The book of Revelation is a complex, endlessly fascinating book. Eugene Peterson in his book Reversed Thunder calls it the “last word on Scripture”, amongst other things. Careful study of this book will yield rich fruit for individuals and for the Church. But this is also a book that must be approached with reverence, care and caution. There may not be one “right” way to read Revelation, but there are certainly many “wrong” ways to read it. This book has been used to justify countless end-times countdowns, create wild theories about the meaning of its symbols (no, it’s not about helicopters), and sell many “apocalyptic” movies and books. All of these tend to miss the point of Revelation, and lead us down paths that, while interesting, even entertaining, do not bring us any closer to the main object and subject of the book, Jesus Christ. It is Jesus who shows up in a magnificent vision in Chapter 1, identified as the Son of Man, dressed as a Priest, holding the cosmos in his hand, and delivering his message to John. And this message is about Jesus, beginning, middle and end. So let us not be distracted by anything else, because only Jesus is worthy of our utmost, worshipful attention.
When approaching any book in Scripture, it is vital to gain an understanding of the type of book that it is, the genre in which it is written. We read the Psalms as poetry differently than we would read one of Paul’s letters, or one of the History books, or one of the Prophetic books. Many mistakes are made when we fail to recognise that what we are reading is designed to be read in a certain way. So what type of book or genre is Revelation? Revelation actually straddles three literary genres: Prophetic, Apocalyptic, and Pastoral Circular Letter. It is written by John, a Jewish Christian prophet/pastor who is writing from the island of Patmos, probably because he has been exiled there by the Roman authorities for his Christian witness. In a seeming attempt to silence John, they had in fact put him in a place where God would speak to him, and where the whole church – indeed the whole world – would hear the message. And so, after receiving his heavenly vision, John writes his prophetic, apocalyptic, pastoral circular letter, and the book of Revelation is born.
Revelation is a prophetic book not because it tells of the future (it does, but this popular understanding of the word prophetic is not the criteria for prophesy in the Bible) but because it is the word of God spoken directly into the world, specifically into the Church. John, the author of the book, clearly understood himself to be standing in line with prophets in the Jewish Scriptural tradition. John is here pronouncing the fulfillment of the prophecies that God gave to Hebrew prophets in the past, as seen in and through the person of Jesus. And he is concerned not simply with future events, but with how God’s word will impact the Church in the immediate present. A prophet in the early Christian church was a recognised position, one who would give prophecy in the midst of a worship service. John is delivering this vision as a prophecy, but it must also be said that he has written his prophetic vision down very, very carefully, with utmost skill in composition. That is, he did not just see his vision, dash the words down on paper, and send it off. Every part of the Revelation story is connected in a remarkable unity, a unity which also extends to prophecies and scriptures that have come before. Because Revelation is a prophetic book, it is meant to be read as Christ’s word to the immediate Church in a concrete world; these are not flights of fancy, or timeless symbolic images, but the word of the Lord meant to impact the real-world situations of the Churches it was written to, and to be understood by all those “who have ears to hear”. Above all, Revelation is a prophetic witness to the Church of the person of Jesus Christ, revealed here as Christus Victor, Christ Victorious. This is made clear in chapter one’s imagery of a risen Christ being the object and the source of the prophetic vision.
Revelation is an apocalyptic book not because it deals with eschatology / the end times (it does, but the word apocalypse as it is understood today – a disaster, a holocaust, the end of the world – is not what the word really meant in John’s day), but because it is about unveiling or uncovering something which is there, but which people don’t have the eyes to see or ears to hear. That is what apocalypse means: to uncover or unveil, and the word apocalypse is the very first word of Revelation. Its purpose is to reveal something otherwise hidden, and it does this through a vision narrative, a story, given by a heavenly being to a human. This vision narrative reveals transcendent reality (heaven’s perspective). In Revelation, this breaks open the normal Roman view of the world and displays it as false and temporary compared to the eternal rule of God. This is designed to give suffering or struggling Churches a broader picture of what their struggles mean, and as a reminder that Christ is victorious over all, even when the Roman Empire seems to be the only true power. Thus, the message of Revelation is prophetic in nature (God’s word to the immediate Church), but its form is largely apocalyptic in its use of symbolic imagery and heavenly perspective. (There were many other apocalyptic works circulating at the time which John and his audience would have been very familiar with; John’s Revelation is similar in some ways to these other apocalypses, but is also distinct and unique.) Because Revelation is an apocalyptic book, the Churches it was addressed to were encouraged to understand their situation from the perspective of the much larger, cosmic war that was being waged, and as part of the great salvation history that God had orchestrated and brought to fruition in Jesus Christ.
Revelation is a pastoral circular letter because it is explicitly sent to seven churches in Asia. These seven cities were located along a Roman postal circuit, and probably the order in which the messages to the churches were written reflects the order in which the cities would be visited. There were more than seven churches in Asia at that time, but the number seven represents fullness or wholeness, so these churches represented the broader Christian church. That said, the messages to each church are specific to them, and deal with actual pastoral concerns that existed. John probably knew these churches well, and he is writing from a pastoral perspective. The whole book is a letter to the churches, not just chapters 2-3. Those chapters, with seven sections written specifically for seven churches, form a type of introduction for each church into the main body of the letter. Chapters 4-22 are for all the churches; chapters 2-3 explain to each individual church how they should read and understand the following chapters. In particular, the Churches are told to conquer, and in the specific messages given to them they are told what they are meant to conquer in their situation. It is essentially a description of the battle they are called to fight in the midst of the larger cosmic war. The war is described in detail in the later chapters, as is the method and joy of conquering. Because Revelation is a pastoral circular letter, we have to take the actual circumstances of each of these churches seriously, and cannot just assume that the messages to the churches are written to us. If it was only written to be understood by people who cracked a biblical code 2000 years later, Revelation would have no pastoral value whatsoever to the people it was written to. So Revelation is not written to us, but its message can be for us, if we have ears to hear. We can see how the word of Christ is being applied directly into pastoral circumstances, and can make applications into our own church lives as a result. Each Church message takes the basic form of a picture of Jesus (who himself is delivering the message), an affirmation (for most of the churches), a correction (for most of the churches), and a motivating image of eternal life.
Use of OT Imagery
The symbols and imagery being used within Revelation are not timeless, nor are they random, neither are they to be understood literally. They have a theological meaning within the context of the Churches and world of the time. They are not directly transferable to our current time and context, but if we understand something of what they meant to the first century churches, we can then make applications to our own time and circumstances. This does take a little work, because most of the images are drawn from the Old Testament, or occasionally from symbols prevalent in the Roman Empire at the time of writing. John’s initial Jewish-Christian audience would have understood his allusions on a level that we do not, at least not without some study and work. No New Testament book makes more use of Old Testament sources than Revelation. Every chapter contains within it elements that cannot really be understood without reference to something that has gone before. John’s favourite OT sources were Daniel, Zephaniah, Exodus, Isaiah and Ezekiel, and we will have readings from these books in each cell outline, in order to give some context to what we are reading.
Reversed Thunder, by Eugene Peterson. A very accessible and beautifully written book about Revelation, seeing it as the last word on Scripture, Christ, the Church, Worship, etc…
The Theology of Revelation, by Richard Bauckham. A more scholarly look at the various theological themes present in the book of Revelation.
Contours of Christology, Chapter 13, entitled “Stories of Jesus in the Apocalypse of John “ by David Aune. A work examining the picture of Christ in the Revelation as part of a narrative vision.
Author – Aaron White, along with his wife Cherie and their 4 kids, live and minister in Vancouver’s notorious Downtown Eastside, labeled North America’s poorest postal code. He serves as leader of Vancouver 614, and spends most of his time working with neighbours in the Downtown Eastside and helping lead the 24-7 prayer movement in Canada. He loves Jesus, loves authentic Christian community, loves reading, and loves eggnog.