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The First Rule of Revelation: Be a Re-Reader


Sabbath school commentary for discussion alongside the Adult Bible Study Guide for April 8, 2023.

Editor’s note: To accompany the Sabbath school lesson’s focus this quarter on the three angels’ messages, Spectrum is publishing “Adventist Identity and the Three Angels’ Messages,” a serialized in-depth focus on Revelation by Sigve Tonstad.

Last week's installment exposes two weaknesses in traditional Seventh-day Adventist interpretations. The first one is general: Uriah Smith (1832–1903), the dominant Adventist interpreter for 100 years (and long after his death), shows little or no interest in Revelation’s use of the Old Testament except for links to Daniel.[1] The second is specific: use of the Old Testament must be assumed for “the three angels’ messages” too. It transforms interpretations to recognize allusions to Psalm 96 in the first angel’s message (14:6–7),[2] to probe the deepest scriptural layers for the term “Babylon” in the message of the second angel (14:8),[3] and to ponder the meaning of “torment” and determine the identity of the tormentor in the third angel’s message (14:9–11).[4] “Babylon,” a Watergate-like-word if there ever was one, can spring a surprise even on seasoned readers. As for the message of the third angel, I hasten to say that we have read the book in vain if we make the wrong call about the meaning of “torment” and the identity of the tormentor.

We cannot come to this book with rules for how it should be read. The rules, if they exist, must be derived from the book. I will suggest three such “rules,” all three derived from the way the book is put together. The merit of the “rules” must be checked with reference to the book, of course. I am confident that they have ample support in the text and that they, if heeded, will serve the reader well.

1. Become a re-reader.

To be a re-reader is prudent advice for reading in general. “Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a re-reader,” says Vladimir Nabokov.[5] Only that kind of reader will be acceptable to Revelation. I have said elsewhere that a sign could be posted at the beginning of the book, saying, “For re-readers only.”[6] Two specifics bear this out. First, it takes seriously Bauckham’s claim that “Revelation has been composed with such meticulous attention to detail of language and structure that scarcely a word can have been chosen without deliberate reflection on its relationship to the work as an integrated, interconnected whole.”[7] A sense of the whole is possible only for someone who has read the whole. Only such a reader can, on the second or third or fourth reading, begin to appreciate how things mentioned late in the book influence or explain many things that are mentioned earlier. The book is symphonic, not linear, and the themes reveal themselves to a symphonic perception.

We find confirmation of this, second, in relation to the most pivotal scene in the heavenly council.

Then I saw in the right hand of the one seated on the throne a scroll written on the inside and on the back, sealed with seven seals; and I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who has what it takes to open the scroll and break its seals?” And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it. And I wept and wept profusely because no one was found to have what it takes to open the scroll or to look into it. (5:1–4)

The predicament is dire. Heaven has a problem on its hands. It is as though a search is launched for someone to solve the problem only to come back empty-handed. The call meets with deafening silence. “Why,” I imagine, “is everyone looking so uncomfortable? Why are they all staring at the floor—or at their shoes? Why is heaven at a loss for a solution?”

It takes a re-reader perspective to untangle the predicament. I have read many interpretations of the book but very few that take the re-reader requirement seriously. One who does, at least to a point, is Adela Yarbro Collins, one of the most influential New Testament scholars of our time. In a book intended for a lay audience, she puts it this way: “The first four verses of chapter 5 imply that the heavenly council is faced with a serious problem.”[8]

It is impossible to disagree with Collins, even though the view seems counterintuitive. Can heaven have a problem? Heaven is supposed to be the solution to our problems! Here, the converse seems to be the case, heaven not as the solution but the cause! Collins confirms as much. “In the context of the Apocalypse as a whole it is clear that the problem facing the heavenly council is the rebellion of Satan which is paralleled by rebellion on earth,” she says. “Chapter five presupposes the old story of Satan’s rebellion against God which leads to the fall of creation.”[9]

This is where the re-reader requirement kicks in with full force. Revelation describes “the rebellion of Satan” in more explicit terms than any other book in the Bible, but it waits until chapter 12 to do it. The crisis in the heavenly council described early in the book is a consuming affair, a crucial element in the book’s plot, but the origin of the crisis is not laid out until much later. “And war [polemos] burst forth in heaven: Michael and his angels had to wage war [tou polemēsai] with the dragon,” we read (12:7). This is ground zero in the story told. The perspective is cosmic; a war “burst forth,” a term that in itself seems to suggest a conflict starting from nowhere and for no reason. And then, as a crucial detail emerging from the Semitic tenor of the verse, God “had to” react to a conflict started by someone who was not God. How God reacted, and how God won the war, is the story told most fully in chapter 5. An illustration from my commentary attempts to show why the re-reader perspective is so essential.[10]

With the re-reader perspective in place, it is easy to see that notions of enthronement or investiture for the one “who has what it takes,” complete with all the pomp and circumstance that heaven can muster, fail to capture the crisis in the heavenly council and its unexpected resolution.[11] The massive celebration that follows (5:7–14), therefore, is not like a Fourth of July celebration. What comes to mind, instead, might be the end of the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address.


Notes & References:

[1] Uriah Smith, Thoughts, Critical and Practical, on the Books of Daniel and Revelation (Battle Creek, MI: Review and Herald, 1884, with many subsequent editions).

[2] Bauckham, Climax of Prophecy, 286-287.

[3] Tonstad, Revelation, 205-207, 264-265.

[4] Tonstad, Revelation, 207-209.

[5] Vladimir Nabokov, Lectures on Literature, ed. Fredson Bowers (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1980), 3.

[6] Tonstad, Revelation, 38-39.

[7] Bauckham, Climax of Prophecy, x. 

[8] Adela Yarbro Collins, The Apocalypse (Dublin: Veritas, 1979), 39. 

[9] Collins, The Apocalypse, 39. 

[10] Tonstad, Revelation, 175, used with permission.

[11] For the notion of enthronement, see Ranko Stefanovic, Revelation of Jesus Christ: Commentary on the Book of Revelation (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 201-204.

Previously in this series:

Adventist Identity and the Three Angels’ Messages: Part 1 (March 29, 2023).


Sigve Tonstad is an assistant professor in the School of Medicine and research professor in the School of Religion at Loma Lind University. Born and raised in Norway, he completed a BA in theology at Middle East College in Lebanon and Andrews University (1974), his MD from Loma Linda University (1979), an MA in biblical studies at LLU (1990), and a PhD in New Testament studies at the University of St. Andrews (2005).

Title image: Saint John Swallowing the Book, from "The Apocalypse", Latin Edition, by  Albrecht Dürer (public domain).

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