Recovering the Much Tortured Book of Revelation

Apocalypse in Springfield

Personal Observations

In retrospect, I think he was amused. An extraordinarily gifted scholar with broad learning, our church rector was ever a gentleman. But he’d never mentioned it one way or another. So when I met dispensationalism ever so many years ago, it seemed natural to ask him if he’d heard of it.

Surprise — he had!

He then explained that dispensationalism rests largely on a misreading of apocalyptic texts. He continued by saying that while this genre is used in the Bible, it is very different. Reading it correctly requires an entirely different set of interpretative rules.

I then asked whether he’d made this any particular study of his own.

Another surprise — he had!

A fine, little book had just been written on topic called, ‘Apocalyptic.’ The publisher asked him to write a few lines to publish on the cover.

Years later, I was browsing a book store when I noticed a little book by Leon Morris. In his day, Morris was deemed by some the most capable NT Greek scholar in the English-speaking world. The title? ‘Apocalyptic.’

Discovering ‘Apocalyptic’

I read the table of contents, the bibliography, fanned it to glance at its headings, and then flipped it over. Among the reviews was this statement by the Rev. Dr. Ronald A. Ward:

“Dr. Morris has established a tradition, and it is here maintained: evidence of wide reading, mastery of the sources, the exercise of an independent, critical judgment, courtesy and fairness towards all. Apocalyptic sets out the main points clearly, and will be a great help — especially to young seminarians.”

At ‘seminarians,’ I recalled another of Dr. Ward’s observations: that day in church narthex, he said ‘the vast majority of theology students graduate from seminary having read not a solitary title on apocalyptic literature.’

He might have said that after a lifetime in pridefully ‘pre-mill/pre-trib’ sects, the vast majority of Independent, Fundamental Baptist pastors had yet to hear John’s message. But again, Dr. Ward was ever the gentleman.

Yet for anyone who cares to read them, these few posts recapitulating one chapter in Richard Bauckham’s book hold more perspective than most prophecy ‘experts’ will gain in a lifetime.

Anyone interested in further reading of apocalyptic literature can find a discussion of it here. Oh, and needless to say, I bought Morris’ book.

But you can download it free.

Understanding the Imagery of Revelation Part III

Babylon is Fallen, Apocalyptic Imagery

 

Between Two Errors

Richard Bauckham insists that the letters to the seven churches must be read ‘in the specific social, political, cultural and religious world of their first readers’ if we are to understand their meaning and use them today. Previous posts noted that the rich imagery John uses throughout the book is also very specific to the world of his readers/hearers. On that basis, RB sees two errors to avoid concerning John’s images.

Not timeless symbols

RB sees it as a ‘serious mistake’ to read the imagery as ‘timeless symbols.’ As he says, John’s images ‘relate to the real world’ of his day.

Not Literal Descriptions

But RB also cautions us against reading the imagery too literally or as ‘encoded literal descriptions’ to be rendered into exact people or events. Both of these opposite errors [too symbolic/literal] are to be avoided.

The Right Stroke

Whatever the sources and associations of John’s imagery, they must not be read literally. The images must instead be read for their theological meaning. And they must be read for their power to evoke a faithful, believing response in readers/hearers.

Further Illustration

RB illustrates with the plagues of the seven trumpets [8:6-9:21] and seven bowls [16:1-21]. Noting that the pattern itself contains meaning, he finds the following content in those two series of judgment:

  • The plagues of Egypt
  • The Exodus
  • The fall of Jericho
  • The army of locusts [from Joel]
  • the Sinai theophany [lawgiving?]
  • Contemporary fear of invasion by Parthian calalry
  • Earthquakes [not infrequent in Asia Minor]
  • Possibly the [then recent] eruption of Vesuvius

RB names these not as the whole, but a sampling of the biblical and extra-biblical allusions in those two series of judgments. Then he says:

‘John has taken some of his contemporaries’ worst experiences and worst fears of wars and natural disasters, blown them up to apocalyptic proportions, and cast them in biblically allusive terms. The point is not to predict a sequence of events. The point is to evoke and to explore the meaning of the divine judgment which is impending on the sinful world’ [p. 20].

The Fall of Babylon

That is illustrated in the last of the seven bowl judgments, which is the fall of Babylon. RB points out that in Re 16:17-31, the city is destroyed in an enormous earthquake. And the problem with reading this as a literal depiction of Babylon’s doom? In Re 17:16, Babylon is a whore, ‘stripped, devoured and burned by the beast and the ten kings.’ It is destroyed again.

Then Re 18 continues this image of a city ‘besieged and burned to the ground’ with the pestilence and famine that routinely accompanied the burning of defeated cities. Then RB says this:

‘On the literal level, these images are quite inconsistent with each other, but on the level of theological meaning, conveyed by the allusions to the Old Testament and to contemporary myth, they offer complementary perspectives on the meaning of Babylon’s fall’ [p. 21].

This amounts to saying that Re 16, 17 and 18 overlay image upon image to create a composite picture more complete than any one image alone.

‘The fire of Re 17:16 becomes in chapter 18 the fire of divine judgment’ RB says, the core OT reference for this being Sodom and Gomorrah. He continues:

‘Like an apocalyptic Sodom sunk in the eternal lake of fire and sulfur, Babylon’s smoke ascends for ever [Ge 10:28 cf. Re 14:10-11, 19;20]. The desolation of Babylon as a haunt of desert creatures evokes Old Testament prophetic pictures of the fate of both Edom and Babylon, the two great enemies of the people of God in much of Old Testament prophecy’ [p. 21].

This does not attempt to predict HOW judgment will fall on Rome; but it gives definite theological meaning TO that judgment. In my opinion, it is also a baseline from which to ponder what this imagery suggests about our system of earthly ideology/authority/power/coercion/oppression in our own time and place. In my opinion, we project the Revelation into the future because we would not fare well to do otherwise.

City Destroyed
Saint John did some weird stuff with Babylonian-style imagery. But then so do people today. But every so often, something makes you think…

Understanding the Imagery of Revelation Part II

Unveiling the Imagery of the Revelation

The previous post described Richard Bauckham’s take on the place of imagery in the Roman world, and how John’s literary strategy responded to it to allow believers to see and respond to that world differently. RB sees John use of OT images and allusions as establishing the meaning of the images he uses. This opens up Revelation to see/read it in new ways.

Another Sources of Imagery

In addition to numerous OT allusions, RB explains that John also uses extra-biblical and mythological images known in that day. RB cites Re 12:3-9 as an example. Based on Ge 3:14/Is 27:1, the serpent/dragon is John’s image for the source of evil in the world. But RB notes that this same imagery resonated widely among contemporary readers because it was prominent in pagan mythology and religion as well.

RB illuminates John’s use of the Eastern invasion [Re 9:13-19; 16:12]. The Roman Empire lived in deep, political fear of invasion from the one power that could credibly challenge it: the Parthian Empire. He explains:

[Parthia held] ‘the same kind of overtones of conquest by a cruel and alien civilization which the threat of Russian invasion had for many western Europeans in the period of the Cold War.’

Parthian Empire
‘In 53 BC, Parthia finally demonstrated its strength by crushing the Roman army at Carrhae. 30,000 soldiers were killed or captured, and several legionary standards were lost to the Parthians.’

RB adds that the idea of the kings of the East uniting to invade the Empire with ‘the beast who was and is not and is about to ascend from the bottomless pit’ [Re 17:8], expressed a contemporary myth that a villain/savior figure [Nero] would one day return with the Parthian hordes to destroy Rome.

RB writes:

‘In ways such as these, John’s images echo and play on the facts, the fears, the hopes, the imaginings and the myths of his contemporaries, in order to transmute them into elements of his own Christian prophetic meaning.’

[Observation: efforts to read Revelation as a script for deriving specific prophecies could hardly be more wrong-headed, unless it is to use those ‘prophecies’ as the basis for political decisions in a volatile region of the world].

Understanding the Imagery of Revelation Part I

Understanding the Imagery
OK Judgment Day honesty, folk — what do you think is REALLY happening here…

Understanding the Imagery I

We come to the final section of the first chapter of Richard Bauckham’s ‘Theology of the Revelation.’ This section will require several posts.

In reviewing the first chapter of Richard Bauckham’s, we considered:

— What kind of book is Revelation
— Revelation as a Christian Prophecy:
— Revelation as an Apocalypse:
— Differences from other Apocalypses:
— Revelation as a Circular Letter:

Now we consider:

— Understanding the Imagery:

Symbol Sets in Parody

Having said that John created a symbolic world, RB applies this in some interesting ways. John’s readers were barraged constantly with powerful images that proclaimed Rome’s version of the world. BR says:

‘Civil and religious architecture, iconography, statues, rituals and festivals, even the visual wonder of cleverly engineered ‘miracles’ [cf. Re 13:13-14] in the temples — all provided powerful visual impressions of Roman imperial power and the splendor of pagan religion.’ [p. 17].

In that context, John provides readers with an alternative set of symbols. The intent is to give hearers and readers God’s version of the empire.

Understanding the Imagery
Hey — babe parks butt on seven hills! Suppose these might be the cities to which the letters were written?

The woman of Re 17 gives an example of HOW John’s symbolism works. Hearers recognize her as the goddess Roma, from which the ‘eternal city’ took its name. The epitome of Roman civilization, she was worshiped in temples across Asia. John shows her as a seductive/scheming whore/witch whose obscene wealth comes from her plying her disgusting trade. Re 17 also adds to the mix some hints of the whore/queen, Jezebel.

Insight More Than Prediction

In this way, John’s hearers/readers learn about Rome’s true character — its moral turpitude, and the propagandist illusions [political campaigns?] that believers saw peddled continually in every imperial city. John’s intent was to change perceptions of the empire, and believers’ response to it, and to the issues/struggles/questions the churches faced because of it.

[Read this way, Revelation doesn’t intend to ‘predict’ history before it happens; the intent is to reorient believers into God’s take on our times. In other words, whereas fundamentalists/futurists use the newspapers to interpret the Bible, John intends that people use the Bible to exegete the times and interpret the world!].

Deepening Respect for John’s Work

RB notes that Revelation is awash with OT allusions. They’re everywhere! He also seems to regard Revelation as a kind of theological library. He says that the Revelation:

‘creates a complex network of literary cross-references, parallels [and] contrasts, which inform the meaning of the parts and the whole.’

As RB sees it, these allusions [very precise and very subtle] are critical to reading Revelation. The imagery of Revelation gets it meaning from those OT connections/themes. It is by pondering those images and meditating on their OT roots that Revelation speaks its message to us.

Revelation and Lifelong Study

RB makes another fascinating point. The literary composition of this book is so ‘astonishingly meticulous’ that all the cross-references, parallels, contrasts and connections will not be found on the first or seventh or seventieth reading.’ This means that we will spend the rest of our lives mining the resources of this book.

This is also to say that we are a lifetime learning what it means to live as God’s people in God’s world. And it is to recognize that God is also aware that this is the case. Lastly, RB’s final insight for this post suggests that we can in a sense regard Revelation as a manual for Christian living. And this has potential to open the book for reading in ways so new that it is like discovering another book in the Bible we never knew was there.

In fact, it was there all along. But it has been a closed book for many generations. Thank God — that is now changing!

Revelation as a Circular Letter

An Epistle

RB’s discussion of Revelation as a circular epistle has some important and potentially mind-blowing implications. The writing is dense; much of what RB says here can’t be condensed. So I quote him extensively in this post. It is a lengthy post, but I am passionate about this and don’t know how to do otherwise. Interested parties are encouraged to get this book!


Revelation as an Epistle

Many misreadings of Revelation occur because it is overlooked that this whole work is an epistle, a letter written to then existing churches, and not to some far-off end-time/last-day generation.

While most directly concerning the seven churches, Revelation has interest to a broader audience. 1 Corinthians is very targeted to one church; but we all benefit from that epistle [cf. Col 4:16].

Meet the Seven Churches

John uses a unique strategy in Revelation. The body of his message is for all the churches. But he has very different, very specific introductions for each church. These are the famed ‘seven letters’ to the churches.

Seven Churches OrderThe churches are named in the order a messenger delivering this letter to them from Patmos would most naturally follow.

The churches faced very different problems, and they faced some common problems very differently. Each ‘letter’ is an ‘introduction’ to the whole book, in which Jesus addresses that specific church.

God Sanctions Other ‘Interpretations?’

The Revelation as a whole is a circular letter written to seven churches. But John intended for it to be read from seven different perspectives. [This seems to be to be HUGELY liberating to fundamentalists who are bound so very slavishly to the ‘one’ reading allowed every passage!].

Churches in turn are promised future salvation ‘to him who overcomes!’ This is the call to eschatological [future] battle. But what is victory? What does it mean conquer? The letters don’t explain that; but that is explained in the central chapters of this epistle. Likewise, our eschatological destiny is described at the end of the epistle.

John’s World, Ours, or Both…

John lived under Rome’s worldwide tyranny. He wanted the churches to see how that tyranny related to the issues they faced. He wanted them to see how their struggle on the issues fit in God’s great battle against tyranny, and how it served God’s purpose to establish his kingdom.

RB observes that not all Christians were poor and oppressed by Rome’s tyrannical system. Many were affluent and compromised with it. For them, the judgments described in Revelation came not for consolation but as stern warnings of the danger they incurred. It was not only pagans, but many of John’s hearers/readers were tempted to or actually did worship the beast [as those who listened to Jezebel at Thyatira].

Comfort or warning, the application of Revelation turned on the group to which hearers belonged, and their relationship with Rome’s tyranny. Asia Minor had more churches than seven. But the wealth of perspectives John provided allows all the churches to find analogies in his representative sampling of churches.

POLITICAL CYCLONITE

Thus read, Revelation becomes a devastating critique of much Christian profession. They are not alone, but even some very ‘fundamentalist’ sects uncritically endorse US militarism, war, foreign interventionism, plus domestic repression [law-and-order] and poverty [austerity, wage cuts, medical/benefits cuts, interest rates favoring the wealthy, etc.].

The Revelation identifies that as spiritual alignment with and worship of the powers of Death. We have the means to address the enormous social, economic and political crises besetting nation and world. But we surrender this by pushing the theology of the Revelation into the future. And it is done PRECISELY to allow us to profess Christ AND sell out to the world.

“Come out of her, my people, so that you will not participate in her sins and receive of her plagues’ [Re 18:3-4].