Revelation: Revisited – Creative Storytelling

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I think many people may be surprised by the following quote by NT Wright:

“The Book of Revelation tells the same story that the Gospels tell. It is the story of how Jesus of Nazareth, Israel’s Messiah, conquered the power of evil through his death and became the Lord of the world. The New Testament is not about how Jesus, on the one hand revealed he was divine, and then died so that we could go to heaven. That’s halfway to Gnosticism if you’re not careful. They are about how Jesus acted as the embodiment of Israel’s God to overthrow the usurping forces of evil and to establish through his death, resurrection and ascension God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven.” -NT Wright, “Revelation and Christian Hope: Political Implications of the Revelation of John”

When Revelation speaks for itself, we find that John’s “story” aligns itself with the overarching “story” of the Gospels and the New Testament — through Jesus’ embodiment of Israel’s God, God vanquishes evil, restores his creation and fully establishes his kingdom on earth as in heaven. Revelation is the natural continuation of the Gospels’ story, that Jesus’ people are continuing his incarnation as his body and therefore continue what he began. John creatively tells this story by combining three literary genres — apocalyptic, prophetic and pastoral.

At the heart of Revelation is an amazing vision given to John. In this vision, mysteries and secrets known only in heaven and not know on earth are revealed to John. Key to understanding this revelation is remembering that “heaven” and “earth” are two dimensions of the same reality. So the thin veil between these two dimensions is pulled back and John is shown present earthly reality from heaven’s perspective. And what’s revealed is God’s plan to restore his creation, fully and finally merging these two dimensions.

This is the apocalyptic genre of John’s book.

John is also a prophet and knows that Jesus was the fulfillment of Israel’s Story. He understands that this vision is the supreme culmination of Israel’s vast prophetic heritage. Israel’s prophetic story has led to Jesus’ kingship and this vision reveals that his reign is continually established through the Church’s life as they live and struggle. So John creatively communicates his vision in a way that proclaims God’s intention to God’s people. As Richard Bauckham states:

“Revelation is a literary work composed with astonishing care and skill. We should certainly not doubt that John had remarkable visionary experiences, but he has transmitted them through what must have been a lengthy process of reflection and writing into a thoroughly literary creation which is designed not reproduce the experience so much as to communicate the meaning of the revelation that had been given him.”

The prophetic role is to communicate meaning. Knowing his vision of Jesus is the climax of Israel’s prophetic heritage, John imparts deep meaning to his vision by saturating his work with over two hundred allusions to the Old Testament. He never directly quotes the Old Testament, but relies on his readers deep familiarity with its complex themes. John ties off the multiple threads of Old Testament prophetic themes to their fulfillment in Jesus and now being implemented in the ordinary lives of his people.

This is the prophetic genre of John’s book.

John is also a pastor. He takes his startling vision of heaven’s perspective of earthly events, crafts it into an amazing counter-cultural symbolic world in order to communicate God’s purposes and then applies it directly to specific situations faced by the churches that he shepherds. And he does so in a startling way.

Pastoral epistles were usually written to a specific church or intended to be a “circular” epistle passed on to several churches. If an epistle is written to a specific church, it usually addressed situations specific to that church’s context. Therefore, readers outside that church would have greater difficulty finding direct application to their own situations. If an epistle was “circular” and intended for many churches, it was usually more generic and didn’t address the specific situations in one particular church.

John does something very creative. He addresses Revelation to seven specific churches experiencing very different situations. Some are being persecuted. Some are in danger of compromising with the surrounding Roman culture. Some are rich. Some are poor. But each portion addressed to the specific church ends the same way — overcome! This is a military word for victory.

In other words, each church has it’s own experiences and obstacles. John’s pastoral word is “keep fighting the good fight because by doing so, God is vanquishing evil, restoring creation and establishing his reign.” This will look differently for each church. For some it will mean persecution and martyrdom. For others it will mean resisting temptation. For others it will mean not compromising with Roman culture. But for each church, it’s their part in a larger “cosmic” battle of establishing Jesus’ kingship in direct opposition to all the other “kings” vying for power and control.

And John’s seven pastoral encouragements to overcome are drawn into his one final encouragement to overcome at the end of Revelation. Those who faithfully participate in the battle for Jesus’ kingship through their faithful living will ultimately inherit the coming New Creation to which all of their efforts have been contributing.

But wait there’s more! John’s use of “seven” is a significant part of the symbolic world he’s creating. Seven represents fullness. So while John is addressing seven specific churches and their unique situations, he’s symbolically addressing the entire “full” church and all of her people’s unique situations. He’s not only pastoring seven specific churches, but providing encouragement to the entire church! And that encouragement in all situations is the same — overcome!

This is the pastoral genre of John’s book.

John weaves these three literary genres together to create a visual story to strengthen and encourage Jesus’ people to look beyond their culture, their puzzles, their pain, their temptations and to embody his sacrificial love in the midst of a world filled with calamities, monsters and chaos.

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