The Biblical Standard for Interpretation

In the very first verse of Revelation, John provides us with an important interpretive key: "The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show His servants what must shortly take place; and He sent and signified it by His angel to His servant John" (Rev. 1:1). The use of the term signify tells us that the prophecy is not simply to be taken as "history written in advance." Instead, it is a book of signs: symbolic representations of the coming events. The symbols are not to be understood in a literal manner. We can see this by John's use of the term in his Gospel (see John 12:33; 18:32; 21:19). In each case, it is used of Christ signifying a future event by a more or less symbolic indication, rather than by a clear and literal description. And this is generally the form of the prophecies in the Revelation. This does not mean the symbols are unintelligible; the interpretation is not up for grabs. On the other hand, I am not saying that the symbols are in some kind of code, so that all we need is a dictionary or grammar of symbolism to "translate" the symbols into English. Prophecy is poetry, not naive or static allegory. The only way to understand its symbolism is to become familiar with the Bible. The Biblical standard for interpretation is the Bible itself.

We have already taken note of the fallacies and inconsisten-

ties involved in the so-called "literalist" school of Biblical interpretation. Another problem, which is especially severe among certain "pop" theologians, is their arbitrary understanding of prophetic symbols. I have heard preachers speak of the locusts in Rev. 9:3-11 as showing forth a bewildering variety of horrors: bombers, ballistic missiles, Cobra helicopters, and even the dreaded "killer bees" of South America. Which of these do the locusts represent? Without a standard of interpretation, there is no objective way to tell - and thus the Book of Revelation becomes in practice what its very title insists it isn't: an unintelligible hodgepodge of "apocalyptic" fire and wind, signifying nothing.

Actually, John tells us hundreds of times throughout the Book of Revelation exactly what the standard of interpretation is, for the book is positively crammed with quotations from and allusions to the Old Testament. The Book of Revelation depends on the Old Testament much more than does any other New Testament book. This fact alone should warn us that we cannot begin to fathom its meaning apart from a solid grasp of the Bible as a whole - which is why I wrote Part Two of this book, and why I am harping on the subject again. The early churches had such an understanding. The Gospel had been preached first to the Jews and Gentile proselytes; often churches had been formed by worshipers at synagogues, and this was true even of the churches of Asia Minor (Acts 2:9; 13:14; 14:1; 16:4; 17:1-4, 10-12, 17; 18:4, 8, 19, 24-28; 19:1-10, 17). Moreover, it is clear from Galatians2:9 that the Apostle John's ministry was to Jews in particular. Therefore, the first readers of the Revelation were steeped in the Old Testament to a degree that most of us today are not. The symbolism of the Revelation is saturated with Biblical allusions which were commonly understood by the early Church. Even in those rare congregations that did not have some Hebrew members, the Scriptures used in teaching and worship were primarily from the Old Testament. The early Christians possessed the authoritative and infallible key to the meaning of John's prophecies. Our modern failure to appreciate this crucial fact is the main cause of our inability to understand what John was talking about.

For instance, let's take a much-abused symbol from Revelation and apply this principle. In Revelation 7, 9, 14 and 22, John sees God's people sealed on their foreheads with His name; and in Revelation 13:16 he writes of the worshipers of the Beast, who are designated on their right hands and foreheads with his mark. (By the way: Doesn't it strike you as strange that everybody is so excited about "the Mark of the Beast," when the clear emphasis in Revelation is on the Seal of God in the foreheads of believers?) Many fanciful interpretations have been made regarding these marks - ranging from tattoos and amusement-park validations to credit cards and Social Security numbers -and all without the slightest notice of the clear Biblical allusions. But what would the first readers of these passages have thought? The symbols would have made them think immediately of several Biblical references: the "mark" of sweat on Adam's forehead, signifying God's Curse on his disobedience (Gen. 3:19); the forehead of the High Priest, marked with gold letters proclaiming that he was now HOLY TO THE LORD (Ex. 28:36); Deuteronomy 6:6-8 and Ezekiel 9:4-6, in which the servants of God are "marked" on the hand and forehead with the law of God, and thus receive blessing and protection in His name. The followers of the Beast, on the other hand, receive his mark of ownership: submission to ungodly, statist, antichristian law. The mark in Revelation is not meant to be taken literally. It is an allusion to an old Testament symbol which spoke of a man's total obedience to God, and it stands as a warning that a society's god - whether it be the true God or the self-deified State -demands complete obedience to his lordship.

That will be the principle of interpretation followed in this book. The Revelation is a revelation: it was meant to be understood. It will not, however, be understood by lazy-minded and undisciplined thrill-seekers, who are in such a hurry that they have no time to study the Bible. Many rush from their first profession of faith to the last book in the Bible, treating it as little more than a book of hallucinations, hastily disdaining a sober-minded attempt to allow the Bible to interpret itself - and finding, ultimately, only a reflection of their own prejudices. But for those who give their attention to the Word of God as a whole, the message is clear. Benjamin Warfield wrote: "John's Apocalypse need not be other than easy: all its symbols are either obvious natural ones, or else have their roots planted in the old Testament poets and prophets and the figurative language of Jesus and his apostles. No one who knows his Bible need despair of reading this book with profit. Above all, he who can understand our Lord's great discourse concerning the last things (Matt. 24), cannot fail to understand the Apocalypse, which is founded on that discourse and scarcely advances beyond it" (Selected Shorter Writings [Presbyterian and Reformed, 1973], vol. 2, pp. 652f.).

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