good booksA Good Booklet

 Once again I have pleasure in commending to BTW readers the latest Grove Booklet to arrive in BGST Library, How to Read the Book of Revelation by Ian Paul, an Anglican minister whose specialist field is the interpretation of Revelation. Paul offers a clear introduction to this much-disputed topic, and one which should be seriously pondered even by those who find that in the end they do not agree with him. His reflections on contemporary application are particularly helpful and thought-provoking.

Chapter 1 briefly sketches the problems which arise in reading Revelation, and sets out two guiding principles: ‘God has given us the Bible to enlighten us, not to puzzle us’; ‘study and belief are not in opposition, but should work together’ (p. 4).

Chapter 2 focusses on the genre of Revelation: what kind of writing is it? This is an issue with which we are all familiar. If we are presented (say) with a letter from our bank manager, a humorous email or a Straits Times editorial we are able to recognise what kind of text it is and interpret it correctly. But Revelation is written in a genre (apocalyptic) which, though it was common in the 1st century AD, is unfamiliar today. In fact, Revelation seems to combine features of more than one type of writing: at different points it claims to be a letter (1:4, 9), a prophecy (1:3; 22:19) and an ‘apocalypse’ (i.e., ‘revelation’, 1:1). Each of these genres poses problems in interpretation.

Chapter 3 stresses the value of reading Revelation against its historical background (the Greco-Roman world of the 1st century AD). Paul shows how knowledge of the circumstances and past history of the seven churches of Rev. 1–3 can help us better understand what the Lord said to each of them.

The OT is another crucial background to bear in mind as we read Revelation. Revelation is packed with allusions to the OT (over 670 of them, it is calculated). Chapter 4 shows how when we identify the OT allusions in Revelation and remind ourselves of the context and themes of the OT texts in question, the meaning of some passages becomes much clearer. Thus, when we read Revelation 12 against the background of the OT it becomes likely that the woman symbolises the people of God longing for deliverance (compare Is. 26:17; 66:7; Mi. 4:10; 5:3), that the male child born to her represents the promised Messiah (Ps. 2:9), and that the chapter as a whole is about Jesus’ victory on the cross (note the reference to ‘the blood of the Lamb’ at 12:11).

Chapter 5 is about reading Revelation in its cultural (Greco-Roman) context. This helps us see things in the text we might otherwise not have noticed. For example, the vision of Rev. 4, in which the elders cast their crowns before God, may well contain an allusion to the ceremonies with which the Roman emperor was greeted when he visited a city. Seen against this background, Rev. 4 would be making the point that true power belongs to God, not Caesar. I found this chapter particularly interesting.

Number are important in Revelation (figures such as 7, 12, 24, 666, etc.), and chapter 6 gives guidelines on how to interpret them. Among the topics covered is the question of word and phrase frequencies (e.g., the Greek words for ‘Jesus’, ‘Spirit’ and ‘saints’ each occur 14 times; 14 [7 x 2] may well signify the ideas of completeness [represented by the number 7; cf. Gen. 1, etc.] and true witness [represented by the number 2; cf. Dt. 17:6]). Particularly interesting is the section on the numerical values of words. In Greek and Hebrew the letters of the alphabet all had numerical values. If you write the Greek for ‘beast’ and the Greek for ‘Nero Caesar’ (the emperor Nero) in Hebrew letters, the total of the Hebrew letters in each case is 666 (cf. Rev. 13:18). This may seem bizarre to us, but it fits the historical context: alphanumeric ‘puns’ playing on the numerical value of words are known from elsewhere in the Greco-Roman world and also in Rabbinic Judaism. The identification of the beast with Nero also fits with a key theme of Revelation, that the Roman Empire embodies opposition to God and to God’s people.

This is followed by a useful discussion of metaphor in Revelation. Part of the point of metaphorical language is that it can be reapplied to later situations. Thus: 

‘In chapters 12 and 13, Roman imperial power is identified with the beast from the sea… As such it is characterised by repressive violence, conflict with the true people of God, control of economic systems, and the maintenance of respect for its image. In characterising it this way, Revelation is shearing off many of the historical particularities of the Empire – it is creating a kind of caricature, in which certain aspects of reality are focussed on and others ignored. Such a caricature is then easily seen to apply to other contexts, where there are regimes marked by repression, persecution, economic control and maintenance of image. The metaphorical nature of the language makes it widely applicable beyond its original context, and in fact appears to invite us to similarly re-imagine our world using biblical categories in the way Revelation does’ (p. 25).

That is, Revelation was written in the 1st century AD and takes as its starting point 1st-century realities. But it addresses these realities in a way which enables later generations of Christians (including ourselves) to reapply its teaching to their own situations. Revelation, Paul argues, should not be seen as directly predicting events of (say) the 20th and 21st centuries, but it nonetheless gives us 21st-century Christians tools for understanding what is happening in our days.

There follow two shorter chapters discussing the millennium (Rev. 20) and the violent imagery in Revelation. The booklet concludes with a survey of approaches to Revelation (Idealist, Futurist, Church-historical, Contemporary-historical) and some thoughts on how to apply Revelation to life today. There are suggestions for further reading.

I would recommend this booklet to anyone interested in understanding Revelation. Unless you are already an expert on the topic, and maybe even if you are, you are sure to learn something from this fascinating survey, which packs a lot of scholarship into its 32 pages. Even if you disagree with aspects of Paul’s interpretation of Revelation, his clear discussion of the hermeneutical issues will help you to clarify your position and show you ways of drawing on the rich resources of this bizarre, challenging, but ultimately heart-warming last book of the Bible.

(Reviewed by Dr Philip Satterthwaite)

Our speaker at Chapel this Wednesday (25th June) was Mr. Lawrence Khoo, of Prinsep Street Presbyterian Church. A summary of what he said will appear in next week’s BTW.

Chapel speaker for next 2 weeks (July 2 and 9) will be Rev Dr Douglas Milne, who will speak on the Beatitudes.


News Bits

  1. A warm welcome to Rev Dr Douglas Milne, our Visiting Lecturer. We are most grateful to him for taking the time out of a busy schedule to share in the ministry of BGST. On Saturday Jun 28 he will give a public lecture on the topic “God, Terrorism and the Just War” (7.30-9.30 p.m., Sanctuary, Zion Bible-Presbyterian Church), to which all are invited.

  2. Students who have registered for OT 102 should note that there will be minor changes to the structure of this course. The dates and topics previously given for the classes are unchanged, but the order of the topics has been revised. Further details from Dr. Satterthwaite.

  3. If you need Biblical Hermeneutics and Interpretation  (HE101) and can manage it as a “video class” sometime during Semester II, kindly inform our Admin Office. We may run this course, which is required for our DipCS, MCS and MDiv. 

  4. Courses commencing next week:

  • Theological Foundations I (starting Jun 30, Mon), by Rev Dr Douglas Milne.

  • Ethics, War & Terrorism (starting Jul 2, Wed), by Rev Dr Douglas Milne.

  • Principles & Practices in Worship & Speech (starting Jul 2, Wed), by Rev Ng Seng Chuan.

A Blessed Birthday to ...

Dr John Lim  23/6

Ms Sandy Mok  23/6

Mdm Tricia Yeo  23/6

Mr Charlie Yeo  23/6

Pastor David Yap  24/6

Mr Patrick Ang  26/6

Mr Benjamin Koe  26/6

Ms Priscilla Chia  27/6

Mr Vincent Lim Choon Peng  27/6

Ms Lynette Low Li Liang  27/6

Mrs Loh Yiau Leng  28/6

Dr Ng Peh Cheng  29/6

Mrs Sonali Peters  29/6

Mr Goh Mui Pong  29/6

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This page is updated on 27 June 2003 by Leong Kok Weng.
   © Jun 2003