Troublesome Topic: Interpret Apocalyptic Images in Light of Bible History

Remember the Two Rules of Biblical Interpretation:

1.  Never separate a passage from its context.

2.  Seek the most obvious meaning for the original audience.

Interpreting things described in Revelation in light of modern current events violates both of those rules. Modern events do not enter into the context of the Bible, and the original readers would not have known about modern events. We need to remember that Jesus told us not to try to figure it all out.

They used imagery often, and for them the meaning of the symbols was obvious. For instance, when the wise men came to the house to visit the baby Jesus, what did they bring? We all know the story—they brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh. People of that day would have known that those three things had symbolic meaning. To keep it very simple, gold was a symbol of His royalty, frankincense and myrrh pointed ahead to His death and burial. The meaning of each gift brought was more important than the gift itself.

During World War II many interpreted events described in Revelation as relating to Hitler. Our tendency is to interpret Biblical eschatology in light of current times or what we project to be the near future. In contrast, the Jews interpreted them in light of their history and their common understanding of life. When people of John’s day read Revelation and read about plagues, they thought about the plagues that God used to show His power over the gods of Egypt. They looked back; we look forward. We think it is perfectly normal and right to look forward because we assume the purpose of prophecy is to satisfy our curiosity about what will come.

In order for the images to have meaning they must be rooted in something the audience recognizes. For Jews of John’s day that would have been events and people and things from their history. I am convinced that the Jews of John’s day would have interpreted images and symbols based on their knowledge of the Old Testament.

When we read Revelation, we need to assume it was understandable to the original audience and understandable for us; “He who has an ear let him hear.” In order to understand it we need to know the Old Testament. Close to three-fourths of the things that John describes in Revelation allude to the Old Testament (the OT), yet there are no direct quotes from the OT found in Revelation. It is full of images that remind you of the OT, if you know it.

  But you may ask, “Wasn’t John writing mostly to a Gentile audience?” Yes, John’s vision was circulated first among the Gentile congregations in Asia Minor, then to others. However, the Gentiles needed to know some things about Jewish history in order to understand Revelation. Paul and the other Apostles tried to teach the Gentiles the basic high points of God’s working with the Jewish people down through history. John refers to David, refers to the book of Daniel, and gives a listing of twelve tribes of Israel with one missing (the reader is not told which one is missing, he is expected to catch that, and the significance of it).

Sometimes all the cultures of that era and of that part of the world were similar enough to Jewish culture that the symbolism would be understood by all. But sometimes it required a knowledge of Old Testament history to get the point. We see the Apostles struggling with the issue of how much Jewishness to require of the Gentiles. They determined that the Gentiles did not need to become Jews, but neither did the Apostles abandon their own Jewishness. The reason we have an Old Testament today is that we need to know the context of the New Testament. Likewise, many of the symbols of Revelation must be interpreted in light of the Old Testament, even by Gentiles.

In Vincent’s Word Pictures we read this statement regarding Revelation 1:16: “The imagery of Revelation is Hebrew and not Greek. It is doubtful if there is any symbol taken from heathenism, so that the symbols of Revelation are to be read from the Jewish and not from the Heathen stand-point.” Jesus did not come in a vacuum. It was necessary for the Gentiles to know the Old Testament in order to properly interpret the New Testament.

If we fail to interpret the imagery of Revelation in light of Jewish history, we will destroy our ability to understand Revelation! Thus our task is to try and get inside the mind of the people of John’s day. How would they have understood what is written in what we call the book of Revelation? Which words would they have seen as symbols? What meaning would they have immediately understood by those symbols?

In this process we need to be careful because very few of us are coming to these questions with a clean slate. If someone has been raised in the church, he has heard stuff about what Revelation means and his mind has constructed images to help him picture those events. The material used to construct those images probably revolves around the number 666, a rapture, a great white throne, a great battle, etc. If someone has not been in a Christian church at all during his life, our culture has given him material which his mind has used to construct images of events that will come in the future. In this case the building material may consist of zombies, nuclear war, or even the abandoning of planet earth to inhabit other planets. The point is that we have to work hard to see the symbolism of Revelation as the original audience understood it because we approach these images with some preconceived notions of what they mean. Therefore, we must purposefully set aside what we assume, and accept only what the Jews of John’s day would have assumed.

The Jews and Christians of John’s day interpreted symbolism in two primary ways:

1) In light of Old Testament history: I am convinced that Jewish people would have looked first to their own history even if cultures around them were using a symbol in other ways. I believe it is dangerous to say that one of the cultures near them had a certain interpretation and therefore the Jews likely did too. I think we should first look and see if there was something in their history that shaped how they would interpret a symbol, regardless of the practices of the nations around them.

2) According to common speech patterns:

When we talk about our computer and we use words like mouse, virus, infected, debug, crash, or hiccup, we know exactly what we are talking about. Our common speech patterns have taught us what these things mean. When we hear them in the right context, we don’t have to analyze them and figure out their meaning, the meaning is obvious. That is the way it is for symbolism all over the world at all times. The problem is that our culture is far removed from first century Jewish culture, so we must work hard at trying to see symbols the way they would have seen them.

Many of their word pictures came from the land, from agriculture, and from animals. Therefore, there was some overlap between the Jewish people and the nations around them. But we should be careful to look at the history and speech patterns of the Israelites, not those of the people groups around them.

The next lesson is: Symbolism Is for Interpreting What Is, Not for Predicting What Will Be