Insights on the Apocalypse of John: Original Audience

I apologize about the lack of recent posts. I recently finished up my dissertation, formatted it, and sent it to be bound. I am waiting for it to arrive in the mail (today, Lord willing). 

I will begin a series of posts concerning some of the important insights I acquired during my intensive research and writing on the document known as the Apocalypse of John. The first deals with the original audience.

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Why make such a fuss about John’s original audience? I do so because many readers, both in the academy and at the popular level, categorically remove their interpretations of this document from the contexts of the first readers and hearers. Establishing, as best as a historian can with the data available, who the document was written to and how they most likely would have understood its words, is foundational to responsible methods of interpretation. When one reads the book of Jeremiah, written during the tenure of King Josiah, most readers know that they need to, at least first, read the document in view of how the Israelites might have understood the prophet’s oracles. The same goes for 1 Corinthians, i.e., responsible readers need to first ask how Paul’s letter would have been heard in Corinth in the 50’s CE. If we ignore the original audience, then we can pretty much kiss goodbye any chance of understanding how the document was intended to be understood. Isn’t the entire purpose of reading these documents in order to correctly understand them?

When the responsible reader comes to John’s Apocalypse, the very first chapter sets the definitive stage by identifying the recipients:

John, to the seven churches which are located in Asia, grace to you all and peace… (Rev. 1:4)

It is hard to ignore John’s epistolary introduction in this document. Yes, he is writing a letter (which itself contains seven smaller letters in chs. 2-3). The list of congregations indicates that John had specific churches in mind when he composed the Apocalypse. These were real cities situated in Asia Minor toward the end of the first century CE.

“Now,” someone will certainly object, “John certainly wrote to seven churches but the coded symbols were intended to reveal events prior to the end of the age, and the end of the age is likely upon us now!” This is often the presupposition which readers bring to the Apocalypse, which in turn will change how they read the evidence therein. However, the very first verse gives another indicator:

The Apocalypse of Jesus Christ, which God gave to him, to show to his servants the things which are soon to take place (Rev. 1:1a)

The document further indicates that its contents are to be read aloud in the congregations and observed immediately:

Blessed is the one who reads aloud and those who hear the words of the prophecy, and who are keeping/observing the things which are written in it, because the decisive time is near. (Rev. 1:3)

John surely expected his audiences in Asia Minor to immediately heed the words of the Apocalypse because something big was just around the corner.

John identifies with his readers (the original audience) in his self-description found in 1:9:

I, John, your brother and your sharer in the tribulation, kingdom, and nonviolent endurance in Jesus, was on the Isle of Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.

John here specifically identifies with his audience. He is their brother, in the Christian sense. He is also their sharer in the tribulation, kingdom, and endurance. This indicates that John has experienced the distress, harassment, and persecution which his readers are also currently experiencing. He also states that he belongs to the alternative empire, the kingdom of God, despite the might and boasts of the current Roman regime. Lastly, he also shares in the stance of nonviolent endurance which is appropriate of following Jesus (something the Apocalypse will repeatedly impress upon its readers).

In short, the first chapter of the Apocalypse of John indicates that it carries epistolary forms by addressing seven congregations located in Asia Minor at the end of the first century CE (1:4). The visions within the document were revealed to John by Christ (who got it from God) and they concerned things which were about to take place in their lives (1:1). John expected the readers and hearers to observe the things written in the prophecy (not put it off as if they only had relevance toward 21st century readers) precisely because the decisive time was near (1:3). Lastly, John intimately identifies with the churches as a fellow Christian who has experienced persecution, demonstrated loyalty to the kingdom of God, and responded with nonviolent endurance (1:9). These points strongly suggest that modern readers need to give special attention to how Christians living in Asia Minor would have understood John’s vision if they want to do justice to the Apocalypse of John.    

Stay tuned and subscribe for further installments! 

 

  

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