When we come to the end of the New Testament, we find that the final book bears the name of the apostle John. We know it as the book of the Revelation of John. This book, however, is dramatically different from the Gospel that also bears John’s name. It has its own utterly distinctive character and style.
This book has some indications that it is to be understood as a letter. The opening section (1:1–20) includes an explicit identification of the author (1:4) and the location of his writing (1:9); a brief description of the situation of the recipients (1:9) along with a listing of the specific cities in which they lived (1:11); and a short blessing and doxology (1:4–5).
The book also contains the text of seven short letters, to the churches in these seven cities (2:1–3:22). The closing section (22:8–21) reiterates the role of the author (22:8) and concludes with a blessing formula (22:21). Each of these elements reflects traditional letter-writing style.
The author identifies himself as John (1:4, 9; 22:8) and notes that he was living on the island of Patmos (1:9); church tradition has equated him with John, the disciple of Jesus, as well as the author of the fourth Gospel and three letters. However, this book is strikingly different from the Gospel and the three letters.
Some have argued that the tone of the book might reflect the style of one of “the Sons of Thunder”, as the disciple John was labelled (Mark 3:17); but such a generalisation is not grounded in specific evidence.
Both the style of Greek employed and the way that biblical imagery is deployed sets this book apart from the Gospel which bears John’s name; whilst that book is steeped in biblical imagery and language, it is done in a more subtle and sophisticated manner.
The issues addressed in each of the letters which are attributed to John are internal church matters, quite different from the broader view of society which is in view in Revelation. These letters require separate consideration from the dramatic scenes which follow.
The recipients of the book, identified generically as “the seven churches that are in Asia” (1:4), are then named one by one, by city (1:11). In the details of the seven letters which are addressed specifically to these seven churches (2:1–3:22), we might imagine that we will find insight into the specific situation in these churches, which is being addressed in this book.
Yet, a careful reading of these particular letters indicates that they are written and delivered in response to a dramatic vision of a distinguished figure with an ominous presence, who instructs the author to write the letters to the angels of the various churches (1:9–20).
Furthermore, the content of a number of these letters introduces additional elements which are striking and unusual—seven stars held in a man’s hand, seven spirits of God, seven golden lampstands, white robes and a white stone, immoral behaviours and strange teachings which exhibit Satanic influences.
As we read on, we discover that this turns out to be just a little “sampler” of the far more complex and intricate world of heavenly beings and exotic creatures, who populate a series of increasingly bizarre and disturbing visions throughout the rest of the book. The whole book is much more than a letter, or a series of letters.
The opening and closing chapters give a number of clues in this regard. The work is characterised as being words of prophecy (1:3; 22:10, 18–19). The prophecy which is presented in this book is summarised as what must soon take place (1:1; 22:6). Both at the beginning and at the end of the book, the author declares that he is looking forward in time, reporting events that will soon occur.
However, this is not simply John’s view of what is to happen; what he writes, he maintains, has first been made known to him by an angel (1:1; 22:6, 8). So, the visions reported in chapters 4–21 are encircled by strong assertions of their significance and import.
As the book ends (22:6–21), a series of statements and affirmations reinforce the importance of what has been revealed in these visions.
First, the author repeats the explicit claim that this was shown to him by an angel (22:8–9). The instruction he is given, to make this known (“do not seal up the words”, 22:10), ensures that the message will become public—the author must write letters and report visions to those who will listen.
Then the author intensifies the moment by reporting the direct words of Jesus: “It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you” (22:16); the message has a clear heavenly origin.
Next comes a dire warning not to tamper with the words as revealed by these means (22:18–19); the style is that of a solemn oath. The work closes with a prayer which looks to the way of Jesus in the future, “Come, Lord Jesus” (22:20), and a final formulaic benediction of grace (22:11, evoking the opening blessing of 1:4).
Ways of interpreting this book
The book of Revelation has probably become the most misunderstood book of the New Testament—because of the enigmatic nature, and the dramatic power, of these visionary sections. There are numerous theories seeking to ‘explain’ the meaning of the visions and to ‘prove’ the identity of the various figures who appear in these visions.
There are many approaches that have been taken to explain the vivid imagery which depicts the future judgement of humanity, which has led to this also being one of the most misused books of the New Testament. It has been interpreted by groups of fervent believers throughout the centuries as evidence that the end of the world was at hand.
How, then, do we seek to “understand” this book? When ever we turn to scripture, are we looking for clear doctrinal statements? In which case, this book could be mined as a source for teachings about “the last days”.
Or do we hope to encounter stories which help us to understand what has transpired in history? In which case, we will look for evidence that pins down the content of this book and grounds it in real-life events.
Both approaches require us to develop an extensive system of interpretation for reading this book. This is not a simple or straightforward task.
An alternative (and often employed) way of reading this book is to consider that it is prophecy which provides a set of predictions about the future. Sometimes this is seen to relate to the times immediately in the future of the writer, in the late 1st century. Other interpreters claim that the book is pointing forward in time, to events that will take place beyond the time of the reader, in our own times (that is, the 21st century).
Some people will want to read the book simply as literature in its own right; as a work of art, it has the power to generate ideas and responses without necessarily tying these down to what is “true” or “accurate”. Ideological critics might wish to engage in dialogue with the book in relation to the violence which runs throughout the visions.
Some readers have considered this book to be an expression of patriarchal power, caught up in the masculine enterprise of solving disputes through coercion and violence. Others have undertaken a search for an alternative vision of peacemaking in the midst of human warfare, as the lamb who was slaughtered is the one who ultimately triumphs.
How do you come to this book? What is the lens, the perspective, that you employ, to read this dramatic and different book?
Whatever the way is that we seek to approach our reading of this book, it will influence the kind of understanding that results. Because the work does not lay down one simple narrative line; because it is so rich and intricate in its symbolism; because it places layer upon layer, image upon image, it will produce multiple readings with multiple appreciations. Such is the complex nature of interpreting biblical texts.