Revelation Week 1
By Rob Wall
Seattle Pacific University Paul T. Walls Professor of Scripture and Wesleyan Studies
Read this week’s Scripture: Revelation 1:1–8
The Book of Revelation is the strangest book in the Bible and its most controversial. For almost two thousand years, Christians have found its bizarre snapshots of peculiar beasts in strange places both disturbing and captivating. The great reformer Martin Luther accepted Revelation as canonical but did not use it in his preaching or teaching ministry because he considered it much too difficult for rank-and-file Christians to understand. Similarly, Revelation is the only New Testament book for which John Calvin did not write a commentary. Even John Wesley simply parroted the work of another, Albrecht Bengel, when taking notes on Revelation for his popular Explanatory notes upon the New Testament, and then rarely mentions the book in his sermons.
Yes, the church’s poets are drawn to this book for its vivid images and memorable lyrics, and so we often sing their hymns (Charles Wesley’s “Lo, he comes with clouds descending”) or follow their liturgies of worship that draw upon Revelation’s most captivating verses. Artists too have provided an array of stunning visual aids to help readers see the book’s message. In fact, it’s the English artist-poet William Blake who inhabited the strange world of Revelation more completely than any interpreter in history, not by writing a commentary about its possible meaning but by drawing extraordinary pictures of its visions to critique the apostasy of England’s state religion. For good reason, then, Bengel comments, “The whole structure of [Revelation] breathes the art of God […] [to] display the manifold wisdom of God.” [Author’s Note 1]
Many Christians are deeply suspicious of this book because of how others have used it to promote movements of end-time fanaticism and fear mongering. Perhaps for this reason, Revelation is rarely found in our lectionaries and only in edited form when it is; and in the East, some communions don’t even include this book in their Scriptures! This is the real tragedy of Revelation: that a book of such poetic power and theological insight has been handled with either heavy hands or kid gloves, with either fanatical attentiveness or fearful neglect. The result is that the Spirit has often been unable to use it as God’s word for God’s people. [Author’s Note 2]
The business of this first Lectio is to set out guidelines for reading Revelation as Scripture. Fortunately Prophet John seems well aware of the difficulty facing the recipients of his composition and so provides us with a prologue that gives instructions for interpreting his composition rightly. But the reader’s first cues are not from John but from the ancient community that first recognized Revelation as God-inspired, and so titled it and placed it at the end of the Bible.
The Title and Placement of Revelation in Scripture
The titles of biblical books were added to the first manuscripts by scribes to alert congregations to the kind of literature they were about to read (or, in most cases, to hear read aloud). At first glance, this book’s title, “Revelation of John,” strikes one as more witty than helpful! The word “revelation” generally means to make known something that is hidden and obscure; and yet, as Ambrose Bierce observed in his whimsical The Devil’s Dictionary, Revelation is that “famous book in which St. John the Divine concealed all that he knew. The revealing is done by commentators, who know nothing” [Author’s Note 3] A “revelation” indeed!
At the very least, we should note this is the only biblical writing named a “revelation,” which recognizes its distinctive literary character and theological role among Scripture’s other writings. This is a standalone book. The title, “Revelation,” repeats the book’s first word, used only there in the entire composition. First words, especially when used only once, are pivotal words for reading a book well. In this case, “revelation” (or apocalypsis) distinguishes a kind of literature and theological perspective that orients this book’s readers to what is written (see below).
But the title also names John, which is ironic since the book’s first sentence tells us this revelation is “of Jesus Christ,” not John. The important question to ask is this: why name John in the title, not Jesus? First, John is the one commissioned to write down this revelation that God first had given to Jesus (see Revelation 1:19). [Author’s Note 4] The book’s title names its human author, not its heavenly source. Second, nowhere in the book is John identified as the apostle John. The intent of the title, then, is to locate this composition, no matter how controversial its history or how difficult to understand, on an apostolic foundation with Christ as its cornerstone (cf. Ephesians 2:20). The “John” of this title is none other than the apostle John — the one called “beloved” because of his tight friendship with Jesus. Finally, already in the second century, Revelation circulated from congregation to congregation with other New Testament writings with “John” in their title: Gospel According to John and the Letters of John. This small collection of sacred books forms a distinctive and powerful testimony of the apostle John’s eyewitness of Jesus, God’s incarnate Son who is the “word of life” (cf. 1 John 1:1–3).
Since Revelation envisions the endgame of the Creator’s redemptive plan for all creation, it is fitting that it comes at the end of the biblical canon. But the role of a conclusion is not precisely the same as an ending. We have all watched a movie or read a book in which the concluding scene does not end things once and for all, but helps us imagine how the story continues into a future still to unfold and be told. This is the role of Revelation within Scripture: to conclude God’s cosmic battle against the forces of death and evil but in a way that recalls the Bible’s opening creation story in Genesis 1–2. Revelation itself ends in the garden of the new creation with a glimpse of the age to come and of life eternal.
Revelation is an Apocalypsis (1:1)
Revelation’s first word is apocalypsis (“revelation”). When apocalypse is used in a film’s title, the producer forewarns us that this flick is about a disaster that ends the world or changes how we live in it. But in the Bible this word identifies a type of literature and theological perspective. Revelation is an apocalyptic writing and must be read as such. In fact, the history of the book’s misinterpretation is narrated by the failure of its teachers to read this book for what it actually is: an apocalypse. Reading Revelation as a literal prediction of future events or as a cryptogram ciphered by only the special wisdom of the enlightened few is to read it at cross-purposes with its literary form and theological function. The result is confusion and misunderstanding.
Although apocalyptic writings, whether ancient or modern, come in various shapes and sizes, most are identified by their distinctive literary features. First, compositions like Revelation have structural integrity and are meant to be read front to back, not in piecemeal. One expects repetition of important words and phrases throughout the composition, and literary patterns, such as parallelism, which connect different parts of the whole composition.
Second, an apocalypse is an imaginative, evocative writing, intending to draw its readers into fresh ways of thinking about the gospel’s truth by using symbols and poetic verse. Numbers, for example, are important signals of truth that lend precision and order to Revelation’s otherworldly visions: watch for sevens (= the whole of God’s will), threes (= triune God), fours (= the four corners of God’s creation), and twelves (= God’s people). The use of sharply contrasting dualisms is another way of writing that lends clarity to an otherwise mysterious text. The dynamic interplay of contrasting space (heaven and earth), time (present and future), morality (good and evil), and political power (holy and unholy trinities) frame the telling of this apocalypse.
Third, following other Jewish apocalyptic writings (e.g., Daniel, 1 Enoch, 4 Ezra), the prophet John is instructed to write down what he sees — in his case, visions of the past, present, and the future (Revelation 1:19). But he can do so only by translating the strange sights he sees and odd sounds he hears so that his audience may themselves “see” the truth as relevant and readable. Translation is hard work, and John constantly must allude to familiar stories, whether found in his Jewish Bible or in his world, to help communicate the strange world he has entered. His task is to write down what he sees for the sake of the congregations his apocalypse addresses — whether in ancient Asia or today’s Seattle.
Fourth, books like Revelation are often written for a world in crisis in need of urgent advice. Twice in the opening prologue John mentions that time is running out. This would imply that terrible things are happening and the audience’s world is in rough shape. Violent images of horror and terror spread across this book reference a broken world that God needs to put to rights. Moreover, snapshots of a faithful people, such as the congregations of Smyrna (2:8–11) and Philadelphia (3:7–13), highlight their poverty and socially marginal status. This is a book about the great reversal of those counted among the world’s last and least of all who will share fully in God’s final victory over the malevolent powers now in charge.
Finally, the cosmic light and sound effects of Revelation are what happen when God shows up. “Apocalypse” is shorthand for salvation — salvation from the powers of evil that sap life from God’s creation. Such a salvation is God’s salvation alone, because we can’t save ourselves from the evil powers that oppress and impoverish our humanity. The apocalypse of God’s salvation brings both triumph over the agents of death and purification from everything that smells of death. This day of judgment comes when the risen Jesus returns to complete his messianic work; the second coming is the decisive moment in the history of God’s salvation. There is nothing like it. There is nothing more needed besides it. It is the definitive conclusion to the Bible’s story of God. And it is so because the effects of Jesus’ purifying work upon his return are all-inclusive: every creature, everywhere. What remains is a renewed (or “new”) creation, cleansed of evil and ridded of death, that will last forever, and at its epicenter is the holy Trinity surrounded by an international congregation of faithful worshipers fit for eternity.
Apocalypses like the Book of Revelation, and especially this apocalypse selected and sanctified by the Spirit to help form God’s people in every age, are not written by soothsayers to predict the world’s coming attractions. Rather, sacred apocalypses are written down by God’s prophets, like John, to give ordinary folks, like us, heaven’s status report on what is happening right now at ground level. Yes, the horizon of Revelation’s inspired report is the future apocalypse of God’s salvation, when the exalted Son returns to complete his messianic mission. But the Lord’s future is predicated on what has already happened on his cross and empty tomb. This is a book about the “meanwhile” — about what we are to do and be right now as a people who follow the Lamb wherever he goes (14:4–5).
Not only is Revelation from or “of Jesus Christ” (1:1), it is also about Jesus Christ, whom John calls “the word of God” (1:2; cf. John 1:1; 1 John 1:1–2). All that John sees and writes down is a “testimony” (Revelation 1:2) of who Jesus is, even as the incarnate one witnesses to who God is. This is no esoteric or obscure writing; Revelation’s message is the same as the rest of Scripture’s witness to God. This is a revelatory word, faithfully written down by the prophet, which testifies to God’s victory over evil and death because of Jesus. Read it as such!
John summarizes Jesus’ messianic office in the powerful doxology attached to his greeting of the seven churches (1:5b–6). He then follows this doxology with a prediction of Jesus’ second coming that promises to confirm its redemptive results of Jesus’ messianic office (1:7) even as it will confirm the final triumph of God’s reign (1:8).
Revelation is “words of the prophecy” (1:3)
While Revelation calls itself an “apocalypse” only once, it refers to itself six times as a prophecy (1:3; 19:10; 22:7, 10, 18, 19). And for good reason: Old Testament prophecies are woven into the literary fabric of this composition to create the impression that this revelation from Jesus culminates Scripture’s prophetic tradition. God’s promise of a restored creation that includes all the families of earth is now fulfilled through the Lord’s life, death, and resurrection.
But these words also comprise a particular prophecy — “the prophecy” — which targets a single, definitive, decisive event as the moment of God’s fulfillment. This future moment is the Lord’s second coming, which is the apocalypse of God’s salvation in full dress. All the words of Revelation target and interpret that event which completes Jesus’ mission to save the world.
So important is this way of thinking about Revelation that the first of its seven beatitudes adorns it: the one who reads and those who hear the book read aloud will be “blessed” (1:3). This is not because the words of Revelation are somehow magical, but because they are faith-affirming. Words that envision God’s final victory over evil and death, especially for those whose everyday experience would suggest the opposite, are good news! The message inspires repentance and obedience, and so prepares a people for what soon must take place.
Revelation is a Pastoral Letter (1:4–5a)
Among the prophecies and apocalypses we know, Revelation is unique in that it alone is written in the form of a pastoral letter. We notice that both author and audience are named in the prologue, with John greeting the seven congregations in Asia in the same manner that Paul opens most of his letters.
This standard way of beginning a personal letter in antiquity is important for two important reasons: First, letters written for Christians and then included in the New Testament were intended for soul care: a relevant word in time of confusion and a comforting exhortation in time of conflict. Like other biblical letters, then, Revelation should be used by rank-and-file Christians to nurture their faith, sometimes to comfort the afflicted and at other times to afflict the comfortable.
Second, most New Testament letters have a distinct literary form that helps order the study of Revelation. Besides the opening salutation where introductions are made of both writer and recipient (chapters 1–3), a doxological thanksgiving (chapter 4) not only puts the community’s core beliefs of God into play but often hints at the crisis that occasions the letter’s composition and reading. The most meaty and important part of a personal letter is its main body (chapters 5–21), which addresses the intended readers’ spiritual crisis in detail. In the case of Revelation, the main body is a series of visions received by John “in the Spirit” (1:10) that allows him to see heaven’s take on the past (chapters 5–11), present (chapters 12–14), and future (chapters 15–21) of God’s salvation. The final section of a letter is its benediction (chapter 22), which includes a miscellany of pastoral exhortations and pertinent instructions, typically concluding with a closing prayer.
Questions for Further Reflection
- What has been your past experience with Revelation? What are you excited about for this upcoming study? Apprehensive about?
- What evidence does the Lectio writer give for the disuse and misuse of Revelation? Have you seen this in your experience?
- How does understanding the meaning of “apocalypse” help the reader understand Revelation?
- Revelation is a prophecy in content and a pastoral letter in literary form. How do these genres help us in reading Revelation?
- What benefit to growing your faith is the study of Revelation?
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