26 December 2018

Taking Revelation’s Target Audience Seriously

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        The opening paragraph of Revelation presents the book as a record of a vision given to John by Jesus. Its contents are labeled “the prophecy,” singular, and summarized as “what things that must come to pass soon.”
        John was commanded to write the entire vision in a scroll and to send it to seven churches located in cities of the Roman province of Asia (1:11). The book in its entirety is addressed to seven churches that existed in the latter part of the first century. At the outset, Jesus proclaims blessings to “he who reads and they who hear the words of the prophecy.”
        The first vision includes seven individual letters addressed to the messenger of each of the seven churches. They include praise, correction, warnings, and promises for the Christians of the seven churches. Each ends with the admonishment: “Hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches,” plural. 
The seven churches do not drop out of the picture after chapter 3; the promises for overcoming Christians found in the seven letters have verbal links to the book’s final vision of New Jerusalem.
        The exhortation to hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches occurs again in the middle of the book (13:9-10, “If anyone has an ear: let him hear”). And the seven churches are mentioned again at the close of the book (22:16, “I, Jesus, have sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches”).
        This does not mean Revelation was only applicable to the Christians of the seven churches of Asia in the first century. There were more than seven churches in Asia and dozens if not hundreds throughout the Roman Empire. The use of plural terms like “churches” or descriptions of saints redeemed from every nation, tribe, tongue, and people anticipate a wider audience. Yet the seven churches of Asia remain a part of that audience, however large it is in the end.
        The number seven is used symbolically to represent completion. Seven churches were chosen rather than another number because they represent a larger whole, though they are included in that whole. The concluding admonishment of each of the letters to hear what the spirit is saying to the “churches” implies a broader audience, likewise the global scope of many of the book’s visions and its conclusion with the promised New Creation.
        Though the message is to a broader group than the seven churches of Asia, any interpretation that makes them irrelevant to the book’s message does not do justice to the Revelation’s self-portrayal. This is a fundamental problem with most “futurist” readings of Revelation that insist its prophecies are applicable primarily if not exclusively to History’s final generation. If true, then the churches of Asia and the exhortations to them are little more than props, a literary fiction used to portray an entirely different reality.
        Ignoring the historical setting creates real problems. For example, the claim that the promise to keep the church of Philadelphia “out of the hour of trial” refers to a “rapture” and escape from the final “tribulation” in a distant future renders the promise meaningless to the Philadelphians (3:10).
        Regardless of what happens in the future, no Christians from ancient Philadelphia will ever experience this final “tribulation” or escape from it on account of death and the passage of time. Neither will the Christians from the other churches of Asia.
        This and similar passages must first be interpreted in their original historical context. What was the imminent “hour of trial” facing the church at Philadelphia? How did Jesus keep them from it? To what did Jesus refer when he told the church at Smyrna that they faced “tribulation ten days?” Who and what were the Nicolaitans, “Jezebel” or the “teachings of Balaam?”
        For much of Church history the book of Revelation has been relegated to the sidelines; even ignored. This is a tragedy since it is a message of direct relevance to all Christians who live between the day John received and the arrival of New Jerusalem. If the book’s message is to be recovered, we must start first by taking Revelation’s original historical situation at face value.

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