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Rightly Understanding God’s Word: Context of Genre, Revelation, by Craig S. Keener

One example of newspaper hermeneutics involves interpretations of the “kings of the east” in Rev 16:12. In the early twentieth century, many North American interpreters thought of the “kings of the east” as the Ottoman Empire, headquartered in Turkey. Of course, the seven churches of western Asia Minor could never have conceived of kings of the “east” as Turkey, since Asia Minor is modern Turkey! But to western interpreters over a century ago, the Turks seemed the most threatening “eastern” empire on their horizon. After the Ottoman Empire was dismembered at the end of World War I, the new threatening “eastern” empire was imperial Japan (an empire that also threatened Korea, China, the Philippines and the rest of Asia). After imperial Japan was defeated at the end of World War II, western interpreters shifted the title to Communist China.

Revelation must mean something relevant for our lives today.

The only common factor in any of these interpretations was that these hostile kings were to the “east” of those interpreting the passage; sometimes the interpretations may also reveal some anti-Asian sentiments, which are unbiblical and ungodly. How would John’s first readers have understood “kings of the east”? To everyone in the Roman Empire, and especially in Asia Minor, the greatest military threat was the Parthian Empire. The Parthian king rode a white horse, and claimed to be “king of kings and lord of lords.” The definitive boundary between the Roman and Parthian empires was the River Euphrates (cf. 9:14; 16:12). Although they ruled in the region of Iran and Iraq, the geography is less important than the image: the most feared enemies of the Empire would invade it. In the end, it was northern barbarians rather than an eastern empire that did the Roman Empire in, but Rome was overrun by invaders. Yet conquest remains a frightening warning of judgment in any generation, and from any location (6:1-4).

Other prophetic interpretation errors abound. Jehovah’s Witnesses, a cult, wrongly predicted Christ’s return or other end-time events for 1874, 1878, 1881, 1910, 1914, 1918, 1925, 1975, and 1984 . Even Bible-loving Christians, however, have made mistakes in setting dates, contrary to our Lord’s teaching (Mk 13:32). The church father Hippolytus concluded that the Lord would come by the year 500. Saint Martin of Tours believed that the Antichrist was already alive in his day; Martin died in 397, so if the final Antichrist is still alive, he possesses remarkable longevity!

Others have offered “prophetic” interpretations of the news uncritically. Some prophecy teachers in the 1920s embraced a work called The Protocols of the Elders of Zion as confirming their teaching; the work is now known to be a forgery used by the Nazis. Many Christians in the 1970s worried about a computer in Belgium called “the beast”—unaware that the computer existed only in a novel! Around 1980 I heard a prophecy teacher explain that the Soviet Union would, in the next year or two, invade Iran, take control of the world’s oil supply, and precipitate a world war. Needless to say, his prediction is running behind schedule at best.

Various books (including Richard Kyle, The Last Days Are Here Again [Baker, 1998]; Dwight Wilson, Armageddon Now! The Premillenarian Response to Russia and Israel Since 1917 [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1977]) have documented countless claims made by prophecy teachers through history, and especially in the past 150 years, about various contemporary events. These teachers were occasionally right (about as often as astrologers), but were wrong the vast majority of times.

Below is a brief sampling of mistakes in recent history, borrowed from the introduction to my own commentary on Revelation (Revelation, NIV Application Commentary [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000]):


  • Christopher Columbus voyaged to the New World hoping to help precipitate the biblical new heaven and earth.
  • During the Reformation, Melchior Hoffman allowed himself to be arrested in Strassburg on the belief that it was about to become the New Jerusalem.
  • Also during the Reformation, Thomas Müntzer aided the Peasant’s Revolt of 1524, believing that it would precipitate the final judgment; the peasants lost, and Müntzer was executed. In those days, end-time speculations died hard—sometimes literally!
  • When King James I persecuted early Baptist leaders in England they feared that they were enduring the final tribulation
  • Many Americans believed that King George III (probably one of England’s most pious rulers, as John Wesley recognized) was the final Antichrist.
  • Many northern ministers expected the U.S. Civil War to establish God’s kingdom in their favor; some ministers expected God to weigh in on the opposite side.
  • William Booth, an apostolic leader in the late nineteenth century whose Salvation Army was doing great works for God, believed that the Salvation Army he had founded “had been chosen by God as the chief agency to finally and fully establish” God’s kingdom.
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Category: Biblical Studies, Winter 2006

About the Author: Craig S. Keener, Ph.D. (Duke University), is F. M. and Ada Thompson Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. He is author of many books, including Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Baker Academic, 2011), the bestselling IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, Gift and Giver: The Holy Spirit for Today, and commentaries on Acts, Matthew, John, Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, and Revelation. In addition to having written more than seventy academic articles, several booklets and more than 150 popular-level articles, Craig is is the New Testament editor (and author of most New Testament notes) for the The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. He is married to Dr. Médine Moussounga Keener, who is from the Republic of Congo, and together they have worked for ethnic reconciliation in North America and Africa. Craig and Médine wrote Impossible Love: The True Story of an African Civil War, Miracles and Hope against All Odds (Chosen, 2016) to share their story. Twitter: @keener_craig

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