Revelation reads like a “normal” book of the Bible for the first few chapters before moving into unfamiliar territory. The book seems strange because it combines three different literary genres: letter, prophecy, and apocalyptic.
1. Revelation is a letter. The book opens and closes like a typical New Testament letter:
4John,To the seven churches in the province of Asia:Grace and peace to you from him who is, and who was, and who is to come, and from the seven spirits before his throne,5and from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. (Rev. 1:4–5)
The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people. Amen. (Rev. 22:21)
This suggests that the whole book of Revelation is a single letter meant to be circulated among seven specific churches in Asia Minor: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. The messages to the seven churches in chapters 2–3 are not so much separate “letters” as they are specific messages that introduce the rest of the book. Revelation is really a single letter addressed to all seven churches.
As you look at the map below, you will notice that the churches are named in the order in which a letter carrier would visit them, starting from Patmos (John’s location at the time of writing) and moving in a circle around Asia Minor.
Like other New Testament letters, Revelation is “situational.” That is, it addresses specific problems or situations that occur in the local churches. We must read Revelation in light of the original situation faced by those churches (i.e., comfort for the persecuted and challenge for the complacent). If we choose to ignore the original situation, we will surely distort the meaning of the letter. We should not worry that Revelation will have no value for people like us who live at a different time and in a different place. As we take any New Testament letter through the steps of the Interpretive Journey (including Revelation), we are able to hear God speak a timeless word about how we should live in this world.
Often in the introduction portion of a New Testament letter you find main themes that are developed later in the body of the letter. The same is true with Revelation. If the messages to the seven churches are actually part of an extended introduction to Revelation (as many commentators believe), what should we expect from the rest of the book? Bauckham suggests that Christ’s promises to the one who “overcomes” at the end of each of the seven messages provides a major clue (2:7, 11, 17, 26–29; 3:5–6, 12–13, 21–22).
What it means to “overcome” (or “conquer”) becomes clear only as the entire book unfolds. As just noted, the introduction to the letter shows us that the entire letter centers around overcoming. In the central section of the book we read that true believers “triumphed over him [Satan] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death” (12:11). At the end of the book in the vision of the new Jerusalem we hear the promise that “those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children” (21:7). In other words, at the beginning of Revelation we are challenged to overcome; in the middle we see the struggle to overcome; at the end we see the inheritance that overcomers will receive.
2. Revelation also claims to be a prophetic letter:
Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near. (Rev. 1:3, italics added in all cases)
6The angel said to me, “These words are trustworthy and true. The Lord, the God who inspires the prophets, sent his angel to show his servants the things that must soon take place.”7“Look, I am coming soon! Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy written in this scroll.” (Rev. 22:6–7)
Then he told me, “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this scroll, because the time is near. (Rev. 22:10)
18I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this scroll: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this scroll. 19And if anyone takes words away from this scroll of prophecy, God will take away from that person any share in the tree of life and in the Holy City, which are described in this scroll. (Rev. 22:18–19)
Biblical prophecy includes both prediction of the future and proclamation of God’s truth for the present (usually the emphasis is on proclamation). In the very places where Revelation is described as a prophecy, the readers are exhorted to do what God has said (i.e., to respond to the proclamation). Those who hear this prophecy will be blessed if they take it to heart (1:3) and keep its words (22:7). We should remember that Revelation is not just about the future; it is also a book about what God wants to see happen in the here and now. Even in John’s day, the book is said to be an “unsealed” or open book, whose message is available to all who have ears to hear (22:10).
As a prophetic letter Revelation stands in the tradition of the Old Testament prophets. It is filled with allusions to the powerful language and imagery used by the Old Testament prophets. For example, John’s prophecy against Babylon in Revelation 18–19 echoes every one of the prophecies against Babylon found in the Old Testament prophets. The main difference, of course, between Revelation and the Old Testament prophets is that John’s prophetic letter is for Christians who are living between the already of the cross and resurrection and the not yet of Christ’s glorious return.
3. Revelation is a prophetic-apocalyptic letter. Already in 1:1 we are told that the book is a “revelation” or “apocalypse” that comes from God through Jesus Christ, through an angel, and through John to the servants of God:
The revelation [apocalypsis] from Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John. (Rev. 1:1)
The term apocalyptic refers to a group of writings that include a divine revelation, usually through a heavenly intermediary, to some well-known figure, in which God promises to intervene in human history and overthrow evil empires and establish his kingdom. Most scholars believe that apocalyptic grew out of Hebrew prophecy and actually represents an intensified form of prophecy written during a time of crisis. We see other examples of apocalyptic literature in Ezekiel, Daniel, and Zechariah, and in noncanonical Jewish writings such as 1 Enoch and 4 Ezra. Although apocalyptic was well-known to people living from about 200 BC to AD 200, we are not as familiar with it in our day. We catch a glimpse of apocalyptic in certain movies and political cartoons, but even then the comparison leaves something to be desired.
The chief characteristic that makes apocalyptic so unfamiliar to us is its use of images. In its abundant use of visual images, Revelation goes beyond any other apocalypse. As Fee and Stuart point out, while we are familiar with picture language used in other parts of Scripture, apocalyptic literature uses images that are often forms of fantasy rather than reality—e.g., locusts with scorpion’s tails and human heads (9:10), a woman clothed with the sun (12:1), and a beast with seven heads and ten horns (13:1). When Jesus compares his followers to salt and light (Matt. 5:13–14), we know what he means. But who has ever seen a beast with seven heads and ten horns?
Often what makes the image fantastically strange is how the items are combined to form the image. For example, we know about women and we know about the sun, but we do not know much about a woman clothed with the sun. As a prophetic-apocalyptic letter, Revelation is full of strange visions and bizarre images. What is the purpose of all these images and symbols? That brings us to consider the purpose of the book as a whole.