Style of the Book of Revelation

Revelation is unique; there is no other book like it in the Bible. In terms of a music metaphor, John has created, by the Holy Spirit, a new kind of music to sing his song. It is distinctive because we see that John combines three kinds of literature that were popular in his day to communicate what he saw and heard. Separately, the three were well known. Putting them together, however, John wrote a book with a new composite style. I believe that the people who received the book would have recognized what John was doing. Furthermore, not only was such a combination appropriate from a literary perspective, but we will also see that the strategy was especially fitting for the pastoral purpose of the book.

In recent decades, numerous scholars have suggested that a comparison between Revelation 1:1ff and Rev. 22:6ff supports the view that the book is the work of a person whose background is a blend of diverse cultures or traditions work. Specifically, it contains prophetic, apocalyptic, and letter-like (or epistolary) features.

That Revelation is part–apocalypse is supported by Revelation 1:1, which opens the book with the declaration “the revelation [or apocalypse] of Jesus Christ” (see also Rev. 22:6, 8). The book’s prophetic nature is emphasized in Rev. 1:3 where John refers to the one who reads and those who hear “the words of this prophecy” (see also Rev. 22:6, 7b, 9, 10, 18–19). Finally, the book begins (Rev. 1:4–6) like a letter: “John, To the seven churches in the province of Asia: Grace and peace to you” and ends (Rev. 22:21) in a way similar to other New Testament letters: “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people. Amen” (see also 1 Cor. 16:23; Gal. 6:18; Phil. 4:23). In addition, chapters 2 and 3 are written expressly to the seven churches.

More precisely, I believe that John’s writing should be viewed as a Christian prophetic–apocalyptic–circular letter. Such a description needs to be evaluated and its importance for interpretation highlighted. Revelation is, above all, a Christian work. It was written by a follower of Jesus, the apostle John, to followers of Jesus living in Asia Minor. Virtually every major section says something about Jesus and his church.

A Christian Prophecy

John clearly identifies his work as a prophecy (Rev. 1:3; see also Rev. 22:7b, 10, 18–19; Rev. 19:10), and he is viewed as a prophet (Rev. 22:9; see also Rev. 10:7, 11; Rev. 22:6). But in what sense is Revelation prophetic? Unfortunately, it is far too common for Christians to focus almost exclusively on the predictive nature of prophecy. They assert that prophets predict the future and that their predictions are found in their sermons and writings.

However, countless scholars have demonstrated that the dominant emphasis in the prophetic writings is not on predicting the future but on proclaiming God’s will. A simple way of putting it is that in prophetic writings there is both foretelling and forth–telling.

“Foretelling” emphasizes the predictive nature of prophecy, and “forth–telling” stresses the prophet’s goal to set forth the Word and will of God. Contrary to popular opinion, the emphasis is on the latter in which prophets set forth God’s desires. A prophet proclaims both what God intends to do and what God intends for his people to do in light of the future.

Indeed, this forth–telling emphasis with its call to obedience is the note that John sounds in the very first place where he identifies his work as a prophetic one: “Blessed is the one who reads 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). Unfortunately, The New International Version’s rendering of (Rev. 1:3) obscures this emphasis. The phrase “take to heart” should be translated “obeys” or “heeds.” In every other place where the Greek term appears focusing on a person’s duty, the NIV translators emphasize the call to obedience (Rev. 2:26; 3:3, 8, 10; 12:17; Rev. 14:12; Rev. 22:7, 9; see also Rev. 16:15 which implies obedience). Why they did not do so in 1:3 is a mystery. Prophecy is to be obeyed. It is true that John provides scenes of the future (e.g., the destruction of evil kingdoms, the Final Judgment of the righteous and the unbelievers, the establishment of the new heaven and new earth, and so forth), but the future–oriented passages are meant to challenge the people of God to be an obedient people until he comes or until they die.

Revelation is prophetic in both character and intention. John the prophet viewed his task as involving the presentation of the Word and will of God to the people of God in a particular place at a particular time. The inspired prophetic perspective that he was given resulted in a book that helped its recipients penetrate the eternal issues behind the crisis of his day (Rev. 1:9; Rev. 2:7, 11, 17, 29; Rev. 3:6, 13, 22; Rev. 17:3; Rev. 21:10). Like his Old Testament predecessors (e.g., Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, Ezekiel, and others), John revealed to God’s people their duties to be carried out in tough times, and he assured them that God’s purposes would be fulfilled.

A Christian Apocalypse

The first word in the Greek text of John’s work is translated “revelation” or “apocalypse” (Rev. 1:1) which means “an unveiling” or “a disclosure.” The term describes the contents of the work; it is filled with visions and auditions (see also Rev. 22:8 where John testifies that he is “the one who heard and saw these things”).

Moreover, these apocalyptic works spoke words of comfort and challenge as God’s people faced suffering and defeat. Their authors wrestled with such profound questions as: Why do God’s people suffer at the hands of wicked people? Does God really care? Will the faithful ever be vindicated? How should God’s people behave until judgment comes?

To guide Christian readers attempting to live out their faithfulness in a hostile world, apocalyptic authors present answers to such questions in symbolic language. In order to speak about the deeper spiritual realities in the battle between good and evil, they communicated through these symbols that literally permeate the apocalypses. It was a language that would have been understood by the faithful.

John is fond of metaphors (Rev. 1:17–18; Rev. 5:5; and so forth), “a figure of speech in which an aspect of one thing is pointed out by implicitly comparing it with something else or by simply identifying it as the thing to which it is being compared.”

Similes are found throughout the book as well (Rev. 1:15; Rev. 21:18; and so forth). A simile is “a comparison of two basically unlike things, frequently using the word like or as.”

We are not certain, however, whether unbelievers would have been able to understand the works. Through the use of symbolic language, authors like John proclaimed that God would have the final word: The faithful will be rescued and rewarded and judgment will be carried out against all evil powers and those who have been their allies, people included.

It appears that, primarily through the use of metaphors and symbols, the authors of apocalypses addressed the realities of the struggle of God’s people.

A Christian Circular Letter

Finally, Revelation should be viewed as a “circular letter.” The letters found in the New Testament were written messages sent to people because the author could not deliver the message in person. In fact, the seven churches form a large circular pattern, like a delivery circuit, when viewed on a map in the order presented in Revelation 2 and 3, starting from and returning to Ephesus.

John begins and ends Revelation like other letters (Rev. 1:4ff; 22:21). The body of the document would include the prophetic–apocalyptic sections (Rev. 1:9–22:7). It was a letter to be read during an assembly of believers (Rev. 1:3; see also Acts 15:30–31; 1 Thess. 5:27; Col. 4:16). In addition, it was a letter meant to circulate among several congregations (Rev. 1:4, 11; see also 2:1–3:21; see also Col. 4:16; James 1:1; 1 Pet. 1:1).

If Revelation is a circular letter, then John’s role as a type of pastor to the seven churches is especially highlighted. He was aware of their circumstances, and he desired to provide the watchful and responsible care they needed if they were to remain loyal to Christ. His pastorate, so to speak, ultimately included all the churches throughout the world, not just the seven mentioned in the opening chapters. And just like the other New Testament epistles, John has continued to speak to Christians throughout the ages.

Keeping in mind that Revelation is also a letter helps us appreciate the role that the doxology of (Rev. 1:4–8) plays. It is generally agreed that the thanksgiving sections (Phil. 1:3–11, for example) and doxology sections (Gal. 1:1–5, especially v. 5) found at the beginning of letters give a hint of the major themes to be developed throughout the book. This seems to be the case with the doxology in Revelation. The work of God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit pervades the book. Similarly the conflict between the priests of the Kingdom of God and those who reject Christ is also a major theme. Of course, the references to Christ’s first coming (Rev. 1:5) and the final coming (Rev. 1:7) provide the context for the conflict.

Awareness of the genres John used certainly challenges the way many Christians approach Revelation today. For example, the foretelling note is often emphasized to the neglect of the forth–telling emphasis. When this is done, a genre mistake is made. People misread Revelation and, therefore, misapply it. Rather than using the book to predict the future in great detail, the book should be used to guide Christians in proper living between Christ’s first and final comings. Christian character, conduct, and call to witness are highlighted again and again. As I noted earlier, this emphasis is often overlooked due to an obsession for using the book to interpret current world events. To counter this, there is value in fleshing out in general survey John’s methods for comforting and challenging Christians.

It is important, then, to show how was the book relevant for the first–century believers, and how does it apply to us today? If we take time to read the book carefully, asking the right questions, it becomes apparent that there is a marbling effect. John has layers of visions mingled with layers of exhortations and words of encouragement. Such artistry addresses a key concern proposed in the chapter on Revelation’s storied setting, namely, how disciples of Jesus should demonstrate their commitment to God and Christ in the midst of opposition and cultural seduction. If we analyze John’s techniques for interlacing visions with words of comfort and challenge, we discover that he uses at least seven strategies:

First, John’s designations for Christians are ultimately a reminder of who they are and what they should be doing. His most frequent name used for the disciples is saints [Rev. 5:8; Rev. 8:3–4; Rev. 11:18; Rev. 13:7, 10; Rev. 14:12; Rev. 16:6; Rev. 17:6; Rev. 18:20, 24; Rev. 19:8; Rev. 20:9 (in Rev. 20:9 the NIV translates “saints” as “God’s people”); see also Rev. 22:11]. They are to live holy lives in an unholy world. Disciples are also called priests who serve God (Rev. 1:6; Rev. 5:10; see also Rev. 20:6; Rev. 22:3), God’s people (Rev. 18:4; Rev. 21:3; see also Rev. 5:9; Rev. 7:9), the church (Rev. 1:4, 11, 20; Rev. 2:1, 7, 8, 11, 12, 17, 18, 23, 29; Rev. 3:1, 6, 7, 13, 14, 22; Rev. 22:16), servants (Rev. 1:1; Rev. 2:20; Rev. 7:3; Rev. 10:7; Rev. 11:18; Rev. 15:3; Rev. 19:2, 5; Rev. 22:3, 6), fellow–servants (Rev. 6:11; Rev. 19:10; Rev. 22:9), brothers (Rev. 1:9; Rev. 6:11; Rev. Rev. 12:10; Rev. 19:10; Rev. 22:9), witnesses (Rev. 11:3), a bride (Rev. 19:7; Rev. 21:2, 9; Rev. 22:17), a city (Rev.3:12; Rev. 21:2, 10ff.). They are the called, the chosen, the faithful (Rev. 17:14) as well as the righteous (Rev. 22:11).

Second, there are a number of phrases used to describe Jesus’ followers. They are those who are keepers of the testimony of Jesus (Rev. 14:12; Rev. 22:7, 9), obedient (Rev. 12:17), and hearers (Rev. 2:7, 11, 17, 29; Rev. 3:6, 13, 22; Rev. 22:17, 18; see also Rev. 1:3). They are also watchers (Rev. 16:15) and keepers (Rev. 16:15), fearers (Rev. 11:18; Rev. 19:5) and followers (Rev. 14:4). Moreover, disciples are those whose names have been written in the book of life (Rev. 21:27), those who have been purchased (Rev. 14:3), those who have maintained their purity (Rev. 22:14), and those invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb (Rev. 19:9). One phrase needs to be highlighted. “To the one who overcomes” is used more than any of the above and is a call to overcome any number of evils (Rev. 2:7, 11, 17, 26; Rev. 3:5, 12, 21; Rev. 15:2; Rev. 21:7).

Third, John encourages and exhorts God’s people through the use of direct commands. In particular, disciples are commanded to repent (Rev. 2:5, 16; Rev. 3:3, 19), to remember (Rev. 2:5; Rev. 3:3), to do deeds (Rev. 2:5), not to fear (Rev. 2:10), to be faithful (Rev. 2:10), to be watchful (Rev. 3:2), to strengthen (Rev. 3:2), to obey (Rev. 3:13), to hold fast (Rev. 2:25; Rev. 3:11), to be zealous (Rev. 3:19), to leave evil behind (Rev. 18:4), to rejoice (Rev. 12:12; Rev.18:20), and to praise God (Rev. 19:5). In addition to these specific exhortations, Christians are challenged to hear (that is, to obey) what the Spirit says to the churches (Rev. 2:7, 11, 17, 29; Rev. 3:6, 13, 22). A similar phrase is found in Rev. 13:9, 18. Four commands are found in Rev. 22:11 and two in Rev. 22:17.

Fourth, four times we find the phrase, “This calls for …” In Rev. 13:18 and Rev. 17:9, Christians are called to demonstrate proper behavior in responding to evil powers. Christians need wisdom and knowledge in order to recognize the tactics of the forces of evil. Only then can they know how to conduct themselves as servants of God. The phrase is also used in Rev. 13:10 and Rev. 14:12 to summon the readers to perseverance, faith, and acceptance of God’s will. As wisdom is needed to understand the nature of evil, so perseverance and faith are needed to withstand the same evil forces, namely anti–Christian government and anti–Christian religions. As we observed in the second chapter, John is speaking about the Roman Empire and the imperial cult of his day. He calls upon his brothers and sisters to demonstrate both wisdom and courage while facing the evil forces of their day. The power of evil is great; perseverance and faith are needed if the Christians are to be victorious. The strategies of the beast are both deceptive and coercive (Rev. 13:1ff.). A knowledge that leads to insight is needed if the disciples are not to be deceived and are to remain faithful.

Fifth, privilege and responsibility are brought together in the so–called seven beatitudes (Rev. 1:3; Rev. 14:13; Rev. 16:15; Rev. 19:9; Rev. 20:6; Rev. 22:7, 14). The first and sixth beatitudes in Rev. 1:3 and Rev. 22:7 are virtually identical: God’s servants are blessed (i.e., an approval by God that results in joyful confidence) because they have heard God’s Word and obeyed. Similarly, in Rev. 16:15 the Christian must always be on guard. Christ will come unexpectedly so the Christian’s character and conduct must be a life seeking to be obedient to God’s will. At the final coming the righteous are blessed because they are invited to share in intimate fellowship with Christ because of their faithfulness (Rev. 19:8). Finally, Jesus pronounces as blessed those who have remained pure and faithful, in contrast with those who are “the dogs, those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood” (Rev. 22:15).

Two of the beatitudes are linked with Christians who have been faithful unto death. First, in Rev. 14:13 those who remain faithful to the Lord unto death and do not worship evil will be blessed. Because they have persevered and refused to worship false gods, their fate will not be like the death of those who worship the beast (Rev. 14:11). Second, those who remained faithful unto death will be blessed because they share in the first resurrection (Rev. 20:4–6). Whether one believes this passage speaks about those who will reign with Christ on earth for one thousand years, or reign with Christ upon their death, is beside the point. Those who participate in this resurrection are those who have remained faithful to Jesus. These participants include both those who were executed because they did not give in to evil forces, and those who died natural deaths and were faithful until the end.

Sixth, even the formula, “if anyone,” tells us something about the disciple’s life. In Rev. 13:10 we read: “If anyone is to go into captivity, into captivity he will go. If anyone is to be killed with the sword, with the sword he will be killed. This calls for patient endurance and faithfulness on the part of the saints.”

Even though there are questions concerning the precise meaning of this verse, what must be stressed is that John is informing readers how they should (or perhaps should not) respond to the beast that makes war against the saints (Rev. 12:17). I take the verse to mean the disciple accepts imprisonment and even death for the cause of Christ.

The fate of those who do not remain faithful is recorded in Rev. 14:9b–10 where an angel declares: “If anyone worships the beast and his image and receives his mark on the forehead or on the hand, he, too, will drink of the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. He will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb.” In verse 11 we read a brief description of the eternal punishment of the ones who succumb, and in verse 12 John calls upon Christians to endure, obey, and remain faithful to Jesus. Again, the conflict involves the beast (a symbol for the oppressive Roman government in John’s day and perhaps any oppressive governments over the centuries) and the Christian. In Rev. 13:9–10 there is guidance concerning the proper nonviolent response to hostile government activities. The believer in Rev. 13:9–10 may experience earthly torture and even death, but the faithless one will experience everlasting separation from God if there is compromise with the beast (Rev. 14:9ff.).

The formula “if anyone” appears one last time in connection with Christians in Rev. 20:15 where we read: “If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.” The context is the Final Judgment in which both Christians and non–Christians stand before the throne of God. It serves not only as a word of comfort to the believers (their enemies will be judged), but also as a warning (Christians must not compromise). They are to remain faithful so that their names shall be found in the book of life (Rev. 3:5; Rev. 13:8; Rev. 17:8).

Seventh, there are five lists of virtues and vices where John speaks about people’s conduct. Revelation 9:20–21 focuses exclusively on the characteristics of those who refuse to repent and worship God. There are four that warn or encourage Christians. In Rev. 14:4–5 Christians are “those who have not defiled themselves with women.” This clause may be referring to those who kept themselves sexually pure or to those who did not commit spiritual immorality by worshiping other gods. Regardless, they are disciples of the Lamb; they belong to God and to the Lamb; they possess integrity in their speech; and they are blameless. They shall dwell with God (Rev. 14:1ff.). The three remaining lists are found in Rev. 21:8, 27 and Rev. 22:15 where John contrasts those who will dwell forever with God and those who will be forever apart from God.

The above is a sampling of the places where John speaks to Christians, reminding them who they are and what they should be doing. Time and again John builds on the emphasis first introduced in Rev. 1:3. He is calling upon the disciples to be obedient to God. It would be instructive to read through the entire document and find other places and strategies where John exhorts and encourages. For example, chapters 2 and 3 could be evaluated in detail where Jesus both commends (e.g., Rev. 2:2–3, 6, 8–11, 12–13, 19; Rev. 3:4, 7) and rebukes (Rev. 2:4, 5, 15, 20–24; Rev. 3:1–2, 15–17). There are threats of judgment, sometimes focusing on those who are not servants of God and the world in which they live (Rev. 6:1–8:5; Rev. 8:6–11:19; Rev. 15:1–16:21). Often Jesus threatens Christians with judgment (Rev. 2:16, 21–23; Rev. 3:3, 16; Rev. 14:9–13; Rev. 16:15; Rev. 18:4; Rev. 20:11–15; see also Rev. 21:8, 27; Rev. 22:15). There are promises of reward scattered throughout the book (Rev. 2:7, 10b–11, 17a, 26–28; Rev. 3:4–5, 11–12, 21; Rev. 7:13–14; Rev. 11:18; Rev. 14:1ff.17:14; Rev. 19:1–10), climaxing in Rev. 21:1ff.

Using the three genres (prophecy, apocalypse, and letter), John consistently weds privileges and responsibilities as he describes rewards for those who serve God. He also writes about the punishment that awaits those who renounce Jesus. At no point are the two separated. The character and conduct of the Christian life on earth anticipates or reflects the nature of life with God in the new heaven and new earth.

When reading Revelation the question we should not ask is: How does Revelation help us plot where we are on a prophetic time line so we may know when the Lord is coming? I believe that usually such an inquiry is raised because there has been a failure to identify and interpret the book’s genre. The proper question that will prove more productive and more pressing is this: In light of the future God has promised, what would he have us to do now in order to be faithful to the Lamb? Such an inquiry is natural when we recall that this perspective is at the heart of the letters, prophecies, and other apocalyptic literature found in Scripture. Indeed, such a question honors the style of the book.

If we desire to sing the lyrics before the Lamb in the new heaven and new earth, we need to begin singing them now.

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Quoted and edited from: Lowery, R. (2006). Revelation’s rhapsody : Listening to the lyrics of the lamb : How to read the book of Revelation (80). Joplin, Mo.: College Press Pub. Co.