The following program is a presentation of
Grace Communion International and Grace Communion Seminary and is made possible by generous
donations from viewers like you. On this episode of You’re Included, New Testament scholar, Dr. Gordon Fee talks about the book of Revelation and basic principles of understanding Scripture. Our host today is Dr. J. Michael Feazell It’s a pleasure to have you join us today.
Thank you. Before we begin, I should mention that we
had several wonderful interviews with your daughter, Cherith.
She will have done better than her dad would have done.
We’d like to begin by talking about your new book Revelation, which is based, as you
explained to me, on your notes for your class at Regent, the last class before your retirement.
Actually, it was my last class after retirement. O, I see. And that’s due to be published
in the coming year. Yeah, hopefully, in early 2010.
We were talking about this earlier, and you mentioned that people either tend to approach
Revelation by ignoring it all together, or by obsessing over it. What causes those two
reactions? The passion of my teaching life has been to
get people not just to study the Bible but to learn to read the Bible well. And to do
that, they have to have some sense of the differences of the materials that are in Scripture
that make up the biblical text — and Revelation is unique in the New Testament.
I think it has to do with the kind of literature, the technical word is genre, the kind of literature
that it is. And frankly more people, especially those raised in the King James Version, where
every verse is a paragraph, so that every sentence, every verse, has equal … to all
of the rest of it, they don’t think of it in terms of continuity or in terms of narrative
or letter or parable, they just think in terms of little things called verses. And the net
result is, not understanding the kind of thing that revelation is. They read it… they level
it out – the whole New Testament is simply leveled out … all read at the same level.
That’s an interesting thought because it makes so much sense that we look at the Bible
and it’s divided up into chapters and verses, and as you just said, each verse is a paragraph,
and so it does kind of come across as though verse 9 has no equal weight of the authority
of the word of God and should be taken as important as verse 12 or verse 16 and we skip
around like that… (And on its own and out of context.) but we don’t read anything
else like that. Nothing else. Nobody reads anything else the
way we read the Bible. So the passion of my (what I call) teaching life has been to get
people not just to study the Bible but to learn to read the Bible well. And to do that,
they have to have some sense of the differences of the materials that are in Scripture that
make up the biblical text, and the Revelation is unique in the New Testament. The only thing
else like it in the canon is several chapters at the end of Daniel. But, the Revelation
is not like Daniel – it’s a different kind of apocalyptic material – that is very
much in keeping with other intertestamental documents of this kind, of which this is but
one – but certainly, the best and the greatest (what I would call) ten leagues ahead of and
over all those intertestamental documents. And intertestamental is referring to…
… between the Old and the New Testament (if you will) between Malachi and Matthew,
200-year period where a lot of these kinds of books were written.
But Revelation is the only one that appears in the…
In the New Testament. Yeah, and there really is nothing as quite like it in the New Testament.
But it was a common kind of literature for the people who received it. So they didn’t
come to it with great mystery and tried to dig out all the things. First of all, John
knew his readers and they knew him. It’s subversive literature. It’s basically telling
the Roman empire that their days are numbered – right at the height of their glory, when
Rome had reached the peak of its power and universal domain, here is John, exiled, on
a lonely island, basically facing towards Rome and saying, “God’s got your number
— your days are coming to an end.” It took 200 years for it to happen, but time wasn’t
John’s big thing. It was the certainty of it. So that’s what the Revelation is basically
about. It’s about God in charge of the universe and not the Roman Empire.
And so for us to read it and to try to take Revelation’s symbols and act as though they’re
really about Mussolini, or they’re really about Adolf Hitler, is to misunderstand what’s
going on in Revelation itself. Yeah, we wouldn’t do that with one of Jesus’
parables. Nor we do that with one of the letters of Paul. So why would we do that to this which
is first of all, a letter. I mean it’s to the seven churches. And he writes to them
individually and everybody else is reading everybody else’s mail. So, they’re all
in this together, but the document has to do with the fact that they are headed for
a terrible holocaust. John recognizes that the martyrdom of Antipas of Pergamum [2:13]
is the signal, the harbinger that it’s going to get worse before it gets better. And that
martyrdom is what really sort of tipped this off… trying to tell the people that the
days to come are going to be far worse that you even imagine. And the catacombs are the
clear example of the fact that John was right. Let’s talk about the catacombs. How do they
demonstrate… Well, first of all, besides being places where
Christians met, they were their tombs. And so the burials of Christians underground in
huge numbers for those days – huge numbers, was clear evidence that they were an underground
movement. Every time they came up above ground and lived well above ground for one emperor,
another emperor comes along and wants to wipe them out so, underground they go again – literally
underground. I’m curious as to where the language “underground” comes from the fact
that the early Christians literally went underground. So anyway, the Revelation is subversive literature,
and the people who received it well understood that.
At the time John wrote, his readers would have understood apocalyptic literature and
what the symbols are all about and so on, but when we read it today, what are the lessons
we can learn from it, understanding that it’s not written about our day in particular, but
what do we draw from reading the book? The same thing that we would draw from reading
the other New Testament book. What do we draw from reading Acts? Something about our history,
something about what God was doing in the first century. What do we learn from Revelation?
What God is about, how God is at work even in times of great distress. And that God is
the victor. The book ends on the glorious note of triumph after all.
So we draw the same lessons they drew, but we don’t have to be misreading Revelation
as some kind of a book that’s written really for us in our time as opposed to written to
them, and looking for who is this beast going to be, who is this… (Exactly. We know who
the beast was.) who are the horns going to be and all that sort of thing. It seems that
in every age, every generation of Christians, there’s a big contingent that thinks that
their day is the last days – that Christ is going to return in their day. They go to
Revelation and find ways to manipulate the book to fit it with world events to be able
to determine that their day is the end time. And that’s been going on from the beginning
of the church. Why do we feel the need to do that?
Well, I really can’t answer that question because I can’t get into the heads of the
people who think this way. On the other hand, we are to be ready constantly – the gospel
song, “We cannot see what lies before and so we cling to him the more. Trust and obey.”
This is how we are to live. But “trust and obey” is how we are to live, not try to figure
out all the details as to how it’s all going to work out. So it’s true, generation after
generation went to the Revelation and claims some powerful figure like Hitler, Mussolini,
Stalin, as the Anti-Christ. Come on… This is not about them, this is not about our days,
it’s about that day and where we can draw our parallels out of it like we do with everything
else in Scripture. Romans wasn’t written to us, but we hear it as a word for us. Revelation
wasn’t written to us, but we hear it as a word for us, once we understand it as a
word for them, and what it was saying to them. That’s a way of saying that God is in control
and not the powerful empires of the world. The tyrants are always around, and we’re
always safe in Christ’s hands even if we die at the hands of tyrants (right… especially
if we die). Going to the Bible in general then, probably the most well-known book in
any seminary is the one that you authored with Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible
for All Its Worth. And you get into some of these principles of reading the Bible, in
the way that it was written, in the way that it was intended, and then looking at what
sort of lessons we might draw from that. When a person sits down to read the Bible, what
are the common, typical mistakes they make? The first… there are two firsts in this,
ok? The first if get rid of the numbers. The numbers intrude, there are no numbers in the
original text, just get rid of the numbers – (the verse designation and the chapter
designation), the verse designation, yes. The Bible Society [Biblica] is actually putting
out a translation, TNIV, without the numbers. So that’s got paragraphs that are meaningful,
but the numbers are out in the margin out here so you know where you are… the numbers
intrude and there were no numbers in the original, I can assure you, nor in any copy for 1,500
years. The numbers were inserted by … what’s his name [Robert Estienne], he was doing it
on a horse, I think, when he was traveling across Europe. But the numbers are simply
ways of finding things. They have nothing to do with the text. So the first thing one
has to do to learn to read well is to get rid of the numbers, in one’s head – not
necessarily go through and scratch them out in your Bible. And once one does that, then
you start thinking and reading in paragraphs, the way you read anything.
But even before that, and this is the really important thing – what kind of thing am
I reading? You don’t read a love letter the same way you read a court document. People
know that, by instinct. They come to Scripture and they have all of this marvelous variety
of inspired stuff, in this variety, and level it all. (So we read everything the same way.)
…everything the same way. So it’s like reading a love letter and reading a court
document the same way with no sense that these really are different kinds of things. (Or
of reading of poem as though it’s headline news story in the newspaper.) Instinctively
people do understand that the Psalter is poetry and that the doublets are doublets – most
people really do catch that. Others don’t have a clue that the doublets are doublets
but you know they… Let’s talk about doublets. What’s a doublet?
Well, in poetry, a doublet is saying the same twice in marvelously different language. Sometimes
parallel and sometimes in antithesis but … and there are some triplets as well. But basically
the Psalter has just made up these marvelous doublets. So people who read a modern translation
which the poetry is set out as poetry – read that and instinctively recognize, “This
is poetry. This is not prose.” But when you read every verse a paragraph, poetry and
prose are lost. So every verse a paragraph and every verse… my verse for the day and
I just say, now… I don’t mean to be unkind the way I’m speaking about people’s habits.
But they would never read anything else in their life that way. Anything! If they were
to get a love poem from their lover, they would not read it as prose. But we take the
Scripture and level it out and then put numbers in, and in that have a verse for the day.
I hear people talk about, “I read the Bible literally. I’m a Bible literalist.” And
by that, they mean to say, “I take it seriously, I believe what it says.” But yet they do
actually take it literally. What are some problems with reading the Bible literally?
I don’t have trouble with people reading the Bible literally, because most of it is
to be understood literally. But they don’t read the Psalms that way. And they shouldn’t
read the Revelation that way. I mean, yes, take it literally in terms of what it is.
But please, let it be its thing — don’t make it something different from what it is.
Jesus speaks of a camel going through the eye of a needle. He speaks of many things
even as parables, and yet these are not truths, news stories of things that actually happen,
there was no prodigal son who actually… he’s telling a story, a tale, to make a
point. And yet we don’t read those things literally. Well, actually there are some people who do.
They think if there wasn’t a true prodigal son and a father and another son, then Jesus
was not telling the truth. They wouldn’t say lie… but (But since he wouldn’t…
) he wouldn’t tell something if it wasn’t true. (So therefore there was one). And their
view of story is “it’s not true.” A story means “not true.” Come on, that’s not the
way you read anything. But that’s a mixed-up view of how to read Scripture, and I find
myself really not able to help people like that.
Isn’t the Bible full of metaphors as well like any other form of language? If I say,
it’s raining cats and dogs, people know what I mean. They don’t go outside and expect
to find a puppy. Yeah, and a lot of those kinds of things (not
that particular one, of course) throughout Scripture, and especially in the teaching
of Jesus – and he was just rich with metaphors and using ideas of all kinds of things around
him to help people catch the fact that the kingdom of God was at hand.
In getting back to the book of Revelation, the chapter divisions… you’ve talked about
how there are couple of places toward the end and also chapter 14 where the chapter
divisions really kind of… Yeah… first of all, to give credit where
credit is due, the chapters in Revelation are basically very well done. Nonetheless,
the numbers have a way of separating things that should be held together. So when you
get to chapter 14, it’s the only place in the book where you have a series of small
units and you have to come to terms with how these work. It begins with a lamb and 144,000
on Mount Zion whom they’ll meet again. Later on there are the three angels who fly in and
make a pronouncement. And then there are these two marvelous images of the grain harvest
and the trampling out of the grapes. My instincts are that if our chapter 15 began there (as
it should), everybody would read those two correctly. But at the end of chapter 14, they
just hang there. But in fact, these two parables of the harvest
of grain and the trampling of the grapes, introduce the whole rest of the book — the
gathering of God’s people, the gathering of the saints and the judgment on Rome and
its minions. So, that’s sort of the intro and then you have the final set of seven,
the seven bowls of God’s wrath and it’s quite clear “wrath” is the right term
here – “wrath” having to do with God’s final judgment of which the final one is the
overthrow and collapse of Babylon the Great – which is his language for the Roman Empire.
That’s followed then by the marvelous picture of Rome as a very high-priced prostitute.
(Prostitute is really the wrong word. This is a call lady of the highest order.) And
she is seductive, and she seduced the whole world. Rome has done that. So the very next
thing is lament over Rome’s fall. And then there are the warnings to escape,
and then that’s followed by the three sets of woes, which is then followed in Chapter
11:1-9 by three sets of hallelujahs… three woes, three hallelujahs, this is hardly accidental.
You understand? This is carefully constructed literature. And then the final thing there
is the heavenly warrior defeats the Beast. Right after that, if we didn’t have numbers,
one would see that the so-called millennium is an insert that is assuring the martyrs
that they have a place in God’s program. The only people mentioned in this are those
who, for their testimony of Jesus have been killed by the Empire. And they’re given
a special role. He says, the rest of the dead, those who aren’t martyred, they’re going
to have their time at the end… I don’t think you should take this literally… This
means God has secured them, this is a special people, martyred because they believed in
Jesus. And then that’s followed by the final judgment
Satan and the dead and then you end up the book finishing with the new heaven and new
earth and a new Eden. He didn’t know it’s going to be the last book in the Bible. The
book begins with Eden; it concludes with Eden. This is just a marvelous thing that God, by
his providence, saw as our canon, so that you have a restored heaven, a restored earth,
and then in this restored earth, a restored Eden. And then the book ends. I mean it ends
with a lot of little things that are all important, but its basic story ends in 22:5. It’s a
marvelous book. And I just cringe whenever I see and hear people take it and make it
have to do primarily with something in our future, when the only stuff that’s in our
future is chapters 21 and 22. Everything else belong back in the near future of these seven
churches and all other Christians at the beginning of the second century – wonderful re-assurance.
And it reminds you of course of the passage… of the statement where Jesus talks about you’re
a little flock; in this world you will have…(Tribulation!) but.. (But I’ve overcome!) same message
as in Revelation in a nutshell. Yeah, exactly! I’m prejudices, I love this
book. This is marvelous stuff. Don’t screw it up by making it mean something different
from what John intended, and the Holy Spirit intended by inspiring John to write it. It
has to do basically with them and with us as we follow in their train. Just as the Gospels
had to do with them and with us as we follow in their train. And once one sees that, then
the glory of this book just comes alive on the pages. The dispensationalists’ viewpoint tends to
take the millennium and make it into the focal point of everything…
Yeah, that’s strange, because it’s actually parenthetical. This is one place I really
don’t like the numbers, because if this began where it should, in 19:11, if [chapter]
20 began there… and then the numbers went by, one would see that what is our 20:1-6
fits squarely as a parenthetical middle point between the heavenly warrior defeating the
Beast and then the judgment of Satan and the judgment of the dead. And then you have the
whole new heaven and new earth. That’s a reassurance to those who will be
martyred… They’re reassurance to the martyrs mostly
because, first of all… again, it’s the end of chapter 19, if it weren’t the end
of chapter 19, people would see this better. But the heavenly warrior defeats the Beast.
So the martyrs are given a special moment, and then the final judgments. This is so marvelously
done and for the most part the numbers don’t intrude, but at the end of the book they intrude
a bit, and here in particular. I know I sound very confident, positive, but I lived with
this book for years, and I just experience enormous pain when I hear it used in a dispensationalist
way… because, frankly they almost know nothing about the book as John intended.
It’s a shame to miss the reassurance, the peace, the joy, the comfort that can come…
we read the Psalms all the time that way, in times of trial, we go to the Psalms and
we find reassurance in those. Even though they were written for those people
in Israel, they’re reassurance to us. And all the symbols have to do with Israel
in that day and age. God is not a high tower, and yet we understand what is meant by that
when we are being set upon by our enemies, as it were… but you brought out how this
same reassurance and joy and peace, comfort, can be ours from Revelation. But instead we
look at Revelation, we think, “Well, when is the end of the world going to come?”
And how do we measure the horns… Frankly, a lot of our difficulties is that
we’re North Americans English-speaking North Americans. Mexican Christians could understand
this a little better than we. But when you think of how many places on the earth, how
many martyrdoms are taking place, now, on this planet, this book is for them. This book
is telling them that your martyrdom counts for something. You’re being brought into
God’s kingdom… And the martyrdom of those you love.
Yes, exactly. I think of the Christians in various Asian settings where this book tells
them that they can still rejoice and sing hallelujah and praise our God because God
is in control even though they may die. And that’s what Revelation is all about – God
is ultimately in charge. The problem of North Americans (and I speak as a dual citizen of
Canada and the United States) is we think we have a special privilege with God… and
that we should get all the breaks and none of the pain.
We do tend to think of everything from … as though we’re the center of the… not just
of the universe but of the Christian universe as well. If there are missionaries, the mission
should be going from us to these other places that don’t have the great insight and wisdom.
We should be the teachers. It’s been such been an interesting phenomenon to see Asian
missionaries come to the United States as though we need to hear the gospel here. We’re
shocked by that. As my Australian colleague would say, “Good
on ya, mate.” So if there is one thing that you would like
people to know about the book of Revelation, what would that be?
One thing? It’s about the first-century church that is headed for a terrible two-century
holocaust. Read it with that in view, and then ask yourself “Where do I fit in?”
God is in control — there is absolute reassurance — there are three-fold woe over Rome, over
Babylon, but there’s a three-fold hallelujah to those who are God’s people.
God’s in control, not ourselves – our task is to bear witness to Christ. And the
Greek word for bear witness is the word that we have transliterated into the word martyr.
It is the Greek word for witness. The ultimate witness was martyrdom, so the Greek word martyr
— witness — became martyr – being slain for one’s witness, and now we simply think
of martyrs as those kinds of people only. But that’s the word for witness. We bear
witness to Christ and we may not live long after we do that, if we’re in certain parts
of the world. And I happen to be among the privileged. I say that with tears, because
I know that I’m among the privileged. What pains me is for the privileged to not take seriously the brothers and sisters in the world that are not as privileged as we are.
Well, thanks so much for being here. Thank you. You’ve been watching You’re Included,
a production of Grace Communion International.