The Revelation was a prophecy, an apocalypse, and a letter. We have no idea what these things mean. Rather, I should say, what we typically think they mean is not what they meant to John and his readers. Prophecy, for example, does not mean “prediction”, not in the biblical vocabulary anyway. Oh, for sure, predicting the future is one aspect of prophecy, but it’s not the whole. Even “false” prophets accurately predicted the future. But in the Bible, a true prophet was one whose words lead people to faithfully follow God, and those ‘words’ were usually more about correcting the present than dictating what happened next . Prophecy was less about foretelling than it was about criticism, a sharp critique of the present rather than a horoscope for tomorrow’s events.
An apocalypse, likewise, was not a doomsday prediction about the end of the world. It was a literary genre with a relatively short life-span (c. 100BC-c. 200 AD). It was a kind of writing that utilized symbols to communicate truth. The closest approximations we have today are political cartoons and science-fiction novels. And, granted, sometimes apocalyptic literature did talk about the end of the world, but not always and certain not exclusively.
But what about a letter? Surely we know what that is, right?
Nope. Not really. These ‘letters’ weren’t like our emails or the little white envelopes our mother’s send us on holidays. These kind of letters were circular, meaning John wrote one letter that got passed around to several different churches in order to be read out loud. It’s the ‘reading out loud part’ that’s important here. Think of this “letter” as something like a decree, or a proclamation. At the end of this 6-week series on Revelation, we’re going to get together at the Winds and read Revelation out loud, have communion, and sing. June 24. Mark it on your calendar, ’cause I think that evening—probably more than anything else I say or teach—will help you understand the book. Which is the point, right? Understanding. Because, as we’ve just discovered, our understanding is somewhat lacking. We used to think we were reading a play-by- play breakdown concerning the end of the world written to a couple of pastors; but now, we realize we’re reading something different. This is a critique of the circumstances of the ancient world, using colorful language and metaphor to help shock hearers into embracing passionate truth. And it wasn’t just a message for a few yokels. It was meant to be broadcast to the world.
Dr. David McDonald is the teaching pastor at Westwinds Community Church in Jackson, MI. The church, widely considered among the most innovative in America, has been featured on CNN.com and in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and Time Magazine. David weaves deep theological truths with sharp social analysis and peculiar observations on pop culture. He lives in Jackson with his wife, Carmel, and their two kids. Follow him on twitter (@fossores) or online at fossores.com