Monday, July 19, 2010

Reading Revelation

10The third angel blew his trumpet, and a great star fell from heaven, blazing like a torch, and it fell on a third of the rivers and of the springs of water. 11The name of the star is Wormwood [*]. A third of the waters became wormwood, and many people died from the water, because it had been made bitter.

[*] Wormwood is the name of a plant and of the bitter-tasting extract derived from it.
Welcome to the strange world of the book of Revelation! We are starting a sermon series on the book at church. I am really looking forward to it (once I get back to Australia). I really love the book now, but previously I avoided it at as "too hard." This was probably a back reaction to the many strange interpretations that people come up with for specific verses in the book.

For example, according to Wikipedia the Ukrainian word for mugwort or wormwood (Artemisia vulgaris) is "chornobyl"? The word is a combination of the words chornyi (чорний, black) andbyllia (билля, grass blades or stalks), hence it literally means black grass or black stalks. This is the origin of the name of the city which was evacuated in 1986 due to the disaster at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. In 1986 I remember reading this in The New York Times and that many Ukrainians (and no doubt others) considered the disaster was a fulfilment of the above verse in Revelation.

However, I finally learned that Revelation is apocalyptic literature, which is giving suffering Christians hope for the return of Jesus and a heavenly future where there will be no more suffering or pain or death and Jesus will be worshiped as he should be (aside: hence the web address of this blog). One thing that really helped my understanding was a beautiful little book, The Gospel and Revelation, by Graeme Goldsworthy. He shows many passages in Revelation which are intended to remind readers of parallel passages in the Old Testament. For example, the ESV translation gives these OT verses as cross-references on Revelation 8:11 above.

So perhaps the bitterness in the water that causes people to die is not nuclear radiation from Chernobyl but actually a bitterness of heart that is associated with rejecting God's Word leading to death and judgement.


  1. My testimony is identical. Though I wasn't alive for the really crazy era of Revelation exegesis, its effects are still very noticeable in the church.

    And I agree, people like Goldsworthy, and Barnett are invaluable resources for tackling Rev.

    That being said, I often wonder about stuff like the Chernobyl/Wormwood thing you mentioned. Is it not possible that God, in his sovereignty over every detail of linguistics and human history, intentionally engineered that connection? While you're obviously right that there is a much more significant and universal narrative/theology being expounded, I'm hesitant to completely write-off such (minor, and essentially unimportant) links.

  2. I'm cautious when it comes to Goldsworthy, even though I'm likely to agree on many of his points in Revelation. In fact, my own views on Revelation came about in part because of OT studies using The Gospel and Kingdom compilation. His views on driving hermeneutics through the scope of the kingdom seems off to me. Not every passage is directly motivated by a kingdom perspective. General hermeneutical principles should be changed if Goldworthy is right on this point.

    Hey Tony, I recommend reading Are we Living in the End Times by Tim Lahaye. I am not recommending it because it is a good study but rather to see the problem with speculative connections. The book is about ten years old and is constantly wrong. I'm still waiting for a retraction. Anyway, I don't doubt God has the ability to do what you said, I just don't think that is why he had John write Revelation. And that really is the main issue here, in my opinion, that the author's intentions are more important than being as literal as possible, unless being literal is what the author intended. In the case of Revelation I will expand on Ross's allusion to the apocalyptic genre and say that it seems to use a lot of symbolism. (I hope I din't come off critical of you Matt, that was not my intention)
    In the spirit of Hebrews that says we are living in the latter days, perhaps the more we put ourselves in the shoes of John's contemporaries the more likely the book or Revelation will become relevant to our own lives. Therefore, I remind myself of the first seven letters while I read the rest of Revelation, as opposed to the Kingdom for the exception where its directly relevant. This is probably a good way to approach a lot of the Bible, to remind ourselves of the first chapters as we read.

  3. Tony and Travis,
    Thanks for the very helpful and insightful comments. I agree with Tony that God certainly can use the "co-incidental" connections such as Wormwood to cause us to think twice about what is happening in the world and what it means.

  4. Forgive me Ross, I'm not trying to be argumentative. I don't disagree with Tony that God CAN use events to be help us think carefully about what is going on. I guess what I'm struggling with is clarity in regard to what he wants us to think if we make connections with contemporary events and those described in Revelation. If it is nothing more than to remind us that the time is near then that would make sense to me, but I don't want to put words in your mouth (or on your keyboard). So, my question is, what is God wanting us to think twice about?

  5. I'm sorry for raising such a silly little thought. Though now that I have, my 2c goes:

    I never implied that God would have used the wormwood thing to help us think carefully about anything. I'm not against this idea, but it wasn't mine.

    God could just engineer the connection for a bit of fun... An interesting similarity. Or to display his cleverness. Or he could engineer it to steer some people in the wrong direction, though I'm happy for no one to agree with me there. Perhaps he had Lahaye in mind, and Kirk Cameron...

    But this is just the thing. I raised the question because someone as smart as God can't help but have Wormwood written there, and know the connections people will infer; and, I would argue, dictate them as well, to fulfill his own purposes.

    And I wouldn't for one second argue that these purposes must be to make people think twice any more than any other purpose, positive or negative (humanly speaking).

    In fact, God has a long history of using his own self-revelation to save some and condemn others (not that you'd speak so strongly of those who read Rev in such a way).

    I think this many-reading theology is not liberalism. There is a pious reading of Scripture, and there are other readings. Some are on the path to piousness, some are evil, some are misguided, etc. God was well aware of all these readings when he wrote it and still went ahead with it. God chose to make the text as clear or unclear as it is (cf. parables and the Isaiah quote - Matt 13?14? Mark too.) No text has only one possible reading, though the most aligned with authorial intent, in the case of the Bible, is the best one (with God as author, not John)

    So I would argue that if someone draws the wormwood link and it reminds them of Christ's immanent return, then God has used a lesser reading for great good. And if someone leads others astray with such a questionable approach to the literature, then God has used it there too.

    Actually it looks like I'm going down the "God definitely put it there on purpose" track, because I can't see any other option.

    All that being said though, I don't think it's a pious reading to focus on such a connection, however clever the link is.

    Btw Travis thanks for your reply. Your last piece of advice seems especially sound. And I must admit I got caught up on the same thing with Goldsworthy. He has picked up this kingdom hermeneutic and run with it perhaps at the expense of other valid threads. I remember Don Carson saying exactly the same thing about some New Perspectives proponents.

  6. Well said Tony! Would you agree that your tacitly using clearer passages to inform this one? I think so and I agree, but I didn't know if that was your intention. Some may say that you used doctrinal understanding to inform this interpretation of wormwood, but I would disagree with them because the heart of the discussion is really innerancy. Do you think I'm off on this point? Are we really concerned here that the transmission of the text still fulfills God's purposes which are made clearer in other texts? In this spirit (and I could be off here so correct me if I am) I am not sure about one statement "with God as author, not John". I don't disagree that God is the author, but in the context it makes me wonder if you are holding to a dictation theory. Is that true?

    I do think there are great examples of God allowing those who are opposed to him to be deceived. I'm not so sure about those whom are misled in their interpretations with the intention of understanding God's will. I fear that if I see those who have made big interpretive errors as God allowing them to be deceived then, following this line of induction, those who claim to be believers that have made inaccurate interpretations are somehow apposed to God's revelation. I know this is not what you meant, but is this a fair conclusion? You won't offend me by correcting me I am teachable.