David deSilva, who has written my favorite NT introduction, has written a massive work on understanding John’s rhetoric in the book of Revelation. Rather than the usual historicist/futurist/preterism/spiritual-allegorical approaches, deSilva interprets Revelation through the contemporary-historical approach. That means “the Apocalypse was written specifically for the benefit of certain people who were living at that time, and for the purpose of being understood by them” (6).
…Interpret the book of Revelation just like every other book of the Bible.
Strange, ain’t it? That’s not what we hear from today’s “daily newspaper” approach.
This should cause us to first ask, “What would these texts mean to the seven churches in Asia Minor?” “How would they have understood John’s symbolic language, and ‘how would those associations have motivated them to respond?'” (6). DeSilva holds that readers should “immerse themselves in the political, social, cultural, and economic landscape of Roman Asia Minor” and the wider Mediterranean area so that Revelations images and language would more more recognizable. Rather than being the idealist “timeless” approach, Revelation gives a “very timely message and challenge… posed to the congregations of the Roman province of Asia Minor” (7).
DeSilva uses this fifth approach to better understand the composition, construction, meaning, and significance of Revelation. Application comes through recontextualization—understanding the meaning of the text to a certain people under pressure in their culture and looking at how we should respond like them when we are in similar situations (or even how we might contribute to the problem). Are we leaving Babylon for Christ or helping Babylon? DeSilva’s “application” chapter (ch. 12) is superb.
But how does a rhetorical approach help us understand a text? Rhetorical criticism “involves the analysis of how a particular author… has mobilized particular means of persuasion to a particular end or ends” (14). It plunges the interpreter into the historical setting of the audience (the seven churches of Rev 2–3) and their challenges. It allows him to study and understand the letter of Revelation as the means by which John positions the churches to see and understand the challenges they face and how they should respond to them in a God-honoring way. What does John write and why does he write it? Of what was he trying to persuade his readers?
The classical Greek and Latin rhetorical handbooks (from Aristotle, Cicero, Quintilian, and others) give a framework to how John shaped his argument. They help us understand how John:
- Constructs and deconstructs credibility (appeals to ethos);
- Engages the feelings of the hearers (appeals to pathos); and
- Formulates arguments leading the audience toward the decision the author favors (appeals to logos).
They help us understand John’s goals and to what degree he wanted to influence his hearer’ values, promote or discourage certain courses of action, or encourage a verdict of innocence or guilt.
While this may sound very theoretical, deSilva continually shows how this applies and opens up Revelation to us. As an apocalypse, Revelation takes the every day life of the seven churches (Rev 2–3) and gives them God’s view of the world to help them interpret the situations and challenges they live in (pp. 13–14). Revelation shows them what they are truly struggling against, what they should be living for, and what is at stake with their choices.
John moves from the churches’ more present and immediate concerns to more universal picture of God and Christ (Rev 4–5) and then to global concerns (Rev 6–21) to give the churches (and us) the “bigger picture.” While it might appear to make life easier to follow the Roman system, worship Caesar, participate in pagan festivals and temple practices as their neighbors do, John continually shows his readers why they cannot follow those practices but instead must stay true to Christ and his way.
In chapter four deSilva shows us “the cosmos according to John,” how John presents a particular worldview to the churches which “creates a map of spaces and times that lie outside the realm of ‘lived’ experience” so that these Christians can see God’s view of what goes on around them (93). While it seems like every neighbor—everyone and their mamma—is worshiping idols, John presents a picture of the hosts of heaven and “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea” (Rev 5:13) praising the God of heaven and the Lamb who sits on the throne. It is in this picture that those who worship idols are “the deviant minority” (99). It is those who worship idols who are “out of order” and are “sources of disorder themselves” (99). The allegiance that is most advantageous is not to the idol-worshipping neighbor on route to give honor to Caesar; it is to the resurrected Lamb who was slain and sits at the right hand of God.
It’s easy to imagine (at least, I always have) that John merely wrote down the visions he received exactly as he saw and heard them. While deSilva believes John did actually receive visions (perhaps in a trance like state like Daniel in Dan 10, p. 123) John “tells a story” with a particular intent—that of persuading his audience against the pagan Roman culture and the imperial cult (104).
John had incredible visions, but he passed his visions on in a way that would communicate the meaning of them to his readers in ways they would understand. How could he explain the sights, sounds, and the full 3D experience of all that he saw? It would be impossible. He had to choose what to relay to his people in a way that would be understandable to them and which would spur them on to faithfulness in Jesus Christ. And he did so by also making many references back to the OT (e.g., Ezek 3:12 in Rev 1:10—p. 123)
John both received visions from the Lord Jesus and crafted them in a way to try to effect a response from these seven churches (and ultimately from every church).
This is a fantastic work on Revelation, and it would be a great resource for those studying Revelation. This is a thick book, and it is a long read, but I can’t tell you how much I have underlined and how many stars I have placed throughout the book. This book has opened my eyes to the depth of Revelation, beyond just the depth of John’s use of the OT, but also to how he has crafted his apocalypse and why he has done it that way. This is a book I will be going back to when I study and teach Revelation. It is not for the average layperson, but for those who want to take a deep but worthy dive in John’s apocalypse. Highly recommended.
- Author: David A. deSilva
- Hardcover: 408 pages
- Publisher: Westminster John Knox Press (June 29, 2009)
Disclosure: I received this book free from Westminster John Knox Press. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.