How you hear the Book of Revelation determines how you interpret it. If you think it’s primarily futuristic, you’ll see it as a blueprint of what’s coming. If it’s ancient sci-fi, you’ll read it like Dune. If it’s rendering history through symbols, you’ll navigate accordingly. And if it’s a discipleship manifesto, you’ll respond with action.
The key is how you hear it. If you want to do that right, then you’ve got to hear it the way it was meant to be heard. This is true for anything you read. Gary Larson’s Far Side doesn’t help me fix my furnace; I don’t read up on ice cream to understand how to drive a car. To hear the Revelation right, we need to know what kind of literature it is so we can engage it as designed. So many headaches and misunderstandings would be solved if we did just this one thing.
So what kind of literature is the Revelation? This simple question has three answers (I know, welcome to the Revelation), laid out in the first eight verses. I love musical mash-ups, where two songs are artfully combined to create something unique and beautiful–the Revelation is a literary mash-up, masterfully combining three classic genres into one, great party mix.
#1. The Revelation is an Apocalypse.
The first thing we hear in the Revelation is the starting note: The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants . . . The English word “revelation” is the Greek word “apocalypse,” the word that has come to our common speech to represent a horrible, devastating end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it kind of event. But that’s not it’s original meaning. Apocalypse meant, well, just as it’s been translated: revelation. Something’s being revealed, like a curtain being pulled back or a door being opened. Something, or more accurately, someone is present whom we had not seen.
The Apocalypse pulls back the curtain and shows us true reality, what is really going on, who is really in charge, where history’s actually going. Apocalypse is an art form, a known style of writing, and the Revelation mixes in that genre throughout. But at its heart, the Apocalypse is the Revealing of Jesus Christ. Every page, every symbol, every note that’s struck or table that’s spun, everything serves this purpose: to reveal Jesus to his people. So when you read the Revelation, ask this Key Apocalyptic Question: How is Jesus revealing himself to us? Ask it every turn of the page.
#2. The Revelation is a Prophecy.
The second genre joins the Rev mix by verse 3: Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near. The fact that the Revelation is a prophecy will come as a shock to exactly no one. Of course it’s a prophecy. But all prophecy (anywhere in the Bible) must be heard in stereo, played both as a something that is about the future and something that is about the present. In fact, I would argue that all the future orientation of prophecy (new heavens/new earth, death being destroyed, beasts slain, people redeemed) is given to inspire present faithfulness. The Revelation offers a resounding blessing on all who read this prophecy aloud and all those who receive it obediently. That’s powerful. So what’s our Key Prophecy Question? It is this: How is this prophecy inspiring me to faithfulness today? Again, ask consistently throughout.
#3. The Revelation is a Letter.
Apocalypse and prophecy have barely hit their opening chords when genre #3 spins in. In classic letter form, we read: John, to the seven churches in the province of Asia: Grace and peace to you . . . it’s how letters started back then. The Revelation of Jesus Christ is a letter written from a pastor to seven particular churches in the Roman province of Asia (modern day Turkey). No one disputes that for the opening chapters, as Jesus himself addresses each church with a specific memo. But when the letter continues in chapter 4 with a vision shift, readers easily forget that we are still reading someone else’s mail! From 1:1 to 22:21, the Revelation is a circular letter, written and delivered to real Christian churches. Keeping this in mind is crucial, especially when beasts start showing up; it’ll keep Revelation’s purpose central: to encourage and challenge Christians to remain loyal to Jesus during difficult times.
The genre of letter applies the other two genres of apocalypse and prophecy to their context, making it practical to everyday life. Our Key Letter Question is this: How is this letter helping these ancient Christians understand what was going on (apocalypse) and how to respond faithfully (prophecy), and, by extension, how does it help us now? Okay, that’s two questions, but the dual lens of “then” and “now” is critical. Ask these questions every step of the way through the Revelation.
There’s the Revelation mash-up, and each type of lit is essential to the mix Jesus wants us to hear. Here’s the point: in the Revelation, Jesus wants to reveal himself to us so we can faithfully follow him in our present reality and into his good future.
Want to hear more? I’ve been walking my friends through the Revelation in a series of messages at the Erickson Covenant Church; you can find them here. You can also subscribe and download through iTunes under “Erickson Covenant Church”.
Which genre of the Revelation surprised you?
How could this triple mash-up help your community hear the Revelation?
Note: I owe my understanding of the Revelation to so many authors, including Bauckham, Fee, Wilcock, Beale and Wright. But premier among them is Darrell Johnson and his work on the Revelation. I highly recommend Discipleship on the Edge: An Expository Journey through the Book of Revelation if you want to find out more.