The Genres of Revelation

Revelation is a strange book—so strange that I’ve basically ignored it for my entire life. I was turned off by it for several reasons: 

  1. The violence.
  2. Again, the violence.
  3. Weird interpretations.
  4. Revelation code-crackers.
  5. Left Behind’s exciting, yet confusing take.
  6. The 8 million ways you can interpret everything.
  7. The violence.

Yet despite everything that Revelation had going against it, recent studies I did on resurrection made Revelation appealing to me. Despite all the weird elements that make Revelation the confusing book it is, the beautiful vision at the end of the book began to grab my attention. Instead of us going up to Heaven, the kingdom of Heaven comes down to Earth; Eden is recreated; we’re given new resurrected bodies; everything that is wrong with the world is done away with; we spend eternity with God; we reign with Jesus; life becomes everything it was intended to be and better.

This vision—the vision our entire Bible leaves us with to remind us about what’s ahead—is where we must learn to dwell appropriately. But many people are everything but appropriate when it comes to interpreting Revelation. Some are driven to violence and hatred while others are driven to conspiracy theories. It is not an understatement to say that this book can be incredibly dangerous in the wrong hands. For example, when Harold Camping predicted the world would end in May 21, 2011 (the day I graduated from college), some Christians turned to madness.

People sold their homes, pulled their children out of school, and liquidated all their assets to support the end-of-the-world evangelization effort. This time around, disturbed listeners attempted—and sometimes succeeded at— committing suicide. A Taiwanese man launched himself from a building to avoid the imminent cosmic upheavals; a California mother attacked her young daughters with box cutters before opening her own throat in terror of the tribulation. The atheists sneered; the orthodox shook their heads. And the sun came up on May 22, 2011. (1)

This being said, here’s lesson number one about Revelation: If you’re using it in attempts to fuel your own pride and play a prophetic game where you think you know the exact moment Jesus is coming back, even though He Himself didn’t know (Mark 13:32), then you’re playing with something like witchcraft. Not only was Harold Camping wrong, but the fruit of his false prophecy was that of Hell, not Heaven. Even Revelation itself knew it was a powerful book, and so we must approach it with caution. For to quote it’s own ending:

I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, 19 and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book. (Revelation 22:18-19)

And so as we take a deeper look at Revelation over the upcoming weeks, let’s first establish what genre this book is so that we can read it accordingly. Though even this question is tricky to answer, for it falls under three genres: It’s (1) a letter, (2) a prophecy, and (3) an apocalypse.

A Letter.

As clearly seen throughout Revelation (especially at the beginning and end of the book), Revelation is a letter written to various specific people at various specific churches undergoing various specific problems. Therefore, while these letters hold universal and timeless truths, they were written without the 21st century in mind. So when we make every statement of this book out to be about things that are currently happening today or have yet to happen, we are missing the fact that plenty of this book was addressing specific issues of an ancient audience. Your church may be like Laodicea, because again, God’s prophetic critique is timeless, but your church is not Laodicea. They died long ago.

A Prophecy.

As I’ve clarified over and over again in my book, The Rush and the Rest, prophecy is not always about the future. In fact, it is often about the present. Or to be more specific, it’s often about what you should do in the present to determine a prophetic outcome down the road. For example, to the church in Ephesus Jesus said, “I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent” (Revelation 2:5). Their current reaction to a prophetic word effected the outcome of the prophetic word. And so, Revelation carries the mantle of the prophets of old, telling us what is happening, what is to come, and what we must do until then.

An Apocalypse.

This is the hardest genre for modern people to understand, for this is a genre that no longer exists. In our day and age, we think of the apocalyptic genre as a desert wasteland created by anarchy and atomic bombs, but in ancient times it was a kind of prophetic, visionary genre of sorts. Honestly, it’s hard to describe this genre. The easiest way to explain it is to say that you’ll know it when you see it. For example, if you were to read, The Book of Enoch, you would find yourself thinking, Wow, this feels really familiar. And when you finally sort out why it feels so familiar, you’d say that it’s because it feels just like Revelation. Why is that? Because they’re both written in the apocalyptic form. Both have characters that are taken to Heaven and led around by angels and given insight on the way about how the cosmos works. 

That being said, yes, much of the weird stuff in Revelation is weird because you’re a modern, not an ancient. For a long time, I didn’t understand British humor, though clearly all of Britain did. It was as though they were in on a secret that I was not. But now after submersing myself in that kind of humor, I understand it and can’t help but laugh while it goes right over the heads of some Americans around me. In the same way, if we were sitting in the room with the early church listening to Revelation be read, they would perceive things instantly that we would not, for they are familiar with the genre and do not need explanation.

Allusions.

On top of all of this, Revelation is full of allusions. This is very important, for, as Eugene Peterson points out,

No one can hope to read this last book [Revelation] accurately, who has not read the previous 65. It makes no more sense to read the last book of the Bible apart from the entire Scriptures than it does to read just the last chapter of any novel, skipping everything before it. Much mischief has been done by reading Revelation in isolation from its canonical context. (2)

His own studies have also led him to see 518 allusions to other Bible passages in the 404 verses that create Revelation (3). Therefore, we must come to the book of Revelation knowledgeably and with the same Spirit that John had. When we do this, we will be able to better understand this massively dense prophetic letter of an apocalypse.


Bibliography

  1. Hays, Christopher M. When the Son of Man Didn’t Come: A Constructive Proposal on the Delay of the Parousia (p. 2). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition. 
  2. Eugene Peterson, As Kingfishers Catch Fire, Audiobook Ch 58, 13:34.
  3. Ibid. Audiobook Ch 51, 5:37

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