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…

When Rapture Doesn’t Cut It — Options?

Harry Ironside, on Revelation
Charts. Can you be an Independent, Fundamental Baptist without them?

OR…

revelation-jesus-wins-the-end-banner

A reader question concerning the book of Revelation prompts this post. Likely, it will turn into several posts. But then, many IFB churches have multiple sermons on ‘last things’ at least twice a year.

The Rapture of it All

The top chart sums the only way most IFBs read the Revelation. There are many variations, but that chart and others like it are generally true to the interpretive system known as dispensational pre-millennialism. If you were raised or have spent any time in the Fundamentalist sect, you are aware of this system. To those steeped in it, the second graphic, Jesus wins, seems not at all like an interpretation of the Revelation.

I claim no special expertise here. There are many things I don’t know. I do have my own thoughts on some things. I have seen amazement, outright anger and everything between them when pet views were questioned. I have also seen those responses because people found it outrageous that for being in church all their lives, no one told them that the Revelation can be read very differently and still be faithful to Jesus. Enough prolegomena.


As a young man [about 20], I found a one page magazine article for which I no longer remember the author, title or magazine. What I do remember is how the writer approached the book of Revelation. The more I learned over the years, the more impressed I became with that article.

It said we all read the Revelation through one of four, interpretative systems. All four systems finds some evidence from the text itself. Each system has strengths and weaknesses. No system accounts for all the Biblical data. More recently, some internet articles explore the option of taking some features from several interpretative systems. I don’t doubt that this can be helpful. Yet I still find one that works best for me.

‘Time’ to Meet our Options

The four interpretative systems by which we read Revelation are:

  • Preterism
  • Futurism
  • Continuo-Historical
  • Ideal

One way of thinking about them is with reference to ‘time.’

Preterism

Preterism — past time: The preterist system sees the Revelation the way we read Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Joshua, Judges, Ezra and the Kings. Preterists find the letters to the churches and say, ‘hey — we know those churches from church history!’ They conclude that this is primarily a book about history. That shapes the way they approach this whole book.

Preterism is held in two forms: one form, ‘full’ or ‘consistent’ preterism is deemed heretical in many parts of the church. ‘Partial’ preterism has been held by those whose faith commitment is not questioned, except perhaps by IFBs who sometimes extend little hope of grace outside IFBdom.

Futurism

Futurism — future time: The futurist system looks at the Revelation and shakes its head at preterism. ‘There’s a boatload of stuff here that we’ve never seen at any time.’ And the book calls itself a prophecy, and speaks to us of things that must yet be. This book is like Ezekiel, Daniel, Obadiah, Amos, Micah, Malachi and others. This shapes how they read Revelation.

Continuo-Historical

Continuo-Historical — time overview: This view has definite similarities to dispensationalism, which is a Futurist system. But it reads Revelation more as an overview of time between the first and second advents. So the name explains the idea well. Here, the letters to the seven churches are said to refer to specific periods in church history. We are now said to be in the Laodician age, marked by laxity/compromise/cultural_conformity, etc.

church-age-timeline, Continuo-Historical View

It is probably fair to say that many dispensationalists hold a hybrid of Futurism and Continuo-Historical thought. I have also heard this system taught by an old Wesleyan pastor who made the point that the letters seem to serve as an introduction, since we keep meeting the same issues in the main body of the Revelation that we see in these letters.

This approach to Revelation attempts to apply the contents of the book across the ‘church age.’ This is better than relegating the book mainly to the past, or projecting it into the future. A downside to this view is that it is necessary to make church history ‘fit’ the pre-defined church eras. As time continues, boundaries where eras end or begin may need change.

Ideal

Ideal — time-less: This interpretive system relates not to time so much as theme. Here, all the material John used was rooted in the then known world. But the meaning/message that material and images convey are not limited to that time or to any time. The message transcends time and is in a sense, time-less. It is not a book of ‘principles’ by which to live; but it does help us understand our place in and interpret our relationship with/to the world. It also redirects our imaginative response to the world around us from the perspective of God’s throne room.

From what I’ve said in the past, it should be evident that I see myself in the ‘Ideal’ school of thought on the book of Revelation. More can be said, but that must wait for another time. This time, I wanted only to set out the basic options. When questions arise in the future, I can refer to it.

Dispensational Blues

Dispensationalism in Blue

A Fundamental Necessity

Remember when dispensationalism was guaranteed a ‘pass’ just about wherever it went? For long years, admitting you were not dispensational put you on the same social level as the guy who poisoned the town well.

How could you keep your fundamentalist credentials in good order unless you hosted at least one or two prophecy series a year? And if you wanted to draw crowds and build your church, you’d consider even more series.

A Frightful Development

Then things changed. We know this because dispensationalists admit it. It seems that this is why Dr. Randy White is now inventing something called ‘Dispensational Publishing House.’ He writes:

‘While dispensational theology once had a very strong presence in the United States, today it is often looked upon with disdain and contempt in many evangelical—and most scholarly—circles.’

That’s rather like saying that if someone disagrees with dispensational theology, there’s a good chance they may actually know their onions.

Who are we to argue?

A Frivolous Endeavor

Many have spent their lives hearing sermons, participating in conferences led by guest teachers, listening to tapes, reading books, attending church Bible studies and classes on dispensational these things. Results?

  1. They don’t necessarily mature in their Christian faith because of it.
  2. They still cannot read Revelation without charts and books in hand.

Now good fundamentalists are experiencing Dispensational Blues. Speaking only for myself, I couldn’t be more pleased.