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!

The Revelation as a Christian Prophecy

Exploring Prophecy

Revelation is ‘an apocalyptic prophecy in the form of a circular letter to seven churches in the Roman province of Asia.’ RB, Theology of the Revelation, p. 2.

That is the simplified take on ‘what kind of book is Revelation,’ The first division in chapter one of Richard Bauckham’s ‘Theology of the Book of Revelation.’ The remaining first chapter sections are as follows.

— Revelation as a Christian Prophecy:
— Revelation as an Apocalypse:
— Differences from other Apocalypses:
— Revelation as a Circular Letter:
— Understanding the Imagery:

Revelation as a Christian Prophecy

Among the points RB makes here are these:

  • Early Christian prophets communicated their revelations to the churches [Ac 10:9-11:18]. John was a prophet, and Revelation was his vision report.
  • John had an extraordinary vision. He also reflected on it deeply for a long time. The form of Revelation is astonishingly complex.

[Note: This opens room for theological purpose and author personality, factors usually reserved for other authors. This seems to open a new factor in our reading/understanding of the Revelation of Jesus Christ].

  • John wrote as a Jew in OT prophetic tradition. His commission was patterned after Ezekiel’s prophetic commission [Ezkl 2:9-3:3 cf. Re 10:8-11]. But John was also a Christian prophet, led by the Spirit [Re 1:10].
  • As a prophet himself, John need not rely on OT prophets. But he alludes to them numerous times [though he never quotes them].
  • In his prophetic work, John refers to earlier OT writings, just as later prophets borrowed from former prophets.
  • John is therefore able to reinterpret the prophets and use their work to serve his own, Spirit-shaped purposes as a Christian prophet.

Reading Prophecy

Lastly, RB makes an intriguing point regarding the oracle against Babylon in Re 18:1-19:8. He says that the oracular prophesy of Re 18-19 ‘echoes’ OT oracles against Babylon [Is 13:1-14:23; 21:1-10, 47; Je 25:12-38, 50:1], plus two oracles against Tyre [Is 23; Ezek 26-28].

If John borrows from multiple authors speaking to several situations, a large question mark hangs over any prophecy ‘expert’ who flatly ties an OT statement to a text in Revelation. That there are several hundred allusions to the OT but not one single OT quote is also reason for caution.

Reading Scripture Sanely

Caution is exactly what is needed in broaching such a book. It is also what is so lacking in Fundamentalist and Evangelical treatments of Revelation and other Scriptures. So again, it isn’t that one doesn’t necessarily believe the book of Revelation. It’s that the theology is sufficiently important that it must be done well. That’s the rub.