I realize I left a lot of threads dangling in my last Revelation post. And I can’t guarantee I will tie them all off in this one.
As our group has been moving through the Revelation, a primary issue continues to surface. It’s expressed in different ways, but at its heart, it deals with authorial intent. Did John simply dictate these series of bizarre visions or did he utilize the literary style common in his time period to craft a prophetic message?
Many choose to believe that John merely dictated what he saw. And for those who hold this view, it usually means the visions must be interpreted literally and deciphered into one-to-one correspondence with realtime events, either historic or future. For many, this is the only way this strange and peculiar book has any relevance or authority.
But the evidence seems to weigh heavily in favor of viewing the Revelation as a product of creative theological reflection and literary crafting. It utilizes the style of apocalyptic literature, which relied heavily on angelic visions, cataclysmic events, monsters, numbers and symbols to predominantly communicate theological substance. For example, the detailed use of numbers as well as the number of occurrences of specific phrases require greater reflection than simple dictation would allow. In addition, there are approximately 250 allusions to the Old Testament. John has crafted a work that is completely saturated with the Old Testament. Whatever else is going on in the Revelation, John is obviously demonstrating that the major Old Testament themes are finding their consummation in this prophetic message.
Did John really “see” these visions? Did he actually see a lamb with seven eyes and seven horns and the other wondrous sites of the Revelation? Or did he receive a prophetic message and after a time of reflection and prayer, craft this message into an apocalyptic style that would communicate its unique significance in a way that his original audience would understand and receive encouragement? It’s difficult to say, but personally, I lean heavily toward the second alternative.
But does the use of John’s theological reflection and imagination lessen the Revelation’s validity and authority? I don’t think so. Jesus used imaginative stories. In fact, many of his stories were fictional. The prodigal son and the good samaritan stories are prime examples. They were the product of creative and wise theological reflection. And they carry as much validity and authority for God’s people as his Sermon on the Mount.
Yet, doesn’t the author’s agenda eventually taint the core message? If John received a divine prophetic message, isn’t that message distorted if he crafts it around his pastoral agenda? Doesn’t human participation other than dictation automatically assume distortion? If that’s the case, then most of the New Testament would be distorted. Let’s take the four gospels. Each writer uses Jesus’ words and deeds to craft an historically accurate, yet theologically unique message. In fact, Luke’s Gospel is an historical and theological reconstruction from eyewitness accounts. He wasn’t even around. And even though he accesses material very similar to Matthew’s Gospel, he obviously uses it to tell his story differently from Matthew’s. And then there is John’s Gospel, which at times seems to actually contradict the other three gospels. For example, while the three synoptic gospels place Jesus’ temple-cleansing episode at the end of Jesus’ ministry, John places it at the beginning. Also, the synoptic gospels place the Last Supper on the Passover, while John places it the day before Passover. Yet, John’s Gospel is probably quoted more than the other three (i.e. John 3:16).
The point I’m trying to make is that God is about renewing his creation. And he’s doing it in the way he intended from the beginning — through the cooperation and participation of human beings made in his image. This is what the incarnation was about. Jesus is a human being in the fullness of God accomplishing the purposes and will of God. And this is the core message of the Revelation. God’s kingdom and New Creation are coming through the cooperative ministry and witness of God’s people on the earth. And this would include the authorship of the documents that provide the foundational charter of God’s New Testament people.