Reading Revelation

From the Dean

A regular article written by Phillip Jensen in his role as Dean of Sydney at St Andrew's Cathedral.

Originally Published:
25th July 2008

Tagged: book of revelation

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What do we make of the symbols in the book of Revelation? What do we do with those bits of the Bible we cannot explain?

In Jesus' letter to the seven churches there are many details that we do not understand. For example in the section to Pergamum (Revelation 2:12-17) there is mention of Satan's throne, the hidden manna, and the white stone. There is also mention of historical events that are otherwise unknown to us. Antipas, the faithful witness of Jesus, was killed—but we do not know anything else about him. The Nicolaitans are mentioned—but there is no certain knowledge of them outside of this chapter of Revelation.

So what do we do with these parts of the Bible, which are beyond our knowledge?

Our aim in Bible reading is obedience to God. We want to know what God said to us. Being God, His word is active and living. So what he said to us will be what he is now saying to us. That is why we are concerned with the original meaning of His words.

It is critical that we aim to understand and comprehend God's word. We should not aim to interpret it.

In the past we did interpret it because the word “interpret” used to mean comprehend and understand. But today the word “interpret” means to place your own meaning upon the text, or to “ascribe a particular meaning or significance to something” (Encarta). To interpret like that is to proudly sit over God's word instead of submissively sitting under it.

But to sit in obedience under the word of God we have to be careful to acknowledge the limits of our knowledge. There are limits to our knowledge. Sometimes these limits are self-imposed because we have not taken enough time or made enough effort to find out. But sometimes there is no way we can be certain what the author meant. There are references to matters that are beyond our knowledge. Sometimes the language used is poetic or evocative—intended to make us see connections and ideas without coming down to one certain answer.

This lack of certain knowledge over everything in the Bible is not a problem. In life, we do not have to know everything to know something (otherwise we would know nothing). We do not know everything about our parents, but we still know them. We do not know everything about electricity, but we still know how to turn on the lights. Total knowledge is not necessary to know the truth.

The Bible is a collection of books written in and about historical circumstances. This is very helpful in understanding what it means. We are not dealing with a magic language like the book of Mormon, but spoken languages like Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. Nor are we dealing with a timeless word that needs external historical events to make sense of it like the Qur'an. The Bible records the events that it is explaining so that we have the historical context to understand its words.

Because it is about human history the Bible conforms to our knowledge of the world. This background gives us confidence that we are not dealing with myths and legends. But it rarely casts much light on the meaning of the text. It places some limits on what the meaning may have been; e.g. there are no discussions of television or motorcars. But we do not know what the author did or did not know of the ancient world or what he had in mind, other than what he tells us. Thus the meaning of the text is found in the context before us, rather than in the background studies about the ancient world.

The one important background that we do need for understanding any passage is the rest of the Bible. The New Testament claims to be the fulfilment of the Old. To read either Testament properly we must read both.

It is a great temptation, especially in a book like Revelation, to launch from the text into our favourite hobbyhorse. Or to become obsessive in our pursuit of what details could mean, missing the point as to what the chapter does mean. Or to be too casual in our reading and avoid the hard work of research that is necessary to fix the meaning.

So what do we make of “Satan's throne”, or “the hidden manna”, or “the white stone”? Over the centuries Bible readers have come up with many alternatives to each of these symbols. But there is nothing in the text of Revelation 2 that can explain them.

That is not to say we know nothing about these symbols. For we know that Satan is bad, dangerous, deceitful and accusatory. We know that wherever he reigns, the people of God will be in danger and under persecution. Similarly, we know that the manna was the bread of heaven given graciously by God to his people in the Exodus. So that to receive the hidden manna is to receive something from God that is good. And while there are about half a dozen uses of white stones in the ancient world, the context here makes it apparent that it is a good thing to receive from God, which we should look forward to with pleasure.

We do not need to know any more than that, to understand what Jesus said to Pergamum and what the Spirit is saying to all who have ears to hear.