Revelation as Apocalyptic
“One of the real advances in twentieth-century biblical scholarship was its rediscovery of the genre of apocalyptic literature, which made it easier to interpret the last book of the Bible and to justify its place in the canon. For many centuries, Revelation was either ignored or misunderstood because no one really knew what to do with its rich symbolism. Many made the mistake of treating it as a literal prophecy, which led to fantastic predictions of the immanent end of time, and so on. … Now, however, it is possible to appreciate the text of Revelation for what it is and to realize that it is one of the most profoundly theological books in the entire Bible. It may take some time for awareness of this to percolate down to the average churchgoer, who is still liable to be misled by sensational interpretations, but there is a new scholarly consensus on the subject that promises to enhance, not diminish, the book’s reputation and usefulness in the life of the church. – Gerald Bray
As was mentioned in the Introducing the Revelation sermon (www.tablechurch.net/#sermons) we live in a very specialized world where people go through years and years of study for a very specific field. The opening quote points out how many people have been taught to read Revelation in the church over the years, but until recently there simply were no specialists on apocalyptic literature. In other words, many of us have been taught – with dogmatic certainty – what the book of Revelation means and yet our teachers have never really studied the apocalyptic genre Revelation was written in.
Of course it is God’s Word and God’s Word speaks to us. However, just as a poem cannot be made into a math problem no matter how hard one tries to force it, so too the apocalyptic genre of Revelation cannot be made into something it was not designed to be. Unfortunately, many American Christians have never been taught that Revelation is from a very specific genre or style of literature, and so they are simply unaware that to read this literature in a highly literal way is the same thing as treating a poem like a math problem. Or even worse, a math problem like a poem!
Respecting Revelation as a Genre
“We are obligated … to read the texts (of the Bible) in… their historical setting, in their literary setting. … That means when we come to read the Bible we must try, by God’s help, to understand the various parts as God, himself has given them to us. … We do not interpret all literature exactly the same way. We do not take a Shakespearean sonnet and interpret it exactly as you would free verse. … So it is when you come to the Word of God. God in his wisdom has given a wonderful diversity of forms in Scripture. … One of the forms he has given is apocalyptic, and it has its own principles of interpretation, its own standard symbols. For a start it is steeped in Old Testament allusion. … In addition it schematizes history. It is the only part of the Bible where you can count on the numbers being symbolic. … In this kind of writing everything is in 7’s and 3’s and 10’s and 12’s. That’s the way the language works and you have to understand how it works. If you try to understand it in merely literal terms you will distort it. … When we come to the book of Revelation the numbers are symbol laden, it is the genre, it is the literary form. And you treat the Word of God with less than respect unless you come to terms with the different forms that God has given.” – D. A. Carson
I bolded that last sentence because I know that all Christians with a high view of the Bible genuinely want to know what the text says. However, as I pointed out in the sermon we would never go to a friend who has been an expert in their field and tell them to move over so you can show them how to do their job. Because we would never do that to a friend, we should never come to the Bible with an attitude that “we know” how to read this text so everyone else can just move on over. The simple fact is that most of us have been raised in churches with pastors who love the Word of God and long to teach it faithfully, but they simply were not trained on how the genre apocalyptic works.
Let me give you an illustration for what the past couple generations in America have done to the Revelation. Lewis Carroll famously wrote Alice in the Looking Glass which was made into a cartoon when I was a kid and recently has been redone as a movie. In that movie is a non-sensical poem which Carroll wrote with mostly made up language. NOTE he intentionally made up words to write a poem which was intentionally nonsensical. However – even though much of the language of the poem was made up words it still communicates the story of a boy (or girl in the new movie) who slays a hideous beast. The poem is called The Jabberwocky – http://www.jabberwocky.com/carroll/jabber/jabberwocky.html.
Imagine for a minute that (for whatever reason) all of civilization begins to collapse – maybe the Matrix is true after all! With this collapse all the history books and knowledge that we have gained is lost. Then a small society some 2000 years from now finds a copy of The Jabberwocky and reads it. Imagine that they read it so carefully that they begin to define terms in the poem which Carroll had made up. Imagine that they begin to discuss the possibilities of what the poem could mean for so long that they begin to become absolutely certain their explanations were true.
A very similar thing has been done with the Revelation. Most people didn’t know how to read it because they were unaware that it is a book written in a very specific genre of literature and so they attempted to “read it literally.” This is why many in the past century have read this book and try to explain the imagery by saying that it might speaks of helicopters and nuclear warfare. The problem is that reading the Revelation in that way completely ignores the fact that it was written to a people in history, with a genre of literature that they all knew and loved. It is very much like reading The Jabberwocky and assigning meaning to nonsensical words that Lewis Carroll made up.
Revelation was written to them, but applicable to us
Revelation can only communicate to us today when we understand what it meant to the first readers back then. Because it was written to them back then. Apocalyptic was an incredibly popular genre in their day and so for us to read it as though all of that history never happened is to disrespect God’s Word and make this book far more about us and what we want it to say, than about what God was looking to communicate.
With that said – what is the Revelation about? As we said in the sermon – Revelation was written to comfort the suffering Christians who were in the midst of deep trials and tribulation. And it was meant to shock the complacent Christians into repenting and coming back to their first love.
As we said, rather than get lost in the details in this book get caught up in the drama of the story. Be amazed at the glory of the Son of Man in chapter 1. Weep with John when no one is found who is worthy to open the scroll, and let those tears of sorrow be turned into tears of joy when the Lion of Judah, who is also the Lamb who was slain is found worthy to open them in chapters 4-5.
Feel the tension and the fear when the four horsemen pour out their wrath in chapter 6, and when the demonic hoards attack in chapters 8-9. Hold your breath when the Dragon waits between the legs of the woman who is about to give birth, because the dragon is seeking to devour her offspring in chapter 12. And breathe a sigh of relief when the child and all the woman’s other offspring are protected by God from the dragon.
Don’t get lost in the details, but be moved by the story of the King who comes to slay the dragon and win his bride. Let the reminder of God’s sovereignty and the promise of his ultimate victory over sin and death and hell bolster your faith, and encourage us all to repent and believe in the Lamb who was slain for us.
In closing, the book of Revelation seeks to tell the reader about the ultimate reality by using fantastic imagery and symbolism. Think on this until we look at chapters 4-5 this coming Sunday.
“Revelation invites us to see ultimate reality through our imaginations, in breathtaking, earth-scorching, mind-stretching, sin-defeating, dragon-slaying, Christ-centered, God-glorifying images that change the way we think, act, and speak. … For years I neglected cultivating my imagination. Once I began developing an appreciation for fantasy and imaginative literature like Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey, C. S. Lewis’s series The Chronicles of Narnia, and of course J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, I discovered that my appreciation for Revelation has grown and the weight of its images have pressed heavier on my soul. As I have read imaginative literature, my imagination has developed. As my imagination has developed, I have found myself reading Revelation more patiently, allowing the images to emerge in my mind until I feel the full spiritual shock of their intended voltage.” – Tony Reinke