Before we get into the heart of the matter, it would likely be helpful to set some boundaries on the context of the letter. This concept is of major importance when it comes to interpreting the book of Revelation. Human beings by nature are quite narcissistic, and over the centuries each generation has been certain that the words of the ancient prophecy were no doubt written specifically for them in their own time. There is no doubt that this attitude still exists today.
Recently, I have heard three expressions that I would like to share with you that might help to bring the importance of context to light. These expressions might seem related or similar, but I assure you they are have nothing to do with each other.
Lubbock, Texas has more sky.
Abilene, Texas - where the sidewalks get rolled up at dark.
Kansas City, Missouri - where it gets late early.
I have lived or visited all three of these cities, and the context for these expressions is paramount. Have you heard them before? For those that are familiar with the locations, they might make sense. Others will have no idea what they mean!
For those that have never been to Lubbock, let me explain it is flat. Now I mean unbelievably flat. Songwriter Mac Davis once said you could stand on a milk crate and watch you dog run away for two weeks. Now that is flat country! So, without the distraction of mountains, trees, hills, etc... it makes perfect sense to say that Lubbock has more sky! In fact, that was a city slogan when we lived there in the late 1990's.
Abilene, Texas has never been a city known for its vibrant nightlife. The city, since its inception in the 1880's, has been dominated by three large religious organizations (Church of Christ, Baptist, and Methodist) that gave it a very Puritan feel. The expression "roll up the sidewalks at dark" has been used for years to describe sleepy, small towns. I suppose Abilene would fit into this description.
Now, on to Kansas City. The expression "It gets late early" was used last week by an announcer as I watched the K.C. Royals in the World Series. Apparently, Yogi Berra first uttered the words many years before, but for a much different reason. For the Royals, the expression describes the dominant bullpen pitchers possessed by the team. Baseball games are scheduled for 9 innings, but the Royals have outstanding pitchers at the end of the game. As the game rolls into the late innings, it is common to say "It is getting late in the game". When playing the Royals, the opposing team had better score early in the game, for the probability of scoring against Herrera, Madson, and Davis are very low. Therefore, it gets late early in Kansas City!
The following expressions must be taken in context to receive the full meaning of the author. They speak of location, people and time, respectively. Changes to any of the situations would lose their context and original meaning. Other similar situations might be found, but it would not fit the original purpose of the author. Denver has more sky! Just not the same. NYC rolls up the sidewalks at dark. Absolutely not for the city that never sleeps. It gets late early in Philadelphia. Not this year, Phillies! Such is the case with the book of Revelation.
The context of Revelation is built around a central location, that being Asia Minor (Revelation 1:4) on the frontier of the Roman Empire. Certain people were addressed as brothers in the kingdom of Jesus Christ (Revelation 1:9). Finally, a time period near the first century was given as John noted these things would shortly come to pass (Revelation 1:1).
While it is tempting (and even seems logical) to place ourselves and our own situations into the book, that removes the original context. Many problems come from this, and the meaning of the book of Revelation has been changed greatly over the years. Let us commit to studying this book within the context that it was written, hence the Biblical-Historical method of interpretation.
- Bryan Morrison