How do I study the Bible? (part three): Principles for interpreting the various parts of the New Testament

The New Testament is about Jesus and his life and work, not by him.  The gospels and other books of the NT are historically trustworthy, but each accomplishes its own unique goal.

Interpretive guidelines for the gospels:

  • Understand the context and purpose of the writer, as he relates the materials from Christ's ministry.
  • Interpret Jesus' imperatives from the standpoint of salvation by grace, as our response Understand the culture and society within which Jesus worked and taught.
  • Understand the peculiar means of communication which he employed.
  • Remember that much of his teaching comes to us as "pericopes"--individual stories and sayings.
  • Determine the audience to whom Christ spoke the periscope under consideration, in its gospel context.
  • of gratitude.
  • Interpret the gospels in light of their central concern: the kingdom of God.  The entire NT is eschatological, looking forward to the end which was inaugurated by Jesus' first coming.  We live between the beginning of the end and its consummation.

The parables

What are parables?

Let's begin with a definition: the word "parable" means "to place alongside for measurement or comparison like a yardstick" and is "an objective illustration for spiritual or moral truth" (Robertson 1:101).  "Parable" is a Greek word ("para," beside, and "bole," thrown) which means something "thrown alongside."  In his parables, Jesus threw a temporal, secular story alongside a timeless, spiritual truth.

The pastor/scholar Albert Barnes described a parable as "a narrative of some fictitious or real event, in order to illustrate more clearly some truth that the speaker wished to communicate" (139).  Dr. W. A. Criswell called a parable "an earthly story with a heavenly meaning" (71).  Michael Green describes it as "the comparison of two subjects for the purpose of teaching.  It proceeds from the known to the unknown.  It is an everyday story with a spiritual meaning" (152).

Jesus' parables fall into five categories.  The first is an illustrative comparison without an extended narrative (cf. Mt 15.15; 24.32; Mk 3.23; Lk 5.36; 6.39).  For example, when Jesus' disciples warned him that his teachings had offended the Pharisees, he replied to them: "Leave them; they are blind guides.  If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit" (Mt 15.14).  Peter responded, "Explain the parable to us" (v. 15).  In his brief illustration Jesus showed his disciples that the religious leaders were blinded spiritually, and that his followers must not follow them into the pit which is their eventual end.  He could have given them this explanation, but his illustration made the point much more memorably.

A second kind of parable used by Christ is an illustrative comparison in the form of narrative.  This is the most common use of parables in the teachings of our Lord.  For example, Jesus concluded his Sermon on the Mount with this comparison: "Everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.  The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock.  But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand.  The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash" (Mt 7.24-27).

Here Jesus compared those who obeyed his teachings to a wise home builder, and those who did not follow them to a foolish one.  In Palestine, a rugged and arid country, dry stream beds are common.  They are wide and level, suggesting themselves as good locations for a home.  Until a flash flood from the spring rains washes the new building down the river, that is.  Jesus' hearers all knew how stupid it would be to build a house upon such sand.  Now they knew that disobedience to Jesus' words is even more foolish.

A third form of parable is a narrative illustration which does not use a comparison.  Examples are the Rich Fool, the Good Samaritan, and the Rich Man and Lazarus.  Consider, for instance, this story: "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men--robbers, evildoers, adulterers--or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.'  But the tax collector would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, 'God, have mercy on me, a sinner.'  I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God.  For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted" (Lk 18:10-14).

This timeless story does not use a comparison or analogy.  It does not compare the humble person to a man who builds his house on a rock, or a prideful man to one building on sand, for instance.  It is a narrative without comparison.  And its meaning is powerful.

Luke gave us the context for Jesus' parable in the verse preceding it: "To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable . . ." (v. 9).  He chose for his subjects the most admired man in his day, and the least.  The Pharisee was part of the most rigorous religious movement in Jewish history, a man who had "separated himself" (the meaning of "Pharisee") from normal life to obey every stricture of the Law as he understood it.  The tax collector, by contrast, was a traitor working for the despised Romans to take money from his own neighbors.  Jesus' story made clear beyond dispute the fact that spiritual pride is always wrong, and spiritual humility is always right.

A fourth type of parable is the proverb.  For example, Jesus said to those in his hometown of Nazareth, "Surely you will quote this proverb to me: 'Physician, heal yourself!'" (Lk 4:23).  This was a common saying, found in many languages and religions.  Doubtless it was a truism in Jesus' day, one he anticipates being used against himself.  The meaning is clear: those most familiar with Jesus the son of man would find it hardest to accept him as the Son of God.

The fifth kind of parable used by Christ is the profound saying.  For instance, Matthew describes Jesus' teaching in this way: "Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable.  So was fulfilled what was spoken through the prophet: 'I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter things hidden since the creation of the world'" (Mt 13.34-35).  Here "parable" is a general term for the spiritually profound sayings of the Lord Jesus.  (For more on these categories, see Broadus 282.)

In each of Jesus' parables, he used settings which were extremely familiar to his listeners.  Most of the Galileans were rural, agrarian peasants.  Thus most of his parables are agricultural or practical in nature (Keener, BBCNT 82).  Jesus always found the most effective way to speak truth to life.  He still does.

Why did Jesus use parables?

Approximately one-third of Jesus' teachings were in the form of parables (Davis 127).  Why did he use them so frequently?

One reason is that this use was a way of showing himself to be the Messiah.  Matthew 13.34-35 quote Psalm 78.2, one of the ways this Jewish gospel writer showed his Lord to be the Messiah for his people.

Second, Jesus wanted his hearers to remember his teachings.  They had no pen and paper with which to take notes.  No books or newspapers could record his truth for them to study later.  They had only their minds to capture his sayings.  And so he made certain they would remember and apply his teachings to their lives.

The story is still the best means of doing this.  It has been estimated that we remember only 10% of what we hear, 40% of what we hear and see, but 90% of what we hear, see, and do.  When we are engaged actively in a brilliant story told by a master, we hear its words, see its scenes, and interact personally with its teachings.  We are captured by it, and participate in its truth.

Third, Jesus wanted to give memorable teachings to those who might eventually recognize and accept their truth.  Many of his parables taught spiritual facts which would be offensive to those without faith.  But his stories carried this truth without eliciting negative reaction at the time, enabling the hearer to welcome such truth later: "A parable not only arrests attention at the time, it impresses the memory; and, if the hearer's heart afterwards becomes receptive, he understands the lesson which he missed when he heard" (Plummer 188; cf. Broadus 283-4, Barnes 139).

Fourth, Jesus used parables to communicate to those who were willfully blind, knowing that their rejection of his teaching would prevent their understanding its truth.  This is a difficult dimension of Jesus' parables, but one he clearly stated himself.

For instance, after giving the crowds the parable of the sower and seed (see next week's lesson), Jesus' disciples asked him, "Why do you speak to the people in parables?" (Mt 13.10).  These disciples had been scattered among the crowd listening to Jesus teach.  Now they drew closer to him and asked him this question privately (cf. Mk 4.10).  His answer: "The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them" (v. 11).  "Secrets" translates "mysteries," truth we could not know unless it is revealed to us (Broadus 287, Barclay 2.66, Barnes 140; cf. Ro 16.25-27, 1 Cor 2.7-8, 10, 11, 14).

Many in the crowd were unwilling to receive this revelation (cf. Mt 23:37, Ac 7:51), proving Calvin's statement right: "It remains a fixed principle, that the word of God is not obscure, except so far as the world darkens it by its own blindness" (2:102-3).  So Jesus spoke truth to them in parables which require a spiritual commitment they rejected.

Even his answer was given as a parable which then quoted Isaiah's condemnation of their spiritual blindness (Is 6:9,10).  Jesus' answer is an amazing grammatical construction, in which each half of his statement mirrors the other half (a device known as "chiasm").  He begins, "This is why I speak to them in parables," then adds:

  1. Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.

      2. In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah:

            3. You will be ever hearing but never understand;

               4. you will be ever seeing but never perceiving;

                   5. For this people's heart has become calloused,

                        6. they hardly hear with their ears,

                            7. and they have closed their eyes.

                            7. Otherwise they might see with their eyes,

                        6. hear with their ears,

                   5. understand with their hearts, and turn, and I would heal them.

                4. But blessed are your eyes because they see,

            3. and your ears because they hear.

        2. For I tell you the truth, many prophets and righteous men

     1. longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it (cf. Carson 306).

Jesus gave truth to his hearers in parables, so that those willing to receive and obey his teachings would remember them, and those unwilling to do so would not understand them.  Obedience is still the key to understanding biblical revelation.

How should we interpret parables?

Now we come to the practical question which must be answered before our study of parables can be profitable: how can we best interpret Jesus' parables?  Five principles are essential.  (For an excellent overview of scholarly debate and opinion on the interpretation of parables, see Carson 301-4).

First, see the parable as a story set in reality: "The parable may not be actual fact, but it could be so.  It is harmony with the nature of the case" (Robertson 1:101).  It could always have occurred in reality (Broadus 283).  Seek to hear the parable as would its first listeners, in their culture and circumstances.

Second, find the parable's main spiritual truth.  A.T. Robertson, one of the greatest Greek scholars of the modern era, cautions us: "As a rule the parables of Jesus illustrate one main point and the details are more or less incidental, though sometimes Jesus himself explains these.  When he does not do so, we should be slow to interpret the minor details.  Much heresy has come from fantastic interpretations of the parables" (Robertson 1:101-2).

"Allegory" is finding unintended spiritual truth in the details of Scripture.  It was extremely popular in the patristic and medieval church (ca. AD 300 to 1500).  And it was nowhere more employed than with parables.

For example, consider St. Augustine's interpretation of Jesus' Parable of the Good Samaritan.  Augustine is typically considered to be the greatest theologian after Paul in all of Christian history.  Nonetheless, he saw the oil and wine poured on the wounded man as his baptism.  And the inn of the story, "if ye recognize it, is the Church.  In the time present, an inn, because in life we are passing by: it will be a home, whence we shall never remove, when we shall have got in perfect health unto the kingdom of heaven.  Meanwhile receive we gladly our treatment in the inn, and weak as we still are, glory we not of sound health: lest through our pride we gain nothing else, but never for all our treatment to be cured."[1]  Nowhere did Jesus suggest that the inn is the church, and nothing could be further from the central point of his story.  If Augustine could so misinterpret a parable, so can we.

Third, seek the meaning apparent to Jesus' first hearers.  The Bible can never mean what it never meant.  Understand the language, culture, history, and setting as well as Jesus' first audience did.  Determine the subject Jesus intends to illustrate, in its context.  Regard the parable as a whole and look for common-sense truth and applications.  And interpret the details only to the degree that Jesus teaches them to us (Broadus 284).

Last, interpret the parables within Jesus' Kingdom worldview.  Jesus came to inaugurate the Kingdom on earth (cf. Mt 4.17).  As we discovered in the last semester's Bible studies, this Kingdom is a worldview, a way of seeing life and ourselves.  Jesus' parables are windows into that world and invitations to live therein.

These parables were revolutionary.  They challenged the assumptions by which the people of Jesus' day lived and believed (Boring 299).  Never forget that Jesus' stories got him killed.  They will make us uncomfortable, convict us of our sin, and challenge our cherished beliefs.  But they will also lead us into a life filled with the joy and purpose.  The parables are stepping stones into a new world.  Nothing less.

The book of Acts

Who wrote the book?

Nowhere does the book we title "Acts of the Apostles" name its author.  But reading the book, we encounter an interesting phenomenon beginning with Paul's trip west to Macedonia (Acts 16:10-17): the writer describes Paul's group as "we."  He includes himself in the missionary team again when they moved from Philippi to Troas and Ephesus (20:5-16), on their journey to Jerusalem (21:1-18), and to Rome (27:1—28:16).  So in identifying our author, we are looking for a missionary associate of Paul.

We know that Luke the physician was a close companion of the apostle.  Paul calls him a dear friend and doctor (Colossians 4:10-14), his "fellow worker" (Philemon 24), and lists him among his companions at the end of his life (2 Timothy 4:11).  In addition, early tradition names this doctor as the writer of both Acts and the Gospel of Luke.  Irenaeus (ca. A.D. 180) and the Muratorian Canon (end of 2nd century) are among the important historical sources.  By the 3rd century, the Church held the unanimous opinion that Luke is the author of our text.

So who was he?

He was not an eyewitness of Jesus' earthly ministry (cf. Luke 1:1-4, where he states that he interviewed eyewitnesses in preparing his book).  He was a man of excellent education; his Greek is the most advanced in the New Testament, and his use of medical terms is unique in the Bible (cf. Acts 3:7, where he describes in medical language the healing of the cripple).

Luke was a Gentile, probably the only Gentile writer in the New Testament (excepting perhaps the author of Hebrews).  He makes clear that the gospel is for Gentiles as well as Jews (cf. 2:21; 10:43; 13:46-48; 15:16-18; 28:28).  He shows God's care for all persons in need (cf. the beggar of ch. 3, Cornelius in ch. 10, the sailors of ch. 27).  Women are important to him and to the Kingdom (cf. Dorcas, 9:36-42; Lydia, 16:11-15).

He wrote to a world filled with skeptics against his faith.  For instance, Tacitus, the greatest Roman historian wrote (A.D. 118), "The Christians got their name from one Christus, who was executed by the sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilatus when Tiberius was emperor; and the pernicious superstition was checked for a short time, only to break out afresh—not only in Judea, the home of the plague, but in Rome itself, where all the horrible and shameful things of the world collect and find a home" (Annals 15.44).

In a very real sense, Luke is more like us than any other biblical writer.  We are not eyewitnesses to the incarnate Christ; we are Gentiles; we live in a world of modern education; we work in a global economy and share universal concerns; and we face a skeptical culture.  The God who used Luke's work to change his world will use ours in the same way, if we learn to live in the Spirit as he did.

How was Acts written?

The traditional title of our book, "Acts of Apostolic Men" or "Acts of the Apostles," was given to the work in the mid-second century.  The original text, as with all the book of the Bible, was untitled.  This title is not entirely accurate—only four apostles are mentioned in the narrative (James, 12:2; John, though he never speaks; Peter; and Paul, the primary figure from ch. 13 forward).  A much better title is "Accts of the Holy Spirit."

The book, like the Gospel of Luke, is dedicated to "Theophilus" (Lk. 1:1-4; Ac. 1:1).  His name means "lover of God," but his identity is otherwise unknown.  He may have been a Christian whose given name Luke wishes to keep secret for protection.  He might have been a high government official whom Luke wrote in attempting to defend Christians against persecution.  It is possible that he was Luke's former master (doctors were often slaves).  Perhaps Theophilus released Luke, and the physician wrote and dedicated this book and his Gospel to him in appreciation.  Or he may have been Luke's financial sponsor for his project.

The unidentified recipient of the book makes the narrative even more universally relevant.  You and I are not Romans or Philippians; no book of the Bible was written specifically to us.  But if we are a "lover of God," this book is for us.

The book seems dependent upon the Gospel of Mark, and thus would have been written after A.D. 45.  It does not record Paul's death, which occurred before Nero's demise in A.D. 68.  Tradition places the origin of the book at Antioch, Paul's headquarters.  But Rome is possible, as the book ends there, as is Ephesus, a major focus of the narrative.

What is Acts about?

The spread of the gospel: the theme of the book comes early.  Jesus' now-familiar final words before his ascension command his followers: "You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (1:8).  Luke's narrative therefore describes the spread of the gospel from Jerusalem to Rome, the "ends of the earth."

Six key phrases trace the progress of the gospel and serve as turning points in the story:

  • The Jerusalem section ends, "The word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem; and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith" (6:7).
  • The Palestine and Samaria section ends, "So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was built up; and, walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it was multiplied" (9:31).
  • The Gentile extension to Antioch and Cornelius ends, "The word of God grew and multiplied" (12:24).
  • The extension through Asia Minor and Galatia ends, "So the churches were strengthened in the faith, and they increased in numbers daily" (16:5).
  • The extension to Europe ends, "So the word of the Lord grew and prevailed mightily" (19:20).
  • The extension to Rome ends with Paul "preaching the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ quite openly and unhindered" (28:31).

The defense of the gospel: Luke wrote his narrative not only to show how the Kingdom spread from Palestine to Rome, but also to defend the truths that Kingdom proclaims.  At least six attacks against the Christian faith can be identified and refuted in the narrative:

  • The delay in Jesus' return is explained by the coming of his Spirit (ch. 2).
  • The ethics of the Christian community are vindicated from accusation (2:42-47; 4:32-35).
  • The innocence of Christian leaders is vindicated before their accusers (cf. 4:1-22).
  • The integrity of Saul/Paul is made clear before the Jews (cf. his conversion in ch. 9).
  • The divine call to the Gentiles is substantiated (chs. 10-11, 15).
  • The inherent logic of the gospel is demonstrated before Greek philosophers (17:16-34).

The explanation of the gospel: Luke wrote his narrative to defend Christians against their enemies, but also to develop Christians in their own faith commitments.  Six theological themes dominate his description of Spirit-filled faith.

First, God's historical purposes will be fulfilled.

  • The events of Acts occur by his will (cf. 2:23; 4:27-29).
  • The life of the church fulfills Scripture: the coming of the Spirit (2:17-21); the mission to the Gentiles (13:47); the incorporation of the Gentiles into the Church (15:16-18).
  • The life of the church is directed by God: the Spirit speaks to us (13:2; 15:28; 16:6); angels speak to Christian leaders (5:19); the Lord himself appears to his servants (18:9; 23:11).
  • The power of God is seen in signs and wonders performed in Jesus' name (3:16; 14:3).

Second, God's message will be proclaimed:

  • Christ fulfilled the Scriptures (2:16-21).
  • Christ is accredited by miracles (2:22).
  • He was crucified and resurrected (2:23-24).
  • He is Lord and Christ (2:25-36).
  • He saves all who call on him (2:37-41).

Third, God's ministry will be discharged:

  • Jerusalem (1:1—8:3).
  • Judea and Samaria (8:4—12:25).
  • The "uttermost parts of the earth" (13:1—28:31).

Fourth, the Church will succeed despite opposition ("Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God," 14:22):

  • Mockery at Pentecost (ch. 2).
  • Corruption of Ananias and Sapphira (ch. 5).
  • Martyrdom of Stephen (ch. 7).
  • The church persecuted and scattered (8:1-4).
  • Peter imprisoned and released by the angel (ch. 12).
  • Sorcerer Bar-Jesus (13:6-12).
  • Common rejection by Jewish leaders (cf. 13:44-47).
  • Numerous attempts on Paul's life (cf. 14:5-6, 19-20; 17:1-9; 19:23-41).
  • Paul imprisoned (cf. 16:16-40).
  • The gospel rejected by the Greeks (17:16-34).
  • Paul arrested in Jerusalem (21:27ff).
  • Paul rejected by the people and leaders (chs. 22-28).
  • Paul shipwrecked (27:13-44).
  • The book ends with Paul under arrest (28:30-31).

Fifth, Gentiles are included among the people of God:

  • All are included in salvation (2:21).
  • Gentiles are accepted by the Father (chs. 10-11, 15).
  • All races and societies are reached through missionary journeys (chs. 13-20).
  • The gospel is preached in Rome itself (ch. 28 fulfills 9:15).

Sixth, the Church is living and active:

  • The Holy Spirit is active (throughout the book).
  • The people are united in ministry (cf. 2:42-47; 4:32-37).
  • The Lord blesses his people with continued growth and progress (cf. 2:47).

Jesus began his public ministry with this proclamation: "The time has come.  The kingdom of God is near.  Repent and believe the good news!" (Mark 1:15).  He ended his earthly ministry with the same theme and passion: "He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God" (Acts 1:3).  The kingdom of God was his focus and passion.  It must be ours as well.

The epistles

The form of ancient letters:

  • Name of the writer
  • Name of the recipient
  • Greeting
  • Prayer wish or thanksgiving
  • Body
  • Final greeting and farewell.

Paul's letters all follow this general format, and were written in response to specific first-century situations.  We must understand their original task before we can relate it to our context and needs.

Determining the historical context:

  • Recipients and their issues
  • The writer's attitudes toward the recipients and their situation
  • Specific statements regarding the occasion of the letter
  • The letters' natural, logical divisions.

Literary context: "think paragraphs."  What is the point of each paragraph?  What is its content?  Why was it written?

The book of Revelation

Who was the author?

Many editions of the Bible confuse us with their title: "The Revelation of John."  The titles of the biblical books were added centuries after the books were written; in this case, the appended title is wrong.

The first five words of the text settle the question: "The revelation of Jesus Christ" (1:1).  The book is the revelation of Jesus, given to John for him to give to Jesus' churches (1:1b).  Jesus is the real author of Revelation.

What difference does it make that Jesus is the author of this book?  What do we know about him which is relevant to this book?

  • He knows the future, so these predictions can be trusted
  • He has the power to bring these things to pass (he defeated death, storms, etc.).
  • He cares about us enough to reveal these promises and offer this hope to us.
  • He walks with us as we experience the suffering predicted here (cf. weeping at the grave of Lazarus).
  • He has suffered himself, and knows the pain we feel.

This is not the naïve predicting of a fortuneteller, or the weak assurances of a frail human being.  This is the revelation of Jesus Christ himself to us.  So we will read it with fascination and trust it with confidence.

Who was the writer?

The author of Revelation was Jesus Christ.  However, this text was first given to a man named John (1:1) who served as the writer.  Who was this writer, and why does his identity matter?

Interpreters of the Bible consider two kinds of evidence in determining who wrote a given book: "internal" and "external."  Internal evidence comes from the book itself; external evidence comes from other historical records and sources.

What do we know from internal evidence about John?

  • He is named four times (1.1, 1.4, 1.9, 22.8).
  • He calls himself "your brother and companion" in 1.9.
  • He is on the island of Patmos "because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus" (1.9).

That is all we know internally.  From this evidence alone, what can we conclude?  He is a Christian ("your brother").  He is suffering for his faith, thus likely a visible Christian.  He is exiled on Patmos, a prison colony.  And so he will understand our sufferings, our pain, as one who goes through them with us.

The external evidence is helpful: from earliest times the near-unanimous opinion of scholars was the John the Beloved Disciple wrote this text.  Justin Martyr (ca. AD 100-165) connected the book with "a certain man of us, whose name was John, one of the apostles of Christ, who prophesied, by a revelation that was made to him" (Dialogue with Trypho 81).  Irenaeus (born AD 130) and most others in the early Christian era believed that John the Disciple wrote the book.

Some point to differences in the Greek style of Revelation when compared with the Gospel of John and the Letters of John, and suggest that someone other than the Beloved Disciple wrote the book.  But changed circumstances behind the writing of Revelation could account easily for these differences.

Here's what we know about John the Beloved Disciple and his circumstances: he was Jesus' best friend and author of the Fourth Gospel: "One of them, the disciple whom Jesus loved, was reclining next to him" (John 13.23); "Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them" (John 21.20); "This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down.  We know that his testimony is true" (v. 24).

He pastored in Ephesus, and knew the other six churches as well, likely preaching in them as a circuit rider.  The seven churches were all satellites of Ephesus, in a sense, and all part of that pastor's wider area of responsibility.

He had been exiled on Patmos (1.9).  According to Jerome (died AD 419/420), this occurred in AD 94, when John was quite elderly.  Patmos is a barren, rocky island forty miles off the coast of Asia Minor in the Mediterranean Sea, 10 miles long by 5 miles wide and crescent-shaped.  This island was where Rome often banished notorious criminals.

Sir William Ramsey says that John's banishment would have been "preceded by scourging, . . . marked by perpetual fetters, scanty clothing, insufficient food, sleep on the bare ground in a dark prison, and work under the lash of military overseers."  This was the Auschwitz of the first century.  And so John received the Revelation when he needed its hope as much as we do.  He will give it to us as the gift of a fellow sufferer.

Who were the readers?

The prologue is clear: "John to the seven churches that are in Asia" (1.4); "Write in a book what you see and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea" (1.10-11).  We know a good deal about their circumstances.  And none of it is good.

Rome was on the attack.  Domitian, emperor from AD 81-96, was a cold-blooded murderer and egotist.  He commanded the citizens everywhere to worship him as God.  When he arrived at the theatre in Rome with his wife, the soldiers made the crowd rise and shout, "All hail to our Lord and his Lady!"  He made subjects worship him as God or die.

Jewish leaders were a threat.  Justin Martyr said of them: "You displayed great zeal in publishing throughout the land bitter and dark and unjust things against the only blameless and righteous Light sent by God" (Dialogue with Trypho 17).

According to an early record of the martyrdom of Polycarp, the aged Smyrnan Christian leader, "the whole multitude both of the heathen and the Jews, who dwelt at Smyrna, cried out with uncontrollable fury" in demanding that Polycarp die by fire.  the crowds even gathered wood for the fire, "the Jews especially, according to custom, eagerly assisting them in it" (Martyrdom of Polycarp 12, 13).  And their persecution increased the Roman problem, as Rome saw them as a separate group from the Jews.

Internal division was increasing and life-threatening.  The Ephesian Christians had forsaken Christ, their first love.  Believers at Pergamum and Thyatira were compromising with false teachings and immorality.   The church at Sardis was "asleep" and dying spiritually.  The Laodiceans were self-sufficient and proud.

Thus the first readers of these letters were facing a future as uncertain as our own.  What would their external circumstances bring?  What would come of their internal, moral, spiritual problems?  We face nothing in our future more difficult than what they faced in theirs.

How should we read Revelation?

Eight positions have found hermeneutical advocates:

The Preterist: views the events recorded in Revelation have already been fulfilled.

Continuous Historical: Revelation is a forecast of the entire history of the church; this view attempts to correlate passages in the book with specific historical events.  For instance, Barnes' Notes comments on Revelation 8.8-9: "A third of the sea turned into blood, a third of the living creatures in the sea died, and a third of the ships were destroyed."  Barnes locates this event with the invasion of Rome by Genseric, at the head of the Vandals, in AD 428-468, and writes four pages to defend his position.

Theological Principles: Revelation is a religious philosophy of life which demonstrates how things turn out in a world where evil seems to be in control but God is the actual ruler.

Social Interpretation: Revelation teaches a particular social agenda, in which God's Kingdom overcomes the existing, hostile, godless powers.

Dispensational Premillennialism: a literal approach wherever possible, separating Israel from the Church, and teaching a literal rapture, 7-year tribulation, and 1000-year millennial rule of Christ on earth.

Historic Premillennialism: no rapture or 7-year tribulation.

Postmillennialism: Christ will return after the millennium.

Amillennialism: the prophecies of a future millennium are highly symbolic; seven sections move in parallel with one another.

 

[1] Augustine, Sermon 81, Sermons on New Testament Lessons, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, first series (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, repr. 1991) 6:503.