APOCALYPTIC LITERATURE: REVEALING THE HIDDEN
He Who Has Ears to Hear:
The book of Revelation belongs to the genre of apocalyptic
literature. To better understand this unique literary form, it's
helpful to know its background.
After the Jewish people returned from the Babylonian exile in the
fifth century B.C., they awaited the final fulfillment of the Old
Testament prophecies. Those prophesies predicting the nation's
punishment had come to pass. Those that spoke of a grand
restoration - the coming of a new anointed king, the defeat of
all enemies, the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the temple on a
magnificent scale, a golden age of peace and prosperity - were
still a dream. Instead of the promised messianic kingdom, a
succession of pagan kings ruled over the Jewish people.
By 400 B.C. even the Old Testament prophets fell silent,
prophetic inspiration ceased, and Israel waited. After a long 200
years, in the second century B.C. a new form of Jewish literature
began to appear. This new material endeavored to fill the vacuum
left by the cessation of the prophetic word and to give hope to a
despairing people. It purported to bring revelations from God,
explaining the delay in the fulfillment of Old Testament
prophecies. Why was Israel still under the control of pagan
powers? Why was evil prevailing? When would the promised kingdom
Because this literature presents itself as an unveiling of
heavenly secrets, it is known as apocalypse, from the Greek word
meaning "a disclosure or revelation." Apocalyptic literature
flourished for about 400 years, from 200 B.C. to A.D. 200, in
both Jewish and Christian circles. It became such a popular and
well-known literary form that the basic characteristics of this
kind of literature would be shared by both canonical and
In the New Testament canon, the primary example is Revelation.
(Some scholars also classify as apocalyptic selected chapters
from other New Testament books, especially the Olivet Discourse
in Matthew 24 and 25 and the parallels in Mark 13 and Luke 21.)
In the Old Testament canon, the closest parallels are in certain
chapters from the prophets, such as Isaiah 24-27, Ezekiel 37-48,
Zechariah 9-14, and especially Daniel 7-12. In fact, these
chapters provide the prototype for the visions and symbolic
language of apocalyptic literature.
However, the most numerous examples of apocalyptic literature are
found in the non-canonical writings. Among the Jewish apocalypses
the most notable are 1 Enoch, the Apocalypse of Abraham, the
Apocalypse of Baruch, the Apocalypse of Ezra (4 Ezra), and the
War Scroll and the New Jerusalem Text, both from the Dead Sea
Scrolls. Later Christian examples include the Apocalypse of
Peter, the Apocalypse of Paul, and the Apocalypse of John the
Although this material is not in the Bible, it is still of value
to biblical study for at least two reasons: 1) It provides a
glimpse into the theological and eschatological (end-times)
mindset of the Jewish sects and early Christians. Through it we
can see how they interpreted Old Testament prophecies. The
non-canonical apocalypses are actually explanations and
expansions (in symbolic terms) of the Old Testament prophecies,
rather than new revelations altogether. 2) The non-canonical
writings produced a common apocalyptic vocabulary, which helps
define the use of similar language and symbols in the book of
Literary characteristics of Apocalyptic Literature:
Listed below are the key features that set this genre apart from
1. It is literary in form. Unlike Old Testament prophecy, it is
primarily a written, rather than spoken, message. Recall that the
Old Testament prophets delivered their messages first in oral
form, then, later committed them to writing. Apocalyptic
literature is a written message from the start, and its authors
are more like theologians than prophets.
2. It is symbolic in language. An elaborate and sometimes
fantastic system of symbols is used to describe past, present,
and future events. Frequently occurring symbols include animals,
mythological creatures, numbers, colors, and cosmic phenomena.
The apocalyptic writers draw much of their symbolic vocabulary
from the Old Testament prophets and ancient Near Eastern
3. It is esoteric in character. Due to the symbolism with its
cryptic meanings, the reader must be "in the know" if he is to
understand the apocalyptic message. The esoteric element is
present in Revelation in the recurring phrase, "He who has an
ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches."
4. It is pseudonymous in authorship. The writer assumes a pen
name, usually putting his words into the mouth of an Old
Testament prophet or some other honored ancient figure, like
Abraham, Moses, or Baruch. This was not done to deceive. Because
Old Testament prophetic inspiration had ceased, the apocalyptic
writer sought to continue in the tradition and teaching of a
prophet or respected person by writing in his name. Readers in
ancient times readily recognized this literary device.
Revelation, however, is an exception. John the Revelator not only
writes under his own name, but also claims that he was "in the
Spirit" (1:10), indicating that the Old Testament spirit of
prophecy was once again speaking through him.
5. It is mediated by heavenly beings. An angel or otherworldly
figure acts as a guide for the writer, showing him scenes
(visions) of the heavenly plans for Israel's destiny in Jewish
apocalypse or for the church's destiny as the new Israel in
Christian apocalypse. In Revelation, John is shown things by
angels (1:1; 22:8) and by the "Son of Man," Christ himself
6. It is resistance literature, usually written in times of
intense persecution or national crisis. It calls on its readers
to stand firm in the faith (i.e., Jewish or Christian) and to
avoid compromise with the forces of evil (e.g., foreign powers
and paganism) despite the threat of adversity or martyrdom. Times
of distress and despair are, therefore, the life-settings that
occasion the literature. Revelation is no exception here. It was
written during the persecution of the early church by Roman
authorities, when John himself was a political prisoner on the
isle of Patmos (1:9).
7. It is cosmic in scope. The author's own life-setting
(distress, persecution, conflict) is seen in terms of a cosmic
battle between the forces of good and evil - the present evil age
versus the age to come. The primary combatants in this war are
not humans on earth but unseen angels and demons who mediate the
events of the struggle as it unfolds. The predetermined end of
this conflict is imminent and will be preceded by cosmic
catastrophes (war, famine, pestilence, earthquake, fire, etc.).
8. It is optimistic in outlook. Although the current situation
looks bleak, the heavenly kingdom of God will triumph over the
evil world of men. Therefore, the author's primary purpose is to
assure his readers that history is moving toward a purposeful
climax, that the wicked will be destroyed, and that a faithful
remnant will enjoy a bliss that can only be described as
glorious. The final end of the present evil age and the
inauguration of the kingdom of God will take place at the
appearance of a heavenly figure, most often identified as "the
Son of Man," who is first mentioned in Daniel 7:13, 14. In Jewish
and Christian literature, including the New Testament, the term
Son of Man most often refers to the Messiah, who comes to execute
judgment on humanity.
In contrast to Jewish apocalypses, Revelation portrays the
inauguration of God's kingdom not as a future event but as a
current reality, having already begun at Christ's first
appearance when His death on the cross secured the final victory.
The book of Revelation:
In addition to the above parallels between apocalyptic literature
and Revelation, John leaves no doubt that his book is an
apocalypse. He calls it such in the very first word of the Greek
text: "Apocalypse of Jesus Christ, which God gave to Him to show
to His servants things which must occur with speed."
Revelation combines elements of almost all the literary forms in
the Bible: narrative, poetry, hymns, figures of speech, typology,
symbols, etc. But primarily the book is a composite of three main
genres: epistle, prophecy, and apocalypse.
The prophetic and the apocalyptic elements are rolled up together
in the form of an epistle, as indicated by the book's opening and
closing (1:47; 22:21). In addition to its overall epistolary
format, the book also contains in chapters 2 and 3 seven letters
to seven churches in Asia Minor.
In addition to being a mixture of literary forms, Revelation's
content is also a fusion of imagery, symbols, themes, and
references. Seventy percent of the book is derived from
previously written sources. For instance, its symbolism is drawn
from three main sources: the Old Testament prophets, contemporary
life in the Roman province of Asia (especially in chapters 1
through 3), and Jewish apocalyptic literature. As the concluding
book of the New Testament canon, Revelation masterfully ties
together many different thematic strands from the entire Bible to
present the Christian view of the consummation of all things.
The book's mixture of literary forms, imagery, symbolism, and
thematic content has in turn led to diverse interpretations.
Christians from the second century on have debated the book's
meaning. Generally, the interpretations fall into four main
The preterist interpretation sees the book's events as primarily
referring to the conflict of church and state in John's own day
and, therefore, mostly in the past.
The consummation in chapters 20 through 22 is seen as symbolic of
the ultimate victory and final home of the redeemed.
The futurist interpretation takes the opposite view and places
all of Revelation's events into the distant future from chapter 6
on. According to this view, most of the book will be fulfilled in
the last seven years just prior to the consummation.
The historicist approach sees the book as outlining the history
of the Western world, from the first century to the consummation:
the fall of the Roman Empire, the rise of Islam, the
power of the papacy, the Reformation, World Wars I and 11, the
rise of communism, nuclear warfare, the final battle of
Armageddon - it's all in there.
Finally, the idealist interpretation sees the book as symbolic of
the timeless struggle between good and evil that faces every
Each one of these interpretations may have its merits, but none
of them seems to offer a totally adequate explanation of all
parts of Revelation. Perhaps the best approach is to see the big
picture and let the details take care of themselves. The big
picture focuses on the book's outline as patterned after the
typical storyline of apocalyptic literature. That storyline is as
1. There is a crisis in the heavenly court. Revelation 4
describes a throne room scene of the heavenly court, and the
crisis is revealed in 5:1-4. Evil must be dealt with. The scrolls
of judgment are written, sealed, and ready to be delivered. But
no one is found who is worthy to open the seals and execute the
2. A champion is chosen from the heavenly court to do battle with
the forces of evil. In Revelation 5:5-14 the champion is
revealed. There is someone after all who is worthy to open the
seals. It is the Lion of Judah, the Root of David, the Lamb of
God who was slain. He is worthy.
3. The battle between the forces of evil and the heavenly forces
of good ensues, and the forces of good prevail. Victory is won.
Chapters 6 through 20, despite all of their puzzling detail,
simply describe the cosmic battle between the heavenly forces of
the Lamb and the demonic forces of Satan, and also relate the
battle's effects on humanity, which is caught in the crossfire.
The Lamb wins.
4. The victorious champion returns to the heavenly court amidst
celebration, feasting, temple-building, restoration, and an
endless age of peace and prosperity. Revelation 21 and 22
describe the restoration. There's a new heaven and a new earth. A
new Jerusalem also descends from heaven as a dwelling place for
the saints. But there is no temple in the city because God and
the Lamb are its temple - they are the center of worship. Eternal
peace and prosperity follow as the river of life flows from the
throne of God and of the Lamb, and the tree of life grows on
either side of the river.
The bottom line of the big picture - and the book's main purpose
- is to assure the saints of their ultimate salvation and
victory. Despite suffering, persecution, and even death, they
will triumph over Satan and his forces because of their
allegiance to Christ, the victor.
Five key guidelines for interpreting Revelation:
To stay focused on the big picture, keep these guidelines in
1. Recognize that Revelation employs a variety of genres, themes,
and literary techniques (visions, symbols, figures of speech,
etc.). The particular principles for interpreting each of these
elements should be applied.
2. Don't take Revelation's figurative and symbolic imagery too
3. Be consistent when interpreting the symbolic imagery. If the
imagery is symbolic in one place, then it ought to be equally
symbolic in another.
4. A text cannot mean something today that would have been
totally foreign or beyond comprehension for John and his original
5. Recognize that Revelation was not intended to give a detailed,
chronological account of the future. Its primary purpose was to
assure God's people that He is in control of history and that
their destiny is secure in Him.
(One of the keys to understanding Revelation is given right at
the beginning. John was in "spirit" on "the Lord's Day" (not a
day of the week) or "Day of the Lord." This "day of the Lord" or
time of God's wrath and judgment on the nations of the world, is
spoken about in MANY Old Testament prophecies. It is the time
shortly before the return of Jesus to earth (maybe about one year
in length). Most of the book of Revelation is dealing with this
time period. For more detail on end time prophecy see the many
studies under "Prophecy" and "End Time" on this Website - Keith
1. William Miller, founder of the Advent Movement in the early
1800s, predicted that Christ would return in 1843. When that date
proved inaccurate, he revised it to 1844. Miller based his
prediction on the 2,300-day prophecy of Daniel 8:13 and 14. He
interpreted the "sanctuary" in the text to be the earth and the
"cleansing" of the sanctuary to mean Christ's return to earth,
which would in effect cleanse it of all unrighteousness. Miller
understood the 2,300 days to be 2,300 years, the time period of
the prophecy. Using 457 B.C. as his starting point (a date
derived from other texts), Miller then counted forward for 2,300
years, arriving at 1843.
Where did Miller's interpretation go wrong? Analyze his
hermeneutics. What principles did he violate? Be as specific as
you can. (It may be helpful to review the context of Daniel 8,
especially verses 9-14. Note also that verses 1-14 contain
Daniel's description of the entire vision, while verses 15-27
actually reveal its interpretation.)
2. The Olivet Discourse in Matthew 24 and 25 is sometimes called
the "miniapocalypse." Matthew 24:29 speaks of cosmic
catastrophes: the sun and moon will be darkened, and the stars
will fall from heaven. Should the imagery in this verse be taken
literally? Many have pointed to certain solar and lunar eclipses
and several meteor showers as the actual fulfillment of these
"signs of the times." In determining your answer, consider the
A. In Matthew 24:29, to what event do the words "immediately
after the tribulation of those days" refer? Note the context of
the previous verses 15-28, especially verse 15.
B. Compare the imagery of Matthew 24:29 with the previous use of
that imagery in Isaiah 13:10; Ezekiel 32:7, 8; and Joel 2:30, 31;
3:15. How are these Old Testament prophets using this
"catastrophic language," literally or symbolically? To what
events do the cosmic catastrophes refer in each of the Old
Testament texts? (Again, refer to each text's context.)
C. What conclusion do you draw about the use of this type of
language in the Old Testament prophets and in Matthew 24?
3. In the book of Revelation, John interprets many of his own
symbols. For example, the seven golden lampstands (1:20) are the
seven churches in the Roman province of Asia; the seven stars
(1:20) are angels or messengers sent to those churches; the bowls
of incense (5:8) are the prayers of the saints; the great red
dragon (12:9) is Satan; the seven heads of the scarlet beast
(17:9) represent seven hills on which a harlots sits and also
represent seven kings (17:10); the harlot (17:18) is actually a
great city, thus a city on seven hills (a clear image of Rome to
first-century readers); the ten horns of the beast (17:12) are
ten kings; and the waters on which the harlot also sits (17:15)
represent the peoples and nations under the great city's control.
How, then, should we interpret the other symbols in the book?
Consider the following examples:
A. Revelation 11:1, 2 - Does this reference to a temple mean that
a literal temple will be rebuilt in Jerusalem before the Lord's
return? Many say, Yes.
B. 7:4 and 14:1 - Should the number 144,000 be taken literally?
Some denominations, like the Jehovah's Witnesses, have claimed
that the first 144,000 members of their group literally have
fulfilled these texts.
C. 13:16-18 - Almost everyone would agree that the beast in verse
18 is not a literal creature and that the "number of his name,"
666, is clearly symbolic. But what about the "mark of the beast"?
Is it an actual sign, a tattoo, or a computer chip that
distinguishes unbelievers from believers? Many best-selling
Christian books, like those of the most recent "Left Behind"
series, would have us believe that it is. (Note that the "mark"
in verse 17 is also referred to as the "name of the beast" or the
"number of his name," which we learn in verse 18 is the symbolic
D. 20:1-3 - Are the "bottomless pit," the "great chain," and the
"dragon" literal or symbolic? What about the "1,000 years"?
E. What conclusion should we draw from this exercise? How does
the principle, be consistent when interpreting symbolic imagery,
apply to the above examples?
This series of lessons has attempted to cover the basics of
biblical interpretation. We hope it has increased your
awareness and appreciation for hermeneutics, the science and art
of getting the message. Whenever you read the Bible, keep in mind
the whole process: guard against presuppositions; mind the gaps
in understanding; listen carefully to the text; for every passage
ask the three key questions and the five Ws; identify a text's
structure, genre, setting, and intention; pay special attention
to its literary context; determine the proper meaning of words
and figures of speech; and finally, recall the special features
and hermeneutical principles associated with each of the major
genres of Scripture (Narrative, Hebrew Poetry, the Psalms, Wisdom
Literature, the Prophets, the Gospels and Acts, the Epistles, and
Reading the Bible is a great privilege, but it comes with a great
responsibility. May you always strive to become a more skilful
interpreter, and ultimately, a better hearer and doer of the
Recommended Reading List:
1. "How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth" by Gordon Fee and
Douglas Stuart. Zondervan, 1993. A good introduction to the major
genres of the Bible and the principles for their interpretation.
2. "Introduction to Biblical Interpretation" by William Klein,
Craig Blomberg, and Robert Hubbard, Jr. Word, 1993. A
comprehensive textbook on hermeneutics.
3. "Knowing Scripture" by R. C. Sproul. InterVarsity Press, 1978.
A general introduction to hermeneutics.
4. "Making Sense of Scripture" edited by Jerry Griffin. Bible
Advocate Press, 1987. A collection of 16 articles by various
authors on different aspects of biblical interpretation.
B. Single-volume Bible Commentaries and Dictionaries
1. "The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament" by Craig
Keener. InterVarsity Press, 1993. This unique commentary provides
the cultural background for every verse in the New Testament.
2. "The New Bible Commentary-Revised" edited by Donald Guthrie
and J. A. Motyer. Eerdmans, 1976. A thorough reference written
for the general Bible student.
3. "The New Jerome Biblical Commentary" edited by Brown,
Fitzmyer, and Murphy. Prentice Hall, 1990. A comprehensive
reference for the scholarly student, but still useful for all
C. Single-volume Bible Dictionary:
"New Bible Dictionary": Second Edition edited by J. D. Douglas.
Tyndale House, 1982. Short on illustrations, but the best in
terms of content. With 2,150 entries, it's packed with
information. For a fully illustrated, color version, this
dictionary is also published in three volumes under the title of
The Illustrated Bible Dictionary.
D. Word Study:
"An Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words" by W. E. Vine (Unger
and White, editors). Nelson, 1985. Defines the major Hebrew and
Greek words of the Bible. A helpful and easy to use reference for
those who don't read Hebrew or Greek.
End of studies from the Church of God (Seventh Day), Denver, CO.
USA. Bible Studies for Adults, P.O. Box 33677, Denver, CO 80233-
Two other "older" Bible Commentaries I recommend are the 3 volume
Commentary by Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown - called "A Commentary
- Critical - Experimental - Practical" published by Eerdmans, AND
"Barnes' Notes on the New Testament" - one volume. These are
available from "Christian Book Distributors" (CBD). Barnes has a
full 14 volume (Old and New Testament) Bible Commentary,
available from CBD, but it is quite expensive - Keith Hunt.