A Semiotic Scripture?

Last night, in one of the small groups I lead, we began the book of the Revelation. I have been called crazy by some for doing this and I realize this as I tread with fear and trembling into the journey.

As I was preparing for the introduction to our study, I came across a fascinating term used in Rev. 1:1. The English (NASB) says:

The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show to His bond-servants, the things which must soon take place; and He sent and communicated it by His angel to His bond-servant John,

The term in question is translated by the NAS “communicated it”. The Greek uses sƒ©mainƒ³, the verb form of a word that means sign. The root of this work is the same root word from which the term semiotics is derived, semeiotikos, which means an interpreter of signs. Semiotics, as a refresher, is the study of sign processes (semiosis), or signification and communication, signs and symbols.

In speaking of this term in Revelation 1:1, Robert Mounce in The Book of Revelation (New International Commentary on the New Testament) notes the following:

The revelation is said to be signified to John. The Greek verb carries the idea of figurative representation. Strictly speaking it means to make known by some sort of sign. Thus it is admirably suited to the symbolic character of the book. This should ward the reader not to expect a literal presentation of future history, but a symbolic portrayal of that which must yet come to pass. (65)

So the book of the Revelation is a “sign”-ified book. It requires a semiotician to understand it.

In Acts 11:28, a prophecy of Agabus is introduced in a similar way, with “he indicated through the Spirit.” The word “indicated” is the same word, sƒ©mainƒ³. Agabus was an astute semiotician, as he understood the sign-ified message of the Spirit.

The verb sƒ©mainƒ³ occurs three times in John, all in the context of Jesus “indicating” by what death he would die (John 12:33; 18:32; 21:19); i.e., Jesus predicted his dead by using the phrase “lifted up” as a description of his impending crucifixion. Jesus was sign-ifying how he would die and people needed to be able to read the sign(s) he was giving them so that they would be able to understand what was happening. Jesus was looking for semioticians.

Finally, in Matthew 16:3, Jesus tells the religious leaders “Do you know how to discern the appearance of the sky, but cannot discern the signs of the times?” . The word for signs here is sƒ©meion, the same root word used in the other passages. Jesus is chastising them for their inability to read the signs, in effect deriding them for not being semioticians.

Just after the event with the religious leaders, Jesus seems frustrated with his own disciples for being semioticians themselves. In verse 6, he says to them, “Watch out and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” They thought he was talking about bread. Then he says in verse 11, “How is it that you do not understand that I did not speak to you concerning bread? But beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” It was then that they understood the sign. Verse 12 states, “Then they understood that He did not say to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”

And then there is the confession of Peter in Matthew !6:13-20. Jesus asked the disciples:

15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”

16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

17 And Jesus said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.

Based on the context, particularly because it is a context of signs, that God the Father finally allowed Peter to interpret the signs and he came to the conclusion that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the Living God.

Signs require interpretation. The interpreter for the disciples in Matthew 16 was Jesus. The interpreter in Acts 11 was the Spirit. The interpreter in John was Jesus himself. And in Matthew 16:13-20, the interpreter was God the Father.

As a result, what conclusions would you draw from the New Testament?

David has been a systems thinker most of his life. He has started three businesses as well as designed and developed systems and processes in existing organizations. He has a Doctorate in Leadership and has also done additional post-graduate work in communications.

He has also pastored 3 churches and loves to think about, write about and podcast about scripture, theology, and leadership.

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  • I am finishing Revelation in our men’s class next week. You are welcome to my notes if you like. I know that sounds like a strange offer as I have had several people who have wanted to give me sets of notes from decades ago on revelation and they are rarely helpful. But these are really pretty decent. I relied pretty heavily on Ben Witherington, Mitchell Reddish and some on Mounce and Metzger. The offer is out there if you like it, would at least save you some background work. Thanks for all you do here. It has blessed me and I thought I would offer something in return.

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