Dr. Paul Spilsbury taught Theology and New Testament at Canadian Bible College in the late 1990’s when I was a student there. I had heard that he was working on a book that would debunk many of the fanciful futuristic chronologies and doctrines it has generated. As a former believer in at least a few of these chronological treatments, I was ready to dislike the book at first sight.
A pastor friend of mine who did not know I was a student of Dr. Spilsbury graciously bought me a copy of the book recently. Now that I have read it, I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to read the book with a clear understanding. This seems to be a good time to take a hard look at our assumptions about the book of Revelation with the help of Dr. Spilsbury’s insightful research.
The first thing he does is remind us that the book is comprised of two genres of writing. It is at once a letter and an “apocalypse.”
Because it is a letter, it must have made sense to the members of the seven churches to whom it was originally sent. This means that interpretations that would not have made sense to that generation are extremely unlikely to be true. The plagues are unlikely to be caused by modern high-tech weapons, for instance. As another example, the seven heads of the beast are unlikely to be later resurrections of an empire that could only be understood by later generations that lived after them. There were readily-available understandings of those sorts of images in that generation, which will be explored later in this series.
It was also an “apocalypse.” This was a higly stylized form of writing that used images to suggest truths more indirectly than prose. The intent is to engage the mind emotionally at least as much as rationally. It is closer to poetry than narrative in how it conveys information, because the intent is to stir to action rather than quiet contemplation.
Most of the images are intended to remind the reader (or hearer) of prophetic passages of Old Testament scripture that contained direct or implied warning messages aimed at people who were in danger of leaving God or of dishonouring Him by denying Him under pressure. Others are there to remind the readers of specific Old Testament stories or events to let the readers draw parallels in their own lives. For instance, the “beast” reminds the reader of similar passages in Daniel, referring to evil Gentile empires that would rule the world until the arrival of the Messiah in glory to deliver God’s people. In their day the “beast” would have been immediately understood as the mighty Roman Empire.
Numbers are used mostly for their symbolic value. 7 is the number of completion or perfection, 12 is the number of tribes of Israel or the people of God. A woman with a crown of 12 stars would be Israel or the followers of Jesus. A beast with seven heads would be perfectly beastly (more on the 7-headed monster in a later installment).
A woman can have either a positive or negative meaning, such as the book of Proverbs’ “lady wisdom” (Prov. 8:1-9:12) or “dame folly” (Prov. 9:13-18). For instance, in 17:18, the evil “harlot” is identified as a “great city which reigns over the kings of the earth.” This “woman” is Rome. It is sitting astride an empire (beast) made up of most of the known kingdoms of the world.
The key to it all is that it made sense to the original recipients of the letter. It can also make the same kind of sense to anyone with an eye to see and an ear to hear today. Armed with Dr. Spilsbury’s insights, the next post will begin exploring the book itself.