I will not be going through the whole book, but I am about to begin a series looking at the oracles to the seven Churches in Revelation chapters 2-3. To set up the study, I will preach an introductory sermon from the first chapter.
In preparing for the series I have really enjoyed Richard Bauckham's little Theology of the Book of Revelation. The opening chapter "Reading the Book of Revelation" is particularly helpful in that from the outset, he sets forth a clear hermeneutical approach for reading Revelation and interpreting it correctly. Given the flights of fancy and wild speculations of many interpreters, it is important to do the necessary work to guard ourselves from our own imaginations and idolatrous inclinations. We cannot do this perfectly, yet, if we approach the book correctly, we have a better shot of understanding it.
What is the proper hermeneutical approach, then? From where does this approach derive?
One of the hallmarks of Reformed theology is the doctrine of the sufficiency of scripture--but often many don't practice that as consistently as they should. The scripture is so sufficient that it even provides its own hermeneutical key. Revelation is no different, in fact, as one looks at the opening verses of the first chapter one finds that the book of Revelation provides the correct hermeneutical method. What Bauchkham does is show that one does not have to bring a hermeneutical method to the scripture, but that the book of Revelation provides the correct method in the opening verses of the first chapter.
Bauckham asserts that misinterpretations of Revelation often begin by having a misconception of its genre of literature. All meaning is found not only in the words and groupings of words, but also in the way those words are presented, i.e., poetry vs. prose. One of the things that makes Revelation unique and difficult is that it is not just one genre of literature, but three!
First, as the first word (in the Greek) of the book indicates, Revelation is apocalyptic. But the apocalyptic character of the book is not established by the one word, but in the way that Revelation describes itself. Revelation has its origins in heaven, not on earth. It says in the first verse that God gave it to Jesus Christ, who in turn mediated it to an angel, who in turn mediated it to John, who wrote it down. What we find here is that Revelation is a heavenly message that is mediated by ana otherworldly being to a human recepient. As one continues to read one finds that this otherworldly message is concerned with history, for he reveals what is about to come to pass. This tells us that this heavenly message is concerned with providing a heavenly commentary about the history that is about to transpire. And the perspective provided is that of salvation. The heavenly message concerns the Christ who has already freed his people from their sins and is coming again to bring judgment. But the revelation does not come in bare propositions, but instead, provides a series of visions that communicate that history in the form of narrative. A story is being told--the story of history as seen and understood in light of the ministry of Christ in his first advent and the certainty of his second advent. "John's apocalypse, however, is exclusively concerned with eschatology: with eschatological judgment and salvation, and with the impact of these on the present situation in which he writes," (6). So, when one puts together these different clues, one finds that Revelation asserts itself as revelatory literature within a narrative framework, mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient, disclosing a heavenly perspective of history that brings eschatological salvation to bear on reality so that God's people are enabled to discern his divine purpose in history and their participation in it. This description of Revelation matches up with the literary genre of apocalyptic literary as defined by J.J. Collins.
Second, but verse 3 shows us that it is not only apocalyptic, but it is also prohetic, "Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy." Revelation is an authoritative word from God to his people that is to be read and obeyed. This word comes to his servant John through visionary and oracular means. John communicates to his people what he sees and hears. The visionary nature of the writing then, must be properly understood as being symbolic and not literal. But symbols are not provided merely to be creative or for intellectual curiosity--they are purposed to provide the heavenly commentary of earthly history that God's people are to embrace by faith and obey. The message of Revelation is inherently pastoral! It tells his people how to rightly interpret and understand their situation, so that they might be assured of the work of Christ on their behalf and walk in faithfulness before him--no matter what things look like around them. But in addition to the authoritatve and pastoral message of the prophecy, there is also a predictive element. As was noted already, the message communicates the second coming of Christ, and as one reads through Revelation, it becomes clear that the visions include this eschatological element. The heavenly perspective provided, then, concerns itself with all of history between the first and second coming of Christ--it is not only for the time of John's writing.
Third, verses 4-11 show us that in addition to being apocalyptic and prophetic, it is also epistolary--it is a letter. We are told that this prophetic apocalypse is to be addressed to the churches of the Roman province of Asia. The epistolary nature can be seen in the conventional format that is used: the writer is identified, the addressees are identified and there is a greeting in the form of "grace to you and peace." One of the unique feature of this greeting, however, is that unlike the others in the New Testament that mention God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, this greeting is trinitarian! However, the epistolary character of the book is not just the portions of chatpers two and three that specifically mention the seven churces--the entire book is epistolary. All of the different visions combined are being provided to the churches. Yet we must also understand that it is not only for these specific churches mentioned. For there is a blessing attached to reading of Revelation for all who read it and obey it. And as we noted above that there is a predictive element to the book, the message of Revelation is for the Church throughout the entire Church age (between the two advents of Christ) for all Christians in every historical context.
- The book of Revelation is not just about future events just prior to the return of Christ.
- The book of Revelation is not just about the historical situation surrounding the first century Church.
- The book is not about very specific historical events in history, but about history in general.