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

God’s presence is not just a promise for the future New Jerusalem, but also for believers in heaven.  Examine the furnishings of heaven in Revelation’s scenes of it: for example, the ark (11:19); an altar of sacrifice (6:9); an altar of incense (8:3-5; 9:13; 14:18); lamps (4:5); a sea (15:2); and harps (5:8; 14:2; 15:2). How is heaven portrayed? It appears like a temple (the Old Testament temple had all of the above-mentioned furnishings). Thus it is not surprising that we find people worshiping in heaven; Revelation portrays it symbolically as a temple to remind us of our main activity there. We are never as close to heaven on this earth as when we worship God, an activity we will continue in a purer and fuller way in his presence forever.

In 6:9-11 we read of souls “under the altar,” martyrs who died to spread the message of Jesus. Why are they “under the altar”? The blood of some sacrifices was poured out at the base of the altar in the Old Testament (Lev 4:7). These servants of God, by dying for the gospel, share in Christ’s sufferings. As the lamb in 5:5-6 was sacrificed, so these servants of Christ have become living sacrifices with him.

Let us take one more example, perhaps the most controversial one possible, namely, the length of Revelation’s tribulation. Are the 1260 days (11:2-3; 12:6, 14; 13:5) literal or figurative? Whether they are literal or figurative, several factors warn us not to assume, before investigating, that Revelation must mean them literally. Revelation gets this length of time from similar figures in Daniel (e.g., Dan 7:25; 12:7, 11); but it may address a different issue than Daniel does. In Daniel, this period involves an abomination of desolation (Dan 11:31; 12:11); Jesus shows that at least one of these happened before Revelation was written, within the generation Jesus spoke of it (Matt 24:15, 34; Mk 13:14, 30). (Those who claim that “generation” means “race” there are making up their own meanings for Greek words; the term always means “generation” in the Gospels.)

Daniel’s literal abomination had already been fulfilled before Revelation was written (Revelation was written over two decades after the temple’s destruction!) Further, Daniel’s chronology rests on a symbolic reapplication of Jeremiah’s “70 years” prophecy, after the 70 years were nearly over (Dan 9:2-3, 24). If Daniel could symbolically reapply a number in Jeremiah, why could not Revelation reapply a number in Daniel? Many of John’s Jewish contemporaries also reapplied Daniel’s period of time symbolically, so everyone would have understood this method if Revelation followed it.

This would not mean that Daniel was not literal on this point (as we said, at least one of Daniel’s abominations was fulfilled literally before Revelation was written, according to Jesus); only that Revelation applies the number differently. Because Revelation often uses numbers (like 12,000 and 144) symbolically, it is possible that Revelation borrows Daniel’s number to tell us less about the length of time than the kind of time. But so far we have only argued that it is possible, not that Revelation actually uses the period symbolically. How can we know whether it employs the number symbolically or literally?

In Revelation 12:1-6, the dragon (the devil) opposes a woman and the child born from her. When the child is caught up to rule the nations with a rod of iron, the woman fled into the wilderness for 1260 days. Almost everyone agrees that the child refers to Jesus (cf. 12:17; 19:15); if so, the 1260 days seem to start when Jesus was exalted to heaven (over 60 years before Revelation was written). It begins with the first coming and ends with the second coming. For Judaism, the final tribulation was the period directly before the end (sometimes three and a half, or seven, or forty, or even 400 years), but we Christians recognize that we are already in the end-time. The coming Messiah has already come once, and we who live between the first and second coming live in the end-time, always awaiting our Lord’s return. Just as the lion is the lamb, Christ’s going and return frame the tribulation; all Jewish expectations take on new meaning in light of Christ’s coming.

It is perfectly likely that there will in fact be further intensification of tribulation just before the end, but Revelation’s point, at least in this passage, has a broader relevance to us than that. Our present time in the world is a time of tribulation, but we can take courage, because Jesus has overcome the world (Jn 16:33). The woman and her other children were in the wilderness (12:6, 17), which tells us about the nature of the in-between time. Israel lived in the wilderness between their redemption from Egypt and their inheritance in the promised land. By Christ’s exaltation we, too, have begun to experience salvation; Satan can no longer accuse us (12:10); but we must still endure in this world until Christ’s return (12:11-12).

Revelation is not meant to be an obscure book. It may not be meant to satisfy our curiosity regarding all end-time details, but it certainly is a very practical book that presents God’s demands on our lives. Thus it opens by promising a blessing to those who heed and obey its message—which presumes that we can at least understand enough of it to obey it!

There is not space here to address whether this is the only sense of the tribulation period in Revelation (I address the issue at greater length in relevant passages in my commentary on Revelation). But the present “end-time” does appear to be the point in chapter 12, and the New Testament often does view the present age as the end-time period. Ever since the first apostles, we have been in the “last days” (Acts 2:17; 1 Tim 4:1; 2 Tim 3:1; Jms 5:3; 1 Pet 1:20; 2 Pet 3:3). Jewish people spoke of the end-time as the “birth-pangs of the Messiah,” but Jesus taught that the birth pangs have already started, whereas the end will come only when we have finished our mission of preaching the gospel to all nations (Matt 24:6-8, 14). Paul declared that even creation is already experiencing birth pangs with us to bring forth the new world (Rom 8:22-23). Knowing that we live in the end-time should affect how we live. Since Pentecost we have lived in the era of the outpouring of the Spirit; we live in an era begun by Jesus and to be finished by him. Therefore we should keep focused on who sent us, what our mission is, and what and whom we are really to be looking for.


Conclusion for Context of Genre

A general principle for interpreting any text is to seek to understand it in light of its full context—the whole book in which it occurs (its themes and plot or argument) and its historical background. Another principle is to take into account the kind of writing a work is; thus, for example, we read Mark as an ancient biography, Acts as a work of ancient history, Isaiah as a book of prophecies (mostly poetic in form), and Psalms as a collection of prayer and praise songs. In the same way, we read Revelation as prophecy or apocalypse (which would include many symbols). Each kind of literature has some special characteristics (for instance, we should interpret most narratives literally, but recognize many symbolic figures of speech in poetry and prophecy).

Once one has mastered the skills mentioned above, one needs outside resources only for help with background (like The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament; for many details, the new International Standard Bible Encyclopedia) and with words or phrases in Greek and Hebrew that might clarify the translations. But this course has focused especially on developing the skills the interpreter needs before pressing deeper. They may be summarized as literary context, cultural context, and context of genre (kind of writing).




Coming in Next Issue: The Reader’s “Social Location

Professor Keener’s course concludes by asking, how do we apply Scripture in our own culture and situations today?

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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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