Revelation as a Circular Letter

An Epistle

RB’s discussion of Revelation as a circular epistle has some important and potentially mind-blowing implications. The writing is dense; much of what RB says here can’t be condensed. So I quote him extensively in this post. It is a lengthy post, but I am passionate about this and don’t know how to do otherwise. Interested parties are encouraged to get this book!


Revelation as an Epistle

Many misreadings of Revelation occur because it is overlooked that this whole work is an epistle, a letter written to then existing churches, and not to some far-off end-time/last-day generation.

While most directly concerning the seven churches, Revelation has interest to a broader audience. 1 Corinthians is very targeted to one church; but we all benefit from that epistle [cf. Col 4:16].

Meet the Seven Churches

John uses a unique strategy in Revelation. The body of his message is for all the churches. But he has very different, very specific introductions for each church. These are the famed ‘seven letters’ to the churches.

Seven Churches OrderThe churches are named in the order a messenger delivering this letter to them from Patmos would most naturally follow.

The churches faced very different problems, and they faced some common problems very differently. Each ‘letter’ is an ‘introduction’ to the whole book, in which Jesus addresses that specific church.

God Sanctions Other ‘Interpretations?’

The Revelation as a whole is a circular letter written to seven churches. But John intended for it to be read from seven different perspectives. [This seems to be to be HUGELY liberating to fundamentalists who are bound so very slavishly to the ‘one’ reading allowed every passage!].

Churches in turn are promised future salvation ‘to him who overcomes!’ This is the call to eschatological [future] battle. But what is victory? What does it mean conquer? The letters don’t explain that; but that is explained in the central chapters of this epistle. Likewise, our eschatological destiny is described at the end of the epistle.

John’s World, Ours, or Both…

John lived under Rome’s worldwide tyranny. He wanted the churches to see how that tyranny related to the issues they faced. He wanted them to see how their struggle on the issues fit in God’s great battle against tyranny, and how it served God’s purpose to establish his kingdom.

RB observes that not all Christians were poor and oppressed by Rome’s tyrannical system. Many were affluent and compromised with it. For them, the judgments described in Revelation came not for consolation but as stern warnings of the danger they incurred. It was not only pagans, but many of John’s hearers/readers were tempted to or actually did worship the beast [as those who listened to Jezebel at Thyatira].

Comfort or warning, the application of Revelation turned on the group to which hearers belonged, and their relationship with Rome’s tyranny. Asia Minor had more churches than seven. But the wealth of perspectives John provided allows all the churches to find analogies in his representative sampling of churches.

POLITICAL CYCLONITE

Thus read, Revelation becomes a devastating critique of much Christian profession. They are not alone, but even some very ‘fundamentalist’ sects uncritically endorse US militarism, war, foreign interventionism, plus domestic repression [law-and-order] and poverty [austerity, wage cuts, medical/benefits cuts, interest rates favoring the wealthy, etc.].

The Revelation identifies that as spiritual alignment with and worship of the powers of Death. We have the means to address the enormous social, economic and political crises besetting nation and world. But we surrender this by pushing the theology of the Revelation into the future. And it is done PRECISELY to allow us to profess Christ AND sell out to the world.

“Come out of her, my people, so that you will not participate in her sins and receive of her plagues’ [Re 18:3-4].

Learning to Read the Revelation

Considering Revelation

Many years ago, and for personal reasons, I was involved in a GARB church for several months. That congregation heard multiple prophecy series. One was on Daniel, another was on the Revelation, and a third was on messianic prophecies from Zechariah. That actually made some sense since it happened in Advent and Christmastide.

In Fundamentalism, sermon series on Bible prophecy are not optional. If your Fundie sect doesn’t have at least two prophecy series annually, your credibility will bleed quickly. But if end-time stuff makes odd preaching at Christmastide, we must acknowledge that it is just as strange for Fundies exploring other traditions to find such a dearth of end-time odysseys. We can forgive them for wondering if we believe anything about last things.

But Bible sects have no exclusive claim on end time belief. People firmly planted in the confessional church believe in Jesus’ second coming, the resurrection of the dead, the consummation of the kingdom, the eternal Sabbath, and more. Perhaps we can play some small part in setting right the record on this. That someone is not pre-millennial or dispensational does not mean that they do not believe anything about last things.

A Guide for a Study

It might be profitable, then, to spend some time on this. I thought I’d try an extended book review to help structure this project. If a Fundie cares for a sane alternative to the pastor’s prophecy series, great! And if this becomes a bore, it can be set aside. Meanwhile, I’ll try a kind of running summary/commentary on the Theology of the Revelation, by Richard Bauckham, Professor of NT studies at St. Andrews University.

Bauckham’s writing is dense. He isn’t for the weak of heart. In just over 160 pages, he crams more information into 7 chapters than one finds in many popular texts. And he doesn’t hold to a traditional view on John’s identity. This doesn’t alter the value of his work; but I mention it in the event that is a ‘deal-breaker’ for anyone thinking of buying a copy.

Learning to Read Revelation

Bauckham devotes his first chapter to the question of HOW to READ the Revelation. This isn’t a matter of a ‘literal’ or ‘spiritual’ interpretation of the text. The question is what kind of a book ‘Revelation’ is.

Is the book of Revelation an apocalypse? ‘Apocalypse’ is translated ‘revelation.’ It implies an unveiling, a making known of what was there all along, but was not seen our understood. The apocalypse [revelation] of Jesus Christ is actually the title of this book and it is used in Re 1:1.

Or, is it a prophecy? Re 1:3 speaks of ‘the words of the prophecy.’

Or, is Revelation an epistle? Re 1:4 declares John to be the author, and addresses the churches in the Roman province of Asia. It includes the formulary benediction [grace to you and peace …] and doxology [to him who loves us and released us from our sins…] that is characteristic of an epistolary work.

Bauckham [RB] opens saying that misinterpretations often arise from misunderstanding what kind of work it is. Is it an apocalypse, a prophecy, or an epistle? I have heard vicious debates on this subject. Perhaps you have heard those as well. This is because answer to that question shape what we expect to find in the book of Revelation. So it matters.

Then RB notes that the Revelation is unique in that it is cast not as one but three literary genres cast in one work. It is an apocalypse. It is a prophecy. It is an epistle. And justice must be done to all three literary genres to read this work seriously.

Revelation is ‘an apocalyptic prophecy in the form of a circular letter to seven churches in the Roman province of Asia.’ RB, Theology of the Revelation, p. 2.