Chapters 2-3 of Revelation: Tools in Interpretation

CloudsBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

When you are lost, how do you find your way home? In my training as a boy scout, I learned to read a map and to work with a compass during the day and to follow the stars at night. Revelation is one of those books in the bible that tests your skills in biblical interpretation.

Role of Genre in Interpretation

One form of interpretation starts by asking a simple question: what kind of writing (genre) are we looking at? Possibilities include: narrative (simple stories or history), Gospel, poetry, song, wisdom literature, prophecy, parable, epistle (a letter), law, genealogies, or apocalyptic. We tend to look at each of these a bit differently and particular books of the Bible often have multiple genre. Revelations, for example, contains prophecy, history, narrative, song, poetry, and even law.

Role of Perspective in Interpretation

Another important aspect of interpretation is to ask which perspective on the text to take: the author’s, the scripture itself, and the reader’s.  When you see a commentary talking about the audience or the historical context, this is an attempt to understand the author’s intent in writing. Or when you hear a pastor citing Old Testament (OT) references that explain a New Testament (NT) passage, this is using scripture to interpret scripture. When you hear someone explain what a particular passage means to them, this is using the reader’s perspective. John Calvin used these three principles of interpretation, but added one more of interest to pastors–use of the texts in the original languages–which leads to word studies, issues of grammar, literary criticism, and other questions of syntax.

Role of Interpretation in Church Controversies

Biblical interpretation is a bit technical and boring, but it is important. Many of the controversies of our day in the church have at their root differences over issues of biblical interpretation. For example, when the Apostle John writes prophetically in Revelations is he writing primarily to the seven churches in Asia Minor or is he writing to us? If you answer the seven churches, then you are taking the author’s perspective. If you answer to us, then you are taking the reader’s perspective.

New Covenant in Christ

An obvious interpretative pallet for understanding Revelation is John’s Gospel. What is striking about John’s Gospel is that John seems to suggest that the New Covenant in Christ is not a written document or teachings, but rather the person of Jesus.[1] So when John gives us a vision of the son of man in Revelations 1:13, an allusion to Daniel 7:13, we find ourselves witnessing an image of judgment under the New Covenant. Christ has returned to take stock of those he left behind. What is perhaps shocking is that John sees this judgment[2] starting with the seven churches.

Why are the seven churches the first focus of this heavenly vision of judgment and not the gentiles, especially not the Romans, John’s jailors at Patmos, who were persecuting the church at his point?

Questions for Revelation 2

  1. Do you have questions from last week? Did any important events happen in your life this week? Do you have any thoughts that you would like to share?
  2. Which four churches does John address in this chapter? (vv. 1, 8, 12, 18)
  3. Why does John starts with Ephesus? (Acts 18:9-19:5) Or do we really know?
  4. What are the strong points of the Ephesus church? (vv. 2-3) What are the weak points? (v. 4)
  5. What blessings/curses are attached to the judgment of the Ephesus church? (vv. 5-7)
  6. Who is John addressing in verses 7, 11, 17, and 26-29?
  7. What is the morning star reference about? (v. 28; Matt 2:2, 2 Peter 1:19)
  8. What are the blessings and curses faced by the church at Smyrna? (vv. 8-10)
  9. Read Deuteronomy 4:30. What is prophesied?
  10. Read 1 Samuel 26:22-25 and Matthew 5:44. What is enemy love; what is tribulation?
  11. Who are victorious? What is the second death? (v. 11)
  12. What strong points does John mention in the church of Pergamum? (v. 13)
  13. What weak points afflict the Pergamum church? (vv. 14-16)
  14. What is the sword of the mouth? (v. 16; Rev 1:16, 19:21)
  15. What new name are they to receive? (v. 17)
  16. Who is known from the city of Thyatira? (Acts 16:14)
  17. What strong points are mentioned about the church of Thyatira? (v. 19)
  18. What sins afflict the church of Thyatira? (vv. 20-25)
  19. Read Psalm 2:9. What is the reward for the victorious? (vv. 26-27)
  20. Who is Jezebel and what are Satan’s dark secrets? (vv. 20, 24; 1 Kings 16:30-31)

Questions on Revelation 3

  1. What strong points does John mention about the church at Sardia? (vv. 4-5)
  2. What weak points does he mention? (vv. 1-2)
  3. What metaphor of judgment does John use? (v. 3)
  4. What does it look like to be victorious? (vv. 4-5) What is the metric?
  5. Is this judgment applicable only to the church at Sardia? (vv. 6, 13, 22)
  6. What complaint does John offer about the church of Philadelphia?
  7. What praise does he offer? (vv. 8-10)
  8. What encouragement does John offer Philadelphia? (vv. 8, 10-11)
  9. What open door is John referring to? (v. 8)
  10. How does John describe Christ in verses 14, 19-21.
  11. What complaint does John offer against the church at Laodicea? (vv. 15-18)
  12. How does John’s complaint compare to Paul’s observations in Colossians 2:1-3?
  13. Read Proverbs 10:13 and 13:24. How is Christ’s love expressed? (v. 19)


Osborne, Grant R.  2006. The Hermenutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretations. Downers Grove: IVP Academic.

Thompson, John L. 2004. “Calvin as Biblical Interpreter.” Pages 58-73 in The Cambridge Companion to John Calvin. Edited by Donald A. McKim. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Vanhoozer, Kevin H. 1998. Is there Meaning in this Text? Grand Rapids: Zondervan. (Review)


[1] Unlike Matthew or the author of Hebrews, John never uses the word covenant, not even in reference to the last supper (John 13:1-14). And John uses the word commandment consistently to refer to the double-love commandment. For example, John writes: A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another (John 13:34).

[2] When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades” (Rev 1:17-18).

Chapters 2-3 of Revelation: Tools in Interpretation

Also see:

Chapter 4 of Revelation: The Times and The Seasons 

Chapter 1: Alpha and Omega 

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

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1 Corinthians 8: Jedi Mind-Tricks

Art By Stephen W. Hiemstra
Art By Stephen W. Hiemstra

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that all of us possess knowledge. This knowledge puffs up, but love builds up (1 Corinthians 8:1 ESV).

In Luke 10, Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan in response to a lawyer’s question:  who is my neighbor? (v 29)  The punchline in the story comes when Jesus asks the lawyer:  who was neighbor to the man who fell among robbers? (v 36) Jesus flips the word, neighbor—so-to-speak—from being object to being subject.  Not—who is my neighbor?—but: how do I become a good neighbor?

In 1 Corinthians 8, the Apostle Paul takes Jesus’ Jedi mind-trick (flipping subject and object) and uses it to reframe the perspective on eating food dedicated to idols.

The early church was dogged with questions about food sacrificed to idols.  For example, in the Council of Jerusalem decision, the Council required four things of gentile believers:  abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality (Acts 15:29 ESV).  Likewise, in his prophecy pertaining to the city of Pergamum, the Apostle John writes:  But I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols (Revelation 2:20 ESV).  We are accordingly a bit surprised to hear Paul state:  Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do (v 8)[1].

The importance of this conversation about food can be easily dismissed as unimportant, but Paul returns to it over and over in his letters.  In his commentary, Richard Hays makes this point by listing 4 topics touched on by the food issue which even today remain hot-button issues:

  1. Boundaries between church and culture;
  2. Class divisions in the church;
  3. Love trumps knowledge; and
  4. The danger of destruction through idolatry[2].

What is Paul’s argument?  Paul basically says 4 things:

  1. Idols do not exist (vv 4-6);
  2. The dedication of food to non-existing idols is meaningless (v 8);
  3. Knowledge about this subject is helpful (vv 4-7); but
  4. Knowledge is less important than demonstrating love for fellow believers (vv 7-13).

Later, Paul combines his principles of Christian freedom and Jesus’ Jedi mind-trick:  “All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor (1 Corinthians 10:23-24 ESV).

Paul’s reiteration of Jesus’ reframing of focus in dealing with neighbors speaks to the heart of the food controversy.  If we abandon our rights as Christians in favor of our fellow believers or potential believers, then our priority is to be a good example—even when it hurts.  Perhaps, especially when it hurts.


[1] We might hear another echo of Jesus here:   The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27 ESV).  This is another Jedi mind-trick by Jesus because he again radically reframes the entire discussion by flipping subject and object.

[2] Richard B. Hays.  2011.  Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching:  First Corinthians.  Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press.  Pages 143-45.


  1. How was your week? Did anything special happen?
  2. What questions or thoughts do you have about 1 Corinthians 7?
  3. What contrast does Paul offer in verse 1? According to Paul, what is an idol? What is knowledge?  What is love?  Why the contrast?
  4. What knowledge does Paul view as important? (vv 2-3)
  5. What is important to know about idols? (vv 4-6) How does the contemporary problem of idolatry differ from the idols that Paul is describing?
  6. Two groups are impacted by the discussion of idolatry in verses 7 and 8? Who are they?  How do their views differ?
  7. What right is Paul referring to in verse 9?
  8. What is Paul’s admonition about knowledge about idolatry and the issue of food dedicated to idols? (vv 9-13)  How are we to use to the knowledge that we possess?
  9. What does the New Testament teach about food and idols outside of this chapter? (for examples, see Acts 15:29 and Revelation 2:20).
  10. Why does Paul spend so much time on this issue? (see reflection)

1 Corinthians 8: Jedi Mind-Tricks

First Corinthians 7

First Corinthians 9

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