Revelation 1:1-3

May 20, 2008 | 19 comments
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So much for one post per chapter.

First, a little background. There is a general consensus among scholars that Revelation was written in about 95CE, which puts it during the reign of Domitian, a persecutor of Christians. The book is a strong polemic against Rome, as we’ll see. It addresses the discrepancy between God’s power and the church’s weakness. The author is named John and while this is traditionally believed to be the same person who wrote the Gospel of John, this is not something that we can prove either way. As is always the case, the title of the book is not part of the original text but a latter addition. (Many scholars believe Rev 1:1 was the original title.) There is no scholarly consensus regarding an overall structure of the book, but there is a clear structure to certain sections, which we’ll see as we go.

As one scholar said, “the revelation is not abstract, but pictorial” (Beale, NICGNT). In other words, Revelation is painting a picture for John (and for the reader) of reality. But that doesn’t imply that the picture painted is reality, but rather that it represents reality. Here’s an example one of my professors used once: imagine a painting of man sitting in his library. The flames of the fireplace form haunted faces. The man is cast in shadows. The dog at his feet is snarling. Other shadows in the room appear to be ghosts. Is this an accurate representation of reality? If accurate means “historical,” then, no, probably not. But if the subject of the painting is Adolf Hitler and the goal of the artist was to portray his nature, then the painting is accurate even if it is not historical. Similarly, the moon does not need to turn to hemoglobin to mean that the Book of Revelation is accurate. Like parables, the use of symbols signifies judgment on the majority of the audience (but not you, Ardis) that doesn’t “get” them. Note that the immediate audience of the book is described in chapters 2-3 (so more on them later).

Revelation has more Old Testament references than any other NT book. Here is a partial list of Old Testament references in just the first chapter:

1:1
Dan 2:28-30, 45

1:4
Ex 3:14-15
Isa 11:2
Zech 4:2-7

1:5
Ps 89:27:37

1:6
Ex 19:5-6

1:7
Dan 7:13
Zech 12:10

1:9
Dan 10
Isa 6
Ezek 1

1:10
Ex 19:16

1:12
Ex 20:18
Ex 25:31-37
Zech 4:2, 6, 10

1:13
Dan 7:13
Dan 10:5
Ex 39:29

1:14
Dan 7:9
Dan 10:6

1:15
Ezek 43:2

1:16
Dan 12:3
Judg 5:31
Isa 11:4, 49:2

1:17
Dan 10:5-20
Isa 4:14, 44:6, 48:12

1:20
Dan 2:47

An excellent exercise would be to look up each one and to see how John uses it in Revelation. Note that almost all of the references are from other apocalyptic, visionary works.

Old Testament references are the key to understanding the symbolism. I generally don’t think it kosher to pull random associations out of a hat when reading Revelation; the symbolic association should come from the Old Testament. (There are also some references to things that would have been part of the cultural currency of the first audience.)

1 The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him, to shew unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass; and he sent and signified it by his angel unto his servant John:

The word translation as “Revelation” is the Greek apokalupsis, from which we get ‘apocalypse’ and which carries the sense of disclosing something. While I don’t think the author understood it as a genre, we certainly now see the Book of Revelation as part of the genre known as apocalyptic. If I could get LDS scripture readers to do just one thing, it would be to pay more attention to genre when they read; you shouldn’t read scriptural poetry the same way that you read a letter or a historical narrative, etc. What does the genre of apocalyptic ask of the reader? Well, probably the biggest mistake a modern reader makes is to treat it as if it were a history textbook written before the events happened. That isn’t how apocalypse works. Rather, apocalyptic writings present material symbolically. (Often, this is done for the pragmatic reason of avoiding persecution.) As one scholar put it:

The Bible includes a variety of different genres. When we read . . . Jesus’ story about the good Samaritan . . . we are not inclined to check the story against the police blotter for the Jerusalem-Jericho highway patrol. We recognize that Jesus is telling a story to illustrate a moral point, and that such stories often don’t claim to correspond to actual events. . . . Texts often provide clues as to their genre. When a story begins, “Once upon a time…” we expect a fairy tale. When we flip on the television and see someone saying. “A guy walked up to a man in a bar…” we know we’re watching a comedy club, not the evening news. But sometimes, particularly when encountering a text from a different culture, it’s hard to recognize the genre. For example, Data, the android on Star Trek, can’t recognize jokes. He takes them literally, and often finds himself puzzled. Similarly, when we read an apocalyptic text like Daniel or Revelation, we often
find ourselves puzzled, not knowing how we are supposed to understand these particular texts. We’re not taking their truth more seriously if we take them as literal predictions about the future, any more than Data is interpreting more accurately when he misses the joke. To misunderstand the genre is to misinterpret the text.

More on this as we go; I’d rather derive evidence of this from the text than impose it from the outside.

The “of” is interesting (no, really!) because it could mean that the Revelation comes by, from, or about Jesus Christ–each would have a slightly different nuance of meaning.

“Gave” means made known and is the same word as Dan 2:28-30, 45. While this verse is patterned after Dan 2, Daniel has “in the latter days” and Rev. has shortly. “Shortly” seems somewhat ironic for something written 2000 years ago. One thought is that the events might have begun shortly after the text was written and continue to and through today. (Again, I’ll make this argument more as the text suggests it.)

“Servant,” any time you see it in the NT, could be translated as slave. Maybe a little jarring for modern readers, but I think servant may be too easy to gloss over. What would we think of visualizing ourselves as slaves of Christ?

I explained the significance of “signified” here and in the subsequent comments. The general sentiment among scholars of the Book of Revelation is that the word carries the connotation of figurative (and not literal) representation. I believe this word served as a heads up to the audience, signaling to them what kind of information was to follow.

2 Who bare record of the word of God, and of the testimony of Jesus Christ, and of all things that he saw.

“Testimony” can also be translated as “witness.”

Again note the emphasis on things that are seen. This will be a very visual vision and must be interpreted that way.


3 Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written therein: for the time is at hand.

This is a prophecy: it does tell of events that will happen in the future (it just doesn’t tell of them literally).

Note the chain that v1-3 sets up: God->Jesus->angels->John->reader->hearer. (For the first audiences, they would have been lucky to have had one person in the congregation who could read and the rest would be hearers.)

Of course, they have to “keep those things,” too. An overarching question while reading Revelation should be: “What does it mean to “keep” it in a text where commandments are few and far between?”

V3 is one of seven beatitudes in Revelation. (That probably isn’t an accident; the number seven is a symbol for completeness and the list of things that there are seven of in Revelation is truly staggering. If the Book of Revelation were made into an episode of Sesame Street, it would definitely be brought to you by the number seven.)

This ends what can be seen as kind of a prologue–an introductory (or title) verse (verse 1) and then including information about author and audience and a blessing on the audience. I bet most of us are feeling like we need a blessing to get through the Book of Revelation. The next verse begins in the more-or-less normal format for an epistle.

(This post comes off–even to me–as a little frustrating with all of the “as we shall see”s and “more on this later”s. I felt the need to do that to give you a heads-up to major themes, but I need to let the text make its own case when we get to it. So please bear with me.)

Summary thoughts: You can’t hang out with Mormons very long without seeing one of those charts that shows the lineage of someone’s priesthood authority. These first three verses serve that same function by linking God to the audience through the angel, John, and the visionary experience. This is big stuff; a text with only a few degrees of separation from God! With that in mind, the promise in verse 3–that you’ll be blessed for reading–is even more powerful. Don’t you want to read more?

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19 Responses to Revelation 1:1-3

  1. Raymond Takashi Swenson on May 20, 2008 at 5:29 pm

    Thanks for taking the time to provide this exposition. I look forward to reading the rest, and to drawing on it when I next teach about Revelation.

  2. Thomas Parkin on May 20, 2008 at 6:47 pm

    “So please bear with me”

    Quite easily done. :)

    I’m very much looking forward!

    ~

  3. Ardis Parshall on May 20, 2008 at 7:25 pm

    If Julie withholds judgment on an ignorance that’s willing to be cured, there’s hope for me yet.

    This is the week of the Mormon History Association conference. You may have moved on by Monday when I can focus, but please watch for late comments and questions. I promise to look up every verse and consider every point.

  4. Jonovitch on May 20, 2008 at 7:41 pm

    Hemoglobin. Great word. :)

    More astute comments to follow.

    Jon

  5. Steve Evans on May 20, 2008 at 7:56 pm

    And to think it’s all thanks to my firestorm post. YOU’RE WELCOME INTERNET!

  6. Jonovitch on May 20, 2008 at 8:09 pm

    I definitely want to read more — Julie, you’re better than the Pastor Melissa Scott!

    One of my favorite misgivings about the current LDS-KJV Bible is that its footnotes are garbage. Well, not all the time, but you pointed out my biggest gripe. The New Testament is chock full of references to Old Testament prophets, but unless I’m a scholar in the Old Testament, I have no idea that I’m reading something profound. It’s really annoying, because I know there’s plenty of profound stuff there, but I can’t see it, because I’m not an Old Testament scholar. *argh!* Lame.

    The most important (and most quoted) books for the Jews (including Jesus) were Deuteronomy, Psalms, and Isaiah (especially Isaiah), but you’d never know it (and you’d never know where to find it) from the footnotes. Don’t believe me? Compare Julie’s (brilliant!) list above with the multiple lame Topical Guide references in your fake-leather burgundy quad.

    The Church really needs to give the Standard Works an extreme makeover. And this time, it should give the experts the time and resources to do it right, rather than pushing artificial deadlines on a bunch of BYU grad students to hurry up with the Greek already.

    To come down off my rant-stool, the improved maps and photos are great. And the fact that I even have a copy of my own in my native language is something that I’m grateful for. I’d just be even more grateful if the footnotes helped me more than they do.

    Thanks Julie! Keep it coming!

    Jon

  7. Brad Kramer on May 20, 2008 at 8:10 pm

    We thank you indeed, Sir Evans. But mostly, thanks, Julie, for this.

  8. Julie M. Smith on May 20, 2008 at 8:25 pm

    re #6, yes, it would have been better if the LDS footnotes had indicated all of the OT references, allusions, quotations, etc.

    However, this is an easily-remedied problem since it is easy to find the information elsewhere. Quick googling found this page:

    http://mb-soft.com/believe/txh/ntot.htm

    An excellent way to use your scripture study time would be too look these up and to see what you find. It is almost always interesting to see the way in which the NT writer tweaks the OT meaning. (One warning: the allusion may not always make sense because of translation issues: sometimes the NT writer is making a play off the OT word and it just doesn’t show up in the KJV.)

  9. Julie M. Smith on May 20, 2008 at 8:30 pm

    OK, I spot-checked what I linked to and it isn’t a complete list. But it is a start.

  10. Michelle Glauser on May 20, 2008 at 11:28 pm

    As reply to the rant about the Standard Works needing a makeover, I have to say that when I moved to Germany, I was completely surprised when I visited the Distribution Center before I left to pick up German scriptures. There is no “Mormon” version of the Bible. People here just read whatever at church, despite the differences. There is a favorite version (which I have, and which is not the “most-perfect” version that Martin Luther translated and seems to be imagined by English speakers), but I have sorely missed the footnotes, and JSTs despite the fact that they may not be the most perfect. So, when people ask them which Bible they use, they say, “Oh, it doesn’t really matter,” which an English-speaking Mormon would balk at. Also, the Bible institute manuals from the Church are laughable. They have been translated exactly from English, but they don’t always apply in German. I recall one time where the manual talked about someone in the Old Testament being an Ethiopian, but the word in German was quite clear that they weren’t (my friend compared to English and pointed it out to me). Oh well. All in all, I’m quite glad that we even have scriptures. They are the iron rod that I need.

  11. Jonovitch on May 20, 2008 at 11:51 pm

    Julie, that’s a great link! A couple things I noticed from that list:

    Outside of Revelations, the Gospel of Matthew has the most Old Testament references (102), since he was writing primarily for the Jews. Second most is in the Epistle to the Hebrews (99), whose audience is also the Jews/Hebrews, but what is remarkable here is the density of references — Hebrews has only half the number of chapters as Matthew. Acts is also impressive, with its 96 references.

    The most amazing thing in that list, though, is the number of Old Testament references/allusions in Revelations (245). That is truly remarkable. Indeed, the Old Testament is the key to understanding all of scripture, and especially Revelations.

    Jon

  12. Julie M. Smith on May 21, 2008 at 10:07 am

    Michelle, thank you for that reminder.

  13. Ray on May 21, 2008 at 10:48 am

    Julie, are there multiple ways that “keep these things” could be interpreted? That phrase generally gets read in our day in the same light as “keep the commandments” (i.e., “follow these things”), but I don’t read a lot of “commanding to follow” going on in Revelations.

    Might this be more along the lines of “Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart”? Might “keep” these things mean something like “internalize / not let go of” these things?

  14. Brad Kramer on May 21, 2008 at 10:57 am

    “If the Book of Revelation were made into an episode of Sesame Street, it would definitely be brought to you by the number seven.”

    One of the best lines of scriptural exegesis ever!

  15. Stephen Hardy on May 21, 2008 at 2:56 pm

    As a usual lurker, let me say that I think that a post like this (as compared to posts that re-hash the issues around abortion and SSM, etc) is fantastic, interesting, and far, far, beyond simply saying: This is interesting.

    So thanks, and I will look forward (hopefully) to others like this.

  16. Julie M. Smith on May 21, 2008 at 3:03 pm

    Thanks, Stephen. I appreciate that.

  17. Jonovitch on May 21, 2008 at 3:56 pm

    Michelle (10), my understanding is that the Church in Germany uses the Einheitsübersetzung (roughly, “unified translation”) because it was a sort of ecumenical agreement between the Catholic and Protestant churches. I might be wrong, but it seems on the surface to be an attempt at appeasing the various regional traditions in Germany.

    I personally dumped the thick tome and picked up a handy little Luther Bibel as soon as I could (of course I was in a more Lutheran region). I still have it, as well as an old “original translation” that I finally found somewhere.

    Unfortunately, while updating the grammar and spelling over the years, the modern Evangelical-Lutheran church in Germany has deemed it necessary to “revise” a few verses here and there to more closely match their current doctrine. If you look carefully enough, the text sometimes has a microscopic asterisk which refers to the bottom of the page with Luther’s original translation. I guess his translation wasn’t “most perfect” enough for them.

    The English Topical Guide is a treasure that we all should be jumping for joy that we have, despite any deficiencies. The new Bible Dictionary/Index thing that is going into some international Triple Combinations is a good compromise, even if it doesn’t completely replicate what we have at the back of our LDS/KJV Bibles.

    Jon

  18. JT on May 22, 2008 at 4:46 pm

    Jon – I think you may be referring to the Guide to the Scriptures, which one can find in English at http://www.lds.org. I first came across it as a missionary in France as the Guide d’Ecritures. For the average member, I think it is an absolutely wonderful resource and not as intimidating/dry-looking as the Topical Guide. I think the references for each topic have been filtered to the most relevant (according to the editors), as reference lists are not as expansive. However, for a more detailed study, I like the Topical Guide, but still only as a launching point.

  19. Nathaniel Cannon on June 5, 2008 at 7:42 pm

    I loved that summary thought, and I never noticed the communication chain here. I’ve been recently mulling over a similar concept from Moroni 7:22-26; God, Christ, angels, prophets, fallen men, and saved men are all mentioned there. What you have pointed out from verses one through three totally fits that pattern too. I’m looking forward to catching up on this post series!