This again begs the question: What sort of book is this?
That’s a complex question to answer because the very reason Revelation can do all the things we’ve been discussing is that it is many different kinds of books. In essence, it is the entire Bible, compressed.
Sixty-five books varying widely in authorship, language, genre, and purpose.
Compacted into twenty-two chapters.
From the start, this might help us understand why the images are so layered and entangled, why it can be difficult to walk your way through the labyrinthine symbols. Understand as we approach this book that it can be confusing because … it is! What else could result from compressing a library of works as vast and varied as the Bible into one small work? (For example, in this book there aren’t any extended quotes from the Old Testament, but there are over 500 allusions!) In any other hands, it would be an unreadable mess, but in John the Prophet’s hands, it’s a masterpiece.
Think of the Sistine Chapel. When Michelangelo and his collaborators painted the story of God in that building, they had a general scheme which was to work itself out on its ceiling and walls, all ultimately ending with the great fresco of The Last Judgment above the altar. They had a narrative arc, yes, but they also juxtaposed many images which did not belong together. Aside from anachronistic people who aren’t in the Bible at all, we see many artistic liberties taken with these famous characters and stories: people are standing next to each other who don’t belong together, stories are out of context and out of chronological order. . . it can be very overwhelming, especially if you try to take it all in at once. In any other hands, the thing would be a mess. Yet in the hands of the great Michelangelo, it’s a masterpiece: a cornerstone of renaissance art and one of the greatest works every produced by humanity.
We have the same issue with Revelation. The reader needs to know what they’re going to experience, this confluence of varying images and symbols, and prepare themselves to have moments where they focus on one particular piece for a time, then back out and try to see it in the larger context. They need to understand things will seem at times to contradict or at least be juxtaposed. But that’s okay. There’s an intended tension to the symbolism of this work, which is why it makes for such a fantastic ending to the Bible: it doesn’t provide us with any new vital information–no new facts about salvation or the character of God–but it does take all the old threads, wind them up together, tie them in knots and turn them upside down, and then asks you to look again.
In his book Reversed Thunder, Eugene Peterson says,
“As a poet, [John] rearranges words in fresh ways. His goal was not to add something we were missing from our knowledge of God or salvation, rather, his goal was to let us see it, as though for the first time, in fresh ways. In Revelation, we get to see the entire salvation story–from start to finish–in fresh language.”
That’s what we get to do: see all of the Bible and its various literary genres in fresh language. We see narrative and parable, letter and prophecy and apocalypse, all together. Even numbers and names! The most boring parts of the Bible–the parts that my parents would tell me to read if I couldn’t sleep at night (#pastorskid)–they get a place in this book as well. It’s all here, and that’s why it’s a good ending.
Tomorrow, we’ll finish chapter one with a description of the prophetic vocation so we can properly approach chapters 2-3, which will help us understand the overarching purpose of this incredible book. All serving to move us toward John’s “door standing open in heaven” and the beginning of his visionary journey.