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Brief thoughts on John’s apocalyptic eschatology.
To say that the Book of Revelation is the most problematic canonical book in Scripture would be an understatement. The issues that arise, though, are not indicative of the problematic content within Revelation, per se. Rather, they pinpoint the glaring deficiencies with which human interpreters are able to divine the message and movements of the Godhead throughout time. The severe limitations of human comprehension are on full display throughout John’s apocalyptic epistle, in which the reader is given no shortage of visions and images that exude the eschatological certainty of King Jesus’s universal reign. And while there is certainly much more to John’s revelation than merely the correspondence of apocalyptic literature, one cannot evade the apocalyptic eschatology John intends to instill in his readers.
It is further admitted that the term “apocalypse,” and its constituents, possess, at best, a vague meaning. The expression is repeated so profusely — and loosely — that it has largely lost its value in biblical scholarship. “Apocalyptic is a term widely used in popular culture,” L. J. Kreitzer writes, “often with little acknowledgment of the biblical basis for it, a fact which in itself stands as a testimony to the enduring influence of Revelation.”1 It only takes a cursory glance at the “apocalyptic” and “post-apocalyptic” literary genres for one to understand the wide array of applications in which the term is employed. Consequently, the fluidity of consensus of what is and is not “apocalyptic” only tends to muddy the waters in which students of Scripture swim as they study the Book of Revelation.
To properly comprehend the apocalyticism of Revelation, it is necessary to define the genre itself. Kreitzer refers to John J. Collins’s definition formulated in partnership with the Society of Biblical Literature “Genres Project,” in which it is stated:
Apocalypse is a genre of revelatory literature with a narrative framework, in which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial, insofar as it involves another, supernatural world.2
This, it should be said, is clearly stated by the apostle John at the outset of the book. “The revelation of Jesus Christ that God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who testified to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, whatever he saw.” (Rv 1:1–2) John’s use of the term “revelation,” or apokalypsis, as it is transliterated in Greek, situates the subsequent words within that literary context. Apokalypsis, of course, is defined as “a disclosure of truth” or “a laying bare.” And while apocalyptic and eschatology are commonly used interchangeably, it should be noted that the two terms are not necessarily equals. John’s writing is apocalyptic in that it unveils the eternal certainty of God’s eschatological mission. And so it is that John’s apocalyptic epistle is one which reveals, unveils, and, indeed, exposes the eschatological glory of Jesus Christ. G. R. Beasley-Murray summarizes this when he writes:
In light . . . of the content of the entire book, we are to recognize that the Revelation is the work of the Spirit, who from Pentecost on has enabled Christians to bear prophetic witness to ‘the word of God and the witness of Jesus.’ That witness includes God’s word concerning his will for humankind in the present and in the future.
It is evident, accordingly, that John’s work is not to be viewed either as an apocalypse or as a prophecy, as though those terms were mutually exclusive; rather one should acknowledge that it has the features of both; that is, his work is to be defined as an apocalyptic prophecy and/or a prophetic apocalypse.3
With that as a general framework, then, one is afforded considerably more wherewithal by which to interpret John’s work.
L. J. Kreitzer, “Apocalyptic, Apocalyticism,” Dictionary of the Later New Testament & Its Developments, edited by Ralph P. Martin and Peter H. Davids (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 57.
G. R. Beasley-Murray, “Book of Revelation,” Dictionary of the Later New Testament & Its Developments, edited by Ralph P. Martin and Peter H. Davids (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 1026.