainly was not rubbish. Most likely, this gentleman expected something else and was disappointed.
Apocalyptic literature can be equally annoying, if the reader does not understand what it is. For the purpose of reading Revelation, the following guideline must govern the way we read Revelation. First let me talk about the mistakes we frequently make.
1) We can mistakenly think that we know better than the original readers because the book was talking about the future. The future is now! This assumption is incorrect. If our present is meaning is dependent on what the original readers did not know, then God has basically given a message to the original readers who did not receive it with any understanding. In other words, the fact that God revealed himself in history did not matter in the instance of Revelation because God had revealed nonsense to the original readers. This view of God’s revelation makes no sense at all theologically.
2) We can mistakenly think that we can make up our own rules as we go along when we read. For example, if a number “seems” like it should be taken literally, we can do so. However, if a number seems to make more sense to interpret symbolically, we can read symbols into it. In other words, we read everything literally until it doesn’t make sense to which time we interpret it symbolically. Symbolism is the escape for our incompetence.
3) We can mistakenly think that we read any and all parts of the Bibles into Revelation to give it meaning. Some would use parts of the Hebrew Bible (e.g. Daniel, Ezekiel) and see direct fulfillment in Revelation. Such an assumption may or may not be true, depending on whether the readers understood those texts. The same goes for the Gospels. Many people read many parts of the Gospels into Revelation. While I’m not against reading parts of the Jesus tradition as part of the background of Revelation, it is a mistake to think that ever part of the Jesus tradition could relate to all parts of Revelation. Every intertextual reading should be justified instead of assumed.
In the next blog, I will talk about the principles that will open up Revelation to all of us.