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How Do We Understand the Book of Revelation? Dr. Jeffrey Weima

Home » How Do We Understand the Book of Revelation? Dr. Jeffrey Weima

Dr. Arnold interviews Dr. Weima on the book of Revelation.

Topics of conversation include:

  • The genre of the book of Revelation
  • The purpose and structure of the book of Revelation
  • The figurative and symbolic use of numbers in Revelation
  • The main message to each of the 7 churches and how that message applies to the church today
  • Resources for further study on the book of Revelation

Dr. Jeffrey Weimar is professor of New Testament at Calvin Theological Seminary. He leads preaching seminars for pastors and church leaders, and has taught as a visiting professor for Phoenix Seminary’s Doctor of Ministry program. Dr. Weima is the author of several books, including 1-2 Thessalonians in the Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament series (Baker Academic, 2014), and The Sermons to the Seven Churches of Revelation: A Commentary and Guide (Baker Academic, 2021).

 

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Intro (00:00):

Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix Seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary.

 

Brian Arnold (00:17):

What comes to mind when you think about the book of Revelation? Is it a beast coming up out of the ocean? Is it major global warfare with the anti-Christ leading the charge? For me, my mind goes back to growing up in a church obsessed with the end times, where you could find prophecy charts plastered all around the Sunday school rooms. But what is Revelation really about? How are we supposed to read and interpret this strange book? Well, primarily it’s a book written to persecuted Christians wondering if it was worth it to follow Christ, even unto death. The letters written to the seven churches at the beginning of the book were called to perseverance, reminding the reader that Christ is the victor, he will come again, and he will establish the new heavens and the new earth. And because they can be assured of victory, they could persevere through any trial or persecution in this life.

 

Brian Arnold (01:04):

It is a wonderful reminder for those today who struggle with whether or not following Christ is worth it. Well here to help us understand the book of Revelation is Dr. Jeff Weima. Dr. Weima is professor of New Testament at Calvin Theological Seminary. And he’s the author of several books, including the Baker Exegetical Commentary on 1-2 Thessalonians, and most recently, The Sermons to the Seven Churches of Revelation. Dr. Weima also has led preaching seminars for pastors and church leaders, and has even taught as a visiting professor for Phoenix Seminary’s Doctor of Ministry program. Dr. Weima, welcome to the podcast.

 

Jeff Weima (01:39):

Thank you. It’s great to be here.

 

Brian Arnold (01:41):

So we always ask our guests one big question, and today that question is—how do we understand the book of Revelation? And I do want to get to the point where we talk about kind of your area of focus within the book of Revelation, which is specifically those letters in Revelations two through three, written to the seven churches in Asia Minor. But before we get there, I was thinking maybe we could set the stage for people, to help them understand the whole book of Revelation. So kind of walk us through—what is the genre of this? When do you think this was written, and what’s the purpose of the book?

 

Jeff Weima (02:13):

Well, all great questions. And like great questions, not always easy to answer shortly, but here we go. So you’ve already in your intro talked about the fact that it’s apocalyptic writing. And it’s very important for Christians today to recognize that even though the Bible has one overarching message, and one author—ultimately God or the Holy Spirit—that one overarching message comes to us in a variety of different genres, is the fancy word, or kinds of writing. And we have, of course then, historical books, although they’re not pure history, we have legal documents, we have something called gospels, parables, letters of course, and added to the mix is something called apocalyptic. And so it’s very important for the reader of Scripture not to kind of treat all the Bible the same, in the sense that it’s all the same stuff.

 

Jeff Weima (03:08):

Yes, it has a fundamental unity, but it comes to us in these different forms of writing. And so apocalyptic is, at least to our ears, quite unique. Now in the ancient world though, there are a number of documents that have the same kind of writing style—a little bit of Daniel, maybe part of Mark, but there are books that many Christians today haven’t heard of because they’re outside the Bible, like The Apocalypse of Abraham, or 4 Ezra, or 2 Baruch. But the important point is for the modern hearer to realize that this use of natural phenomena, like lightning and hail and events, or animals and numbers in symbolic or figurative ways—that actually is not so strange or unusual for the people of that day, but it’s common to a certain form of writing. So that’s the first thing—to take seriously the genre of writing, and have that impact your interpretation.

 

Jeff Weima (04:06):

Another big misconception has to do with how we view the book. Interestingly, a lot of modern Christians are a bit intimidated by the book of Revelation because of that apocalyptic style of writing. But actually that’s more true of Western Christians. I lead biblical tours to the middle east, and my exposure have been to Orthodox Christians, whether they’re Greek or other kind, actually in that part of the world, they’re less scared and actually more in love of the book of Revelation than we are. So it’s just maybe helpful to realize that although we experience Revelation one way, maybe a little bit fearfully or intimidating, other Christians around the globe have an opposite reaction. Now another misconception—and this relates to the book of Revelation as a whole, and also to the seven letters, as they’re often called, Revelation two and three—has to do with the book’s overall purpose.

 

Jeff Weima (05:03):

And in the introduction, you kind of captured some of that stereotype, which is true, but maybe I think needs to be nuanced a bit. So what is common, and this is my own experience too, originally, before I dove a little deeper into the book of Revelation, is I saw them as like superstar Christians. You know, these are the Christians who are being persecuted heavily, you know, for their faith. And they hang in there, even to the point of death. And Jesus kind of writes them this book, this apocalyptic book, which says—”Way to go, you superstar Christians! Hang in there! Life is hard now, but one day I’ll return, and I’ll vindicate your faith, and all things will be made made new.” And although that is part of the message of the book of Revelation, it distorted a very real fact—that actually the book of Revelation was written to Christians who were less than superstars.

 

Jeff Weima (05:57):

In fact, of the seven explicit churches that are addressed in chapters two and three, only two of the seven are healthy churches. And the two healthy churches are kind of hidden in the structure. They’re number two and number six. So the opening prominent position, Ephesus, or the emphatic concluding position, Laodicea, or the lengthier by far middle position, Thyatira, all of these churches are actually unhealthy. And that’s not only important for properly interpreting the book, but frankly it makes the book more relevant for us Western Christians. So I’m almost about to stop, just let me say this last point, and then I’ll kick it back to you. If you, like I did originally, thought of Revelation as written only to these superstar, martyred Christians, there was a tendency to not pay too much attention to the book. Because, well frankly, I’m not under persecution. I don’t worry about being martyred for my faith.

 

Jeff Weima (06:53):

And so as a result, not only from an apocalyptic point of view that made the book kind of fearful or distant, but it just didn’t seem very practical or relevant. And I’ve discovered through a careful reading of my analysis of the book is that actually it was written to second or third generation Christians who were trying hard to fit into the secular culture of that day. And in their desire to fit in, they compromise their faith in all kinds of ways that Jesus is not happy with. And when you read the book that way, it makes the book extremely relevant for, I think, an affluent Western church today that is trying maybe too hard to kind of be accepted by a broader culture and society, and too willing to make compromises in their faith. And so I think that this book is crying out to be preached and to be heard by the contemporary church today.

 

Brian Arnold (07:49):

Well, I’m looking forward to diving into that. I love hearing the relevance that you see for today with as much compromise as we see in the church. But before we get there, I just want to ask you this one last question, kind of about the structure of the book of Revelation. How do you see these sermons fitting into the overall structure? Why are they placed at the beginning of the book, and how does that relate to the rest of the reading of Revelation?

 

Jeff Weima (08:14):

Well, it’s a good question because it raises an aspect of interpretation that, well, frankly, biblical scholars have only in more recent times—maybe 30 years or so—come to better appreciate. And that is—we have to look not just at what the Bible says, the content of the Bible, we also have to pay very careful attention to the form of the Bible, the structure or the form with which that content comes. That’s true of all of Scripture. And therefore, it’s obviously true also of the book of Revelation. And so the book of Revelation has been written with great care, again, not just its content, but also its outline or its structure. And that has implications for thinking of the seven letters—or as I may have a chance to explain—better, the seven sermons to the seven churches as a whole. Those chapters have a very deliberate structure. And then not surprisingly, chapters two and three, those seven letters, or seven sermons, have a relevance for the document as a whole, the rest of Revelation—chapter 14 through to the end.

 

Jeff Weima (09:20):

Now there’s some debate, of course, about that structure, whether it’s kind of sequential, or whether it’s more circular in terms of its argumentation. And I don’t know if this is the best place to get into those discussions. I’m not really interested in doing that so much, but I do think it’s important for your hearers, to say for all of Scripture, including the book of Revelation, we have to pay attention to the structure. And the seven sermons at the beginning of the book of Revelation clearly are foreshadowing things that are going to be picked up later on, and kind of set the stage for the visions that will be revealed in the rest of the prophetic utterance of the book of Revelation.

 

Brian Arnold (10:04):

Well that’s a really helpful piecing together, so that people, as they’re approaching Revelation, can understand the significance of the churches. Well, I want to dive into that now and hear from you some of the research that you’ve done. You’ve called these sermons or prophetic oracles to the churches. So let’s just begin there. Why sermons? Why these churches? Why Asia Minor? And just start maybe going church by church and helping us understand what Christ is saying.

 

Jeff Weima (10:31):

Sure. So now, the distinction between sermons and letters…I’m being a little bit technical, but remember I’m an egghead New Testament professor, and maybe there are reasons to be technical. Also I’ve written a book on letters and letter structure. And so I’m very much always looking carefully and encouraging readers to know the letter, the structure of a letter. Because the letters of the New Testament do have of a particular structure. And Paul in particular is such a skilled letter writer, that changes in that outline or structure are, I would say, always significant. They reveal important truths about the message that he, under the inspiration of the Spirit, was led to say. And so I’m a little bit sensitive to whether a letter is really a letter or not. And when you look at the so-called seven letters of Revelation, they…well, they frankly don’t have the kind of things that New Testament letters have. Or that secular letters of that day have.

 

Jeff Weima (11:29):

Now, that doesn’t mean, though, that they don’t have a structure. So just as important it is for the New Testament letters, for the reader to know what that structure is, and to recognize how interpretation is impacted by changes to that structure. Exactly the same thing is true for the seven…well now what do we call them? If they’re not letters, they have to be something. And so you rightly, I think, highlighted the fact that they are prophetic utterances. They are a word of prophecy, as long as you understand what prophecy is. But I call them sermons, because it’s a little more user-friendly title for what a prophetic utterance is. A prophetic utterance is a word of the Lord, addressing not predominantly things in the future—we would call that foretelling, right—but predominantly addressing things happening in the reader’s day, and in their context and in their culture.

 

Jeff Weima (12:25):

And we would use another word—not foretelling, but forthtelling. And so that’s what a good sermon does. It’s a word of the Lord, written to a particular audience, addressing a particular situation. And with that mentality, I think, that’s the proper way to approach the seven letters as a whole. They’re written addressing, first and foremost, the situation of Christians in the first century who happened to live in Asia Minor. Now, at the risk of talking too long, I think I remember you asking something about why these seven? Well, we maybe can’t answer why these seven, but the seven itself is important. I hope that readers have some sense already that numbers in the book of Revelation almost always have a more figurative or symbolic meaning. And seven is a sign of completeness, or wholeness. And we know for sure that there were other churches, other congregations in Asia Minor. For instance, the seventh one in the climactic position of the end—and I could already sew a seed in saying it’s the worst of the seven churches.

 

Jeff Weima (13:33):

It is in what’s called the Lycus Valley in Western Turkey or ancient Asia Minor. And just down the road, only 10 miles, is the city of Colossae. And Christians will know that there was a church in Colossae and there’s the New Testament letter written to the Colossians. And so we know that there were other congregations in Asia Minor. And so these seven are picked because John, again, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is addressing not just the seven, they are representative for the larger church at whole. Not just even in Asia Minor, but the church in the ancient world. And these churches that he knows something about because he has a close relationship with them, I guess, address issues that are not only relevant for that immediate congregation, those seven, but are also significant for the larger Christian audience that John expects to be listening in on—I wouldn’t say the mail of the seven letters—but listening in on the sermons to the seven churches.

 

Brian Arnold (14:35):

Okay. So let’s go maybe church by church, and explain what the main message is to each of these churches. And then I want you to start connecting that to modern day. I think you peaked our interest early on in talking about the compromise of the Western church, and the things that we could be learning from these churches, I think would be wonderful to hear.

 

Jeff Weima (14:58):

Well, great. Now remember, of course, I wrote a book on the question you just asked me. And so obviously I have to be way, way more brief now, and feel free to cut me off, but I’ll start off. So there are seven, and I’ve already mentioned once that the healthy churches are hidden within the seven. So number two and number six are the only healthy churches. And they have some parallels with each other besides just being healthy churches. So the first one—and the remaining ones are all unhealthy churches—and the first one is Ephesus. So Ephesus is almost certainly the largest of the seven locations, the seven cities. It was the third or fourth largest city in the ancient world. And they’re commended for something. Jesus typically commends the church for something before he then gives a complaint against the church.

 

Jeff Weima (15:50):

And so they’re commended for their orthodoxy, for their correct teaching. And it’s important for the church today to hear that Jesus applauds the church, gives them two thumbs up, for well, being concerned with the truth. Not accepting people who claim to be apostles, but are not, and not putting up with people with false ideas, and even mentions one group called the Nicolaitans, and so forth. So Jesus applauds them for their orthodoxy, but says—wait a minute, you have forgotten the love you had at first. And there’s a debate about the meaning, but I think a strong case can be made—and I’m by far not the only exegete or scholar who says this—but that they were so concerned with orthodoxy that a climate of suspicion permeated their congregation, and they were failing to be the loving, caring community that they had been at first.

 

Jeff Weima (16:45):

And so the first sermon focuses not so much on lack of love for God and Christ, but lack of love for brothers and sisters. And that seems to be relevant for some congregations today. There are some congregations today who rightfully, and Jesus would applaud them for knowing the truth, and defending the truth, and teaching the truth. But the danger always comes along with that, that you still don’t fail to love the other half of that summary of the law, not only God and Christ with all your heart, your soul, your mind, and your strength, but also your neighbor as yourself. So that’s the church of Ephesus. The second church is to Smyrna, just going a little bit north, another port city. And this is one of the two healthy churches. And they are persecuted for their faith, and Jesus applauds them for hanging in there, right?

 

Jeff Weima (17:39):

Despite the adversity that they face. In fact, Jesus is so happy with them, he has no complaint, right? It really would be desirous of any congregation today to have Jesus look at them and say, “You know what? I only have thumbs up for you!” Anyway, they’re commended for their persecution and enduring that. And although that’s a hard sell today in the Western church, we ought not to be blind that our brothers and sisters around the globe are experiencing all kinds of opposition. It may not always be death, but there are all kinds of other powerful and painful ways in which brothers and sisters in Christ are suffering. Just to pick China, for example, I do hope that our audience knows that the government of China is forcing churches to tear down crosses from their building. Or, because you can’t get permission to start a brand new church building, you have to rent a space, and it’s really hard to renew your rent. And on your government ID card, you have to list what faith or religion you are.

 

Jeff Weima (18:40):

And if you put Christianity, you have some very significant financial and other pushback. And so anyway, the second sermon is to Smyrna, the church of the persevering persecuted. I’m going to go on to the third one, and we’re back to the unhealthy churches. And it’s Pergamum. Pergamum, that I call the church of idolatrous compromise. Idolatrous compromise, because they are doing something that, well, sounds weird and strange to Christians today, but it was a huge problem in the early church. And that is—meat sacrificed to idols, or sometimes translated food sacrificed to idols. And it was such a big problem. It was not only a problem for the third sermon, the church to Pergamum, but I’ll throw in there also the fourth sermon, the sermon to Thyatira. And it was a big problem, because Acts 15—most Christians know about Acts 15, and that it dealt with the issue of circumcision—but it also dealt with other issues.

 

Jeff Weima (19:41):

And one of the issues it dealt with was, again, meat sacrificed to idols. And the problem was such a big deal in Corinth, that Paul takes not one, not two, but three plus chapters—1 Corinthians 8, 9, 10, and one verse from 11. Such a big deal, it was. And so again, we don’t have time unless you ask me, right, but this business of participating in religious meals, cultic meals, and as a result, you become guilty of idolatry. Now that’s relevant for the church today. Not because we’re tempted in the same way. In other words, most of us aren’t tempted to partake in some kind of pagan meal, right? In which we honor some deity and therefore become guilty of idolatry? But there are all kinds of other idols that we are venerating, that we are paying too much attention to, and making ourselves guilty of idolatry. I could, if I had time, talk about the idol of sports, or the idol of self pleasure, or the idol of nationalism. I mean, a lot of things are not bad in and of themselves, but an idol, to quote someone famous, right, an idol is a good thing that you turn into an ultimate thing. A good thing that you turn into an ultimate thing. And so sermons number three and four deal with a very relevant problem today, the problem of idolatry. I’m gonna keep going. You haven’t cut me off yet.

 

Brian Arnold (21:08):

Yep. Fire away. We probably have about three or four minutes, if we can, you know, kind of summarize those last ones with main message and big takeaway for the church today.

 

Jeff Weima (21:17):

Okay. So then we’re up to Sardis, number five, and they are the church of deadly complacency. Deadly complacency. That, I think, also describes much of the Western church today, right. We’ve been around for too long. We’re resting on our laurels. We’re living off the fumes of our glory days in the past. And that was the problem of Sardis. And Jesus comes along and says that complacency is not just a bad thing, but it’s so serious it can be a deadly thing. That’s Sardis. Then we get church six, and we have the second of the healthy churches, the church of Philadelphia. Another persecuted church. And they also persevere, and Jesus also gives them two thumbs up with no complaints. And so they also are a healthy reminder for not only the ancient readers of the book of Revelation, but Christians today, whether they’re international or whether they’re here in the states. But that when we suffer for our faith, right, we’re commended for doing so.

 

Jeff Weima (22:13):

And then the last church is unfortunately the worst. And that is Laodicea. The church of—I hope I don’t offend anyone, but it comes right out of the text—the church of vomit and vanity. The church of vomit and vanity, because not only does Jesus have nothing good to say about them—ouch, there’s no commendation—but he says, You guys, when I look at you, you make me want to throw up. You make me want to puke.” I mean, there’s a Greek word that’s not translated accurately in most translations. Most translations soften it by saying, “I want to spit you out of my mouth.” But the Greek is quite clear, no—”I want to vomit you out of my mouth.” And yet, to this church that is so on the wrong path, Jesus has words of compassion and grace that the modern audience also needs to hear. Right? “Those whom I love I rebuke.” And he says, “I stand at the door and knock.” Jesus wants to have a relationship with these Christians, an intimate one, in which he eats with them. And so it’s interesting that to the worst of the worst church, Jesus has powerful words of grace that I think also are important to be heard by the contemporary Christian today. Did I make my limit?

 

Brian Arnold (23:28):

Yeah, that is a tall task to do in that amount of time, to summarize these churches as you have. I was wondering if, maybe in addition to your book, The Sermons to the Seven Churches of Revelation, if you might offer one or two resources that would be helpful for our listeners.

 

Jeff Weima (23:44):

Well, a good commentary—and of course, how do you define a good commentary—will obviously treat the two chapters, right, but in a much briefer way. Another option, if people can swing it, is to do a biblical tour. I lead these kinds of trips, and other people do too. But if you have a chance to travel to these places, then suddenly you become a lot more aware of the historical context and how that sheds light. And anyway, one more commentary by a guy named Greg Beale. What’s good about his commentary—it’s a little bit thick and intimidating—but he’s an excellent scholar in recognizing the Old Testament allusions in the book of Revelation. So one of the reasons that modern Christians have a hard time understanding the book of Revelation is we don’t know the Old Testament well enough to pick up what these Old Testament allusions are. And so a commentary like Greg Beale’s does a good job in helping us hear what John expects the original hearers to have heard. And a lot of the book makes much more sense when you know the social world, the Greco-Roman social world of that day, and the Old Testament allusions.

 

Brian Arnold (24:55):

Okay. Yep. I love that commentary as well. And you’ve given us a lot to think about with these seven churches. I know I’m convicted of my own heart, thinking through what the Lord might say to me. But also trying to think for my own church and what God might say to our church today in a secular age of compromise, that we might stand true on the Word of God. Dr. Weima, thanks so much for joining us today.

 

Jeff Weima (25:15):

My pleasure.

 

Brian Arnold (25:17):

Thank you for listening to Faith Seeking Understanding. It means so much to us that this content is helping you grow in your understanding of the faith. I want to take a moment to tell you about our new online learning experience at Phoenix Seminary. Over the last year, we’ve been creating what we believe to be the highest quality of online courses for ministry training. If you’re called to train for a lifetime of faithful service, but can’t join us on campus, I’d like you to invite you to join us online. Take courses featuring some of the guests you’ve heard on Faith Seeking Understanding, including Wayne Grudem, Mike Thigpen, Steve Duby, myself, and more. Learn more about Phoenix Seminary online, and even access the entire online lecture content for my church history course at ps.edu/online.

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