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

We cannot afford the space to debate for or against this view here, but merely wish to point out that most people who hold this view are unaware that no one in church history held this view before 1830. Some today believe that this view is clear; but Christians read the Bible for over 1700 years without anyone, so far as we know, noticing it! (And that, even though most Christians through history believed that they were already in the end-times, and many, like many Christians for the past few generations, that they were in the final generation.) Each view cites verses to defend its position, but each of these verses must be examined in context to be sure of its meaning. That includes views that are widely held today, like dispensationalism; and we should remember that such views widely held today were rarer or (in this case) unheard of in earlier history. For whatever it is worth, the majority of scholars committed to Scripture today are either amillennial or non-dispensational (generally post-tribulational) premillennial, though there are good scholars with other views.

Many readers schooled in a particular tradition may be surprised to learn how many people they respect in church history have held other interpretations.

In my opinion, premillennialists have an easier time explaining Revelation 20 itself, but amillennialists other end-time passages (for many, the debate then becomes whether to interpret the more explicit but single text in light of the many but less explicit ones, or the reverse). Since we will all know which view is correct by the time it happens, I see little point in arguing about it. Certainly it is foolish to break fellowship with other Christians over these matters! Why then do I raise the issue? Only to help us be more charitable to those who hold different interpretations of Revelation than we do. If we fight with our brothers and sisters over every single passage we interpret differently, then we will be out of fellowship with most of Christ’s body. The true church is united on the essential matters necessary for following Jesus, but beyond that it is our unity and love that shows the world God’s character (John 13:34-35; 17:20-23).

The real issues for us here must be the practical ones that our methods above can help us fathom. Some issues are very practical but no real Christian disputes them: for example, we all recognize that we must be ready for our Lord to return. But other issues are practical and often missed by interpreters who lack access to cultural background or whole-book context methods. Of these I offer a sampling below.


The Use of Symbolism?

Some people argue that we should take everything in the book of Revelation literally. But Revelation is full of images that we cannot take literally. Was a woman literally clothed with the sun in 12:1 (with the moon literally under her feet and twelve stars on her head)? Is Babylon literally the genetic mother of every prostitute in the world (17:5)? Revelation even tells us what some of its symbols represent, making clear that the book includes many symbols (1:20). God could create the sort of monsters described in Revelation 9, but they resemble locusts in Joel’s prophecy, where they are simply a poetic description of either a locust invasion or an invading army (or a combination of both).

The true church is united on the essential matters necessary for following Jesus, but beyond that it is our unity and love that shows the world God’s character.

“Then take as much as possible literally,” comes the reply. But why should this be the case? Is it not better to be consistent with how we interpret the rest of Revelation, which clearly has many symbols? The appropriate way to read narratives is normally to read them literally, but as we noted above, that is not the best way to read Hebrew poetry, nor the Old Testament prophecies given in poetic form. Neither is it the way to read New Testament prophecies that use the same mode of symbolic communication as many Old Testament prophecies. Some statements may be literal (we argue that the seven churches are, for example, literal churches), but others (like the woman clothed with the sun) are not, far more often than in narrative. Some scholars, pointing to a Greek word for “signified” or “communicated” in Rev 1:1, even suggest that one of the very terms used for revealing the message to John suggests that it came in symbols. (A related term for “sign” might bear this sense in 12:1, 3; 15:1.)

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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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