Three things up front:
- I love the apocalyptic elements in the Old and New Testament. I think they are both fascinating and helpful – or should I say instructive.
- Apocalyptic literature is a very unique genre and in the modern mind, if it is unacquainted with apocalyptic, can really get mucked up fast.
- I no longer believe that the book of Revelation or passages like Matthew 24 or 1 Thessalonians 4:16 are about the, 20th, 21st, or even 22nd century.
That last point is going to be held loosely. I am totally open to the idea of a Symbolic reading (from the last post) that sees the book of Revelation about all oppression and injustice – in every place in every time. I get the appeal of that and have listened to my friends who hold that position and why they think that it is so important. I get it and I am open to it.
The danger with the Preterist reading (all in the past) is that people immediately jump to “then it has no relevance to the modern reader” argument. I do not see that one directly leads to the other – but I will cover that in part 4.
Having said that I am not sympathetic toward the Futurist or Historicist views, I hope to clarify why in this next post and the next.
A couple of things that pre-modern hearers (readers) would have been familiar with that late-modern (enlightenment) folks may not is the imagery embedded in numbers and symbols. While these show up in other places in the Bible (40 days of rain for Noah, the spies spent 40 scouting the promised land, 40 years in the wilderness for Israel, Jonah warned Ninevah of impending doom in 40 days, Jesus being tempted for 40 days, Jesus was seen on earth for 40 days after the resurrection, etc.) they are really evident in apocalyptic.
one = unity
two = witness
three = completeness (heaven)
four = earth
five = intensity
six = man
seven = heaven (3) and earth (4) in unity
eight = newness
ten = intensity (double)
If we don’t understand the way numbers were embedded with meaning, then we are going to be confused, lost, or just wrong about what a passage means or has come to mean.
Numbers like 666 are three (completion) sixes (number of man). Then the number of the beast in Rev. 13:14 is the completion of the system of man.* The passage even tells us to ‘calculate’ it – meaning that it was not straightforward. Numbers like the 1,000 year reign of Christ (3 tens) and the 144,000 who will be saved are easily understandable.**
In apocalyptic literature Women often represent religious institutions and Beasts represent governments. So the women in Revelation ( one in chapter 12 and the other in chapter 17) are symbolic of two different religious ideas/groups. The Dragons and Beast – with horns and eyes and all – stand for different regimes and empires.
Admittedly, all four schools of interpretation may incorporate numbers and symbols. My main concern is how the initial audience would have understood or interpreted a text. I think it is the primary, and possibly the only, thing that matters. So the use of numbers and symbols is not likely to be the greatest point of contention. The big divide will come when those numbers and symbols are to be applied. I think that they apply to the first two centuries , not 20th or 21st.
This is where it becomes important to address the purpose of Apocalyptic. And that is what I want to tackle in the next post.
* many think that this number was actually 616 which was the numerical way of spelling the Caesar’s name at the time (which is why it was changed). This shows another use of numbers – but also opens up a whole can of worms.
** this is a number of all who will be saved. 12 tribes in the Old Covenant times 12 apostles for the New and then the same 3×10 (completeness x intensity) we saw in the ‘millennium’.