+ Dr. Tommy Givens introduces Revelation by explaining the genre of apocalyptic literature and how it speaks to past events that continue to unfold in our present and future.
Tommy Givens is associate professor of New Testament studies in Fuller’s School of Theology. In addition to New Testament studies and theological ethics, his research interests include Christian nonviolence, political theory, ecology, and scriptural reasoning for Jewish-Christian-Muslim relations.
“One of the most important things to keep in mind about the book of Revelation is the kind of book that it is, the kind of literature that it is.” – Tommy Givens
I think what I’m mostly gonna do is try to frame this book rather than get into any sort of march through its content. I just think that is more useful, myself, for this book. And a lot of Revelation teaching here is about trying to just reframe things a little bit so that it’s not quite so…yuck. (Laughter)
My name is Dr. Tommy Givens, and I’m a professor of New Testament here at Fuller Theological Seminary. I want to talk to you about perhaps the most troubling book in the New Testament, the last book of the New Testament, called Apocalypse or Revelation, in the way that we translate that to English.
One of the most important things to keep in mind about the book of Revelation is the kind of book that it is, the kind of literature that it is. It is part of a genre or family of literature from the ancient world, from the time of Jesus and just a little bit before as well as a little bit after, known as apocalyptic. And if we ignore that kind of literature, then we will be apt to interpret Revelation in a way that is oblivious to what would be understood and assumed in its early days when it was composed and then performed in Christian congregations.
The book, of course, itself begins by clarifying that it is a vision. And it is specifically a vision of a figure presented to us as the Son of Man— this figure from Daniel that is identified for us as Jesus the Messiah. And the vision is about the coming to power of this figure who is at once the Lamb who was slain and the Lion of Judah. And it’s key in Revelation that, despite the paradox of that, that is who Jesus is. He is the Lion only as he is the Lamb. It’s only in the way that Jesus gives his life that he is the king of all kings.
This is not, if we are careful to pay attention to the story, primarily about something that happens at the end of the world. Instead, it is especially about the way that the lamb is slain, the way that Jesus dies, and the way that the drama of his life unfolds in the subsequent generation with a conflict within his people and finally their invasion. They’re being invaded by the Roman Empire. Much of what Revelation pictures then we might think of as historically past to us: the fall and the rise of Jesus, the fall of Jerusalem, and the rising of Jesus’ power through the generations to follow even under Roman oppression.
But that past is not entirely past to us because that’s the past that has made our present possible. We’ve inherited the power of Jesus’ name and the call to follow him even under similarly oppressive forces in our own time—forces that use political power and economic power to threaten people, to encourage them to pledge their allegiance to forces that will destroy others and pretend that their needs are more important than needs of other people around the world.
And so, Revelation, being about something in the past, is also about something in our present and our future because its images and that past are reverberating into our present and shaping our own hope for the future that Jesus makes possible in our life.