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!

Memorial Day PowerPoints

2014 Memorial Day PPT

Like any cult, a state religion of selective, political piety needs liturgies. They need Holy Days. Memorial Day is a biggie, as is July 4. Patriotic songs are sung, and national doctrines and narratives [Manifest Destiny, American Exceptionalism] are recited. Heroes are celebrated [adoration of the saints]. Political litanies tell what we got wrong [confession]. There are predictions of glories [beatific vision] if we get it right, and prophecies of doom [civic hell] if we don’t. There are exhortations to vote [ballot as political sacrament], calls for more [working class] sacrifice [offerings], and appeals to re-consecrate to national purpose [more chauvinism].

World Liberator or World Dominator
Saved years ago from a Cuban publication.

To help set the spirit for the event, Sharefaith makes available a variety of suitably martial Memorial Day images. Pastors and worship committees use such things to remind us of stuff we won’t forget if we know what’s good for us. For a price, of course.

‘Suitably’ matters. A lot.

Lest we doubt that images seek very specific responses, imagine the uproar if a Memorial Day church service used this as a power point image.

Actually, ‘uproar’ is an understatement. We can reasonably expect that many would up and leave.

Others would offer diatribes. Conceivably, there would be some fist-fights. Certainly some would resign from church councils and boards. Other churches would sever pastoral relations. In some localities, a few bricks [or a Molotov Cocktail] might pass through a parsonage window, driving home the message that pastor needs to leave sooner, not later.

Yet for many in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and other lands where the US military routinely conducts clandestine operations, the ‘Statue of Liberty’ image may be more indicative of their experience. This raises an issue that Christians in the US ought to consider.


Say an Iraqi man wanders into this service. Twelve years ago as a young teen, he lost his parents, siblings, four uncles and nineteen cousins. His admittedly lively birthday party was mistaken for a resistance cell. A US tank shelled his home. It collapsed. He alone survived and came to the US as a refugee.

What is our guest to make of this pageantry? What of the nationalistic hymns, prayers, narratives and other symbols? Attached to the Christian story, might not the riot of all things patriotic obscure the cross and glory of Christ for this guest? Might not this hinder gospel proclamation?

If as Mt 28:18-20 and Re 14:6 imply, the redeemed are from every nation, is not God’s purpose undermined by our unbridled nationalistic fervor? At some point, we must not say that this simply isn’t appropriate?

Ordinarily, the ‘Statue of liberty’ imagery would be equally inappropriate. This is not to say that the church might never have occasion to use it; but in her worship, the church has numerous, ever–appropriate Biblical images — the bread and cup, the basin and towel. A rich history of Christian art — ancient, classical and modern — illustrate every Biblical theme imaginable. Use those in worship.

While Christians should join to sing these songs at parades and picnics, should they be doing so in a church worship service? Do displays of patriotism have a place in Christian worship or should they be reserved for the local minor league baseball stadium?

That’s the rub.

It is just too easy for the church to be co-opted by secular, civic premises and systems of thought. All too easily, we become the ecclesial reflection of the politics of earthly power and glory. That it is an ecclesial reflection of the powers of this age might explain why the church is where it is.

William Barber said:


‘If your Gospel isn’t good news for those who are poor…then it isn’t the Gospel of Jesus.’

This can be extended to include all people. If your Gospel doesn’t visit orphans and widows in distress … if your Gospel isn’t peace to those who are weary of strife … if your Gospel isn’t healing for the sick … if your Gospel isn’t restoration for the broken … if your Gospel isn’t protection for women, strangers and aliens, etc., … then it isn’t the Gospel of Jesus.

Whenever these or any voices are smothered or otherwise silenced, we know that we’re getting it wrong. Whenever our issues come to the fore, we must remember who we are and what we’re doing. Our central confession of faith in Jesus Christ is this:

  • Christ has died.
  • Christ has risen.
  • Christ is coming again.

That confession can never mesh with the ideologies of this world, and we would be wise to question attempts to do so.

It is never an easy task for church to rid herself of the cultural signature that is everywhere about it. It is easy for us to be blind to what this says and does. To us, it is all so normal. But we can address the more blatant displays of our culture — especially where it can cause others to stumble.