A NEW GOLD RUSH – WHO WILL STEP UP TO THE CHALLENGE?
Awake from his nap, Jason peered over his rusty, battle scared metal coffee mug. Jason watched the six hundred gold miners feverishly dig pot holes into the sandy and gravel bed of the creek. Each miner searching for easy gold. It is September 1851. Jason sat on his log chair on the edge of the shoreline in the bend of an old creek near Balarat, Australia. He had heard that the old miners deemed this spot, “Golden Point.”
Jason reflected over the holes he personally had dug. Most of his holes seldom reached a depth of more than three feet before hard clay was encountered. How frustrated Jason felt as contemplated moving to another area to dig yet another three-foot hole in search of that elusive gold. His meager tools consisted of a pan, a cradle and a puddling trough. Most of his miner friends as well as himself barely scratched out a mere half an ounce of gold a day – if they were blessed.
Jason, like hundreds of other miners before him, abandoned claim after claim here at Golden Point. Every direction Jason’s eyes scanned, pot holes stretched across the horizon. He pondered on the thought, This hard clay NEVER produces gold. To reach the hard clay was to reach the end of the search for easy gold in this location.
Rumors had flooded the camp the evening before and most of the miners broke camp heading for richer fields. More and more claims lay abandoned until the old bend in the creek. Jason thought it looked like a cemetery where someone forget to fill in the graves.
Jason was startled from his day dream by his older brother, John. “Dig deeper! Today, we must dig deeper! We have to dig deeper than anyone else ever has! I believe the best gold lays at the bottom of this stubborn clay.”
These hopeful admonitions of John’s broke the early morning stillness. The Cavanagh brothers vowed over the last evenings late supper of warmed beans that they would dig deep for gold. As far as they knew, no other miners before them had been bold enough to dig through the hard clay. John and Jason theorized that century’s old rich gold lay below in an old creek bed.
The brothers selected an abandoned claim and began to dig the hard clay. The Cavanagh brothers dug with abandon. Inch by inch the brothers dug, only to find another inch of hard clay. The brothers dug through blisters and through blood. Jason wondered if all this effort would pay off or if the other miners would be correct? Would there be no end to the hard clay?
Jason and John admitted they had dug the first day without a hint of reward. The second day, the brothers determined to keep digging as more miners left the Golden Point area for those richer finds upstream. Some miners laughed and mocked the Cavanagh brothers for their persistence in digging the hard clay so deep.
With resistance like two tug of war teams pulling a rope in opposite directions, the clay put up a ferocious fight. But the hard clay continued to slowly yield its hard contents as John and Jason repeatedly dug and rested. First John would dig, then Jason dug. The process repeated itself so many times the brothers lost count.
As the sun began dropping behind the horizon on the second day, and after two back breaking days of digging the hard clay, the brother reached between 6 and 7 feet. The Cavanagh brothers dared not stop because of dark. Somehow, innately they knew they were about to hit pay dirt. They dug until their lights died.
Finally, exhausted, John and Jason forced themselves to try to sleep. Sleep proved to be elusive to Jason. His mind could not escape what he hoped to see on the third day. In the early light of dawn, the brothers surveyed their work and prayed this day would be the day gold would be theirs. Sore and fatigued the boys went back to excavating. Shortly, Jason stopped digging. He hit something. It was a gravel layer. He lowered his light into the hole so he could see better. He spied it. A large cache of gold. He yelled for John.
Jason and John Cavanagh victoriously walked into Geelong, Australia on September 20, 1851. The brothers both carried saddlebags filled with 30 pounds of gold. News spread as far as Adelaide and Hobart in a very short time. Every able-bodied man hurried to the Golden Point to dig through the hard clay. Jason and John were set for life. Digging the hard clay proved worth the effort and the ridicule.
How about today’s believer and the book of Revelation? What about you?
The gold of Revelation may be like digging in the hard clay, but the rich rewards await the faithful, diligent, and tenacious interpreter. Gold can be found in the most difficult places.
The tools we need to dig the riches of God’s gold from Revelation include REMEMBERING the historical context and READING with purpose and awareness.
REMEMBER THE HISTORICAL CONTEXT OF THE REVELATION
THE EARLY CHURCH’S EXPERIENCE
Early Christians experienced a growing and intensifying persecution for their faith (Revelation 1:9). Specifically, the Ephesian church endured suffering and hardship (Revelation 2:3). Even the church at Smyrna stayed faithful through slander and adversity (Revelation 2: 9-10).
In the city of Pergamum, Antipas, a faithful believer died for his faith. The church with little strength, Philadelphia, stayed faithful to Christ and did not renounce His name (Revelation 3:8).
John, the Apostle, mentioned the faithful martyrs who were slain because of the Word of God and their testimonies in Revelation 6:9. Revelation rehearses the frequent deaths of the saints (Revelation 13; 16:5-6; 17:6; 18:24, 19:2 and 20:4).
THE ROMAN EMPEROR DOMITIAN’S RULE
The Roman Emperor Domitian (A D 81 – 96) appears to begin this persecution against Christians. Roman historians, Pliny, Tacitus and Suetonius describe Domitian as “savage, cruel, devious, sexually immoral, mad, and evil.”
Suetonius states that when his brother Titus fell seriously ill, Domitian ordered the attendants to leave him for dead before Titus breathed his last breath. Suetonius continues to paint a demented picture of Domitian as he says that he would stay in his room alone for hours and often would catch flies only to stab them with the needle-sharp pen.
Pliny the Younger, (ca AD 61-113) describes Domitian’s palace:
[It is the] the place where . . . that fearful monster built his defenses with untold terrors, where lurking in his den he licked up the blood of his murdered relatives or emerged to plot the massacre and destruction of his most distinguished subjects. Menaces and horror were the sentinels at his doors . . . always he sought darkness and mystery, and only emerged from the desert of his solitude to create another (Pan. 48.3-5).
Pliny continued to describe Domitian in his Panegyricus 33.4:
He (Domitian) was a madman, blind to the true meaning of his position, who used the arena for collecting charges of high treason, who felt himself slighted and scorned if we failed to pay homage to his gladiators, taking any criticism of them to himself and seeing insults to his own godhead and divinity; who deemed himself the equal of gods yet raised his gladiators to his equal.
Domitian demanded to be called dominus et deus noster (our lord and god). For a believer to refuse to say words of loyalty and allegiance to the emperor was equal to treason. This brings trouble. He built a huge temple dedicated to himself at Ephesus.
Christians suffered at the hands of Roman Emperor Domitian, partly due to a misunderstanding related to the practices of the Christian faith. Christians were misunderstood and vigorously rooted out. All a Christian needed to do was to worship the pagan gods and the imperial cult to be freed. Some Christians did just that.
Others refused to recant their faith in Jesus Christ. All a suspected Christian had to do to escape horrible treatment, and maybe, death, was to sprinkle a few sands of incense in the eternal flame burning in front of the statute of the emperor. Those who refused might be burned alive, killed by lions in the arena or crucified.
THE PURPOSE OF REVELATION AS HISTORICAL CONTEXT
Revelation presents those facing such futures with a brighter future and a realistic world view. Revelation stresses the need for believers to gain an eternal view of the world. It presents the reader with the opportunity to worship the true God with his host in heaven. It helps the reader see suffering as triumph in light of the future glories presented by the Lord of heaven.
Revelation is seen as comfort to Smyrna and Philadelphia who experience suffering now. It stands as a warning to the churches of Thyatira and Sardis, churches that are already dead. The judgments found in Revelation come as invitations for the world to repent.
SEVEN STEPS TO READING REVELATION WITH PURPOSE AND AWARENESS
- Seek to set aside your preconceptions, presuppositions, and preunderstandings.
Preconceptions, presuppositions and preunderstandings color and possibly taint what we believe the biblical passage to mean. Often, the reader uses these without any awareness or evaluation of them. Always be willing to read the text afresh and recognize that your former understandings may need to be altered or deleted. Retain a teachable spirit and mind. Let the Word have supremacy in interpretation.
2. Strive to understand the passage as the first readers understood the passage.
Never is the goal to understand what the text means to you! John’s intended meaning is the goal of your study. Refuse to ignore those first Christians and the setting in which they lived. Begin with the question, “What did John, the apostle, intend for his first readers to understand?” While parts of the book do gaze into the future, remember that you, the interpreter, must see that future meant to Revelation’s first readers. How would they have understand Revelation’s message?
3. Resist the temptation to put everything into a tight chronological order.
Remember Revelation’s purpose is to transform the first reader’s worldview from one of the temporal world to God’s eternal rule. Thus, Revelation will not always fit tightly into a chronological line. Sometimes the picture maybe compared to a telescope. The first part allows for a certain object to be brought into focus. The second extension shows more detail than the first extension while the third extension provides greater detail than either the first of the second.
Read Revelation 6:12-17 and the sixth seal account. This seal culminates with the great day of judgment. When the seventh seal is opened (Revelation 11:15-19), the end of the world is in focus again with the judging of the nations. Additionally, the first bowl in Revelation 16:1-2 shows another set of judgments. Revelation 19-22 presents another detailed picture of end time judgments. Thus, more specific information is gained from each extension of the telescope.
4. Separate what is intended literally and what is intended symbolically
As always, John’s intended meaning is key. John uses pictorial or symbolic language to convey historical reality. This implies that pictorial language needs not be literal. The genre of symbolic language needs to follow that genre.
Would you literally expect to see a woman sitting on seven hills if you read Revelation 17:9? Why not? We take the symbol seriously, but not literally. First century believers naturally took it to refer to Rome.
5. Seek to correspond John’s definition of an image in one place with subsequent places.
Two clear examples include John’s reference to the son of Man in Revelation 1:17 which is Christ and in Revelation 1:20 the golden lampstands are the churches. The reader needs to note these clear definitions. When Revelation 11:3-4 refers to lampstands again, it seems natural to understand that as referring to a church as well.
A Word of caution – be aware that John uses precise definitions with some images and he is fluid with other images. Check out his usages of star in Revelation 1:16, 20; 2:1; 3:1 with 8:10-12 as well as 22:16.
6. Study the Old Testament with its corresponding historical context and symbols.
How can the modern reader ever figure out what the various symbols refer to if John did not provide the correct definition? Two answers are available for the reader. One has been covered earlier with the historical context. The second is the Old Testament.
While Revelation possesses NO DIRECT Old Testament quote, it does contain more Old Testament references that any other New Testament book. The Old Testament shows up in almost 70% of Revelations verses (Craig S. Keener, Revelation, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 33. The four major Old Testament books are Psalms, Daniel, Isaiah and Ezekiel.
7. Separate the main idea from the surrounding details.
The basic strategy to understand Revelation is to begin with the big picture and work towards the details. This is just opposite the normal manner of biblical interpretation. Locate the major theological ideas of Revelation and write them in one succinct sentence. Keep the main point of the section in view always.
Now, if you had not understood the need for hard, persistent, and consistent work in understanding Revelation, you should now. Revelation will yield its rich gold when the interpreter persists through the hard clay. Remember the first century world context and the seven steps to reading Revelation.
What is your preferred manner to interpret Revelation and why?