If you haven’t spent enough time with the final book of the Bible, Revelation. I don’t blame you. Revelation is full of freaky stuff. The first thing we need to get straight is the title of the book: it’s Revelation, not Revelations. I feel a bit like Hermione Granger in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (“It’s leviOsa, not levioSA!”), but we do need to know the title of the book we’re studying. Revelation is a work of life-altering theology, but its literary form frightens many people away. Most Christians can pick up John’s Gospel or Paul’s Letter to the Philippians and immediately make pretty good sense of what they’re reading. Then these same people turn to Revelation, and they encounter colored horses, a dragon, wicked beasts, and a prostitute. They begin to wonder, “Am I still reading the Bible? Or am I watching Cowboys & Aliens?”
A responsible reading of Revelation begins with an understanding of the genre of the book. To identify the genre of a book is to ask the question “What am I reading? What type of literature is this?” Identifying the type of literature we’re reading is crucial. If you don’t believe me, run to Barnes & Noble this afternoon, pick up a book of Caribbean recipes, and then try to use the book to find your way from Barbados to St. Bart’s. You’ll end up doubly disappointed: hungry and lost. Revelation is
apocalyptic literature. When we hear the word “apocalypse,” we think of some very unfortunate event, an episode involving mass destruction. In the Marvel show Loki, the Variant hides in the apocalypses of the time line. While Loki is indeed a great show, we need to set aside this definition. In the first century, the word “apocalypse” referred not to an unfortunate event but to an unveiling of something. The first words of the book of Revelation are “the unveiling [apokalypsis] of Jesus Christ” (Rev 1:1, my translation).
The goal of apocalyptic literature is to give us an alternative reading of reality. It changes our perception of the world in which we live. Revelation is like the Reality Stone (let the Marvel fan understand). Its power changes our perception of everything around us, but in this case, it shows us the true reality. Revelation reveals that things are not as they seem. There is more to reality than meets the eye.
How does apocalyptic literature accomplish its goal? How does Revelation change our perception? By creating a symbolic world which we enter into so fully that it changes the way we see and experience the world around us. Something similar happens when we become engrossed in an epic film. For those few hours, we enter the world of the film, and what we experience within that world causes us to see the world around us differently; it changes our perspective and awakens our passion. We emerge from the world of Middle-earth with a sense that, no matter how small and unlikely a character we might be, we can fight against the darkness of our day. This is how Revelation works on us, how it changes our perspective of the world: by drawing us into its symbolic world.
Symbolic is a key word. A defining feature of apocalyptic literature is its use of symbols, bizarre images that stand for something else. Many of us have been taught the maxim “Interpret literally except when we are forced to interpret symbolically.” Those who interpret Revelation literally are waiting for the day when a sea monster, an earth monster, and a dragon will appear on the earth, like a scene from Pacific Rim or Godzilla. But this is to disregard the genre of the book. Apocalyptic literature uses symbols. The Lamb is not a literal lamb—not a fluffy, four-legged animal; it’s a symbol for Jesus, the one slain for our sins. The dragon is not a literal dragon—not a medieval, fire-breathing monster; it’s a symbol for Satan, the primeval, lie-breathing leader of all rebellion against God and his people.
My years of ministry experience are now of drinking age. Over the past two decades, I’ve talked with thousands of Christians: from Dunedin, New Zealand to Dunedin, Florida. And among the various traditions and denominations, I’ve discovered a common denominator. Most Christians I’ve met can cite or at least paraphrase certain verses from the Bible: John 3:16; Rom 3:23; Phil 4:13 (usually out of context). But relatively few seem to understand how these individual lines fit into the larger story of the Bible.
Many readers think of the Bible as a confused mixture of entries, episodes, characters, and commands. Sixty-six books, written by some thirty authors, scattered over a period of roughly fifteen hundred years, including virtually every genre known to man. Clearly, the Bible consists of many parts. Yet, it communicates a metanarrative, one great story, the drama of redemption. And when we understand this story, and find our place within it, it brings us unparalleled purpose and hope.
In Long Story Short, I tell the story of Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation. Unlike other Old Testament or New Testament surveys, this book is not intended for seminary students or pastors. It avoids the dense footnotes and scholarly nomenclature common to this category. I hope it will read more like a story and less like a textbook. It’s not intended for highly motivated ministry practitioners, but for crazy-busy parents and plumbers; for elementary teachers and engineers; for software developers and construction workers. This book is for the ordinary, everyday follower of Jesus with a sincere love for his or her Lord, but with no specialization in biblical languages, customs, or history. If you have no idea what year the northern kingdom of Israel fell, and if you couldn’t locate ancient Assyria on a map if your life depended on it, then this book is for you. If you’re the guy who never read the book in high school, always opting for the CliffsNotes, then as Doc Holliday says in the movie Tombstone, “I’m your huckleberry.” In fact, I’ve written this book with the hopes that it might be the first book about the Bible you’ve ever read, and that, in reading it, the Spirit will awaken you to God’s gracious and persistent plan for the world and your place within his plan. Christians, as we will discover together, are not just storytellers; we are story-dwellers. And this marvelous truth changes everything.
Dillon T. Thornton serves as the lead pastor of Faith Community Church in Seminole, Florida. Before settling in Florida, he ministered in Colorado and New Zealand, aka Hobbiton. Like all hobbits, Dillon loves breakfast foods and a good beer, which he works off by remaining an avid CrossFitter. You can find him online at DillontThornton.com.