The Revelation: Revelation as Apocalyptic literature

lion-dove-lamb-yeshuaGorman suggests that the correct, over-arching perspective on the Revelation is
that —

… Revelation is (primarily) good news about Christ, the Lamb of God—who shares God’s throne and who is the key to the past, present, and future—and therefore also about uncompromising faithfulness leading to undying hope, even in the midst of unrelenting evil and oppressive empire.

Gorman, Michael J. (2011-01-01). Reading Revelation Responsibly: Uncivil Worship and Witness: Following the Lamb into the New Creation (Kindle Locations 456-457). Cascade Books, an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Rather than treating the book as though we are reading tea leaves or animal entrails, we should take it as serious theology, with lessons about how the work of Jesus affects the lives of his followers — how we should live and also how we should understand God’s movement in the world and his purposes.

Gorman identifies the Revelation as a blending of at least five genres —

Most scholars agree that Revelation is simultaneously an apocalypse, a prophecy, and a letter, “an apocalyptic prophecy in the form of a circular letter.” Revelation also seems to be a liturgical (or worship, or theopoetic) text and a political (or theopolitical) text. As Eugene Peterson observes in commenting on Revelation as a political work, “The gospel of Jesus Christ is more political than anyone imagines, but in a way that no one guesses.”

(Kindle Locations 473-477).

That is, the book combines an apocalypse (a form of Jewish prophetic literature), a prophecy (like most OT prophecies), a letter (similar to Paul’s epistles), a liturgical text (a guide to worship), and a political text (how the church should deal with the world’s political institutions).

Now, perhaps the most surprising of these, at least in the Churches of Christ, is that the Revelation might be considered a guide to worship, and yet on even a cursory reading, we see John constantly taking us to the throne room of heaven to see, hear, and even smell the worship of God that fills the heavens.

In fact, both classic hymns and countless contemporary Christian songs are based on Revelation. While our preachers and Bible class teachers flee the Revelation, our hymn writers love it. It is, after all, a book written to appeal to our imagination. We left-brained, logical sorts (the predominant personality type in Churches of Christ) struggle with all the poetry, imagery, and such. We long for syllogisms and propositional truths, while God gives us pictures and stories. And so it’s the poets among us who best understand the Revelation.

Apocalypse

More than thirty years ago, biblical scholar John Collins famously defined an apocalypse as

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.

Apocalypses appear in various sub-forms, such as visions, otherworldly journeys, and accounts of access to heavenly books.

(Kindle Locations 489-494).

Scholars debate the origins of apocalyptic theology and literature, but its basic function seems fairly clear: to sustain the people of God, especially in times of crisis, particularly evil and oppression. Apocalyptic literature both expresses and creates hope by offering scathing critique of the oppressors, passionate exhortations to defiance (and sometimes even preparation for confrontation), and unfailing confidence in God’s ultimate defeat of the present evil.

Usually articulated in symbolic, even cryptic, language, this hope means that apocalyptic is also the language and literature of resistance. Richard Horsley contends that “[f]ar from looking for the end of the world, they [Jewish apocalyptic writers] were looking for the end of empire. And far from living under the shadow of an anticipated cosmic dissolution, they looked for the renewal of the earth on which a humane societal life could be renewed.”

(Kindle Locations 505-511).

Now, this is a really important point. The modern Christian has been trained to think of salvation as a means of escaping the worries and stress of this world. We sing, “I’ll Fly Away.”

The answer to this world’s troubles is to leave. In the meantime, we obey the rules and hope God doesn’t damn us for some foot fault. And the damned, along with worries, death, and pain, will be left behind. We live in a Creation that will not last because it’s just too miserable for God’s people.

This very conventional perspective turns the Creation into a mistake, indeed, into a form of Purgatory. We suffer in this world in hopes of living in bliss in another world after we die. Contrary to God’s repeated declarations in Gen 1 and 2, the Creation is not good. It’s bad.

But the Jewish perspective is very different from the conventional Christian perspective. The OT knows nothing of going to heaven when we die or leaving this world behind. Rather, the OT promises a kingdom of God in which God reigns — a new heavens and new earth. It’s more about heaven and earth being joined — about heaven coming down to earth.

(Isa. 65:17-25 ESV)  17 “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind.  18 But be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create; for behold, I create Jerusalem to be a joy, and her people to be a gladness.  19 I will rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad in my people; no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping and the cry of distress.  20 No more shall there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not fill out his days, for the young man shall die a hundred years old, and the sinner a hundred years old shall be accursed.  21 They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.  22 They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.  23 They shall not labor in vain or bear children for calamity, for they shall be the offspring of the blessed of the LORD, and their descendants with them.  24 Before they call I will answer; while they are yet speaking I will hear.  25 The wolf and the lamb shall graze together; the lion shall eat straw like the ox, and dust shall be the serpent’s food. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain,” says the LORD.”

(Isa. 66:10-14 ESV)  10 “Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her, all you who love her; rejoice with her in joy, all you who mourn over her;  11 that you may nurse and be satisfied from her consoling breast; that you may drink deeply with delight from her glorious abundance.”  12 For thus says the LORD: “Behold, I will extend peace to her like a river, and the glory of the nations like an overflowing stream; and you shall nurse, you shall be carried upon her hip, and bounced upon her knees.  13 As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.  14 You shall see, and your heart shall rejoice; your bones shall flourish like the grass; and the hand of the LORD shall be known to his servants, and he shall show his indignation against his enemies.”

(Isa. 66:18-23 ESV)  18 “For I know their works and their thoughts, and the time is coming to gather all nations and tongues. And they shall come and shall see my glory,  19 and I will set a sign among them. And from them I will send survivors to the nations, to Tarshish, Pul, and Lud, who draw the bow, to Tubal and Javan, to the coastlands far away, that have not heard my fame or seen my glory. And they shall declare my glory among the nations.  20 And they shall bring all your brothers from all the nations as an offering to the LORD, on horses and in chariots and in litters and on mules and on dromedaries, to my holy mountain Jerusalem, says the LORD, just as the Israelites bring their grain offering in a clean vessel to the house of the LORD.  21 And some of them also I will take for priests and for Levites, says the LORD.  22 “For as the new heavens and the new earth that I make shall remain before me, says the LORD, so shall your offspring and your name remain.  23 From new moon to new moon, and from Sabbath to Sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship before me, declares the LORD.”

Sorry about the long quotations, but don’t skip them. The only way to know God’s prophecy is to read it. There are no short cuts. If there were a better way to express these thoughts, God would have said it a better way.

We are uncomfortable with poetry as an essential part of scripture because, well, we’re not poets. We don’t like the imprecision, the vagueness, the need for reflection and interpretation. We want nice, simple, easy-to-follow instructions, and yet God gives us Jewish poetry. And it drives us logical types nuts. We want a secret decoder ring to help us turn each word into something literal and linear and logical. But God’s word resists all such efforts.

In fact, my suggestion is that you not only read these passages but you trying reading them out loud. Isaiah wrote these to be read aloud, you know. Try it — and see if you can get through the passages without feeling the emotion and passion of God as he makes these promises to his people. You see, it’s in reading and hearing the poetry that we feel the heart of God.

Profile photo of Jay Guin

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
This entry was posted in Revelation, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to The Revelation: Revelation as Apocalyptic literature

  1. “Revelation is (primarily) good news about Christ, the Lamb of God”

    Sort of describes the entire New Testament.

  2. Mark says:

    The Bible was directed to people who were enslaved, in exile, at war, suffering under Caesars and Herods, etc. Rarely did peace last very long. The (un)intentional omission in most sermons of the region’s/world’s then-current events led many to misunderstand scripture. I think reading the Apocalypse was feared by many because of its imagery and because the televangelists and cult leaders read it a lot. Isaiah 33 is almost never read but is a preview of coming attractions.

  3. Ray Downen says:

    What is clear to me is that I’m no poet! God has given us writings which meet every need of very varied people who love and want to serve Him. In Revelation I find encouraging promises that God wins in the end. And He promises that if we continue to love and serve Him we also will win. We’re on the winning side even despite all the persecutions sent against us which are aimed at destroying our faith in a loving God.

  4. John Royse says:

    If you are doing Video, you can’t leave out Josh Garrels version:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=73r1fP0Tvic&list=RD73r1fP0Tvic#t=284

    Did this on my Chromebook, hope it takes…..

  5. Dwight says:

    We in the Western world don’t understand Hebrew imagery or hyperbole that were written in form and was meant to imbue a feeling and we often take them too literally. Revelation was important, but only to those who understood the imagery. Chances are the gentiles were just as confused and baffled as we seem to be most of the time. And in some ways it is a crawl to the top and over another to offer the best and correct understanding of all points. The chapter/verse style we place it in seems to give a mis-service in that we no longer look at it as a story of overcoming and triumph, but we dissect it trying to match up the images with a particular happening in time and place.

  6. Charlie M. says:

    Jay, do I remember correctly that some early church fathers didn’t consider Revelation to be “kosher”?

  7. David says:

    Love that guitar picking. Could be the Good Lord likes a little guitar picking too.

  8. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    John R,

    Thanks for the Josh Garrels link. I’m seeing him live and in person in Birmingham Feb 2.

  9. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    PS — I’ve added the Garrels video to the post. Too good not to share.

  10. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Charlie M,

    The early church struggled with whether to treat the Revelation as part of the canon. But Irenaeus approved it in the early second century. Oddly, the Revelation has very strong support among the earliest ECFs, but only later came to be questioned. Good summary at http://michaeljkruger.com/the-book-of-revelation-how-difficult-was-its-journey-into-the-canon/

Leave a Reply