Last week, we began a discussion about how we can read the Bible well. (Click here if you want to get caught up!) Today, we will continue this conversation.
It has been said that the best interpreter of Scripture is Scripture. This means that one of the most important things we can do as readers of the Bible is to see how different texts relate to one another. In fact, the New Testament authors (as well as the writers of the Hebrew Bible) assume that we are intimately familiar with the Scriptures. That assumption drives the authors to use many biblical references to help their audience connect with a bigger story.
As God inspired the New Testament authors, he allowed them to use associations and metaphors that made sense to their original audience—1st Century Jews. It’s no surprise then, that the New Testament would be full of references to the Hebrew Bible.
It’s not unlike how we make associations in our culture. For example, the other day I stumbled across a collection of the most famous movie quotes of all time. See if you can place them:
“There’s no place like home.”
“You’re killin’ me, Smalls.”
“You can’t handle the truth!”
I’ll bet that most of you recognize each one of these quotes! Even more, you can probably “see” them—Dorothy tapping her ruby slippers, Ham Porter’s classic line to Scotty Smalls, and of course, the culmination of Jack Nicholson’s speech in “A Few Good Men.” These references show up everywhere in modern life. They are part of a “cultural encyclopedia” that we share in common which help us to communicate with one another.
Now, let’s look at Revelation again. As we have already said, it is a notoriously difficult book for modern people to understand. John writes:
The dragon stood on the shore of the sea. And I saw a beast coming out of the sea. It had ten horns and seven heads, with ten crowns on its horns, and on each head a blasphemous name. The beast I saw resembled a leopard, but had feet like those of a bear and a mouth like that of a lion. The dragon gave the beast his power and his throne and great authority. One of the heads of the beast seemed to have had a fatal wound, but the fatal wound had been healed.
I’ll just say it… yikes! If you are confused or a little freaked out, I think you’d be justified.
I have so many questions, but let’s just consider one: Where does John’s vision come from? It comes from God, of course, but that answer is too simplistic. What it more accurate is that God chooses to work in the spirit, mind and pen of John… it’s “John’s Apocalypse.” As he receives inspiration, John draws on his Bible, culture, and experience. Now, to our question: where did this vision come from? To an ancient Jew, this would not have been hard to figure out…
Daniel said: “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me were the four winds of heaven churning up the great sea. Four great beasts, each different from the others, came up out of the sea. The first was like a lion, and it had the wings of an eagle. I watched until its wings were torn off and it was lifted from the ground so that it stood on two feet like a human being, and the mind of a human was given to it. And there before me was a second beast, which looked like a bear…”
Does any of this sound familiar? Beasts coming out of the sea… leopards, and lions, and bears (“oh my!”). John’s vision is clearly influenced by Daniel! Now, this is not to say that Revelation and Daniel are the same vision. However, since we know that these texts are related, we can place John’s vision in a larger context.
Scripture is helping us to interpret Scripture!
Grace and peace,
Thanks to the internet, we have many resources to help us learn which texts are connected. One resource that I rely on for my study is the Blue Letter Bible. All you have to do is search a text, find the tab that lists cross references and you’re off to the races!