“When turning to the book of Revelation from the rest of the New Testament, one feels as though he or she were entering a foreign country. Instead of narratives and letters containing plain statements of fact and imperatives, one comes to a book full of angels, trumpets, and earthquakes; of beasts, dragons and bottomless pits.”
This book is so filled with symbolism and is so obscure it is looking to the future, but uses the language and images of the 1st century and taps repeatedly from OT expressions
Citing or echoing the OT more than 250 times
Revelation is a unique blend of three kinds of literature:
apocalypse, prophecy, and epistle and the apocalypse genre no longer exists
The Revelation as Apocalypse
This is the primary form of genre, one of dozens written by Jews & Christians between 200BC and 200AD
Apocalyptic sections of Ezekiel, Daniel, Zechariah, Isaiah were concerned with coming judgment and salvation but because they were born in periods of persecution and suffering, the focus was not upon God’s work within history instead they looked to God bringing a radical and violent end to history, an end that would mean triumph for the good and defeat for evil.
- Unlike prophetic books, apocalypses were written literature from the beginning. They were not sermons written down after the fact. Rev. 1:19 – John is instructed “write, therefore, what you have seen.”
- The content of apocalyptic literature is that of visions & dreams
- The language is cryptic and symbolic and at times the author claims to be someone else. The images of apocalyptic are often forms of fantasy rather than that of reality. Whereas Jesus’ parables used symbols that were familiar, e.g., seeds, lost coins, grain of wheat, salt and light, Revelation’s symbols include:
- a beast w/ 7 heads and 10 horns
- a woman clothed with the sun
- locusts with scorpion’s tails and human heads
One key distinction about Revelation from apocalypses, it does not claim to have been written in ancient times, nor by a different author. It claims to have been written by the apostle John, and he is writing to people whom he clearly knows. In fact he did not seal it up for a later day, but in fact, was commanded in 22:10 not to “seal up the words of the prophecy of this scroll, because the time is near.”
The Revelation as Prophecy
One reason why John did not seal the letter for another day was the fact that, by the giving of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, John knew that the present time was already seeing the beginning of the end and the end of the beginning and the “already-not yet” of the kingdom of God had already appeared.
The apocalyptic era of writing was born in the era of the “quenched Spirit” –a/k/a the “era of silence” -- when the spirit of prophecy was no longer at work among the people. They were longing for a day when the Spirit of God would be outpoured upon the people.
John knew the Spirit was outpoured, he says in the beginning of the book that he was “in the Spirit” when he was told to write what he saw (1:3; 22:18-19) and he speaks of the book in 1:3 as “this prophecy” and says that the “testimony of Jesus” is the “spirit of prophecy” (19:10)
What makes this a unique book is its blend of apocalypse with prophecy.
It is born in persecution, speaks about the end to come, uses symbolic language, etc. but it also speaks a prophetic word to the church of his day and about how to live in the present era
The Revelation as Epistle
The whole prophecy is also cast in the form of a letter. It opens (1:4-7) and closes (22:21) in standard letter form. Accordingly, it is written as an “occasional” correspondence i.e., there are specific matters being addressed, and searching them out is key to understanding what is being said.
The use of scriptures in Revelation needs to keep in mind that keys to understanding it probably can presume that the original recipients did have access to the OT, but cannot presume access to other NT writings (Pastor Lance disagrees with this statement because the early church was skilled at copying Paul’s letters and sending them to the entire church. The same could probably be said about Matthew, Mark and Luke’s gospels.
Apocalyptic imagery is of several kinds, some are constants, like the donkey & the elephant in American political cartoons. The beast out of the sea is a standard image for a world empire, not for an individual leader. On the other hand, some images are fluid, like the lion who is also a lamb or like the woman in chapter 12 she is a positive image, but in chapter 17 she is evil.
Some have clear points of reference:
- The 7 lampstands equal the 7 churches
- The dragon is Satan
But other images are more general the 4 horsemen speak of conquest, war, famine & death not in any specific time or place but as the ongoing result of human fallenness as the source of the church’s suffering
When John does interpret symbols, his interpretation must override any of our interpretations, and serve as the starting point for understanding other symbols.
The whole vision is trying to say something; the details help fill out the picture for dramatic effect
John expects his readers to hear his echoes of the OT as the continuation of that story.
Apocalyptists in general and the Revelation in particular do not aim to give a chronological account of their visions. John’s larger concern is to assure that things are not as they appear. In spite of present appearances, God is in control of history and the church. And even though the church will suffer and will face death, it will be triumphant in Christ who will judge his enemies and save his people.
Clearly John is writing this while in exile for his faith to believers suffering for their faith; suffering “for their testimony” on behalf of Jesus. In his vision, John discovers that the present suffering is only the beginning of what they shall endure – and he’s not sure they are ready to face what’s coming.
- The church and state are on a collision course and the initial victory will appear to go to the state.
- The church needs to strengthen itself, confident that God will sustain them and will ultimately vindicate them.
- Tribulation: what the church has to suffer and endure.
- Wrath: what God will pour out upon the wicked.
God’s people will need to endure the one but will not receive the other.
The book unfolds like a great drama in which the earlier scenes set the stage and cast the characters, and the later scenes presuppose all the earlier scenes and must be so understood for us to be able to follow the plot.
Chapters 1-3 Set the stage and characters
- John himself – the narrator, was exiled for his faith, and had the prophetic insight that the present persecution was only a forerunner of what was yet to be.
- Christ – introduces via various magnificent images drawn from Daniel 10 and other sources. He holds the keys to death and Hades.
- The Church – outside persecution threatens the churches, but internal dissension and other problems threaten them, too.
Chapters 4-5 Further help set the stage.
Via breathtaking visions, set to worship & praise, the church is told that God reigns in sovereign majesty To those wondering if God is really there, he is depicted as a lion who also is a lamb who redeemed humanity thru his own suffering.
Chapters 6-7 – Begin unfolding the actual drama.
- 3 times in the book visions are put forth in structured sets of 7 (ch. 6-7, 8-11, 15-16)
In each case, the first 4 items go together to form one picture e.g., 6-7: the white horseman , red …black …pale
- Then come 2 visions
- e.g., martyrs question: “How long?”
- Earthquake of God’s judgment: “Who can withstand?”
- Then a 2-part interlude:
- 144,000 revealed
- A great multitude
- Then 7th item is revealed
Chapters 8-11 God’s wrath: the 7 trumpets
reveal the content of God’s temporal judgments on Rome
In 11:15 the 7th concludes: “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah” ch. 12-22 now go back and give more details of this whole picture
Chapter 12 is the theological key to the book --They tell of Satan’s attempt to destroy Christ and of his own defeat instead.
The threats upon the Romans DID take place over the next few hundred years.
Also, thematically we can clearly follow moral points:
o God will judge those who trample upon the poor
o Discipleship goes the way of the cross
o God promises not freedom from death and suffering but triumph through it
o Rev. brings a word of encouragement to victims of persecution
o Remember that pictures of the future are hints not specifics e.g., the threats of calamities upon the state remind believers that as God did in ancient Egypt, so to God will bring judgment upon oppressive structures.
o What will happen will happen, but it isn’t necessarily tied to specific players on the world scene today.
o While there may be 2nd level fulfillments of prophecies, we don’t have any keys with which to predict those e.g., the Antichrist figure in Rev. seems to identify w/ the Roman emperor, but in I John Antichrists meant all who teach false things about Jesus.