The Literary Form of Revelation

Revelation is a very, very, very, very, very dense piece of literature—and that’s an understatement. It is a theological and literary masterpiece and is written primarily in three genres. That being said, if you’re not reading it in its literary style or if you miss a transition from one genre to another, you will struggle to understand it or make false applications when using it. The three genres are as follows:

LETTER: We all know how letters work—you write something to someone else, send it in the mail and then they open it up and read it. John wrote this letter while exiled on the island of Patmos—an island, by the way, from which he could see the land of each of the 7 churches he was writing to. Perhaps he prayerfully gazed upon them as He asked God for prophetic words to write to them. Whatever the case, it’s important to note that it’s a letter written to 7 different churches, because that means John had an audience in mind (and it wasn’t you). The Bible writers often thought the end times were closer than they were and so John wasn’t writing his letter thinking he had to explain many of his references and cultural statements to people 2,000 years removed from his time. The seven churches would have read much of the letter likely in a very different light than you and I, and their understanding would often be the correct one, because they were the intended audience.

PROPHECY: The prophetic isn’t always about that which is to come. It is often truth spoken into that which already is. As the seven churches read each other’s mail, John speaks prophetic words over each one of their communities, telling them what they’re getting right (if any) and where they’re missing the mark. He speaks into their current situation, but he also tells them about that which will happen if they don’t get it together, just as prophets often do. And yes, he does go on to speak into that which is to come as his letter documents God’s ultimate return and some of the ways in which it will proceed. Some of John’s prophetic words come out in “words of knowledge” while much of it comes out in “visions.” Perhaps some of those visions overtook him like the prophets of old, perhaps some were dreams, and perhaps some were found in the practice of pursuing the Holy Spirit with his imagination. As a prophet, he could have been familiar with all these different techniques.

APOCALYPSE: John’s letter feels very strange to us, but if you read an ancient Jewish book like 1 Enoch, you would realize that Revelation isn’t alone in its tone (the book of Daniel also gets apocalyptic at times if you want something closer to home). Revelation isn’t odd to us simply because John is having some kind of otherworldly vision—but also because John is writing in an apocalyptic genre, which is completely foreign to us today. There were other books written at his time that sound similar to Revelation—books that he obviously read himself in order to write his own apocalypse. Apocalyptic writings were understood to be a divine revealing of truth or a disclosing of a deeper reality to what was really going on in the world. Furthermore, apocalypses usually addressed the end of all things, just as Revelation does. Many other themes expected of apocalypses are also found heavily throughout John’s book.

On top of all of this, we should mention that John was a magnificent Bible scholar. All Biblical prophetic writing constantly references passages from throughout the Bible without ever mentioning it point blank. By Eugene Peterson’s count, out of the 404 verses found in Revelation, “there are 518 references to earlier Scriptures, but there is not a singular direct quote” (Eugene Peterson, As Kingfishers Catch Fire, Audiobook, Ch 51, 5:37). With this in mind, we have to recognize that if we don’t pay attention to or understand the verses that John is referencing, we will never understand the allegorical statements he is making

*With end times conspiracy theories floating about these days, I‘m offering some thoughts on popular misconceptions from the book of Revelation.

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