Interpreting Revelation: Knowing the Goal

Standing before his class of hungry young minds eager to analyze, absorb, and critique his presentation on Revelation, the professor produced an unusually shaped ink blot. The first thought for many students was, “What’s this?” Their teacher continued, “five theories exist about what this ink blot means.” He went on to explain each theory which at least on the surface seemed reasonable enough.
He finished by asking the students what thoughts they had about the meaning of the ink blot. Some said, “Ink blots are a matter of subjective interpretation. What does this have to do with the book of Revelation?” Others confessed they felt bewildered by the variety of interpretations and despaired at arriving at the correct understanding. Then there were a few students who had already begun to cling tenaciously to one or another perspective.
What does an ink blot have with to do with interpreting John’s revelation? Well, maybe not much. And that is precisely the point. On the one hand, both are data and data can be interpreted in a variety of manners. On the other hand, whereas ink blots generally are not created to communicate an intended meaning, biblical books are. If the reader fails to value the goal of recovering the meaning which John intended to communicate, suddenly the book of Revelation (or any biblical book for that matter) becomes little more than an ink blot susceptible to anyone’s creative spin.
What was the professor’s point? Unless students of God’s word pursue the tether found in seeking the author’s intended meaning, they will find themselves adrift in the subjective sea of human perspectives. Without the proper goal in interpretation, human reason is insufficient for providing a reliable compass or proper perspective. Without the proper tether, anything becomes possible.
Naivety would swallow that biblical interpretations have little to do with someone’s values and goals. In actuality, what people value determines the message they will accept as their understanding. Seeking credibility, making money, predetermined agendas, being validated or comforted, and understanding what the biblical author intended are just a few of the motives that can drive someone’s perspective of a biblical book. Those who value a quick “Cliff Notes” answer might be annoyed at the prospect of needing to personally think carefully through the subject. And so perhaps, they would embrace the first explanation they hear. Some might even dismiss the effort to understand with the simple wave of the back of their hand because, “I can’t be bothered thinking about such subjects.” Others who may believe there is safety in numbers will accept whatever they perceive to be the common understanding.
To place greater value upon something other than the intended message by one who spoke from God as he was carried along by the Holy Spirit, will cut a person adrift into a bewildering sea of creative speculations. Whether it be Revelation or any other biblical book, we need to seek those exegetical keys revealing the author’s intended message.
Part 2 will suggest some keys toward seeking an author-centered framework by which we can interpret Revelation.

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Barry Newton

Married to his wonderful wife Sofia and a former missionary in Brazil, Barry enjoys trying to express old truths in fresh ways. They are the parents of two young men.

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