Hearing the Book of Revelation with ‘Two Ears’
Published by Jeffrey Weima
Professor of New Testament
A book of the Bible that simultaneously both intrigues and intimidates Christians is the book of Revelation. On the one hand, readers are captivated by the striking imagery and otherworldly descriptions of various creatures and events in this final book of scripture. On the other hand, readers struggle to understand what is going on clearly. They can easily become frustrated as to what God is saying, not only to the original audience in 1st-century Asia Minor but also to 21st-century believers today.
A big reason why many of us struggle to understand the book of Revelation is that we fail to listen to its message with “two ears.” One ear is required to catch its many allusions to the Old Testament. Although the book of Revelation has almost no explicit quotations from the Old Testament, it is saturated with allusions to key words, phrases, and events from the first half of the canon. Since most of us do not have this first “Old Testament ear,” we easily miss these allusions, and so fail to grasp the meaning of the biblical text. But another ear is similarly needed to hear the many allusions to the Greco-Roman world of John, the author, and his 1st-century readers. Since most of us do not have this second “ancient world ear,” we also miss these allusions and once again fail to understand well what God is saying in his word.
The Old Testament Ear
An example of the need to hear the book of Revelation with an “Old Testament ear” is found in the opening of the letter to Philadelphia (Rev 3:7-13). The Jesus who is about to speak to this church is introduced with three titles: “These are the words of the Holy One, the True One, the one who holds the key of David—what he opens no one can shut and what he shuts no one can open” (Rev 3:7b). The first and the third of these titles come from the Old Testament and so are especially effective as a polemic, that is, an argument against the local Jewish community who were particularly pro-active in persecuting the Philadelphia church.
Jesus introduces himself in the first Christ title as “the Holy One” (3:7b). This title often appears in the Old Testament—including some 25 times in Isaiah—as a key title for God. Jesus’ use of this divine title to describe himself is a not-very-subtle way of saying something important about who he is, that he, too, is God. Before this truth about the deity of Jesus is dismissed as something that all Christians already know, it is important to remember what Jesus’ followers in Philadelphia were facing: strong opposition from the local Jewish community vehemently denying the claim that Jesus is God. It would be especially comforting for these persecuted Christians to hear at the very beginning of this letter that the Jesus for whom they are suffering is “the Holy One”—that Jesus is indeed God.
Jesus further introduces himself in the third and significantly longer Christ title: “the one who has the key of David; what he opens no one can shut and what he shuts no one can open” (3:7b). This Christ title closely echoes the words of Isaiah 22:22. The backstory of this not-so-well-known passage from Isaiah goes like this:
In ancient Israel, no one could have direct and immediate access to the palace and the king; people instead had to go through the “M.O.P.”—the Master of the Palace. He had the “key,” that is, total control over who could enter the palace and meet with the king. In the days of the good king Hezekiah, the person who held this powerful position of the “M.O.P.” was a man named Shebna. Shebna did something that revealed his vanity and selfish ambition: he had a grave made for himself cut out of solid rock in a special location where only the kings had graves. God was so displeased with Shebna’s arrogant action that he promised to give his powerful position as “M.O.P.” to someone else. This new person was promised “the key of David,” a clear symbol of his authority as “M.O.P.” In fact, this new person would have such total control over who had access to the palace and the king that “what he opens no one can shut and what he shuts no one can open.”
This Old Testament backstory explains the meaning of the third Christ title: Jesus is now the “M.O.P.,” the Master of the Palace, the one with total control over who has access to “the city of my God, the new Jerusalem” (3:12). Jesus is the one with absolute authority over who can enter the kingdom of God.
This third Christ title also involves an important polemic against the Jewish community in Philadelphia. Judaism was officially recognized as a protected religion by the Roman state. The Jews made special arrangements with the Roman authorities that allowed them to meet in their synagogue buildings and be exempt from participating in pagan sacrifices that were such a big part of everyday civic life and by which you could publicly demonstrate your loyalty to Rome. Christianity, however, was not an officially recognized religion, so when Jesus’ followers similarly refused to participate in pagan sacrifices, they were persecuted. To avoid this persecution, many Jewish Christians continued to be members of the local synagogue, taking advantage of the fact that most people could not distinguish Christianity from Judaism. Over time, however, the Jewish leaders realized that Christians in their synagogues were taking advantage of the protection that Judaism afforded, so they took steps “to close the door” on these Jesus followers, that is, to excommunicate them from synagogue membership.
In the third Christ title, Jesus tells the Christians in Philadelphia: “You may have been kicked out of the synagogue, but you have not been kicked out of the kingdom of God. Remember that I have the key of David. Remember that I am the “M.O.P.”— the Master of the Palace. I have opened the door for you to approach God fully and freely and to enter God’s kingdom, and what I open, no one can shut—neither the Roman authorities nor the leaders of the local Jewish synagogue.”
The Ancient World Ear
An illustration of the need to hear the book of Revelation also with an “ancient world ear” can be seen in the opening of the letter to Ephesus, where Jesus is introduced as the one who “holds the seven stars” (Rev 2:1). This Christ title emphasizes the power of Jesus that involves a polemic not against the local Jewish community but against Rome and its assertion of power. The Roman emperors liked to present themselves in coinage as demigods whose power extended beyond Earth to control the planets and the stars. After the death of his 10-year-old son in AD 83, Domitian declared the boy to be a god, and his wife, Domitia, the mother of a god, issued a coin in his son’s honor. This coin portrays the deceased boy sitting on a globe in a position of power over the world. In his outstretched arms, he holds seven stars, which represent the seven planets, to depict his heavenly dominion over the whole universe.
The later emperor Hadrian (AD 117-138) issued a coin with his image on one side and a crescent moon and seven stars on the other. The not-very-subtle message is that Hadrian is so powerful that he controls things that happen not only on Earth but also in the heavens among the moon and seven stars. Therefore, the depiction of Christ in the first title as the one who “holds the seven stars” involves a challenge to Roman power. Jesus, who has already been identified earlier in the book of Revelation as “the ruler of the kings of the earth” (1:5), is once again portrayed as the one whose cosmic power exceeds the claims of Rome.
Modern Hearers of the Book of Revelation
The Book of Revelation has an important message for its original, 1st-century readers and contemporary, 21st century readers. Instead of being intimidated by this final book of the Bible, Jesus’ followers today should listen carefully to its divine message with two ears. Christians need to make use of study Bibles, commentaries, and other resources that help them hear the many allusions to both the Old Testament and the ancient world. “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches!” (Rev 2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22).
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