The Book of Revelation is Not Apocalyptic Literature

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It may seem odd to suggest that the book entitled Apocalupsis in Greek does not belong to the genre of literature commonly referred to as apocalyptic; nonetheless that is my suggestion here. The term employed in the title of the book denotes a revelation or disclosure.1 While this particular revealing or disclosing describes a broad swathe of eschatological events, it is not its own literary genre.

Apocalyptic as a genre is described as “characteristically pseudonymous; it takes narrative form, employs esoteric language, expresses a pessimistic view of the present, and treats the final events as imminent.”2 Henry Barclay Swete (Cambridge), even while arguing that Revelation is apocalyptic literature, admits that the book differs from that genre in that the book of Revelation (1) is not pseudepigraphic, (2) it engages a specific audience (seven churches), (3) has a significant church focus, rather than a purely Israel nation-centered focus, and (4) includes notes of insight and foresight that are more indicative of inspiration than is found in earlier extra-biblical apocalyptic literature.3

Despite these differences between Revelation and extra-biblical apocalyptic literature, Swete considered the gift of revelation to be not entirely the same as the gift of prophecy, and thus revelation stood distinct as a particular manifestation of the Spirit,4

in which the spirit of the prophet seemed to be carried up into a higher sphere, endowed for the time with new powers of vision, and enabled to hear words which could not be reproduced in the terms of human thought, or could be reproduced only through the medium of symbolic imagery.5

The irony of Swete’s commentary here is that in a footnote he appeals to 1 Corinthians 12:4, a passage in which Paul describes words heard in the third heaven which man is not permitted to speak. However, in Revelation, John is given a direct commission to record all of what he sees. Further, in Revelation 1:3 and 22:18 there are blessings and warnings for those who hear the words written in the prophecy, and we read seven times in chapters 2-3 and once again in Revelation 13:7 the repeated refrain, “he who has an ear, let him hear.” In the first seven instances, the content is expressly, “what the Spirit says to the churches.”

As for the gift of revelation as a unique manifestation of the Spirit, no such gift is evident in Revelation (or anywhere else in the NT, for that matter). Swete appeals to Ephesians 1:17 as in instance of the “gift of spiritual vision,”6 and while the passage indeed uses the noun (ἀποκαλύψεως—apocalupseos), it is in the context of a request made on behalf of all believers (or at least all believers in Ephesus at the time). In short, Paul is not requesting that believers be granted a mystical gift (in the sense Swete employs the term—as an ability), but that believers be granted a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Christ. This deeper, more mature understanding of Christ seems Paul’s common expectation for all believers, not some mystical enlightenment for only an elite few.

While the unsurprising dissimilarities between Revelation and extra-biblical apocalyptic literature are convincing enough to this writer that Revelation should not be considered a part of the apocalyptic genre, the internal genre-identification is dispositive. Revelation 1:3 and 22:7, 10, 18, and 19 all refer to the writing as prophecy. The final reference in Revelation 22:19 is to the book of this the prophecy (τοῦ βιβλίου τῆς προφητείας ταύτης—tou bibliou tes propheteias tautes). It is evident that the use of the term revelation or unveiling (Ἀποκάλυψις) in 1:1 is not a genre-technical term, but is rather an explanation of the content of the prophecy: the revealing of Jesus Christ.

The genre placement of the book has significant hermeneutic implications—in fact, the interpretation of the book is pre-determined by the genre classification. If the book fits in the apocalyptic genre, then we shouldn’t expect it to be understood literally at all. An apocalyptic genre placement would support the preterist interpretation (a non-literal view that the events were fulfilled during the first century), the historicist or continuist interpretation (a non-literal approach that views the book as describing events in the church between the apostolic age and the second coming of Christ), the idealist interpretation (a non-literal view that the book doesn’t predict actual events at all, but rather symbolizes the epic struggle between good and evil), and the eclectic interpretation (a hybrid approach, popularized by George Ladd, this view combines the preterist and futurist interpretation).

On the other hand, only the futurist model (a literal interpretation in which the events described in the book, beyond chapters 2-3, are still yet in the future) is supported by the simple genre classification of the book as prophecy. The futuristic interpretive model is the only one of the five models that stems from the literal grammatical-historical hermeneutic, and is initially derived from the simple past-present-future commission of John in Revelation 1:19: “Therefore, write the things which you have seen, and the things which are, and the things which will take place after these things.”

It should come as no surprise that those who prefer a non-literal interpretation of the book would also gravitate toward the apocalyptic classification, but it is surprising how many futurist interpreters likewise follow their non-literal colleagues in the apocalyptic classification. Instead of blindly accepting terminology that undermines the literal hermeneutic, perhaps we should take our cue from the pages of Scripture and call the book what it is: prophecy—a prophecy regarding the unveiling of Christ, and which is largely about “the things which will take place after these things.”

Notes

1 BDAG, 2nd Edition, 114.

2 Robert Lerner, “apocalyptic language” at Brittanica.com, viewed 5/21/2014.

3 Henry Barclay Swete, The Apocalypse of John, Third Edition (London: MacMillan and Co., 1911), xxviii-xxx.

4 Ibid., xxiii.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid., xxii.

Ted Bigelow's picture
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Good article

Thanks, Chris. Simple observation of your article would save a lot of trees and bring fidelity to our submission to Scripture.

This was excellent: "It is evident that the use of the term revelation or unveiling (Ἀποκάλυψις) in 1:1 is not a genre-technical term, but is rather an explanation of the content of the prophecy: the revealing of Jesus Christ."

If we are forced to assign genre classifications (and we aren't!), since we believe in inspiration, let's call Revelation what Christ Himself calls it - "prophecy" (Rev. 1:3, 22:18), as you point out.

I had the privilege of studying Revelation as a ThM class under Dr. Thomas as he was getting his 2 volume series published through Moody. I appreciate His take on 1:1 - the revelation is not the Revelation of Jesus Christ, per se, but the revelation from Jesus Christ, and the revelation is the content of the book. Just a thought.

typo: 1 Cor. 12:4 s/b 2 Cor. 12:4

great article.

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Genres

A literary genre is nothing more than a category for forms of writing that have similar characteristics. It's often a huge, huge help in properly interpreting the revelation God has given--because we believe in inspiration. Inspiration is human as well as divine, and for that reason, the forms of writing can truly be categorized into genres.

That said, we should be not enslaved to them. Interp. should be served by genre analysis not the other way around, and I've seen that happen.

Is Rev. apocalyptic lit? I remember studying How to Read the Bible for All It's Worth (Fee and Stuart) some years ago. They went to great lengths to not only show that Rev is apocalyptic but also to then draw a great many expansive inferences from that conclusion. But as valuable as the book was in other respects, it failed in its apoacolyptic effort on two counts (a) wasn't persuasive that Rev. really is apoc., and (b) wasn't persuasive that it should be interpreted as loosely as they advocated even if it was apocalyptic.

Futurists/dispensationalists, et. al., do have more work do though on clarifying how it is that we distinguish what's literal from what's symbolic in the book. We are barely a few verses into it before we're asking folks to believe "seven spirits" are really the one Holy Spirit, for example. So we shouldn't suggest that the book's prophetic nature makes it completely straightforward.

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I agree Aaron

We are barely a few verses into it before we're asking folks to believe "seven spirits" are really the one Holy Spirit, for example. So we shouldn't suggest that the book's prophetic nature makes it completely straightforward.

Yes. I never was too comfortable with 7 = 1....

So, last time through Rev with my church, I switched my interpretation on that point. I now teach the 7 spirits as a class of angels, hitherto unknown in the progressive revelation of Scripture.

FWIW, here's my reasoning,

The 7 Spirits of God are a class of angels:

  1. they are held in Christ’s hand, and only created things are in Christ's hand in Rev 3:1, 5:6;
  2. they are “before the throne” but not on it (1;4, 4:5);
  3. the number 7 does not in itself indicate unity but plurality;
  4. they are associated with other created things ("7 stars," 3:1; "7 lamps of fire," 4:5; "7 horns and 7 eyes," 5:6);
  5. they likely relate to Zech. 1:10 “sent into all the earth,” for this sending into all the earth is a mission for created beings who report back to God;
  6. never is an angel called a “πνεύμα” in NT, but only demons and the Holy Spirit;
  7. spirits and angels are differentiated in Acts 23:8-9

When "Spirit" refers to the Holy Spirit, He is just "the Spirit: “let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (7x, cf. Rev 3:6).  So then, why refer to Him as 7 who report back to God (3:1) and then One who is God who speaks to churches (3:6)?

However, by viewing the 7 spirits as the Holy Spirit in Rev. 1:4 it completes a Trinitarian formula (καὶ ἀπὸ).

 

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Futurists aren't the only

Futurists aren't the only ones who need to work through Revelation and identify what is symbolic and what isn't.  That is something everyone needs to work through.

As to the 7 spirits, maybe Isaiah 11?

1 Kings 8:60 - so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the LORD is God and that there is no other.

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James K wrote:

James K wrote:

Futurists aren't the only ones who need to work through Revelation and identify what is symbolic and what isn't.  That is something everyone needs to work through.

As to the 7 spirits, maybe Isaiah 11?

Hi James,

That is certainly a good reference when considering the 7 spirits of Rev. 1:4 as a name for the Holy Spirit, for sure.

The reference to Isa. 11:2 does have a few problems - "Spirit" in its first use is clearly deity - but the others uses of that word are impersonal. As well, those impersonal uses of "spirit" are used 3 times, for a total of 4 in the text, so its an interpolation to make the 4 uses of "spirit" equal the "seven spirits."

Wouldn't "four spirits of God" been clearer in Rev. 1:4, if John were referring back to Isa. 11:2?

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Ted mentioned Robert Thomas.

Ted mentioned Robert Thomas. I highly recommend his chapter on "genre over-ride" in his book "Evangelical Hermeneutics."

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communication by symbols - Rev. 1:1

I'm not convinced that merely the word "apocalupsis" in Rev. 1:1 is all we need to determine that Revelation is not a genre that is similar to apocalyptic literature.  There is another term in Rev. 1:1 which strongly hints that this is no straight-forward, literal unveling or revelation of Jesus Christ.  The word is "semaino." Literally (in the NASB) Rev. 1:1 says: "The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show to His bond-servants, the things which must soon take place; and He sent and communicated (semaino) it by His angel to His bond-servant John." The footnote in the NASB has "or signified" for the word translated "communicated" in the text.  The KJV also has "signified." So this revelation was "signified" to John. G.K. Beale explains that this word in its predominant usage in the New Testament, means "communicated by symbols."

So the literal meaning of Rev. 1:1 says God communicated a revelation to John by symbols. So right from the start, Revelation indicates that symbolic language and symbolism is going to be the means by which the book's revelation is transmitted.

I give an excerpt from Invitation to Biblical Interpretation by Andreas J. Köstenberger and Richard D. Patterson which points this out as well, in this post, if you want more on this point.

Striving for the unity of the faith, for the glory of God ~ Eph. 4:3, 13; Rom. 15:5-7 I blog at Fundamentally Reformed. Follow me on Twitter.

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? for Ted

Ted,

Has anyone in the history of the church given an interpretation of the seven Spirits as being a new class of angels? I am sure you are cautious about your new understanding there. I think sometimes we who prize sola Scriptura so much can run the risk of pursuing interpretations that the church has never entertained before. To do so is risky and should be done with the utmost caution.

Striving for the unity of the faith, for the glory of God ~ Eph. 4:3, 13; Rom. 15:5-7 I blog at Fundamentally Reformed. Follow me on Twitter.

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Rev. 5:6

Also, if the seven spirits are a new class of angels, how would Rev. 5:6 make sense?  Rev. 5:6 also alludes to Zech. 4:10.  The Is. 11 passage has 3 pairs of two characteristics of the spirit, so a total of 1 +2x3= 7.

Regardless, taking the seven spirits and demystifying that expression (which is patently curious and laden with some kind of symbolism) and instead supposing this to be a new heretofore unmentioned class of angels seems to be a hermeneutical dodge.  It is as if, items in the text which would point toward a symbolic literature / apocalyptic literature / symbol-laden, non-literatlistic -- it seems as if some are out to flatten those difficulties toward a literalist approach and remove them.  So in one sense you say it isn't apocalyptic, and then on the other hand you are demystifying it by inventing brand new interpretive schemes to remove apocalyptic difficulties.

I'm not saying you are doing this personally. But that approach could be construed that way. 

Striving for the unity of the faith, for the glory of God ~ Eph. 4:3, 13; Rom. 15:5-7 I blog at Fundamentally Reformed. Follow me on Twitter.

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Bob, who denies that

Bob, who denies that Revelation is full of symbols?

1 Kings 8:60 - so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the LORD is God and that there is no other.

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The communication is one by

The communication is one by means of symbols.  Not that symbols happen to be there, but that it is the predominant scheme of the writing.  That is what apocalyptic literature is too.

As Beale notes: "Of course, some parts are not symbolic, but the essence of the book is figurative. Where there is lack of clarity about whether something is symbolic, the scales of judgment should be tilted in the direction of a nonliteral analysis." (Beale, Book of Revelation, pg. 52)

Striving for the unity of the faith, for the glory of God ~ Eph. 4:3, 13; Rom. 15:5-7 I blog at Fundamentally Reformed. Follow me on Twitter.

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Oh and one other thing.

Oh and one other thing.

The original post is basically arguing from the word "apocalupsis" that the entire book is meant to be a revelation, so that genre thing is wrong. It's not mystical apocalyptic it is a communication.  I'm just replying that from the other word in that verse "semaino" which the noun form is the word for "sign" or "miracle," that form that word, it is clear the intent of the book is to disclose by means of signs and symbols the said revelation.

Striving for the unity of the faith, for the glory of God ~ Eph. 4:3, 13; Rom. 15:5-7 I blog at Fundamentally Reformed. Follow me on Twitter.

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Hi Bob, hope you are well,

Hi Bob, hope you are well,

So the literal meaning of Rev. 1:1 says God communicated a revelation to John by symbols. So right from the start, Revelation indicates that symbolic language and symbolism is going to be the means by which the book's revelation is transmitted.

Indeed, but this isn't itself a code to employ different hermeneutics to this book that Romans or Matthew. In the prior verse the letter is called "prophecy" - by Christ. That word governs the interpretive method, not "ἐσήµανεν".

The verb "ἐσήµανεν" could be translated "represent" (Govett, Apocalyse, 243). Christ's miracles are symbols, but that doesn't mean a responsible reader can make 12 baskets full of bread remainders to refer to the 12 tribes of Israel.

Has anyone in the history of the church given an interpretation of the seven Spirits as being a new class of angels? 

Walvoord and Moffatt see it angelic. New (hithertoo unrevealed) class or not, I don't know.

It is as if, items in the text which would point toward a symbolic literature / apocalyptic literature / symbol-laden, non-literatlistic -- it seems as if some are out to flatten those difficulties toward a literalist approach and remove them.

My response above to Aaron details my reasons for adopting this interpretation in 1:4. The strongest reason against it is not the overlay of a different hermeneutic, for then the interpreter is untethered to the text and to his own theology. But the phrase "καὶ ἀπὸ" (and from) in Rev. 1:4 featured the proposition "ἀπὸ" -- ultimate source. How can grace and peace come from a class of angels?

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thanks

Thanks for responding Ted. I certainly don't think you can interpret Revelation in the same way you do Romans or Matthew. Even you would not in practice do that, I think. Certainly the other two books are not prophetic (and certainly not apocalyptic either).

We'll have to disagree and leave it at that.

Your last two reasons for your angelic 7 spirits view don't seem to help your view either, unless you take Revelation to be the final revelation which trumps all (overruling Acts and etc.). I would view it as a final book which weaves biblical symbolism together wonderfully and ties together the various biblical theological strands that are developed in the progressive revelation of Scripture.

Striving for the unity of the faith, for the glory of God ~ Eph. 4:3, 13; Rom. 15:5-7 I blog at Fundamentally Reformed. Follow me on Twitter.

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The difficulty in adopting

The difficulty in adopting the madness of Beale is that the OT is all symbolic and the final word in the NT is now also symbolic.  It is all symbolic and subjective to mean whatever he can come up with.  That does explain his interpretation of Chapter 20.

The content of Revelation may have some similarities with apocalyptic literature, but the contrasts are many and enough to rule it out as fluffiness.  It is prophecy, it is epistle, it is narrative, etc.

1 Kings 8:60 - so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the LORD is God and that there is no other.

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Hi Bob,

Hi Bob,

Certainly the other two books are not prophetic 

Only secondarily does "prophecy" have to do with future prediction. Primarily it has to do with the nature of the revelatory communication, in itself. Prophecy is direct revelation from God through a human agent (2 Pet. 1:20-21). Once this is understood, then all Scripture is understood to be prophetic in nature. The Reformed exegetes all recognize this. That's why Revelation demands to be interpreted as the rest of Scripture. "The testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy (Rev 19:10)"

Its one of the reasons why a grammatical-historical hermeneutic is so satisfying - it takes words as written in a normative manner, not a manner intended to conceal. The problem with the hermeneutic you embrace, and you'll find this out, if you haven't already, is that major parts of Revelation will mean vastly different things to its adherents. But the futurists, all taking Rev. 1:19 as written (with its OT referent) has no such disagreement, though we will disagree on particulars such as the "7 spirits of God".

Beale shuts down Rev. 1:19 in a pretty strong way, if you haven't read him at that point. To me, his hermeneutic is gnostic, b/c Rev. 1:19 provides a futuristic grid for most of the book. But you have to assume Beale's understanding of the book - ideationalism, is it?, is inherent to the book. So that's why he shuts down Rev. 1:19. It's his overlay, a grid imposed upon the book by Beale. But he differs greatly from Hendriksen - to him, its recapitulation ("More than Conquerors"). In reality, reformed men are all over the map on Revelation because they have no controls on their imaginations, viewing the book as a series of symbols to be decoded.

OK. Now I've bashed Greg Beale. Oh my. Let me thank him too for a great commentary on Revelation - a true magnum opus. And his work on the 7 churches in Rev. 2-3 is to me, second to none. Among other things, he showed me that the "lost first love" of the church in Ephesus is a loss of sharing the good news of Jesus Christ.

But going back, with Reformed exegetes on Revelation, you do need to borrow their own special glasses to get their views, because there's no way anyone listening to the book read to them (Rev. 1:3) would know that what they say is right. It was meant to be read through start to finish. Blessing doesn't come from confusion.

 Again, hope you are well. Lord bless you and yours. - T

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