Reflecting on the text
Okay, let’s get down to it. The first question most of us ask about this book is quite appropriately, “What is this thing?”
Indeed, what is the book of Revelation?
This is the question we’ll be exploring for the rest of the week.
Let me start by asking another question. Have you ever noticed the fact that we read different types of “literature” differently? It’s so obvious that it’s easy to miss, but think about it for a minute.
Do you read the newspaper the same way you read a novel?
Do you read a poem the same way you read the phonebook?
Do you read the comics the same way you read a cooking recipe?
Of course not. There is a word for this that you’ve probably heard: genre. Genre basically refers to different types of literature (or music, movies, etc).
So when we ask the question, “What is the book of Revelation?” we are asking a question about genre.
There are three basic things that specify a genre: the form (or characteristics) of the work, the purpose for writing, and consequent guidelines for how to read it.
Thinking about our previous examples, we can see how this plays out in everyday life.
Form – When you see a page of recycled paper filled with lists of names and seven- or ten-digit numbers, you know that you are looking at phonebook and not a comic strip.
Purpose – Novels are written primarily to engage our imagination and to catch us up in the story they are telling. On the other hand, instructions manuals or recipes are written to show us how to do or make something.
Guidelines for reading – When we read a poem, we must allow our imagination and our emotions to get involved if we are to properly experience it. The same is not often true for, say, a science textbook.
How does this help us understand Revelation? Well, there are actually three genre mentioned and/or assumed in the opening statements of the book: letter, prophecy, and apocalyptic.
By looking at each of these genres (their form and characteristics, purpose, and guidelines for reading), we’ll lay a strong foundation for our study of the rest of the book.
So with the time we have left today, let’s talk briefly about Revelation as a letter.
The form of Revelation’s opening verses is our main clue that it is, in fact, a letter. Notice verses 4-6. Do they look familiar? They sound an awful lot like the openings to other New Testament letters (see Ephesians 1.1-5; James 1.1; 1 Peter 1.1-2; 2 John 1-3; Jude 1-2).
So among other things, Revelation is clearly a letter.
Living what we learn
Now to the important question: who cares? What difference does this make? We can answer this by thinking about letters today. What are some of the purposes of letters in our world?
Basically, letters communicate information from one person (or group) to another person (or group). The important thing to grasp is that letters are personal forms of communication that usually address specific issues within an already (or soon-to-be-) established relationship.
Here is something we must never ever forget: Because Revelation is a letter, we can’t ignore the original audience.
The basic point is that the text cannot mean something that would have been totally incomprehensible to the original hearers. Our reading of Revelation must make at least as much sense in their world as it does in our own. If we remember this, we will be protected from many of the ridiculous things being said about Revelation in our world today.
Or in someone else’s words, “If Revelation were ‘really’ a book of predictions of later events, such as the oil crisis in the Middle East, Russian and American militarism, it would have been meaningless to its first readers and would not have been a letter to them at all.”
Just as Paul wrote to the Galatians about things happening in Galatia (1.6-9), and to the Corinthians about issues regarding the church in Corinth (1 Cor 7.1; 7.25; 8.1; 12.1), John wrote Revelation to followers of Jesus living in the Roman province of Asia Minor (present-day Turkey) in the late first century.
There is one other very important “guideline for reading” that I want to bring to your attention. Revelation (like most biblical books) was not written to an individual; it was written to churches. This means that this book applies more to you and me together than to you or me individually. Revelation is properly read and lived out in community, as we are attempting to do.
So Revelation was God’s word to them (the original audience) before it became God’s word to us, and it’s God’s word to us (as communities of faith) before it is God’s word to you and me (as individuals).
Looking ahead to next week, read through chapters 2-3. What are some of the issues that seem to be important for these seven churches in Asia Minor?
Lifting the Veil 002 // What is Revelation? (pt 1)