- There is not complete agreement on what the book of Revelation means. There may never be complete agreement on what it means during the course of human history.
- The book of Revelation was not accepted in the earliest days of the church. One reason was its use by various "doomsday" groups. It's necessary to take peoples' predictions of the end times with a grain of salt.
- It is symbolic, and to some extent mysterious. It is presented as a vision, and not everything in that vision is explained.
- It is a very visual book. (After like the third time that a keen insight had been offered by one or the other of the two brothers in my class who are manga artists, and a similar number of "puzzled" episodes from the verbal-thinkers, I pointed out: because the book is largely filled with images and imagery, the visual thinkers have the edge here over the verbal thinkers. That their usual roles in class may be reversed while we study such a visual book, as the people who think in pictures may well understand faster than the people who think in words.)
Introduction to Number Symbols
Asked them to name symbolic numbers in the Bible. We discussed 3, 7, 12, and 40. (We'll get around to 4 and 10 later; this is was meant as an introduction to the idea of symbolic numbers.)
- Examples of 3: Trinity, "Holy, Holy, Holy": 3 as symbolic of God and holiness.
- Examples of 7: Sabbath. (Also: sabbath year, Jubilee, 70x70 of the wait for the Messiah; 70x7 of Jesus' forgiveness). The theme of blessing, rest, forgiveness. Also the sevenfold Spirit of God.
- Examples of 12: Twelve tribes of Israel. Twelve apostles. The basic idea is the people of God.
- Examples of 40: 40 days and nights of rain, 40 years in the wilderness (Israelites), 40 days in the wilderness (Jesus). The theme of purification, judgment, repentance, dedication.
Mentioned to them that some things were also in numeric code. They were all familiar with the simple children's code where 1=A, 2=B, 3=C and so forth. Mentioned that there were parts where a similar code seemed to be in use for the identity of the big villain of the piece, whose number was 666. That there was a "letters for numbers" scheme in Hebrew, and in Greek, and in Latin -- which makes it even trickier to figure out what the "666" may have originally meant.
Exercise: The Letters to the Churches
Because we had done an awful lot of talking, we did something participatory next, which meant not taking the text completely in order. Each student was assigned one of the letters to the 7 churches to read silently, and as they read the letter, they were to look for two things:
- How is Jesus described in the letter? Look at the beginning of the letter where it describes who it is from.
- What is promised to the people who hang in there through the hardships and overcome? Look towards the end of the letter where it says, "To him who overcomes, I will ...".
We then went around the room twice: first, each person said how Jesus was described in their letter. Mention that the way Jesus is introduced in each letter is related to the message that each individual church is receiving. (For instance, in one letter where Jesus is described as more angry-looking than others, the text of the letter includes that the church needs some serious correction, kind of a "kicking-tail-and-taking-names" kind of letter.)
Next, each person related the promise that was given in their letter. Afterwards, asked for comments about peoples' favorite promise.
Images and Concepts from the Letters
We spent some time discussing the images and concepts from the readings:
- manna (God's providence, lasting food, Jesus as bread of heaven)
- tree of life (eternal life)
- being blotted out of the book of life (judgment)
- double-edged sword (usually refers to God's word. Sword as a defense for the good and a danger for the evil -- both between people and within ourselves)
- Hades (Greek origins and borrowed here, land of the dead where people were waiting for the end of time)
- Second Death (wait on that one, don't want too many spoilers for the end of the book)
Here the keen contributions from the visual thinkers were the plainest. We also talked about how images can mean more than one thing, that in some ways images can carry more meanings than words. With words, sometimes we try to be precise and mean exactly one thing. With images -- and the images used here all have a long and rich history -- they'll find that one image carries all the meanings of the thing itself, and all the histories where it has ever appeared, along with it. The use of images gives the book multiple layers of meanings from the same verses. Just because you have found one meaning in an image, you may not have found them all.
Introduction to the Vision
We went back to the earlier part of the book and read the introduction to the vision. They all picked up on how many things mentioned in the introduction had also been brought up again in the letters. Some discussion of the "angels of the churches" and different ways that could be understood. How a lot of the imagery -- like the robe and the sash and the lamps -- went back to Moses and the tabernacle. How, as the lessons continue, they will often see images that have come up before in other places in the Bible.