Several years ago, when I was first contemplating a Ph.D., I did what most judicious students would do. I visited different seminaries and universities and thought through all my options. On one of my visits, I ran across an older, seasoned sage of academic endeavors. Our conversation turned out to be most refreshing.
The school I was visiting was not known for its biblical and theological acumen. Rather, it was well known for its program in Christian leadership. This professor, however, had a remarkable thirst for Scripture. He told me of his habit of choosing a book of the Bible and reading that book every day for a month. If one were to pick Jude, Philemon, or Habakkuk, that would be an easy task. But this professor was picking “real” books like Luke, John, and Revelation. It was, in fact, to Revelation that our conversation turned.
He had just finished reading the book of Revelation 30 times (day after day for a month). I asked him if he had figured it out. Surprisingly, he said, “Yes! The entire book opened up for me when I realized this was written to and for persecuted Christians in the first century.” Realizing the context of the book (first century) and the focus of the book (perseverance through suffering persecution) changed everything for this professor.
His testimony leaves us with a couple of helpful principles pertaining to Revelation in particular and to all of Scripture more generally. First, context is significant. It is important to know as much about the original author and the original audience as possible. This information is gathered primarily from the text itself. John says in Rev 1:1 that he received a vision from Christ, and he was sharing it with the bond-servants of Christ so they would know what to expect in the near future.
John wrote the book to communicate to living Christians what God had shown him. Reading the book of Revelation with the idea that it is supposed to encourage Christians who are suffering persecution leads to strong words of encouragement for any suffering Christian. It also eliminates the need of deciphering cryptic codes to divine a road map for end times apocalyptic events. Jesus already told us no one knows the day or the hour. Revelation is not about that as much as it is about strengthening suffering saints. Knowing the context from the text makes the meaning of the text more clear.
A second principle easily deduced from this doctor’s discovery is that persecution is a significant theme in the New Testament. In fact, every writer (with the possible exception of Jude) touches on the subject. Almost every New Testament book contains instructions for believers about why they will suffer persecution and how they can respond well to it. Reading the New Testament on its own terms and using its own language and its own expectations—rather than injecting into it our 21st Century expectations and formulating truncated doctrines to support our conclusions—is really a refreshing way to explore God’s Word.
I am thankful for the simple, yet profound, conversation I was able to have with this aging academic. He was pious and genuine in his zeal and sound in his approach to the Bible and his consequent interpretation of it. These are but two of the helpful implications of that one conversation. Consider speaking to others about your Bible reading (and theirs) and see if similarly profound results do not occur.