It means that Rev. 4-22 is for churches that are resisting persecution but have lost their first love, or who need encouragement in the midst of slander, or who have been infiltrated by false prophets, or tolerate syncretism, or who are really dead inside. It’s for churches that are faithful and long for their reward or, by contrast, are apathetic and need to be warned. It’s for churches like ours in fact.
Imagine you are tasked with preaching the entirety of Revelation to your congregation in a single sermon. The whole book. One sermon. Majoring on relevance and application. How would you do it?
Or maybe it’s a more casual question from a friend at the coffee shop: “So what’s the deal with Revelation? Se
ems pretty cryptic and weird and nothing like my life or relevant to the modern world. Explain that to me.” You’ve got until the coffee gets cold. Go.
What would such a sermon (or conversation) look like? How would you consolidate 22 chapters of some of the most intense, complex, disputed, and visceral material in the Bible into an easily applicable and understandable (three-point) sermon or summary, tailored for the person you are talking to? Is there a way to leap-frog all the modern controversies regarding the book and simply tell people what they need to hear? And how do you focus on the practical implications of the book without getting bogged down in the infinitely complex minutiae?
Easy. Copy John. He’s done it for you already. Revelation 2-3 provides you with seven exemplary interpretations and applications of the book as a whole.
Revelation is a Letter
If you want to understand the book of Revelation you need to appreciate that it is a letter. To be clear: Revelation doesn’t just contain letters, the whole thing is a letter. It’s other things too, which makes interpretation complicated, but it never ceases to be a letter.
This should be obvious, because Revelation actually tells you that it’s a letter in the first chapter:
I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet saying, “Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and the Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea” (Rev. 1:10-11).
Is Revelation a letter, or does it just contain letters?
Now it’s pretty obvious that a portion of Revelation is a letter, as chapters 2-3 of the book are obviously letters (“to the angel of the church in Ephesus write,” Rev. 2:1). But look back at those verses in 1:10-11. They clearly apply not to some subset of the book (ie, chapters 2-3), but rather to the book as a whole. The seven churches that are mentioned in 1:10 are the same seven churches of Rev. 2-3. Seven letters, seven churches. What is John supposed to write to these seven churches? Not just what he hears (2:1) but also “what you see.” Which means that John’s vision in 4-22 is no less a part of what he is supposed to give to these churches. The whole book begins with a vision (“write what you see,” 1:11), and the rest of the book (after the letters) resumes that vision:
After this I looked, and behold, a door standing open in heaven! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this” (Rev. 4:1).
Thus Revelation is simultaneously a vision (or apocalypse) and a letter. We normally think of Revelation in terms of its apocalyptic character, and therefore treat it as something strange and otherworldly and abnormal. If you ask someone what Revelation is about they will tell you about judgements and demons and the Beast and something about 666 and perhaps the False Prophet and the Antichrist and locusts and hellfire and the New Heavens…. All that is apocalyptic, and all that is important; it’s also hard and visceral and controversial and confrontational. It’s what makes the book challenging. We can’t ignore the apocalyptic character of Revelation. But it is also a letter, and letters are highly ordinary. Letters are easy.