Preparing To Read Revelation: Rhetoric

Before we can dig into Book of Revelation we have to prepare ourselves. To do so, I will suggest three invitations that we need to understand before we can become good readers of Revelation. 1) We need to become good English students again, we need to familiarize ourselves with some basic rhetorical devices. While we believe the book of Revelation, as well as the Bible, to be authoritative texts to our Christian life, that doesn’t mean John didn’t use metaphors and similes, two-step progressions, numbers and numerical sequences, and a few other tools to convey to his readers those authoritative truths. 2) We need to become good History students again. Revelation is a book that has been widely interpreted in and by our culture. Many of the beliefs we have about Revelation come from movies and books like Left Behind or those popular Christian writers who are convinced they have discovered who the Anti-Christ is. (The word anti-Christ is not actually found in Revelation, but in 1st and 2nd John, and used to describe those people who taught Christ didn’t come in he flesh). All this is to say, there are many theories as to what Revelation means, for us to be the best students of Revelation we must be students of History and learn more about the context in which John wrote Revelation. 3) Lastly, we must be good students of Revelation. John gives us some invitations as we begin to study Revelation.

In this post, I want us to explore that first invitation to become good students of English. John will use a number of Rhetorical devices to help make his points, and to keep his letter convoluted to the untrained eye. We will talk more about why John did that when we explore the context in which we wrote.

Metaphors and Similes

Metaphors and similes are the structure for John’s symbolic word. A metaphor ascribes an action or quality of one thing to another by way of identity. The curtain of night or the world stage are two simple examples of metaphors. Similes on the other hand, compares two distinctly different things with the use of “like” or “as”. ‘That box was as heavy as an elephant’ or ‘You’re as brave as a lion’ are two examples of similes.

Now metaphors and similes are important because they are weaved all throughout the framework of Revelation. One of the early ones we see are similes and meaphors of the eyes, the purpose of this is to help distinguish good sight from poor sight. Jesus’ eyes are “like a flame of fire” (1:14). His penetrating fiery eyes see through the deceptive appearances of the world, the four living creatures around the throne have eyes everywhere. Their vision allows them to see God for who he is and thus to see God’s holy attributes: his holiness, omnipotence, and his eternality (4:8)  John picks up this metaphor of sight as a contrast too. We see people who have the pure sight of God, but John encourages the Laodiceans to seek our “salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see” (3:18) Laodicea was a producer of a medication for ophthalmic disorders. So the people are quite familiar with items that help you see. Moreover, this passage is reminiscent of Mark 8:23 when Jesus uses spit to heal a blind man. Ultimately, what the metaphors and similes of sight are doing is challenging what it is we are setting our eyes on. The people of Laodicea are luke-warm Christians. They “are rich” and “have prospered” (3:17) but they don’t realize that in becoming complacent in their faith they are lost. John employs a metaphor of sight to say, you guys need to get your eyes fixed so that you can see better. You need to be healed like the blind man, healed and see like Christ. Certainly this is a message that our church can hear too. We must always prayerfully ask God to open up our eyes.

John employs other kinds of metaphors throughout Revelation too. “I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire so that you may be rich” (3:18). John employs a metaphor of transaction. John isn’t in the midst of an actual sales pitch to these people, buy gold from me, not from someone else. Instead, we see that he is using a metaphor to tell the people to invest their treasures in Christ and “the white robes to clothe you.”

John employs metaphors and similes of sound too. All the earsplitting sounds, blaring instruments, and endless hymns train the hearer to listen to the commotion in heaven or to what the Spirit is saying and to ignore the din of this world that shouts for undivided attention. A resounding theme of the Apocalypse is the need for attentive, careful hearing (13:9-10). “Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.” (2:7,11,17,29; 3:6,13,22).

John also employs metaphors of sexuality. Metaphors of sexual infidelity and promiscuity describe economic exploitation, social tyranny, political compromise, and religious assimilation to the dominant culture. The sexual language, as odd as it seems, accentuates the crossing of boundaries that are established through covenant relationships, and are descriptive not only of illicit sexual relations but also of other areas that are marred by desire, transgressions, confused boundaries, and compromise. John stands in a long biblical tradition of prophets, like Hosea, Isaiah, Nahum, Ezekiel, who utilize sexual metaphor to speak about boundary crossing and accommodation to the dominate culture.

Metaphors and similes are just one way John creates the backdrop for his narrative. John will also utilize plot, setting, two-step progressions, point of view, narration, chiasm, and number/numerical sequence. We will see more of these rhetorical tools as we dig into some texts in later posts. John utilizes these rhetorical tools to help create the world of Revelation, moreover, these tools also help John make his important points. It is in our best interest as responsible readers of Revelation to become students of English.


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