In this episode of Mind + Heart, host Phillip Holmes interviews Dr. Thomas Keene. Dr. Keene is the Associate Professor of New Testament and academic dean at Reformed Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. Dr. Keene received his undergraduate degree in Philosophy and Computer Science from Furman University in 2002, an MDiv from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia in 2005, and a Ph.D. in New Testament in 2010. Dr. Keene contributed to The Illustrated Bible Dictionary and Issues in Luke-Acts. He has served in pastoral ministry and has taught at Westminster Theological Seminary since 2006.
Holmes asks Dr. Keene about his backstory and testimony. Dr. Keene describes growing up in Dallas in a Christian environment and his ensuing interest in the Word thanks to the efforts of his youth pastor, who allowed him to ask difficult questions without fear of judgment and provided him with books.
Holmes asks Dr. Keene why he chose to combine computer science and philosophy in his undergrad, and Dr. Keene explains that this was a choice to combine a long-shot field of study in philosophy with a practical option in computer science. Dr. Keene also discusses his decision to commit to completing his education before beginning a teaching career.
Holmes and Dr. Keene pivot to their discussion of Revelation, beginning with Dr. Keene’s own understanding of the book before and after seminary. Dr. Keene talks about his discomfort approaching the book both during and after seminary and his desire to better understand the book. He also discusses Dr. Sinclair Ferguson’s early impact on his understanding of Revelation.
Holmes then plays the audio from Dr. Keene’s previous Wisdom Wednesday episode, “How should we understand the book of Revelation?” and asks Dr. Keene about the dangers of being quick to apply Revelation to current events. Dr. Keene explains the importance of hermeneutical balance between overemphasizing present-future interpretation over the ability of the original audience to understand and interpret Revelation’s message. Dr. Keene also warns against the opposite mistake: flattening the book to the degree that it has no present-future application. Holmes and Dr. Keene discuss the importance of holding to this tension, and Dr. Keene warns against the pitfalls of overly preterist and overly futurist interpretations.
Next, Holmes asks Dr. Keene about using the first five verses of Revelation as a hermeneutical key to the rest of the book. Dr. Keene explains that the introduction of Revelation reveals the book as a letter, a prophecy, and an apocalypse, and he discusses the attendant difficulties, value, and needed approach for each genre feature of the book.
Finally, Holmes asks Dr. Keene about how believers should approach the symbolic language of the book, comparing it to Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Dr. Keene shares a personal anecdote describing his own difficulty reading Pilgrim’s Progress until he learned, by way of a book from Leland Ryken, how to first read the book for its narrative, then revisit and examine the imagery. Dr. Keene applies this rubric to Revelation and talks about the importance of familiarity with Old Testament apocalyptic and prophetic literature, an understanding of the author’s intent and stated goals, and differentiation between which symbols are central and which are peripheral.
Mind + Heart Season 2 Episode 2: Revelation
Phillip Holmes: Before we dive into this week’s episode of Mind + Heart, we want to take a moment to highlight RTS Global, the online program at Reformed Theological Seminary. Do you want to earn a graduate degree from a trusted seminary but don’t know if you have the time? Reformed Theological Seminary offers three Masters of Arts programs, available 100 percent online. These degrees are perfect for anyone pursuing full-time vocational ministry, interested in Ph.D. work, or any aspiration where theological education might enhance your gifts. These programs allow you to study at your own pace, attend class completely online and have regular interactions with your professor and teacher’s assistants. Study in a way that suits you. Learn more today at rts.edu/online.
Welcome to the Mind + Heart Podcast, which features interviews and more from the faculty and friends of Reformed Theological Seminary. We created this podcast to assist you in your daily quest to love God and love your neighbor. I’m your host, Phillip Holmes, and this week I’m joined by my guest, Dr. Thomas Keene. Dr. Keene serves as the Associate Professor of New Testament and academic dean at Reformed Theological Seminary in Washington. Dr. Keene received his undergraduate degree in philosophy and computer science from Furman University in 2002. He then received his MDiv from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia in 2005 and went on to earn his Ph.D. in New Testament in 2010, focusing on the tabernacle metaphor in the epistle Hebrews. He met his wife, Sarah, in college at Furman University, and they have been happily married since 2002. Sarah is an accomplished photographer, and they have two daughters. Dr. Keene, welcome to the show. Thanks for joining us.
Dr. Thomas Keene: Yeah, it’s great to be here. I’m excited.
Holmes: So before we dive in, I like to always ask my guests their origin story. Where did you grow up? How did you become a follower of Jesus Christ?
Dr. Keene: Yeah. I grew up in Dallas, Texas, and as I think many in Dallas do, we grow up going to church and often going to great churches, but sometimes tuned out a bit. And I was certainly tuned out for much of my early life, but it was through a youth minister, a great pastor, a great church, and growing interest and inquisitiveness about Scripture that I came to faith. I had a bunch of questions kind of in the middle school, early high school years, and I had a youth minister in high school who was just willing to answer those questions — and to answer them in a way that wasn’t pejorative, or, “Why do you doubt?”, or derogatory in some kind of way. He threw books at me, and he threw big books at me. And that was what I needed. That was great. And so I found my mind and my heart — no plug intended there — but, my mind and heart kind of captured by the Lord, and began to study more and more. And as a result, my path was set at that point. I just love learning, love growing in the knowledge of the Word, and couldn’t put it down.
Holmes: That’s awesome. So what made you major in philosophy and computer science? That’s an interesting combo.
Dr. Keene: I kind of knew I wanted to go into a teaching route and study route, the academic kind of program. So philosophy was ideal for that. But my dad, I think, helpfully counseled, “You need something. You need backup here. You need something that’s — you know, philosophy is not going to make a career unless it really, really, really works out.” So the deal was, I got to do philosophy if I did something more marketable. And I always loved computers; I grew up programming little computer games in BASIC, back in the old days where everything was on a floppy drive. That was also kind of a nerdy interest of mine. So that was a natural fit. And it’s actually worked out well, especially as a pastor. I got to kind of run the IT side of things for our church, which was, you know, just another way of being, I guess, useful to God’s kingdom. And it’s an odd pairing. But they worked out. When we start engaging that part of our brain that . . . enjoys the pictures in Revelation, that enjoys the imagery there and isn’t frightened of it, we begin to better appropriate the book.
Holmes: Yeah, it seems like it. I mean, you got your Ph.D. fairly young. It seems like you were finished with everything by the time you were 30. Is that right?
Dr. Keene: Is that right? Yeah, I think that’s about it. Our philosophy, kind of going in — my wife and I, going into seminary, had a “let’s get this done” kind of take on it. And actually, in starting the Ph.D., a number of my advisors were encouraging that, like, “Don’t get bogged down in a ton of teaching,” although I ended up getting bogged down in a ton of — “But stay focused, get it done.” And that actually turned out to be really, really great advice. This isn’t your magnum opus. This isn’t your “Fifth Symphony.” This is just a green card. Get it done so that you can go on and do the work that God’s calling you to do.
Holmes: Yeah, no. I think that’s good advice from my vantage point. So earlier this spring, we talked to you a little bit about the book of Revelation via Wisdom Wednesday, which is our weekly Q&A series. And you know, Revelation is always kind of a hot topic in the church, and sometimes even more, depending on your denominational background. There’s a lot of mystery in the church regarding the book of Revelation. A lot of that has to do with the fact that there’s a lot of symbolism. Growing up, what were your views before you did your seminary and before you did your Ph.D. work? How did you view the book of Revelation?
Dr. Keene: Well, actually, I would say even out of seminary — so, coming out of the MDiv — Revelation was one of those books that still was a bit intimidating. You’ve spent three years of your life, four years of your life, studying the Bible, and yet I think still many of us, we exit our seminary careers, and there’s still these books that are a little bit mysterious to us. And as I was saying earlier, inquisitiveness has driven a lot of my path forward, and that’s actually one of the reasons I chose this section of the canon, Hebrews to Revelation, as the area that I wanted to study: “I don’t really feel comfortable preaching on these books. I don’t know how to construct a sermon on Revelation. I would like to study these kinds of things more.” I think there’s a lot of books that we do really well, and then there’s some books on the periphery here that are just less utilized in our tradition and more intimidating in our tradition. And I wanted to devote some more time to that. So Hebrews was top of the list. Hebrews got a lion’s share of the research and the work and was where I did my dissertation.
But eventually, I got down to Revelation. And I guess one of the things that rings out in my own study of that book is something I heard from Sinclair Ferguson, actually, probably in high school. He was visiting our church, and he did a couple of sessions on Revelation at our church, and he encouraged us to think about the book of Revelation not as sort of a newspaper in code. It’s not this kind of cryptic, odd, encoded prophecy about the future — Nostradamus kind of ‘in code’ idea — rather, to start thinking about it less like some esoteric work of literature, and more as a picture book, more as a graphic novel. Sinclair Ferguson, he didn’t say graphic novel, but — I’m thinking of it as a graphic novel, a comic book, a serious work of art. And that changed my perspective a bit.
Revelation . . . can be very disorienting to read. And yet, the first five verses tell you everything you need to know about this book.And even now, even teaching at a seminary now, that rings true to me, that when we start engaging that part of our brain that thinks about [Revelation], that enjoys the pictures in Revelation, that enjoys the imagery there and isn’t frightened of it, we begin to better appropriate the book.
Holmes: That’s good. That’s helpful. I can’t help but ask now since you mentioned it: were you a comic book reader growing up?
Dr. Keene: You know, I wasn’t! I feel like this is one of the small areas of nerd culture that I never got into. All the other areas I got into. And then that one, I just never did, but….
Holmes: I got you. Do you watch any of the MCU films?
Dr. Keene: Oh, of course.
Holmes: OK, yeah. OK.
Dr. Keene: It’s a regular topic among the faculty here at RTS Washington, interpreting the MCU films.
Holmes: That’s awesome. I love it. All right, so before we go any further, let’s take a moment and listen to Dr. Keene’s response to the question, “How should we understand the book of Revelation?”
Dr. Keene: Revelation is a very challenging book to read, and it’s intimidating at spots when you get into the depth of the imagery there. It can be very disorienting to read. And yet, the first five verses tell you everything you need to know about this book. Because in the first five verses, the very beginning of the book, John tells you exactly the kind of book that you’re reading, and there’s three components to it. You’re reading three kinds of things. You’re reading, first of all, a letter. This is something we sometimes miss. But Revelation is, from the beginning, intended to be a letter. It doesn’t just contain letters, the seven letters in Revelation 2; Revelation is a letter to those seven churches. And any interpretation that severs meaning from those seven churches is one we should be cautious about. We need to make sure that our interpretation is available and accessible to them. It might have nuances in development and applications that they aren’t aware of, but we can’t sever the letter of Revelation from its original audience. And if we make it too much about 21st-century politics and not about the universal struggle of Christ and his church against the forces of darkness, then we’ve taken a misstep. It’s a letter.
Secondly, it’s a prophecy, and particularly it’s biblical prophecy. And biblical prophecy has its own contours to it. Biblical prophecy is not just about telling us the future. It does do that, but it’s telling us the future in order to motivate us in the present. It’s calling us to do something on the basis of some future reality. And in particular, with Revelation, it is a reminder that Jesus wins, that he will conquer the forces of darkness, no matter how dark it gets, no matter how troubled you might be. Nevertheless, he is our white rider, and he will come, and he will bring victory to us and to his church. That reminds us of his victory. And as a result, it encourages us to persevere to the end.
So it’s a letter, it’s prophecy, and the third thing it is is apocalyptic. This is perhaps the most difficult one to understand because we don’t have this genre or any kind of parallels to it in our own modern context. But apocalyptic literature is just highly symbolic literature. It’s talking about the present and the future. It’s talking about the real world. But it’s doing so in highly symbolic ways. And this is sometimes very disorienting, very scary. How do I interpret all these symbols? What do all of these horns mean? What does all of this detail entail? But the way to interpret symbolism is actually pretty straightforward: let the narrative drive your interpretation.
Revelation is one single story: the story of the world from the first resurrection, the resurrection of Christ, to the second resurrection—the resurrection of those who belong to him.I remember trying to get into Pilgrim’s Progress. I had the hardest time getting into Pilgrim’s Progress until I read this article by Leland Ryken over at Wheaton, who said the way to get into Pilgrim’s Progress is to not get stuck into the weeds of what each symbol means and the theological meaning behind each and every component of the narrative. The way to get into Pilgrim’s Progress is to read it as a story. The symbolism comes out of the story, and it needs the framework of the story to make sense. And there’s a real parity there with Revelation. Revelation is one single story: the story of the world from the first resurrection, the resurrection of Christ, to the second resurrection—the resurrection of those who belong to him. It is one single story, and when we read it within that context, the symbolism will make more sense. We will be more oriented to be able to understand this challenging but also incredibly important and motivational book.
Holmes: What cautions would you offer to anyone quick to apply Revelation to current events?
Dr. Keene: I think one of the things that’s critical — and you see this in the first couple of verses of the book; the first couple of verses of the book actually signal some of this to us, that this book is written to a particular ancient audience. And when John is writing, he’s writing what he saw. When he’s writing it down, he is writing, authorized by Jesus, to these seven churches, the seven churches that are listed for us in Revelation 2 through 3. And that introduces a kind of hermeneutical consideration, something that needs to be properly basic. Whatever Revelation means — and it may mean more than can be properly assessed by these seven churches, but it can’t be less than that — it has to still be for them. And one of the things that tends to happen when we say Revelation has a kind of one-to-one correspondence to our own present time, to our own circumstances, and issues, and history, and background, and culture, our world — when it’s about us, one of the things that can happen — it’s not necessarily so — but what can happen is that we sever the meaning of the text from its original audience.
This is a hermeneutical principle that I think applies to all of Scripture, but especially to Revelation. We need to be careful about so modernizing the application, the intent, the meaning of the text, that we sever it from its original audience, that they could never understand what this text is about. If I need to know about modern American politics in order to understand the book, if I need to understand the geopolitical system as it is now in order to even begin to puzzle through the message of the book, then I have severed it from its original audience. It can no longer be to them. And I’m thus reading against the grain of John’s intent, and what I believe, wherein Revelation 1 indicates to us Jesus’s intent, in giving it to them and through them to us. So, we need to protect the integrity of and authenticity of the meaning of this book for its original audience and John’s intent there.
Holmes: That’s an excellent point.
Dr. Keene: Now, you can talk more about that because I wouldn’t — we also don’t want to say it’s irrelevant to us. By any stretch of the imagination, we shouldn’t conclude that it’s a book that’s trapped in its own time and space. It has modern relevance and implications and applications, but those cannot be detached from its ancient context and its ancient relevance and application.
Holmes: Yeah, that’s an excellent point. I mean, the book of Revelation, essentially what you’re saying — it’s timeless, right? So to try to constrain it even to not just our time, but even to their time where it becomes irrelevant for us — both would be a mistake. Kind of transcends, would you say? Would you agree with that? It transcends in the sense that — go ahead, go ahead — before I butcher it.
Dr. Keene: No, no. I interrupted. You’re doing great. I like that. You said the word timeless. And I wanted to jump on that because that’s a great word for it. And actually, I think there’s two poles here that we need to protect. And sometimes, we can overread one or the other.
The first: there’s this timeless aspect to interpretation. It is relevant for us, and God intends it to be for his church as a pilgrim people, his church as exiles among the nations. That’s what Revelation is for. It’s for those of us who are seeking to overcome, and having overcome, receive eternal life, the heavenly city, the new Jerusalem. That’s who it’s for, the overcomers. And so in that respect, it’s timeless. But the cautionary note is we can make it so much about us, and so much about our needs, that we forget that it’s also timely — that it was also for them.
Holmes: Yes, that’s good. Excellent.
Dr. Keene: You get that language there in Revelation 1 that the time is short. These are the things that are soon to happen. They are soon to take place. And so, it’s urgent for us. But it was also urgent for them. And if you have a reading of any passage of Revelation that disrespects those two poles, that makes it no longer urgent for us or no longer urgent for them, then I think yellow lights need to go on. You know, warning bells need to go in your head. Is this a good interpretive path for me to be taking here?
That’s what Revelation is for. It’s for those of us who are seeking to overcome, and having overcome, receive eternal life, the heavenly city, the new Jerusalem.Holmes: Yeah, no, that’s helpful. I can’t help but ask, because I know somebody’s thinking, “How can it be urgent for both?” You know, because you’re talking about 2000 years ago. And so the urgency seems to kind of lose its urgency, I guess in a sense. How would you respond to that? How should the Christian hold those two tensions?
Dr. Keene: Yeah. Well, I mean, it’s really challenging. And it’s not only challenging in Revelation. This is a challenge that you kind of see — it’s a hermeneutical challenge across Scripture, right? I mean, we could do the same analysis — it would shape itself a bit differently — but we could do the same thing with Philemon. How is it both to Philemon and about Onesimus? And how has it functioned for the church in all ages? And how does it apply for me? And protecting, you know, again, as a hermeneutical principle, we want to protect the validity of each of those spheres of application — it’s for them, it’s for the church, it’s for me — while at the same time protecting the organic unity of those three spheres. They’re not independent, arbitrary realms of relevance. Rather, they are organically connected and related to one another. And here, we start talking about things like Geerhardus Vos, and biblical theology, and the coherence of Scripture, and “Scripture interprets Scripture,” and divine providence, who superintendence the meaning of back then, and you know, all of that kind of stuff that we do in [biblical interpretation] classes.
But your question is about Revelation. How do we do it with Revelation? Your interpretive stance, I think, is pretty key here. And maybe we get controversial at this point, because we are probably well aware that there’s various approaches to the book. Should we take a, for example, a preterist approach, which argues that most of the book — I think we’ve got to be careful how we articulate these things, but — most of the book is fulfilled within the first 70, 120, maybe 300 or so years of church history. And so, its reference, the reference of its symbolism, the reference of the history, the narrative history that it is expositing, is that first couple decades or centuries of the church. And I do think if you take that approach, you end up with a challenge. It’s not an insurmountable challenge, but I think application today and relevance to today becomes much more challenging with a kind of strictly preterist approach on the one hand.
And the other approach that I think makes interpretation really challenging is some of the premillennial and dispensational approaches which would have — or futurist approaches — which would have the bulk of Revelation being, from the original audience’s perspective, some very future events, some time in the distant future. So if you bundle up the reference points at the beginning, or you bundle them up at the end — or you can spread them out throughout the whole stretch of history, a kind of historicist approach that’s not as popular nowadays, but — if you do any of those three things, what you end up having is a one-to-one correspondence between the symbolism of Revelation and the events of history.
All three of those approaches end up having a one-to-one [correspondence]: ‘this is that,’ strictly speaking, between the symbolism of Revelation and the events of history. And one of the beautiful things about symbolism and images is they don’t need to have a one-to-one correspondence. It can have a one-to-many correspondence. And this approach is the kind of idealism approach with Revelation. There’s challenges there, too, but an idealist approach to Revelation means that there are genuine correspondences between the sign, the symbol, and its referent. The beast is Nero. But the beast isn’t just Nero. The beast is any state power that overstretches its God-given authority and goes at war against the church for its own — in order to maintain its own power structure, its own oppressive force in the world.
So that kind of abstraction—which symbolism is great at doing, symbolism is perfect for this kind of thing: not saying Nero, saying a beast who comes out of the sea—that level of abstraction means that it can apply throughout this period of history in which Christ reigns victorious, and yet the world still groans for its redemption.
Holmes: How do the first five verses of Revelation serve as a lens to properly understand the book?
Dr. Keene: Yeah, yeah. So one of the things that authors will do that we, especially as modern readers should attune ourselves to, is the authors will kind of signal to you—an author of anything will signal to you the tools that you need to properly interpret the thing that they’re writing at the very beginning of the book. “The beginning of things tells you stuff” is the way I put it in my own technical verbiage. The beginning of any work, whether it’s a movie and you get the “Star Wars” scroll across the screen and then the big ship that goes across, you realize within the first five minutes of “Star Wars” that you’re in a sci-fi movie with larger than life characters — black and white, you know, everybody’s either good or bad — and you get some of those themes right there in the first five minutes.
What John is seeing is a heaven’s-eye view of the things that are soon to take place, a heaven’s-eye view of the cosmic battle between the Lord and his anointed — Jesus the king, the male child born to the woman in white — he’s seeing the divine warfare with demonic forces played out between the resurrection and the second resurrection.Well, the biblical writers are divinely inspired, unlike George Lucas. The biblical writers are divinely inspired, but they used similar literary tools to signal to us the kind of literature that we’re in. And so, they’re all over the place in the first five verses of Revelation. We spend about two hours in class on these first five verses to kind of orient us here, so this is just a selection. But notice that it’s the Revelation of Jesus Christ. It’s not John’s. It’s Jesus. And actually, if you kind of trace out verse one, it’s the Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave to him. That is, so God gives to Jesus a revelation, which Jesus then shows his servants. How does he show his servants? By sending an angel to John. So you’ve got these various layers of delivery. God gave it to Jesus. Jesus sends an angel to show it to John, who then writes it out for his servants, about the things that must soon take place. And so right there you just, you know, there’s points in Revelation where you’re kind of wondering, like, you’re trying to wrap your brain around what this looks like, right?
Holmes: It’s like a divine telephone game. Except it doesn’t — the confusion doesn’t happen until it gets to us, and we start messing with it and trying to — [laughs]
Dr. Keene: Like, try to describe — so you mentioned the MCU earlier, right? So somebody who’s not into Marvel movies and try to describe to them, give them a summary of the “Avengers.” “And then this green bolt of light comes —” you know, it’s actually really hard to take something that was originally a visual and then communicate it verbally in written form. So there’s these points in Revelation where you’re kind of like, “It was like a sea, but it was like sapphire.” And you’re trying to figure out what John means. Well, how do you do that? Well, John has told you. He’s given you a written version of this. What you need to do is picture it in your head. You need to turn it into the visual medium that John had received. He’s doing the best he can with words to describe what he saw. We sometimes turn off that part of our brain when we approach Revelation.
Holmes: That’s true.
Dr. Keene: [We sometimes turn off the] imaginative, pictorial, comic book, graphic novel, however you want to put it part of our brain, because that’s not how words work, and we think it’s all about words. But these words are designed to mediate what John saw. “Tell them what you saw.” And so, already in that first verse, you get that hermeneutical principle there.
Holmes: Yeah. And I remember one of my professors, Dr. Wynn Kenyon — and I may be butchering his illustration — but I remember him in one of our classes in college explaining that, you know, imagine John seeing life in the 21st century, and then trying to describe that, too, using his vernacular. Like, he doesn’t have a vocabulary for “car” because cars don’t exist, right? He doesn’t have vocabulary. I think the point that he was making was similar to your point. He’s trying to describe things, and he doesn’t necessarily — he’s trying to basically take something that sometimes maybe even is foreign into him, that he doesn’t necessarily have words for. So he’s trying to give you the closest thing so that you can kind of visualize what it is that he’s seeing.
Dr. Keene: Yeah, and on that note, well, what is he seeing? Is it [an] airplane, helicopters going across the sky, and he interprets this as locusts or something like that? Well, no, actually.
Again, in Revelation 1, we’re told what he saw. He sees a heavenly vision and that this is a revelation of Jesus Christ or an apocalypse of Jesus Christ. And that word ‘apocalypse’ there is a big hermeneutical help. It tells us the kind of literature that we’re reading. We’re reading apocalyptic literature, and it’s characteristic of apocalyptic literature. What does apocalyptic literature do? Well, we know that from Daniel. We know that from Ezekiel. We know that from some works in the intertestamental period. Apocalyptic literature lifts the veil between the world that we see and the spiritual realm, the heavenly world, that God’s-eye view of the things that are going on around us. We don’t get to see the devil making war with God’s angels. Daniel doesn’t get to see that information. Gabriel has to tell him, “No, that’s what’s really going on here.” Ezekiel doesn’t get to see, in the physical world, God’s war chariot rolling down towards Jerusalem. What he sees is a Babylonian army. But when God lifts the veil and gives Ezekiel this God’s-eye view of what’s actually going on, he sees that this Babylonian army is actually God’s war chariot coming to judge his own people.
So this is characteristic of apocalyptic literature. What John is seeing is a heaven’s-eye view of the things that are soon to take place, a heaven’s-eye view of the cosmic battle between the Lord and his anointed — Jesus the king, the male child born to the woman in white — he’s seeing the divine warfare with demonic forces played out between the resurrection and the second resurrection. That’s what he’s seeing. That kind of thought process helps us to then, “OK, this is the realm in which I need to interpret these images.” This is about us, but it’s a God’s-eye view of our situation.
Holmes: That’s good, that’s good. So how is — you mentioned in the Wisdom Wednesday video Pilgrim’s Progress was used to help you better understand how to understand the book of Revelation. So how is reading Revelation like reading the Pilgrim’s Progress?
Dr. Keene: For me, this is kind of a personal anecdote because I have always struggled to read Pilgrim’s Progress. It’s always been — that kind of heavy, allegorical literature has always felt a bit heavy-handed to me. And so I really struggle to read Pilgrim’s Progress. And I’d make it about three chapters in and then give up. So somebody said, “Hey, what you need to do is read Leland Ryken’s prologue before you get started.” And I did. And one of the things that Ryken says in that prologue, and I think is very helpful, is that a lot of people get bogged down in Pilgrim’s Progress because they’re too analytical. They’re too trapped in the bits and pieces and the symbolism of it all. So, you know, you get to the Slough of Despond, and — which I think is how it’s pronounced, I think it’s “slow” — you get to the Slough of Despond and you spend all your time thinking about, “OK, what does this refer to? What is this an allegory for? And how do I map this onto my theological encyclopedia?” and all those kinds of questions, and you forget why Christian is there and how he got there. You forget where we are in the book because you’re so distracted with the symbolism. What he said was, “You need to start with, instead of a symbol first reading of the book, you need to start with a narrative first reading.”
Read Revelation as a cohesive narrative, as a cohesive story. God’s story, beginning with the opening of the scroll in Revelation 4, concluding with the new heavens and the new earth descending upon the cosmos.First, appreciate Pilgrim’s Progress as a journey, as a story, as a tale that is told, as a classic journey kind of tale. Appreciate its narrative structure, and then you’ll be able to dive into the symbolism. And I think that that’s applicable here to Revelation as well. Revelation does include a ton of symbolic material, more symbolic material than perhaps most other apocalypses, in fact. It’s very heavily grounded in its symbolism. But it is no less a narrative as a result. And so it’s not a book that’s written in code. Rather, it’s a single coherent story that’s told over the course of 21 chapters about God’s victory over the heavens and the earth, and God establishing his king on Zion’s hill, and his presence in the new heavens and the new earth. Reading the narrative and following the narrative structure is the first principle in Revelation.
And if I could — I’m rambling now, but if I could do a little example — so, like Revelation 12, where you’ve got the woman gives birth to the male child and is pursued by the dragon. And then you get the dragon who has 10 horns and the woman who’s there in the wilderness for 1,265 days, and then the dragon pours out water to chase the children, the great-great-grandchildren of the male child. And you get bogged down in all of this symbolism. And you lose the basic structure of the narrative, what’s actually happening here. But if you take a narrative-first reading and you look at the main characters, the woman, the dragon, and the male child, things begin to fall into place. Those are the three most important characters. Don’t worry about the 10 horns. Don’t worry about the 1,265 days. Worry about the main characters in the story, what they do, and how this narrative gets resolved. And then the big picture falls into place, and you can start worrying about the smaller items, the details of the narrative, the smaller symbols.
So over the course of your reading of Revelation, I think one of the payoff points here is, read Revelation as a cohesive narrative, as a cohesive story. God’s story, beginning with the opening of the scroll in Revelation 4, concluding with the new heavens and the new earth descending upon the cosmos. Read Revelation in that way, then go back and parse through some of the details.
Holmes: Yeah, no, I think that’s an excellent illustration. When I was first introduced to Pilgrim’s Progress, I didn’t get as caught up in the symbolism, but I can definitely understand how that easily happens. And I think you’re 100 percent right; when you approach the book of Revelation if you can simply just read through it and take it as it is firsthand, and then come back later and try to do your interpretive work. Get the big picture for what the book [is] as a whole — I think the big-picture Revelation is pretty clear. It’s the details that you can kind of get caught up on, and they can kind of get you lost. But I think the entire narrative, read as a whole, is pretty clear. And it’s “Jesus wins.”
Dr. Keene: Yeah, right? You know, I like that point that you made. Read it as a whole. One of the things we want to do as readers is — it’s not the only way to read, but — read within the presuppositions and expectations of the author. Like, how does the author anticipate I am reading this. If I’m reading a newspaper article, the author is going to expect me to sit down and read it in a sitting. If I’m reading Bavinck, Bavinck knows I’m not going to be reading this in a sitting. And so he’s written it in a certain way. What does Revelation expect? In the first couple of verses of Revelation, we’re told how to read it. See, it says, “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear.”
So one person is reading it. And an audience is listening to it. He’s imagining this in a worship service. He’s imagining this book, or letter really, to be read all at once, in a worship service, without giving you time to puzzle over the 1260 days, you know, and all of these kind of little bitty points. One of the ways that you can better read Revelation — it’s not the only way to read a book — but one way to orient yourself towards this book is to read it all at once in a sitting without pauses, because that’s probably how the original audience received it.
We as a church . . . have forgotten the grammar and vocabulary of biblical prophecy and apocalyptic literature.Holmes: That’s good. So just to wrap this up — I think this is an excellent question to kind of wrap this up on — at the end of the day, why do you think when we approach the book of Revelation, we get so caught up in the symbolism?
Dr. Keene: I think there’s a lot of factors here. I mean, one is, as a kind of counterpoint to everything I just said, is Revelation wants us to get caught up in the symbolism. These symbols are meaningful. Some of them are super importantly meaningful, and some of them are “Easter egg window-dressing” meaningful. And we’ve got to distinguish between those two. But they’re all meaningful symbols. So that level of analysis is something I think John wants us to do on a second read, on a third read, on a fourth read, you know, as we glean more from this book, I think another reason we get caught up in the symbolism, maybe it becomes a kind of stumbling block to us, is because we live in a fairly non-symbolic culture. We still have symbols and we still have our way of thinking about the world. But our approach to conceptualizing the world is less symbolic. It’s more analytical, more scientific. And as a result, less figurative and metaphorical. And so we’ve lost that desire to even approach this, to think about the world as a “world with devils filled.” That just doesn’t compute.
And then third, more specifically, we as a church, I think, have forgotten the grammar and vocabulary of biblical prophecy and apocalyptic literature. So we get to things like the ten horns and we think John is just inventing this. What a brilliant mind, maybe, but how am I going to get into John’s mind to figure out what he means by all of this? Well, actually, John is pulling from Daniel. There’s this whole history of prophecy, and particularly apocalyptic prophecy, in Daniel, Ezekiel, Zechariah, that Revelation is pulling from. [Dr. G.K.] Beale has particularly brought this out, that if you really want to understand the grammar and vocab of the metaphors of Revelation, the basic building blocks of the symbolic world of this book, you need to be fluent in Daniel and Ezekiel and Zechariah, and then prophecy — Old Testament prophecy as a whole. These aren’t invented by John. He’s using traditional images and bringing them into the New Covenant era with Christ as king.
So I think those three things get us trapped up. And maybe the best way to move forward, in addition to some of the things we’ve already said, is to immerse yourself not just in Revelation, but Daniel, Ezekiel, Zechariah, and Old Testament prophecy generally.
Holmes: Dr. Keene, thank you so much for joining us today. We really enjoyed having you on, helping us think through more carefully, more biblically, the book of Revelation. This was, I think, a really helpful conversation, and I think our readers are going to really benefit from much of what we discuss today. And thank you for tuning in. And we hope you enjoyed this week’s episode featuring Dr. Thomas Keene.
I also would like to thank the RTS family, church partners, students, alumni, and donors for the many ways you made the work of Reformed Theological Seminary possible. The clip we listened to earlier is from our weekly video series, Wisdom Wednesday, where relevant matters of the Christian faith are addressed by RTS faculty and friends with truth, candor, and grace. Access our entire archives, or submit a question at rts.edu/wisdom-wednesday. Mind + Heart is powered by Reformed Theological Seminary, where we desire to raise up pastors and other church leaders with a mind for truth and a heart for God.