On Interpreting the Bible Responsibly

There’s a saying, “Friends don’t let friends drive drunk.” A car is not a toy after all. If one drives, one should do so responsibly. I believe the same can be said for interpreting the Bible. You don’t have to be an expert to begin to interpret the Bible, any more than you need a Ph.D. to drive a car. But you do need to use some common sense and observe some basic rules of the road.

Rule #1: Be aware of context. The Bible is one book, true, but it is a book made up of 66 different books written by different authors over a 1500-year period. So we need to ask ourselves:

a) What kind of literature is this? (history, poetry, parable, prophecy or letter?). We do not interpret a bedtime story in the same way as the NY Times (although some might argue with me there). The former speaks to the heart through the imagination; the latter to the mind through fact and opinion. Both are legitimate ways of communicating truth. Similarly, we do not approach poetry in the Bible in the same way as we do history.

b) What are the cultural and historical contexts. When was the document written, why and to whom? What was going on at the time. Try to put yourself in the shoes of the original readers. How might they have understood it? These might be hard questions to answer on our own, but a quick look at a Bible dictionary or even just the introduction to the book in your study Bible can do wonders. As I said previously, you don’t need to be an expert; experts have already done the hard work for us. So let’s avail ourselves of the fruit of their labors.

When dealing with the letters of the New Testament, most people don’t object to the fact that Paul, for example, did not write his First Epistle to the Corinthians to us in 2009 specifically, but that we can derive blessing and wisdom from it if we first try to understand what it meant to the Corinthians in A.D. 55. We usually try to take into consideration the culture of Corinth and Paul’s ministry there.

When we approach the book of Revelation, however, we often throw all rational processes out the window. It’s a very strange and spiritual book, we think; therefore, the Holy Spirit will guide us and tell us what it means. Yes, he will, but he has also given us a brain and does expect us to do our homework first. After all, how can we know for sure it’s the Spirit speaking to us? We need to have an objective grid through which to examine such personal revelations. Otherwise, we can go very much astray. The objective grid I’m talking about are the rules of the road mentioned above.

Let me give a popular example. In Rev. 17 the prophet sees a vision of a woman, a prostitute seated upon a horrible beast with seven heads and ten horns. In recent decades preachers interpreted these heads and horns as being the old Soviet Union, or the nations of Europe, or more recently, those of the European Common Market. As a result there is great fear among Christians of any kind of union among nations or even a common currency. My question is, what gives them the right to interpret Holy Scripture in that way, completely bypassing the original historical context, as though the Bible hung freely in space and weren’t rooted firmly in human history? You mean there’s a historical context for the book of Revelation? Of course. It didn’t just drop out of the sky on Hal Lindsey’s doorstep. If you read the opening chapters, you see it was addressed to specific churches in Asia Minor that were undergoing persecution. We ignore this at our peril.

We know from the writers of the early church that John most likely wrote Revelation in the 90s, during the reign of the emperor Domitian (AD 81-96). If we look at the list of Roman emperors up to that time, we see that there were in fact 8 (like most Romans we’re not counting the 3 that reigned only a few months each during the Civil War of A.D. 69).

The seven heads, John says, are seven hills on which the woman sits. Most people know that the city of Rome was founded on seven hills, which is why, in fact, to this very day it is often called the City of Seven Hills. He adds that the heads represent seven kings, “five of which are fallen, one is, the other has not yet come; but when he does come, he must remain for a little while. The beast who once was, and now is not, is an eighth king. He belongs to the seven and is going to his destruction” (17:10,11). Confusing? It’s meant to be. “This calls for a mind with wisdom,” the author states in v. 9. One gets the idea that John is purposefully being obscure so as to confound the pagans who were persecuting the church; yet he seems to want the believer to understand, to make a connection with events in the 1st century.

Indeed, there were five emperors up to and including Nero (AD 54-68). The seventh, Titus, reigned only two years (“a little while,” v.10). He was succeeded by his brother Domitian, who persecuted the church. We know from such ancient Christian writers as Tertullian and Eusebius that the early church saw Domitian as a second Nero (Nero redivivus) because of the ferocity of his persecution. (It was during Nero’s reign that the apostles Paul and Peter were martyred.) That is why Domitian is referred to as an “eighth king,” but also “one of the seven.”

It was in the Roman province of Asia Minor that Domitian’s wrath and paranoia reached their height, as described in the book of Revelation (remember, the book is addressed to these suffering churches). Such historic facts fit so neatly into the scheme of Revelation, we cannot ignore them. Nor can we ignore the testimony of the early church. As strange as it may seem to us, John’s prophecy was meant to be understood by these suffering 1st-century Christians. It spoke directly and specifically to their situation, and indeed they needed it to. The reason we have such trouble understanding the book today is that we know so little about its original context.

What about the ten horns? Don’t they represent ten kings as well (v.12)? Well, yes and no. If we read these verses carefully, we see that while these ten had authority as kings, they had no real kingdoms. We also find that they do not represent a succession of monarchs, as in the previous verses, but a set of concurrently ruling “kings” whose rule, along with the Beast’s, is very short. Now, in the province of Asia there were certain prominent and wealthy citizens chosen by each city and given the title Asiarch (“ruler of Asia”). Ten of these men were chosen each year to preside over matters of religion and worship and to organize public games and festivals (at their own expense). In Paul’s day, it seems some were even well disposed toward Christianity (see Acts 19:31 where the title is used). By the time John was writing Revelation, forty years later, however, the picture had changed. Paranoid to the extreme about loyalty toward himself and the empire, Domitian ordered the Asiarchs to enforce emperor worship (“the worship of the beast”) throughout Asia, a province where Christianity had particularly taken a firm hold. “They have one purpose,” says John, “and will give their power and authority to the beast” (v.13).

It must have been a distasteful task organizing pep rallies for such a mad emperor, but as the official cheerleaders for emperor worship, the Asiarchs had little choice. In such a capacity they also would have been charged with the dirty job of doing whatever it took to enforce such loyalty and to see that traitors were flushed out. One way of doing this was to issue a decree, with the emperor’s authority, that every person should offer incense before Domitian’s statue as a sign of allegiance. Those who did probably received either a distinguishing mark (such as an ink stain) or a little slip of paper (called a libellum) (Was this the “mark of the beast”?). Those who could not produce such proof of loyalty may have been barred from buying food or may have suffered loss of property, imprisonment or even death. To pagans, offering a pinch of incense would have meant little, but both Christians and Jews, for whom there was one and only one God, would have suffered terribly under such a regime.

Having set the passage within its proper historical-cultural context, how then do we apply this? In other words, what does this mean to us today? The book of Revelation is not so much a book of predictions about the end times as it is a book of comfort and encouragement to a generation of Christians who were suffering an unprecedented trial. Stand firm, even unto death, the book tells us, and you will receive a heavenly reward that cannot be taken away.

In Romans Paul tells us that all government is instituted by God for the common welfare, and therefore the apostle instructs believers to pay their taxes and due respect to the state and its officials, to set an example as good citizens. But there are times when government overreaches and arrogates to itself titles and prerogatives that are God’s alone. (That’s why Jesus taught, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”) In such cases, like the three men threatened with the fiery furnace in Daniel 3, we ought to declare, “Our God can save us from this trial, but even if he does not, we will not bow down to your gods!” As Americans we may have trouble understanding this– we take so much for granted– but our brothers and sisters in other countries who do not enjoy the freedoms we have might easily teach us what it means.

Like all apocalyptic writers, John sets current events against the larger backdrop of Jesus’ return and the end of the age, when God will judge the wicked and reward the righteous. This evil world system may rage for a time, but its doom is sure. In John’s day that evil world system was embodied in the Roman Empire and its leaders. Today, we would give it other names.

One last rule of interpretation is #2, to be aware of the prejudices and assumptions that we bring to the table. For example, until a few months ago I used regularly to come across blogs that showed former President Bush as the antichrist. Currently, Obama seems to have assumed that title from his enemies across the aisle. Gee, what are the odds that we would get two in a row?

This may come as a shock to some, but God is not a Republican; neither is he a Democrat. Often Christians use the book of Revelation as a paddle to spank and vilify whomever they dislike (Martin Luther did it in the 16th century, applying John’s vision of the prostitute to the Church of Rome.) So don’t interpret the Bible when you’re angry (interpreting while intoxicated). I wish we all could just admit, “Hey, I’m a conservative,” or “I’m a liberal, and I tend to see life through that lens”– there’s nothing wrong with that– instead of claiming, “Wait, I’m getting a prophecy: anyone who votes a certain way is taking the mark of the beast.” No wonder the world looks at us as a bunch of addle-headed nincompoops. If the world sees us as foolish, let it be because we’re truly following in the footsteps of the Christ, not because we act like ignorant and paranoid bigots who don’t even know how to interpret our own sacred scriptures. Ouch. In Christ we are capable of better. For Christ we ought to do better.



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6 responses to “

  1. That’s wild. I never knew this. Where did you get this info?

  2. It was really easy, thanks to God and Google. Since we know the approximate time the book was written, I just Googled a list of Roman emperors and the pieces started falling into place. About the ten horns, I prayed for the Lord to show me. He reminded me about the Asiarchs, and when I Googled them I learned there were 10. It all fit together so well, it was scary, like listening into a conversation between the Lord and the 1st-century Asian churches.

  3. I thought Ryan Seacrest was the antichrist.

  4. Once more, Steve, you bring clarity to a controversial subject. I remember about seven or eight years ago you ran a class at the church on interpreting Genesis and Revelation. I still remember the look on a couple of peoples’ faces when you suggested with a straight face that chapter one of Genesis might’ve been meant to be taken not literally, but in a literary way. Talk about ouch!Why is it that the two most controversial books in the bible are the first and last?

  5. It may be because people start reading the beginning, then peek at the end, ignoring everything in between. No, actually, I think it’s because both books deal with the unknown: the mysteries of creation and the end of all things.

  6. I remember hearing Phillip Jenkins, a church historian, describe how the persecuted church reads Revelation in an entirely different way from most of the Western church, not as an end-times manifesto but rather as a handbook on how to stand firm in the midst of persecution.

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