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.

Learning to Read the Revelation

Considering Revelation

Many years ago, and for personal reasons, I was involved in a GARB church for several months. That congregation heard multiple prophecy series. One was on Daniel, another was on the Revelation, and a third was on messianic prophecies from Zechariah. That actually made some sense since it happened in Advent and Christmastide.

In Fundamentalism, sermon series on Bible prophecy are not optional. If your Fundie sect doesn’t have at least two prophecy series annually, your credibility will bleed quickly. But if end-time stuff makes odd preaching at Christmastide, we must acknowledge that it is just as strange for Fundies exploring other traditions to find such a dearth of end-time odysseys. We can forgive them for wondering if we believe anything about last things.

But Bible sects have no exclusive claim on end time belief. People firmly planted in the confessional church believe in Jesus’ second coming, the resurrection of the dead, the consummation of the kingdom, the eternal Sabbath, and more. Perhaps we can play some small part in setting right the record on this. That someone is not pre-millennial or dispensational does not mean that they do not believe anything about last things.

A Guide for a Study

It might be profitable, then, to spend some time on this. I thought I’d try an extended book review to help structure this project. If a Fundie cares for a sane alternative to the pastor’s prophecy series, great! And if this becomes a bore, it can be set aside. Meanwhile, I’ll try a kind of running summary/commentary on the Theology of the Revelation, by Richard Bauckham, Professor of NT studies at St. Andrews University.

Bauckham’s writing is dense. He isn’t for the weak of heart. In just over 160 pages, he crams more information into 7 chapters than one finds in many popular texts. And he doesn’t hold to a traditional view on John’s identity. This doesn’t alter the value of his work; but I mention it in the event that is a ‘deal-breaker’ for anyone thinking of buying a copy.

Learning to Read Revelation

Bauckham devotes his first chapter to the question of HOW to READ the Revelation. This isn’t a matter of a ‘literal’ or ‘spiritual’ interpretation of the text. The question is what kind of a book ‘Revelation’ is.

Is the book of Revelation an apocalypse? ‘Apocalypse’ is translated ‘revelation.’ It implies an unveiling, a making known of what was there all along, but was not seen our understood. The apocalypse [revelation] of Jesus Christ is actually the title of this book and it is used in Re 1:1.

Or, is it a prophecy? Re 1:3 speaks of ‘the words of the prophecy.’

Or, is Revelation an epistle? Re 1:4 declares John to be the author, and addresses the churches in the Roman province of Asia. It includes the formulary benediction [grace to you and peace …] and doxology [to him who loves us and released us from our sins…] that is characteristic of an epistolary work.

Bauckham [RB] opens saying that misinterpretations often arise from misunderstanding what kind of work it is. Is it an apocalypse, a prophecy, or an epistle? I have heard vicious debates on this subject. Perhaps you have heard those as well. This is because answer to that question shape what we expect to find in the book of Revelation. So it matters.

Then RB notes that the Revelation is unique in that it is cast not as one but three literary genres cast in one work. It is an apocalypse. It is a prophecy. It is an epistle. And justice must be done to all three literary genres to read this work seriously.

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.