We’ve all seen a red letter edition of the Holy Bible, and chances are you haven’t put a lot of thought into how the sayings of Jesus are determined to put them in red letters. In the Gospels, it is usually quite obvious. We’ll have an introduction like “Jesus said to his disciples” and his statement will be in red letters. Clearly, the words of Jesus. I think we can all agree on this. Hence, it seems to be a pretty safe call. However, when we get to the book of Revelation the red letter edition conundrum hops off the pages at us.
John, the author of Revelation, is banished to the Island of Patmos. An angel shows him a vision of things to come. Basically, the book is divided into 3 sections. The last section starts in chapter 4 and goes to the end of the book. This is the part we will be focused on. Every single word is in black until we get to chapter 16 verse 15, and then chapter 22 verses 7, 12 and 13, 16, and 20. Outside of 22:16, there is no attribution to Jesus in the writings. My argument is that the entire reason for the chosen red letters is theological, and not dictated by the text. Moreover, some of the writings left in black would appear to be continuations of the words written in red. Again, I believe the reason for this is theological.
A look at the red letters in Revelation 22
In verse 13 we have “I am the Alpha and Omega”. In Orthodox Christian doctrine, this is a statement of divinity. “I am the first and the last”, thus the author is claiming to be God. Therefore, this statement is attributed to Jesus. However, there is no obvious reason in the text to end the quote there. Why isn’t verse 14 also attributed to Jesus? The answer is theological, not textual. But let’s continue on to a more obvious example.
In verse 20 we have “He which testifieth these things” saying “Surely I come quickly” in red letters. Hence, this is Jesus. However, if we go back to verse 18 we see “For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book”. Since we already established that it is Jesus who testifies to these things, this should be in red letters as well. So why isn’t it? Because in verse 18 the speaker says “if you do this, God will do that”. If one’s theology leads them to believe that Jesus is God, then the ascended Jesus shouldn’t be speaking of God in the 3rd person as an entity acting apart from himself.
The same theological problem presents itself in verse 14. Blessed are they that do “his commandments”. If Jesus is indeed God, then the commandments of God are also the commandments of Jesus. Therefore, theologically Jesus can’t be speaking in verse 14. However, only God can be the Alpha and Omega. Thus, Jesus must be speaking in verse 13. Hence, the reason for the division of red and black letters here is purely theological and not dictated by the text.
The problem with manipulating the red letters.
The problem with manipulating the red letters for theological reasons in evident right here in Revelation 22 verse 19. It warns against taking away from the words of this book. However, this could easily be read as a warning against any type of manipulation. I would imagine that your pastor would agree that adding to the words is just as problematic as taking away from them. Moreover, manipulating them so that they express your desired meaning would be just as problematic.
There is a deeper problem with developing theology based on the book or Revelation. It is an ambiguous writing full of symbolism. Ambiguous passages should never be used to interpret clear passages. I am not suggesting that we should take anything from the book of Revelation and use it to change our views on who Jesus is. Thus, if one already believes that Jesus is God it makes sense for them to read these passages the way the red letter edition presents them. However, to present them as the intended meaning of the passages when that meaning isn’t clearly presented is wrong. This is imposing the theology of the publisher onto the text instead of looking for the intended meaning of the author. For this reason, we should all be cautious when dealing with red letter editions of the Bible.