Did First Century Christians understand Revelation?

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    It is often stated that John’s original audience who were largely familiar with the Greek and Hebrew language and idioms would understand Revelation. But what does that mean? Everyone who reads Revelation understands SOME of the text. Though we can never know just how much the average first century Christian understood of Revelation. We can get some idea by looking at the Bible.

    Those Christians addressed in Revelation were probably not that much different from those Christians addressed by other letters in the Bible. Thus we might get an idea of the expected comprehension level of John’s original audience by comparing them to those Christians addressed elsewhere in the Bible where audience comprehension is explicitly addressed. 1 Corinthians 3:1-2 reads,

    Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly—mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere human beings?

    Apparently this same lack of understanding even affected Jewish Christians, those first century believers who were supposed to be the most discerning as they were familiar with Hebrew idioms. Hebrews 5:11-14 reads,

    We have much to say about this, but it is hard to make it clear to you because you no longer try to understand. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the ELEMENTARY TRUTHS OF GOD’S WORD all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food (LIKE REVELATION) is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.”

    Though there were certainly exceptions, here we see that first century Christians were by-and-large not bastions of understanding as even the first century Jewish Christians familiar with Hebrew idioms generally could not grasp even basic tenets of the new faith. And if Jewish Christians could not understand even the most basic aspects of Christianity, what realistic chance did Gentile Christians, like many of those addressed in Asia Minor, have in understanding the most esoteric books of the Bible like Revelation?

    It is also important to remember that most of John’s audience like most Christians of the time with the exception of Laodicea were poor (Matthew 19:24, 1 Corinthians 1:26, Rev 2:9) and thus not only largely illiterate but also too poor to own a copy of Revelation even if they could read. If it was God’s intent that the seven churches would understand every aspect of Revelation it would have been written in plain, literal language. But why would these seven churches need to completely understand this vision when they were largely unaffected by the plagues of Revelation anyway? The Christians of Israel who were affected by these plagues were not even the primary audience of the text. Why? Because even if Revelation were written to Churches in Israel it would not have added one iota of information that would have helped these Christians survive the coming plagues that they had not already received by Jesus at the Olivet Discourse and echoed later by the Apostles’ teachings. And that is put your faith in Christ and leave Jerusalem when you see it surrounded by armies (Lk 21:20). These Israelite Christians did not need to know ANYTHING ELSE! None of these Christians were supposed to have been around to witness any of the plagues recorded in Revelation anyway. First century Christians did not need to understand Revelation at all to survive the coming plagues nor did they need to fully grasp this text in order to be a good Christian. Neither do any of us today.

    Prior to Revelation’s ultimate fulfillment, the people of the seven Churches of Asia Minor would have understood a few aspects of Revelation here and there perhaps the most important things, but the majority of the text would have been beyond anyone’s grasp even that of its author, John. That is because Revelation, like many books of the Bible, wraps-up real events in poetic symbolism so as to give these events meaning. Thus it is impossible to fully grasp a book like this without knowing what specific events are being described and even then it would still be an exceptionally difficult challenge. Daniel was the wisest of the Hebrew prophets (Ez 28:3) and even he admittedly did not understand even his own visions. John almost certainly did not as well. Even after John outlived nearly all the events described in his vision he probably still struggled to grasp this vision. Revelation presupposes a great deal of historical knowledge which was very hard to come by especially in the first century. Furthermore, Revelation is an unusually difficult book to understand because of all the symbolism and layer of depth in the text. If Revelation were not so complex humanity would have long ago decidedly unlocked its meaning. Revelation is a kind of epilogue Easter Egg bonus for those addressed in Rev 13:18 to ponder and wrestle with so as to gain a greater appreciation for the wisdom of God. Revelation was never a text intended for Christians who rarely ponder the divine.

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