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Approaching Revelation

Like every other book of the Bible, we ought to take Revelation on its own terms. A fundamental principle (Golden Rule?) to interpreting Scripture is to treat the text how the text wants to be treated. This means considering the literary genre, the various contexts (cultural, historical, etc.), the grammatical flow, the argument or overall purpose of the text, and its place within the larger scope of Scripture.

When approaching Revelation, we find that it contains a few different genres or styles that require us to slow down and listen closely to the text. Before we get to any other interpretive elements, getting a grip on the literary genres is helpful. Here are three types of literature we find in Revelation.

The book of Revelation is an apocalyptic book. The first word in Revelation 1 is "revelation." The Greek word for "revelation" is apokálypsis (where we get our word apocalypse). When we read or hear "apocalypse," we think about cataclysmic events (planes falling out the sky, asteroids destroying life, nuclear catastrophes, etc.) . But the word means to “disclose things that would not be otherwise known.”[1] It genuinely is a revelation. It means to pull back the curtain and see things from a different perspective. One common theme in Revelation is that things are not what they seem. Apocalyptic literature often relies on familiar but dramatic symbols to stir the reader's imagination to contemplate the truths communicated. So often, we try to persuade or strengthen commitment or devotion by reinforcing information. Yet, it is a transformed vision or imagination that typically leads to change: we need our imaginations revived. Apocalyptic literature is after our vision and imagination. We may not always understand the symbols themselves, but we can still be affected by them in the way the author intends. As Koester says, “the ugly portrayal of a beast with seven heads, ten horns, and blasphemies pouring from its mouth can awaken an intuitive sense of aversion that precedes any attempt to interpret the beast’s significance. People may not understand exactly what the beast is, but they quickly recognize that they want nothing to do with it.”[2] If the images about Jesus reinforce faith and the images of evil lead us to view it as grotesque, then the apocalypse is compelling!

The book of Revelation is a prophetic book. When we think of "prophecy," we tend to think about future predictions. Though revelation has a lot to say about the future, prophecy in Scripture isn't merely about foretelling events. Rather, prophetic texts are more about calling God's people back to faithfulness or endurance in the face of opposition. In Revelation, we see that true and false prophets are distinguished not by future prediction accuracy but by faithfulness or non-faithfulness. As a prophetic book, it calls for action here and now as we wait for the time to come. As Darrell Johnson notes, "Calling the book of Revelation a 'prophecy' means that God is now revealing something that is requiring a response at that very moment, some new form of obedience to his will.”[3] In other words, Revelation tells us what’s to come but even more so how to respond now considering what is to come (the fullness of the Kingdom at Christ's return). In approaching Revelation as prophecy, we should be cautious about using it as a decoding tool for the future; instead, it is more like a discipleship manual for the reader, in whatever time and place she finds herself.[4]

The book of Revelation is a letter. Revelation 1 tells us that this is a letter to seven literal churches in Asia Minor. As a letter, it addresses real people, in real places, facing real problems, as real churches. Some of the challenges are political idolatry, pervasive immorality, and indifference towards God's mission in the world. The letter from Jesus through John brings these issues to the surface multiple times. However, keep in mind that the number "seven" is also symbolic of total completion and comprehensiveness. This means that the letter is also for the whole or complete church across times, continents, and cultures. Therefore, it has profound relevance for us today as we also wrestle with cultural pressures and temptations addressed in Revelation.

It is essential to know what we are reading before we get too far into the book to be more attuned in our interpretation and application. Understanding the Revelation combines apocalyptic, prophetic, and epistle-like structures will serve us well on our journey through this timely book.

[1] Craig Koester, Revelation and the End of All Things, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 42. [2] Ibid, 44.

[3] Darrell W. Johnson, Discipleship on the Edge: An Expository Journey the Book of Revelation, (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 2004), 25. [4] Ibid, 51.


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