April 13, 2012

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Biblical readings: Beginning the Book of Revelation

John F. FinkBeginning next Monday, the biblical readings in the Office of Readings for the next four weeks will be the Book of Revelation. That’s probably about as long as it should take to read Revelation properly because it’s certainly one of the most difficult to understand.

This last book of the Bible was written when the early Church was in a time of crisis, perhaps during the reign of Roman Emperor Domitian (81-96 A.D.), who persecuted the Church.

Its author was a man named John who was exiled to the island of Patmos, a Roman penal colony then and a popular place of pilgrimage today. Biblical experts tell us that the vocabulary, grammar and style of the book make it doubtful that it was written by the same man responsible for the Fourth Gospel, but don’t tell the people on Patmos or in Ephesus today that John the Apostle didn’t write it.

Whoever wrote it must have had great authority over the Christian communities in Asia Minor. So if the Apostle himself didn’t write it, it had to have been a very close disciple. Perhaps it was the Apostle who had the visions described in the book, but a disciple who put the book in its final form.

The reason Revelation is so difficult to understand is because it is full of extravagant symbolism. This is a feature of apocalyptic literature, which was popular in both Jewish and Christian literature from about 200 B.C. to 200 A.D. Much of the symbolism in Revelation is also seen in the Old Testament books of Ezekiel, Zechariah and Daniel.

The footnotes in your Bible should help you decipher the symbolism.

Before you start reading Revelation, be aware that it is not a set of predictions about current events. Fundamentalists frequently take it as such and predict the end of the world. The most recent time was last October. Biblical expert Luke Timothy Johnson has written that “such readings have missed the real message of Revelation. They reduce its value to that of an astrological chart.”

Revelation begins with John telling about the vision he had while on Patmos of the resurrected Jesus, who told him to write letters to the seven Churches in the Roman province of Asia, all of which are in modern Turkey—Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea.

Already, the symbolism begins as John writes about “a son of man” in the midst of seven gold lampstands, which symbolize the seven Churches. His description of Jesus certainly should not be taken literally, especially the “sharp two-edged sword” that “came out of his mouth” (Rv 1:16). This symbolizes the word of God that will destroy unrepentant sinners.

Chapters 2 and 3 are the separate letters to the seven Churches. Each is an exhortation to remain faithful. We learn about some of the struggles these Churches had as they faced opposition or division.

After a greeting, each letter has an elaborate description of Jesus, who analyzes the problems in each of the Churches and ends with a warning or words of promise.

We will continue next week. †

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