Just to make sure we’re on the same page, let’s begin today with a little review. Yesterday we noted that Revelation is a mix of three genres: letter, prophecy, and apocalypse.
What is the significance of saying that Revelation is a letter?
(Your answer should include something about the importance of keeping in mind the original recipients of Revelation.)
The second genre that characterizes the book of Revelation is prophecy. We know that Revelation is a book of prophecy because John tells us so (1.3; 22.7,10, 18-19).
What comes to mind when you hear the word “prophecy”?
Most of you probably included something about prediction. When we think about prophecy, we immediately think of someone predicting the future, telling us what will happen before it actually does.
Actually, however, prediction was only one aspect of most Jewish and early Christian prophecy (in the Jewish Bible, Joshua—2 Kings is known as the “former prophets,” not “books of history”).
There are two things I want to show you about the prediction part of biblical prophecy:
First of all, almost all biblical predictions are conditional.
For example, check out Jeremiah 7.5-7. Notice the three “ifs” that have to be fulfilled in order for the “then” to come about. The Israelites of Jeremiah’s day got to enjoy this promise only if they met the conditions God laid out for them.
Second, prediction never occurs for its own sake. The goal is always to motivate people to respond faithfully to God.
Think about the story of Jonah. In this story, God tells his prophet Jonah to go to the capital city of Israel’s enemy and call them to repentance. But Jonah doesn’t want to go because he doesn’t think they deserve God’s forgiveness. To make a long story short, Jonah ends up going to Nineveh and preaching a very brief message, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned” (3.4).
Seems like simple prediction, right? And God always keeps his promises, to be sure. But it never happens (3.4-10). Why not?
It never happens because the point of the prediction was to call the Ninevites to repentance. And they repented. So the prophecy was never “fulfilled” in a literal sense.
Why I am I emphasizing all of this?
Because we need to see that the primary purpose of prophecy is not to predict the future. The primary of prophecy is to call people to repentance and to challenge them to be faithful to God (especially by taking care of people in need—see Isaiah 58.6-10; Ezekiel 16.49-50).
Living what we learn
What I’m saying is this: As a work of prophecy, Revelation calls for our obedience.
Someone once pointed out that Revelation “is not a code needing to be cracked; it is a proclamation that needs to be heard and obeyed.”
Can I be honest with you? The most challenging thing about the book of Revelation is not trying to understand its message. Even more difficult is to actually live out its message once we have discovered what it says.
No wonder John starts his book by offering a blessing to “those who hear it and keep [that is, ‘take to heart’ or ‘obey’] what is written in it” (1.3).
So the purpose of prophecy is to motivate God’s people to live like God’s people. We’re going to come back to this in a minute. First let’s talk briefly about some of prophecy’s main characteristics.
Biblical prophecy often makes use of earlier prophecies. The prophets like to quote (or allude to) each other.
For example, compare Isaiah 2.1-5 and Micah 4.1-5
This is certainly true of Revelation. There are only 405 verses in Revelation, but there are 676 allusions to the Old Testament! In fact, one of the main reasons we struggle with Revelation is our ignorance of much of the Old Testament. As we walk through this book, you will see the extreme importance of the Old Testament.
Another major feature of biblical prophecy is figurative language.
Mores specifically, prophets will use cosmic imagery to describe events that take place within the history of this world.
Read Joel 2.28-32. Sounds pretty wild, right?
Now look up Acts 2.1-21. Peter says in verse 16 that Joel’s prophecy is being fulfilled right then and there, but nothing seems to have literally happened to the sun, moon, and stars. Interesting, isn’t it?
When you think about it, we do this same kind of this today. After watching a hilarious movie or listening to a comedian, we might say, “We laughed so hard!” But we just as often say something like, “We were cracking up!” or “We were rolling!” Sometimes we even add the word “literally,” even when we obviously don’t mean what we’re saying literally: “We we’re literally laughing our heads off!” These somewhat silly examples display for us a common feature of our conversation: the use of metaphor and figurative language to express the magnitude of what we are trying to say.
Along these lines, N. T. Wright points out that “to describe the fall of the Berlin Wall, as one well might, as an ‘earth-shattering event’ might perhaps lead some future historian, writing in the Martian Journal of Early European Studies, to hypothesize that an earthquake had caused the collapse of the Wall, leading to both sides realizing they could live together after all.”
He goes on to rightly observe that many contemporary readings of prophecy in Scripture (and especially the book of Revelation) operate on about that level of misunderstanding.
When studying about Revelation (and other biblical books), you will often hear someone say, “We should always take the Bible literally.” And because they usually mean by that, “We should always believe that the Bible is telling the truth,” we often equate one with the other. The Bible is quite capable, however—as capable of our descriptions of humor, to be sure—of telling the truth using figurative speech. (So don’t believe them!) There is no virtue in taking something literally when it was never intended to be heard that way!
We’ll work out the details as we go. For now, just prepare yourselves to read much of the symbolic language in Revelation figuratively.
More importantly, in light of what we’ve seen today, let’s all take a few minutes and ask God to open our hearts to the message of Revelation. Let’s talk to God for a while about our own willingness to obey him, even when it isn’t easy.
Can you think of a time when you did something you didn’t want to do, simply because you believed God was telling you to do it? I’m rarely satisfied with how often I do what God wants—even when it costs me a great deal.
Take a few minutes and ask God to prepare us to make whatever changes he demands of us as we encounter him through the book of Revelation.