Reflecting on the text
Hopefully you have gotten the chance to read the book of Revelation (if not all the way through, then at least much of it). So tell me, what do you think? If you had to come up with a few words to describe the book of Revelation, what would they be?
Colorful. Glorious. Twisted. Exciting. Dramatic. Confusing. Epic. Victorious. Vengeful. Strange. Interesting. Ridiculous. Inspiring. Hopeful. (Certainly not “polite”!) And let’s all admit it, weird. The book of Revelation is like nothing else we’ve ever read. Sure it’s a letter, and a work of prophecy, but that’s definitely not all that’s going on here.
If you had some of these thoughts, then you are right on. And the more colorful (and confusing) elements are due to the fact that Revelation is an example of apocalyptic literature.
After today, I promise I’ll stop using that funny little French word genre so frequently. Apocalyptic is the third and final genre that describes the book of Revelation.
The word “apocalyptic” comes from the first Greek word of the book, apokalypsis. This word means “to reveal, uncover, or unveil what was previously hidden” (thus the title of this book).
Ironic, is it not? The word used to describe this book has to do with making things clear.
So the purpose of Revelation is to reveal. In addition to noting the interesting strategy employed by the author for such a task, we do well to ask what John intended to reveal. Well, no matter how I answer that question, some people will disagree. And since it is best answered as we go through the book, for now let’s stay fairly general.
Revelation unveils the truth about God and his plan for the world.
Notice how John opens the book:
“The unveiling (apokalypsis) of Jesus the Messiah, which God gave him to show his servants what must happen soon. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who testified to everything he saw—the word of God and the testimony of Jesus the Messiah” (1.2).
According to John, the content of Revelation has to do with God, Jesus, and events that were to take place soon. This is probably the most important thing to remember about this apocalyptic work—it is first and foremost about God, and secondly it is about what God was and is up to in the world.
There are many other characteristics and guidelines for reading apocalyptic writings that we could talk about, but for the most part we’ll explore the specifics as we come to them in the text.
Let me just reiterate one thing: we cannot take Revelation literally. This does not mean we don’t take it seriously, or that we don’t think it is telling the truth. It is a very serious book, and indeed a dangerously truthful one, but it employs a method that forces us to use our imaginations. If we read it with a wooden literalism, we will misunderstand it—and thus mis-obey it—every single time.
As with prophecy, apocalyptic works are highly symbolic: lampstands represent churches (1.20); heads are hills, as well as kings (17.3,9-10). We must get it through our literalistic Western minds that Revelation simply cannot be taken literally.
If you don’t believe me, check out Rev 6.12-14. Now notice the first word of the next verse: Then. Problem: if the sun had literally turned black, the stars had literally fallen to earth, and every mountain and island had literally been removed from its place, there would be no “Then.”
I rest my case (for now).
Living what we learn
I’m not a huge fan of really long quotes, but I recently ran across a very helpful illustration of how to read apocalyptic writings.
“Revelation functions rather like a political cartoon, exaggerating certain features of its subject and drawing in bold, stark strokes to make its point. Like many political cartoons, it protests what it sees and is open to being misunderstood, disbelieved, or ignored. Its power to persuade lies, to some extent, in the eye of the beholder, who chooses whether to allow the picture to become the prism through which the world is viewed. And just as political cartoons are often unintelligible to subsequent generations that lack knowledge of the context in which those cartoons arose, so too the book of Revelation often seems merely like an enormous and perplexing puzzle to subsequent generations of readers.”
How might this influence the way we read the book of Revelation?
Here are two principles that sum up what we have learned today:
- We need to focus on the question, “What is this passage telling us about who God is?” (Rather than, “How might events in our world ‘fulfill’ what this is saying?”)
- We must learn to read with our imaginations. Most of us aren’t very good at this. We live in a technologized, machine-driven world that in many ways no longer appreciates the beauty of nature, poetry, or the images of a book like Revelation.
Looking ahead to next week, read through John’s first vision of Jesus in 1.9-20. We’ll talk about what some of the images mean later. For now, allow yourself to be impressed with the color, the drama, and the power of John’s description. As you read, ask God to reveal himself to you and your faith community throughout our study of this incredible book.