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!

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.

God’s Attributes, God’s Image, Non-IFB Spirituality

We are God's Image

‘…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling [Philippians 2:12].

‘The Message translates it as “reverent and sensitive before God.” I think that sounds much more gentle.’

Dear First time caller:

I think your reading of Phil 2:12 arises from God’s image, which you are. We are God’s image; but we don’t all image God the same way. Each of us images God uniquely. As I unpack this, I hope it will be for you a window to gain perspective on HOW we can read Scripture with ‘new eyes.’

God’s Attributes, God’s Image

A list of God’s attributes will include such things as God’s perfection, love, holiness, faithfulness, goodness, justice, mercy, grace, truth, wisdom and power, etc. But some attributes we recognize also as traits in others — traits by which they reflect God’s attributes. We’ve all heard things like:

Mary finds faith so easy — nothing seems to shake her! John is so persevering – for all he’s faced, he just keeps plowing! Amy is so gracious — she can put herself at anyone’s disposal in an instant and never resents it! Bill is so giving — he would hand the shirt off his back to the stranger who just cussed him!

Some call this ‘spiritual giftedness.’ Perhaps it is; but this is also how we uniquely image God’s character. One has the wisdom/insight to navigate a minefield of logical traps and linguistic chicaneries. Another can declare truth prophetically to the nation. Dietrich Bonhoeffer comes to mind.

No one reveals all God’s attributes; no one reveals any attribute in all its glory. Jesus Christ alone is ‘the exact representation’ of God’s being. We are smaller, much dimmer reflections of God’s being. But we do reflect God’s glory by virtue of our being God’s image.

Attributes as an Interpretative Aid

If with our spiritual makeup/gifts/calling we uniquely image God, how could this NOT also inform and shape our reading of Scripture?

When you said, ‘I think that [reverent and sensitive before God] sounds much more gentle,’ you read Scripture through the lens of God’s gentleness. In other words, God’s Spirit IS leading you already…just as promised.

Can God’s gentleness guide us to spiritual understanding? Can it lead us into practices that honor God, that imitate Christ, that bring grace to our communities? Can God’s gentleness teach us to discern how God is with us, leads us, deals with and saves us? Can God’s gentleness function as a lens by which to read Scripture with new eyes? Those questions require another post! But several more points before closing this installment.

Why all this Matters

  1. Why turn to ‘gentleness’ as a possible, preferred reading of Phil 2:12? Perhaps I’m wrong, First time caller, but I think the likelihood is good that you did so because THAT is how God made you. If you met your Christian friends and all discussed what they see in each other, I suspect that you’d be nominated for the ‘gentleness’ award.
  2. If I’m off the mark and some other aspect of God’s nature more naturally quickens your faith, THAT attribute can also aid spiritual understanding and function as a key to reading Scripture with ‘new eyes.’
  3. Evangelical and Fundamentalist sects are overpowered by a tendency to elevate a few aspects of God’s nature above all others. God’s goodness, mercy, kindness, loving-kindness are mentioned as a point of orthodoxy. These are quickly set aside. Then God’s rage, authority, judgment and a few more fill the whole picture. These define how God is perceived. These become the starting point for their initiates’ relationship with God.
  4. Beyond teaching us to think about God in distorted and unhealthy ways, such ‘theology’ fosters extreme spiritual debilitation. It also means IFB members have little opportunity to relate to God or to reflect the aspect[s] of God’s character for which God primarily made them.

An Alternative to IFB Sects

Such an environment does not support spiritual growth. It does not aid believers to read Scripture through ‘new eyes.’ It is no surprise that IFB sects come to regard ‘maturity’ as church busyness — drive the bus, teach church school, sing in choir, go witnessing, lead the youth group, etc. Nor is it any surprise that ‘knowing the Bible’ means little more than being able to cite the stock passages on any given IFB line.

But once God’s attributes and God’s image are recognized as a key for spiritual growth and reading Scripture, a world of possibilities opens to us. We can now study passages from the perspective of any number of attributes of God. We can study passages to discern which aspects of God’s nature seem most at work in a passage. And we can ask what it means for us to reflect that aspect of God’s character from the text in our lives.