We’ve discussed some of the main themes of this book, as well as the generally compressed style that allows us to see them from new perspectives, but without a basic understanding of the sort of writing we’re encountering, we’ll almost certainly miss those themes.
Without a cursory acknowledgment of genre, without some shared vocabulary for the type of literature in this book, we’ll not be able to anticipate or interpret any of these themes.
For the majority of you who are not literature nerds, you must understand the importance of this discussion. Every writing has a genre–even if you’re not aware of it. Genre is always there, setting the tone and orienting your mind. It provides a scaffolding for your expectations and, perhaps most importantly, guides the questions you would ask. If you were, for instance, to read a book about sparkly melodramatic vampires, you would expect certain things: like plot holes, stilted dialogue, and poorly-executed characterization . . .
but also love triangles and the difficulties of interspecies marriage. To ask it to also include a medieval cavalry charge, modern espionage, or Sherlock Holmes is to not know what book you are reading (though it probably would improve the finished product!).
As a compressed version of the Bible, Revelation includes many genres, but from first to last, we know this work is a letter, written by a specific person to specific people. We see this in the use of a customary greeting, “John, To the seven churches in the province of Asia: Grace and peace to you from him who is, and who was, and who is to come . . .” (Rev. 1:4 NIV), and in the personalized messages in chapters 2-3 (which we will finally get to tomorrow!)
The author of the letter is introduced to us as “John,” God’s servant (v1) and a man intimately associated with the various strengths and weaknesses of the Christian communities in Asia Minor, whose relationship with them is apparently pastoral in some sense, as he is able to both specifically encourage and challenge his friends, as their situation dictates. Regardless of any potential relationship to the Beloved Disciple, he is at least a member of that circle of prophets who spoke into the lives of the early Church (cf. Acts 13:1; 15:32; 21:10; I Cor. 12:28; 14:29ff; Eph. 4:11).
Also within Revelation is its namesake, to which we are introduced in the very first verse: “The revelation [apokalupsis] from Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John . . .” (Rev. 1:1). While we have translated the meaning of the word to be “a revelation, unveiling,” we have also received the Greek word itself into our language as “apocalypse,” though its meaning has become muddled over time to simply mean, “The complete and final destruction of the world.” This isn’t without warrant, as the book (and others like it) does depict the destruction of the world, but that’s not the only thing going on here.
I say “others like it” because, while the images in Revelation have come to be synonymous with the apocalypse, an apocalypse is an actual style of writing, with distinct expectations and historical conventions. There were several popular apocalypses known to Jewish-influenced audiences in this era, though Revelation is the only one that explicitly titles itself as such. Regardless, it was a fairly popular genre at the time: walk into an ancient Barnes and Noble and you’ll discover the “apocalypse” section, right next to the sparkly teen vampires.
While not every apocalypse followed the same exact form, there was a general set of expectations, as defined by the Society of Biblical Literature:
“A genre of revelatory literature with a narrative framework, in which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial insofar as it involves another, supernatural world.”
Translated into normal people talk, apocalyptic writing is a story in which an angel (usually) guides a human through the supernatural world, revealing a deeper reality that looks forward to some sort of salvation experience at the end of all things.
In these first verses we see the beginnings of this as God makes His revelation known to His servant John by “sending His angel,” and of course, we go on to see a journey through the heavenly realms, viewing God’s ultimate rule, which is the point: to bring hope and encouragement in light of God’s perspective on the world.
We’ll be showcasing these genres as we come to passages that depict them clearly, but for now it’s enough to know the sort of things to look for: letter, apocalypse, and finally, prophecy.
We understand Revelation to be prophecy because, as with “apocalypse,” the word is used to describe the contents: “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” (Rev. 1:3), and also closes with a similar claim (22:7).
When we say Revelation is a work of prophetic literature, though, we mean so much more than what most of us have grown up understanding that word to mean. While “prophecy” can include many things, it is first and foremost the art of telling the truth.
When we approach prophetic literature, we must first recognize the art involved. In the biblical tradition, prophecy has always been flamboyant, dramatic, artistic. Prophets were truly the first guerrilla performers, going to great lengths in order to get their point across. Elijah doused his burnt sacrifice in water. Hosea named his children “Unloved” and “Not-My-People.” Ezekiel famously built a toy model of Jerusalem complete with siege engines, then lay next to it on his left side for 390 days. Then he rolled over to his right for 40 more, and all the while baked bread using animal dung, since God, in His infinite mercy, allowed him to not use human excrement. Yeah, they did crazy things. And it got people’s attention, as did John’s letter to the churches.
“Blessed is the one who reads” and, “blessed are those who hear.” Revelation was written with an attentive eye and ear for the theatrical because it’s original audience was by and large one that heard these words. One person read the words, the congregation listened. So the images are made larger than life, even ostentatious at times, in order to be well-remembered. The art is intentionally memorable.
Which leads again to that statement about prophecy as the art of telling the truth.
The prophetic vocation does not primarily entail telling the future, but telling the truth. A prophet’s job only includes a very minimal amount of foretelling, and even when that does occur, it’s usually for another, more immediate purpose. Much as the meaning of “apocalypse” has degraded over the millennia, so too has “prophecy” come to be defined by its most kitsch elements. However, that’s not the main point. Prophecy is not about foretelling but forth-telling. To be prophetic is to tell the truth, regardless of the cost.
A prophet was at heart someone who could not be bought, who made trouble for those who wanted, as Walter Bruggemann would say, to keep life locked in the old order. This is why Stephen Geller calls prophecy “the heart of biblical religion.” It was, he wrote,
“Untamable by covenantal law, priestly rite, and wisdom precept. It represents a principle of freedom, of something wandering, of unmediated divine contact that was the source of authority, and also a danger of uncontrollable chaos to the other types of biblical religion.”
A prophet’s vocation is not about predicting what might occur in the future, but calling your attention to the here and now. In fact, when a biblical prophet does bring up the future, it’s almost always in light of what is currently happening in his or her world. A prophet might predict their country’s destruction and subsequent fall into bondage, but it is a result of their current failure to “Do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.” So too might a prophet foretell the future restoration and peace of God’s people, but they do so in order to bring healing and comfort for present suffering.
All this is to say that the job of a biblical prophet is fundamentally to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.
Comforting the afflicted: “Blessed are the poor in spirit . . . blessed are those who mourn . . . blessed are those who are persecuted . . . ” (Matt. 5). A prophet is someone who speaks to those who are crushed and reminds them that their God has neither forgotten nor abandoned them; that their God is the protector of the “widow, the orphan, and the immigrant.”
Afflicting the comfortable: “Woe to you, scribes and pharisees, you hypocrites!” (Matt. 23). A prophet is someone who calls out those who benefit from systemic injustice and tries to make them see their complicity in the pains of others. Often, their daring words bring them to the very thrones of those who institute such injustices, where they must point the finger at the king and say without wavering, “You are the man!” Is it any wonder most prophets seemed to meet bad ends? Calling out the pax romana for the sham it is will make you plenty of enemies.
Much of the time, however, a prophet is not directly speaking to those in power. Most often, they find themselves speaking to those in the middle–people who may neither directly enact nor enforce harmful policies, but nonetheless benefit from them. This is where many of John’s audience dwelt. The soil of Revelation, out of which springs the letters to the churches and visions of heavenly worship, battle, judgment, and restoration, is rich in prophecy: not a blueprint for armageddon but a masterful song of resistance. And it calls to us.
This is perhaps the primary reason we, as 21 century westerners, tend to read this book so poorly. Far from the persecuted minority we often portray ourselves as, we are more often those whose voices are the loudest and shrillest: the first to cry out with the anger of the privileged when we see others receiving what we have for so long taken for granted. We are far less like the persecuted Asian churches and far more akin to the complicit Asian churches, the Romans and their beneficiaries. Therefore, a message such as we find in Revelation will often be misunderstood by those who have never been given the eyes to see. This book is about comforting those who are truly afflicted, the down and out and the dispossessed, and afflicting those who are comfortable, if their comfort has not altogether stopped up their ears and blinded their eyes.
Such a claim can disturb the blissfully ignorant equilibrium we work so hard to maintain. Truly prophetic art such as Revelation can cause deep doubt and even feelings of utter inadequacy. I hope in our study to do some of that–not to engender listlessness or fear of failure, but to shock us awake by the intense images and symbols in this book. Art has the power, more so than many other forms of communication, to slip under your mind’s guards; to quietly enter through the back door, causing you to encounter its dangerous message before your mental defenders can resist. It can discover the chinks in the armor of our too well-defended hearts. If we allow it.
This is my hope for this study: that we will be comforted where necessary. That those wounds we all carry around us would be able to find healing salve in the suffering which Christ took upon Himself and promised to do away with when He brings all things to completion. That we would find the courage to stand, because even the songs of our oppression can be turned into a vocabulary for resistance. And ultimately, that we would believe His message of hope for the healing and reconciliation of all things–Behold! I make all things new!
I hope that we will be afflicted. That we, who have grown so comfortable in our ease and privilege, would allow this message to cut us deep and show complicity in the pain and suffering of others. That though we may claim to follow the Gospel of Christ, we all too often have followed the Gospel of Caesar, trusting in his ability to save and bring peace and prosperity. Oh that we would stand and resist, reminding Caesar and those who believe his “good news” that a deeper tide is coming, one that will wash away all injustice and wrong doing, even from our hearts.
Would we resist and follow the Gospel of Christ, the only good news that leads us into sacrificial death but also into new, indestructible life. Would we become the Body of Christ: receiving the Life-giving pains of His body into our own frail forms, then turning out onto the world to become the Life-giving body of Christ for a people desperately in need of a new prophetic voice.