Everything I need to Know about Revelation I Learned in the First Eight Verses
There’s a saying I’m kinda fond of, though it’s not very sophisticated: “the beginning of things tells you stuff.” The idea is that writers tend to show their readers how to engage with and appropriate their work within the opening lines of their work. I’ve written about that elsewhere, and it’s true for most works, both ancient and modern, but it’s especially true of Revelation.
There is so much we learn about the book in the first few verses. Moreover, what we learn in that short space has a systemic impact on how we interpret the book. Revelation seems so difficult and confusing, but John has actually given us firm footholds in the opening of his letter. He’s guiding his readers in how Revelation is to be read.
Here’s an incomplete and “in brief” list of some of the essentials.
- Jesus is the first recipient of Revelation, not John. Most English Bibles title the book “The Revelation to John,” but that’s only partially correct. This is actually the very first thing that John tells us. This book constitutes “the revelation” that “God gave to him” (1:1), and the “him” in that clause can’t be anyone other than “Jesus Christ.” The verse goes on to explain how this book got into John’s hands. The Father first gave it to Jesus (and you can read about that in Rev. 5), then Jesus passed it along to John via an Angel, and John in turn wrote it down and sent it to the churches (Rev. 1:2). There’s a lot to unpack here, but remember when Jesus told the disciples that “not even the Son of Man knows the day or the hour” (Mark 13:32)? Well, the obvious next question is: when will that information be disclosed? Revelation is that disclosure, and it was disclosed first to the only one accounted worthy (Rev. 5:9). Then, and marvel at this my friends, the one worthy chose to disclose all these things to us (Rev. 1:19).
- The first form of this Revelation was seen, not imagined, written, read, or heard. We haven’t left the first two verses yet. Revelation is “shown” to Jesus, then to John, then to the church. The first and primary iteration by which the Father revealed these things is through visions.
- By contrast, the church at large only receives Revelation in its written form (1:19 again), not its visual form. John “writes what he saw.” The writing down of that which was first seen involves a kind of “conversion” of media. We’re moving from the visual, to the verbal. This in itself has multiple implications. Here’s two:
- First, we can note that communicating information visually and communicating information verbally require different skillsets. How do you “novelize” a movie? How do you describe the impact that a personal experience to friends without lamely concluding “you just had to be there?” It’s tough, and it requires a lot of artistic and literary and story-telling skill. John has those skills (he wrote a Gospel!), and he uses them to “show” the church what he saw.
- Second, and equally importantly, there is a corresponding burden on the reader to now “recreate” the vision from the written word. John is supposed to write what he sees. The reader, in their turn, is supposed to “see” what is written. There’s a burden on both writer and reader here. Our burden is to visualize the word written. You have a ready tool for this, given to you by God. It’s called the “imagination.” Use it.
- Revelation is best read out loud and all at once. Notice now Rev. 1:3: “Blessed is the one who reads, and those who hear.” Why the shift in tenses? Authors naturally “project” their idealized reader. They write in anticipation of how they expect their reader to read what is written. What does John assume about the ordinary way in which Revelation will be “read?” Well, in the first place, he expects that most of his audience won’t be reading it at all! They will be “hearing” it. Someone will read it to them, most likely in a corporate or worship setting. That implies that Revelation is going to be appropriated “all at once.” This has multiple hermeneutical implications:
- The hearer is not going to have time to pause and think about every detail. Rather, John expects Revelation to be a bit “overwhelming” when it is first heard.
- Your goal, then, is not to unpack every image, to understand every bit and piece. It’s to immerse yourself in the literature, just like you would with a movie or wonderfully crafted book. Turn off the analytical side of your brain (for now at least) and let Revelation consume you. Loose yourself in it. A great way to do this is to listen to it read to you. Get an audio-Bible, and don’t hit the pause button.
- Revelation is actually a letter. It has a letter form in Rev. 1:4, and at no point do we “exit” that letter framing. That means that Revelation doesn’t just contain letters (Rev. 2-3), it is a letter. All of Revelation is for these seven ancient churches. That has massive implications for how it is to be read.
- If it’s a letter, it must be understandable by those to whom it was originally written. I’ve written about that here and here. The point is reinforced by the repetition of the phrase “the time is near” (Rev. 1:3) throughout the book. Revelation is urgent, even for it’s 1st century audience.
- However, the fact that Revelation is a letter to these seven ancient churches does not mean that it’s not also a letter for us. Why seven churches? That number has symbolic value. These churches are representatives for the whole church, the Church Catholic, the One True Church in all ages. As such, it is both for them and for us.
- But, and this is important, it most be both/and; any reading of Revelation that severs it from its relevance for its original audience is a mistake. Corresponding, any reading that severs Revelation from the church in all ages is a mistake. Revelation is urgent for everyone.
- Although Revelation is a letter, it’s also a prophecy. It’s got two genres! And we should be clear about this: it’s not prophecy in the modern sense, but in the ancient Jewish sense. If you want to understand how Revelation works, immerse yourself in the OT prophets, particular Ezekiel, Daniel, Zechariah, and Isaiah.
- Two genres? That’s not enough for Revelation! There’s a third genre hiding in the background. It’s right there in the title. The word “Revelation” could have an “ordinary” meaning, “that which is revealed.” But in Jewish and Christian circles in the ancient world it also had a very specialized meaning. It could refer to a kind of religious literature, a genre. The Book of Revelation is also an “Apocalypse.” We have several apocalypses from the ancient world. We have apocalypses in the Bible (portions of Ezekiel, Zechariah, Isaiah, Daniel 7-12) and we have apocalypses around the Bible (1 Enoch was quite popular, though never considered canonical). I’ve written more about that here.
- Revelation is about Everything. You can tell this from the various titles that are used to describe the Father and Son in the book. They are each alpha and omega. They are both described as the one “is and who was and who is to come” (1:8). Jesus has dominion over “all tribes of the earth” (1:7). Revelation is not just about local and temporal concerns, it is about all thing, and how all things are brought to glory through the Christ.
Each of these points deserves a post in its own right, but really the idea of the present entry boils down to this: you are already well equipped to productively read this wonderful book. You don’t have to understand it all to get something out of it. If you are able to immerse yourself in it and stand in awe of the Victorious Lamb, you are doing well.