“Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea.” -Revelation 1:11
My email was once hacked and read, then used to send emails to contacts in my address book. It was not done by some malicious, darknet hacker or scammer trying to rip friends and family off. It was far more innocent, at least in intention. It was done by someone close to me, someone I knew. Nonetheless, it wasn’t pleasant. After the joke was played, I had some explaining to do. My personal correspondence to other people had been read and was misunderstood. Given the fact that my “hacker” didn’t have the context for what was being written, they made some assumptions they shouldn’t have about what I had written in an email. Others received what they thought was correspondence from me and were pretty confused by some of the things written in it. When it was all sorted, relationships were restored, confusion was turned into understanding, and everyone got on happily ever after.
This is what I’d like to bring to our reading of Revelation: a restored understanding of Revelation which dispels fear, and in which we see a vivid picture of the future in which we live together with Christ happily ever after. For this, you’ll have to be patient with me as we slowly continue to peel back the layers of Revelation, chapter by chapter and verse by verse.
The first thing you have to understand is that you’re reading someone else’s “email.” This is not your letter. Not primarily. You, as part of the church, are one of the intended recipients, but only after the original recipients have received the letter and have rightly interpreted it for you, giving you the missing information crucial for a proper understanding of Revelation. In other words, you need context and history. You must come to Revelation with the eyes of a student, willing to set aside your own cultural lens and biases. Easier said than done, of course, but necessary all the same.
Let’s begin with a look at the genre of Revelation, its divisions, and a brief overview of chapters 2-3. Revelation is primarily written in a dead genre called apocalyptic literature. Basically, that means it’s an ancient, cryptic form of writing, written in a mysterious and veiled way so that only the intended recipients can read and understand it. It is not so much a code, as it is a string of allegories, metaphors, similes, and symbols. These are primarily meant to be interpreted through the lens of the Scripture which comes before Revelation (i.e., the Old and New Testaments, minus Revelation, of course).
John never directly quotes the Old or New Testament in Revelation, but there are overarching themes from the rest of divine revelation written throughout redemptive history which He uses in parallel language in Revelation. If you are familiar with these themes and events, you’ll spot them easily when John subtly references them. If you’re not familiar with the rest of the Bible, and the apostle’s understanding of the Scriptures, much of what Revelation has to say will be lost in futile attempts at interpretation. That’s not to say you won’t get something out of it. After all, much ink has been spilled on faulty explanations of the text of Revelation, many of them completely missing the point and veering off in a direction never intended by John. I think he would be horrified to see what some have written about Revelation in recent decades, not to mention the last century or so.
Next, we have to understand that while Revelation is primarily written in the apocalyptic genre, it is not entirely written this style. There are also literal portions in the book of Revelation. Yet even these can have some apocalyptic elements. For example, the seven letters are seven real letters written to seven actual churches. And yet, the letters are addressed to angels or messengers. But John intends the reader to understand this to be the pastor of each of these churches. Yet, he may not want to unnecessarily endanger the pastors of these churches, drawing attention to them and pointing out the fact that the churches in these cities have functioning pastors. The Roman Empire would likely add them to their wanted list and begin to hunt them down. So John employs the apocalyptic literary genre when addressing these letters to their recipients to veil them from the eyes of the Empire.
Revelation is divided into three parts: an introduction (1:1-3:22), the prophetic message proper (4:1-22:5), and an epilogue (22:6-21. The introduction consists of a prologue (1:1-8), a record of John’s commissioning to write the book (1:9-20), and seven letters to seven churches (2:1-3:22). The seven letters are not part of the prophetic message proper. The letters intention is to prepare the hearer to receive the prophetic message which follows through the application of Law and Gospel. Jesus will personally apply the Law to expose sin, calling each church to repent and believe in the Gospel; the forgiveness of sins found only in Him.
The prophetic message proper (4:1-22:5) consists of an introductory vision (4:1-5:14), three visions of events taking place on earth (6:1-11:19, 15:1-16:21), the “cosmic war” vision, inserted between the second and third earthly event visions (12:1-14:20), and a final end of the world vision (17:1-22:5). Revelation concludes with an epilogue (22:6-21).
As we approach the content of the seven letters to the seven churches, we will do so from the view that these are a distinct literary unit in Revelation. They do not give information about periods of time as do the seven seals, seven trumpets, and seven bowls. Unlike the three visions of seven sections which are cyclical (meaning each vision covers the same period of time, from the Fall till the Second Coming of Jesus, but from different vantage points), the seven letters give direct information to the seven churches they are actually addressed to. They are not for the entire Church throughout all time, but for that specific period of time immediately after John wrote them. This is not saying there is not much for us to learn from them. But this we will have to wait for till next time.
Until then, may the grace and peace of Christ be with you all.
This is a weekly article series working through the book of Revelation. It is followed every Friday morning at 8 am (CST) by a live devotion dealing with the same subject matter and often additional material for reflection. Tune in Friday mornings on Christ Hold Fast's Facebook Page to learn more and ask questions.