What Kind of Book Is Revelation? Bauckham on Common Misconceptions

In his fantastic little theological commentary on Revelation, Richard Bauckham notes that “Misconceptions of Revelation often begin by misconceiving the kind of book it is” (1). No doubt Bauckham is right: many people think Revelation is a doomsday account of the last days of our planet. Revelation’s confusing symbols, strange characters, and rash of plagues also lead people to stay away from it altogether. This is understandable.

However, we should actually read Revelation as a hopeful book—one that centers on the triune God’s redemption of all things. Revelation 21-22 are some of the most encouraging and inspiring chapters in the Bible because they tell us that one day God will make all things new, eradicating sin and death once and for all.

Bauckham tries to help us understand that there’s much more to Revelation and its place in the Bible’s storyline, noting that it is a book that fits under multiple genres and serves multiple purposes.

1. Revelation Is a Christian Prophecy

John wrote Revelation with a clear self-indentification as a prophet in the line of other biblical prophets. Bauckham points out that John uses OT allusions and language similar to other prophets like Amos and Ezekiel. Also,

“John’s great oracle against Babylon (18:1-19:8) echoes every one of the oracles against Babylon in the Old Testament prophets, as well as the two major oracles against Tyre. It seems that John not only writes in the tradition of Old Testament prophets, but understands himself to be writing at the climax of the tradition, when all the eschatological oracles of the prophets are about to be finally fulfilled, and so he interprets and gathers them up in his own prophetic revelation.” (5)

So Revelation is not just a prophecy book about “end times,” but a book about God’s promises in the past being fulfilled in Christ now and into eternity. This is not dreadful news, but immensely good news, because we know that God has kept his promises.

2. Revelation Is an Apocalypse

When we hear the word “apocalypse,” many of us automatically think of meteors falling from the sky and entire cities being destroyed. Judgment of this sort is certainly a piece of ancient apocalyptic works, but it’s not all they represent. Quoting J.J. Collins, Bauckham says that apocalypses primarily act as disclosure of “a transcendent reality which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial, insofar as it involves another, supernatural world” (6).

In other words, apocalypses are a glimpse not simply into divine judgment, but also a look at final salvation. Yes, Revelation shows that Satan and his followers will be thrown into the “lake of fire” because of their evil. There’s no denying this aspect of the book. But it ultimately shows that good will conquer evil, and that those who follow Christ will be spared from this judgment.

Bauckham also reminds us that Revelation is slightly different than other apocalypses of its day, because it deals with the future and deals with the contemporary issues of its first audience. This makes sense, of course, given that Gods eschatological salvation and victory apply to us now, though they will be fully realized in the future at Christ’s return.

3. Revelation Is a Circular Letter

Flowing from the last point about the setting of the first audience of Revelation, Bauckham rightly says, “Many misreadings of Revelation, especially those which assume that much of the book was not addressed to its first-century readers and could only be understood by later generations, have resulted from neglecting the fact that it is a letter” (12).

When we overlook the fact that this book was written to seven churches in first-century Asia, we miss the situatedness of the letter. This is not to say that Revelation has no meaning for us today—Bauckham makes a good case that the number seven (completion) means that this letter is for all churches in Asia and in every age afterward. However, we cannot see symbols and numbers like 666, for example, and believe they’re only codes to be cracked in some future time. John even says that the original readers can understand some of these symbols in their day.

Revelation, then, isn’t a book about distant events that we can take or leave—it’s actually a book written to Christians in the first century and every other age, encouraging us to fight for right doctrine, stand firm against persecution, and look to the triune God’s mission to redeem all things. Revelation is more than a book about divine judgment and end-times destruction—it’s a book about eternal hope in Christ.

John the Seer vs. Caesar

Screen-Shot-2017-02-25-at-8.51.28-PM-300x299While compiling notes for my dissertation on the Book of Revelation, I came across this note on Revelation 1:16 in Craig Koester’s Revelation commentary:

The section climaxes by noting that [Jesus] holds seven stars in his right hand (Rev 1:16). This cosmic imagery conveys sovereignty. An analogy appears on a coin from Domitian’s reign that depicts the emperor’s deceased son as young Jupiter, sitting on the globe in a posture of world dominion. The coin’s inscription calls him “divine Caesar, son of the emperor Domitian,” and the imagery shows him extending his hands to seven stars in a display of divinity and power. John has already identified Jesus as the ruler of kings on earth (1:5), and the imagery of the seven stars fits the book’s larger context, which contrasts the reign of Christ with that of imperial Rome. (p. 253)

Koester is referring to the coin in the image (above), used in Rome around AD 88-96 during the reign of the brutal Caesar Domitian. Koester’s insights here give us an interesting look at the background of John the Seer’s writing during hostile Roman persecution. It also helps us think about the later date of Revelation’s writing (the end of the first century) versus a potential earlier dating (some say it might’ve been written closer to AD 65). This is enough to chew on a little bit.

But it offers us more than that. This information helps shed light on the theology of Revelation.

First, it serves as an example that much of Revelation’s imagery (beasts, numbers, etc.) is a direct shot at the Roman empire. Many believe (and I’m largely convinced) that Revelation is written during intense Roman persecution and this letter was first written to encourage the church during that time. However, as a non-preterist, I believe portions of the letter are speaking of future events—i,e., Jesus hasn’t come back yet; the New Jerusalem isn’t here yet; etc. In any event, this note might help us better understand the anti-imperial leanings of John.

Second, it shows us how high John’s Christology was. He’s not merely putting Jesus on par with some exalted or glorified person. Rather, he’s portraying Jesus as divine—specifically pitting Jesus’s true divine sovereignty against the supposed divine sovereignty of the Roman emperorship. Roman caesars liked to pretend to be gods, but John is reminding them and us that there’s only one true God. Jupiter is seated on the world with stars hovering around him? Ha! Jesus created the world and clutches the stars in his hand.

As I argue in my dissertation and elsewhere, John explicitly and purposely ties Jesus into the divine identity of YHWH, and this little note only adds to the case.

Stages of Development in Early Trinitarian Theology

The first chapter of my dissertation deals with the usefulness of Revelation for Trinitarian theology, with some of the major Church Fathers as part of my justification. So, over the past few weeks, I’ve been reading the early church’s use of the Book of Revelation in their discussions on the divinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

As I’ve been working through the development of early Trinitarianism, I’ve identified what I consider three stages of development:

1. Incipient Trinitarianism (ca. AD 30-96)

This stage of Trinitarianism is the most infantile, basic, and messy. This stage happened between the resurrection of Jesus and the end of the writings of the biblical canon. In the case of John or Paul, for example, the language for the Trinitarian persons is not systematized or always terminologically consistent. However, the biblical writers clearly understood that their view of monotheism needed to be reimagined in light of Jesus’s resurrection and the sending of the Holy Spirit. This can be seen in biblical authors’ tying Jesus and the Spirit to the identity of YHWH in the OT through titles, exegesis of passages, doxologies, and logical explanations. See, for example, John 1:1-14; 1 Cor 8:6; 1 Pet 1:2; Rev 1:4-18.

2. Proto-Trinitarianism (ca. AD 96-325)

This stage of Trinitarianism refers to the post-biblical era which stood as a precursor to the Nicene/Nicene-Constantinopolitan creeds. This type of Trinitarianism begins to deal with the ingredients provided by biblical-canonical data. Similar to Incipient Trinitarianism, this is not a fully systematized doctrine of the Trinity, but it is more advanced because writers in the period began to grapple with the ideas of ontology and economy in God’s being. For example, Irenaeus and Origen’s theologies have hints of Trinitarianism, but they’re especially not precise in how God is both one in essence and three in personhood.

3. Nicene-Constantinopolitan Trinitarianism (ca. AD 325-381)

This stage of Trinitarianism is the fully systematized, orthodox version that we confess today. Given the development and diversity of early Christian theologies of the Father, Son, and Spirit, these councils/creeds gave precise language to the biblical data in a way that preserved orthodoxy for the future of the church and weeded out the philosophical hoop-jumping of early heretics.

In an article I published with the Criswell Theological Review, I conflated the terms “incipient” and “proto-” (among other things I’d like to change, but such is publishing life). I like this taxonomy better, given the standard definitions of the terms. This could change one day, too, but this type of framing seems to be a helpful way to categorize the stages of early Trinitarianism.[1]

[1] Michael Bird uses a similar taxonomy, though he applies both the “incipient” and “proto-“ categories to biblical texts in order to demonstrate a level of diversity within the biblical data itself; Cf. Michael F. Bird, Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academic, 2015), 106-13.

Racism Is Hell on Earth

The recent scenes in Charlottesville, Shelbyville, and my hometown of Murfreesboro were examples of real-life, in-your-face hell on earth. As white supremacists marched down the streets with Confederate and Nazi flags, screaming racial slurs and hailing Hitler, we saw the antithesis of heaven’s demography:

You are worthy to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
because you were slaughtered,
and you purchased people
for God by your blood
from every tribe and language
and people and nation.
You made them a kingdom
and priests to our God,
and they will reign on the earth. (Rev. 5:9-10)

The tree of life was on each side of the river, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit every month. The leaves of the tree are for healing the nations, and there will no longer be any curse. (Rev. 22:2-3)

This gathering of nations—from the Greek root word ἔθνος, where we get the word “ethnicity”—is what heaven looks like now, and gives a glimpse New Jerusalem’s eternal population. Eternity will not be white faces marching to destroy colors through the Nazi flag of death. Instead, it will be faces from every single hue being healed by the tree of life. Jesus’s blood has redeemed people from every ethnicity, and every ethnicity is and will be represented in God’s kingdom. In terms of race and culture and nationality, diversity is heavenly; uniformity is hellish.

But this raises the most important question: what should we do about it?

On the one hand, the most important thing has already been done. Ephesians 2 says that God is right now destroying racial and ethnic division through the cross. White supremacists are not original. We’ve seen this sort of evil and hatred throughout American history and the histories of nations throughout the world. They fancy themselves as revolutionaries and heroes, but they are stale, generic villains. The arc of history bends away from them. Their legacy will be summed up in one word: defeat.

On the other hand, this has massive implications for Christians. Matthew 28:18-20 says that we’re called to make disciples of all nations. I used to think of this as merely a call to “evangelism”—telling lost people about Jesus. However, it has become more and more clear to me that this also must be paired with 2 Corinthians 5:11-21: Christians are ministers of reconciliation. This ministry has countless implications, but a clear implication is that making disciples of all nations means breaking down walls of racial and cultural divisions.

As new creations, we are called to mirror eternity in this life. One foundational way to preview eternity is to intentionally seek justice and equality for people of every nation, tribe, and tongue. If there are no walls in eternity, there should be no walls right now.

First, then, we should admit our biases and blindness. As Christians, we are fundamentally called to be humble, teachable, peacemaking, wall-smashing, ministers of reconciliation. So our first instinct should be to listen, not to shut our ears and throw out insults and dismissive platitudes. I can only imagine how much Satan grins at Christians on Twitter shouting “Marxist!” — as though that’s some silver bullet to end all debate — instead of asking questions. If we can’t recognize that systemic issues in our land — a land whose unifying moments (Emancipation Proclamation, desegregation, voting rights, and Affirmative Action) were merely legal concessions and not intrinsically built into our foundation — then we’re just not ready to listen to those who feel the most hurt by it. We don’t have to agree on every nuance or policy or logical conclusion, but there should be a baseline recognition of the obvious historical and ongoing separation in our country. The Christian call to pursue unity isn’t optional. Don’t point the finger; lend an ear.

Second and relatedly, we should put this into action by not huddling up with people like us, waiting on God to sort it out later. That would be easy. Instead, we should fight tooth-and-nail against the temptation to be comfortable and monolithic. The cross of Christ demands that we press on to the point of shed blood to love our brothers and sisters of all races and ethnicities. Our churches should be as diverse or even more diverse than our neighborhoods (imagine Sunday morning at your church being the most diverse gathering in your neighborhood each week!). Our dinner tables should likewise have regular seats filled with those who don’t look like us. As Russell Moore so aptly puts it, in the fight for racial reconciliation, “We’re not getting anywhere if we gather in church with people we’d gather with if Jesus were still dead.” The death and resurrection of Jesus mean that sin and death are dead—taking hatred and division to hell with them.

To my white brothers and sisters: don’t merely post on social media about your frustration about race relations in our country. Don’t let your actions be relegated to hashtags and retweets. True reconciliation happens around dinner tables and in marching lines. True empathy comes not only from watching another iPhone video, but from putting your arms around someone whose skin doesn’t match yours. True friendship comes not from a Twitter follow or a Sunday morning sentiment, but from a lifelong commitment to co-suffering and co-laboring. True love doesn’t happen with a half-hearted apology, but with an open mind to be an active part of the solution.

Though personal relationships are the most important, it would also help to read some books on race by black authors. Let their perspective help shape the narrative for you. For example, read Life and Times of Frederick Douglass by Douglass and United: Captured by God’s Vision for Diversity by Newbell.

Racism is hell on earth. But we as Christians are called to pray for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. You may feel like only one friendship or one conversation is a waste, but it isn’t. Nothing you do in this life is inconsequential. God works through even the smallest steps, however awkward and heavy they may seem. As Dr. King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Make your anywhere count.

Basics for Interpreting the Book of Revelation

I didn’t grow up a Christian, but as soon as I began following Christ and attending a local church, I was almost immediately introduced to the Book of Revelation via the movie Left Behind. Like most Southern Baptist churches in the 90s, we talked a lot about the rapture, the Antichrist, the Tribulation, and miscellaneous details we could supposedly understand by decoding Revelation’s bizarre language and imagery.

Relatedly, I always remember being told I’d spend forever in Heaven, once I was raptured with Jesus and this world was destroyed. When I thought about Revelation, it was mostly wars, meteors, and desolation. Many of you can probably relate. I’m grateful, though, that I’ve been able to study Revelation for many years now, including as a major piece of my dissertation. In my experience, Revelation has been underplayed, under-appreciated, and simply misrepresented.

While there are many ways to approach interpreting Revelation, here are a few basics to consider first.

1. Revelation is not a book about destruction and fear.

Revelation certainly has its destructive elements—bowls of wrath poured out, beasts, the fall of Babylon, etc. However, these elements point to a greater hope, a hope found in God’s justice in his war against sin and death and evil. These sometimes terrifying elements of the book serve to show us that God is making all things new and redeeming the world fractured by the Fall (Rev. 21-22), not that he’s coming for us with a fireball in one hand and a lighting bolt in the other. Revelation has destruction within it, but it isn’t about that. It’s about our hope in the culmination of God’s promises.

2. Revelation is not about escaping Earth.

“This is not my home, I’m just passing through” is a sweet hymn, but it’s wrong. We don’t spend eternity in some far away place in the sky. Rather, we spend eternity right here, on this planet, the way God intended from the beginning (Gen. 1-2). This place is our home, though it’s certainly due for a major renovation. Sin didn’t cause a Plan B in God’s sovereign blueprint. He’s not abandoning his original plan for an Earth sprawling with image-bearers just because we messed things up; no, he will resurrect his people just like he resurrected his Son (1 Cor. 15). Heaven and Earth were joined together in the beginning, and they’ll come back together in the end (Rev. 21-22).

3. Revelation is not merely about future, end-times events.

This is probably the most misunderstood portion of Revelation. To be sure, it is an apocalypse in the sense that it deals with visions, prophecy, judgment and redemption, etc. However, we should remember that the book is also addressed to a specific audience in specific time (Rev. 1-3), and deals with issues that the original audience could understand and apply. It’s safe to say that Rev. 21-22 are about future events that haven’t happened yet, but the rest of the book is debatable. Likely, most of Revelation simultaneously applies both to its original audience and every generation afterward. Many of the allusions to Babylon, an antichrist, etc. can be applied to Rome and the Caesar the original audience knew, while also being representations or types for many generations of worldly kingdoms and rulers.

4. Revelation is not divorced from the rest of the Bible.

The numbers vary depending on who you ask, but most scholars say that Revelation has approximately 600 references or allusions to the Old Testament. In my study of Revelation, I’ve seen these allusions over and over again. Revelation’s author, John, never directly quotes the OT, but there are unmistakable allusions or hat-tips to the OT every few verses. John likely sees himself as a type of prophet, self-consciously telling the story of how Jesus finally fulfills all of the promises and expectations of the prophets, from Daniel to Isaiah to Zechariah to many others. Revelation is very much a capstone to the Bible’s unified storyline, not a freaky add-on to the end.

Intertextuality in Revelation

Today on Twitter (and by today I mean 2 minutes ago) I mentioned that I think there is much work to be done on intertextuality between Revelation and the rest of the New Testament. Because of John’s obvious reliance on the Old Testament, there have been an increasing number of articles and books published on intertextuality between Revelation and the OT. For instance, G. K. Beale in his commentary, as well as in his earlier John’s Use of the Old Testament in Revelation (which has been assimilated into the much larger commentary), notes all kinds of fascinating intertextual connections, but they are largely confined to Revelation’s use of the OT. So far there has been surprisingly little published on how Revelation alludes to other NT books.

Alistair Roberts pointed me to the John-Revelation project, which is a fascinating and compelling textual comparison of the two books, and he also mentioned Peter Leithart’s forthcoming commentary on Revelation as a possible source for this kind of work. In my book I point to a number of textual parallels between Revelation and Hebrews-Jude, and early in the twentieth century R. H. Charles in his ICC volume noted the distinctive connections between John’s Apocalypse and the Gospel of Matthew. But, given Revelation’s status as the canon closer and its relatively late date in comparison with the rest of the NT, we shouldn’t be shocked if there are a plethora of connections between it and the Gospels and Letters. I for one believe this is an area where NT scholars can find hundreds of treasures in a relatively unexplored field.

Aquinas Takes Science to School

Aquinas asks in Question I of the First Part of the Summa Theologica, “Whether Sacred Doctrine is Nobler Than Other Sciences?”

In his first objection he notes that the other sciences (e.g., in modern terms, the hard sciences) “seem to be more certain than sacred doctrine.” This is because faith, the principle of theology, can be doubted, while the principles of the other sciences are certifiable. This type of argument is alive and well today, as scientists, and indeed much of the Western world, see empiricism and rationalism as the only way to verifiable truth. Religion has its place, but it is relegated to interiority, assisting individuals in their quest to feel good about life. This is due in part to science’s claim to an omniscient metanarrative, i.e. that empirical research and presuppositionless logic alone can lead humanity to knowledge of the truth.

Aquinas takes this view to the cleaners in his response, saying,

…this science [theology] surpasses other speculative sciences: in point of greater certitude, because other sciences derive their certitude from the natural light of human reason, which can err, while this derives its certitude from the light certitude from the light of divine knowledge, which cannot be deceived; in point of the higher worth of its subject matter, because this science treats chiefly those things which by their sublimity transcend human reason, while other sciences consider only those things which are within reason’s grasp.

[Nerd] Boom.

Dirk Jongkind on the Syntax of Revelation

Dirk Jongkind has posed some interesting questions about the syntactical construction of Greek prepositions in Revelation. Looking specifically at chapter 4, Jongkind notes,

I was looking at Revelation 4:9 where the text reads τῷ καθημένῳ ἐπὶ τῷ θρόνῳ with the variant ἐπὶ τοῦ θρόνοῦ. . . . In the construction ‘he who sits on the throne’ the case of the prepositional phrase ‘on the throne’ (ἐπί + article + θρόνος) that follows the participle ‘he who sits’ is normally identical to the case of the participle.

So we have ἐπὶ τοὺς θρόνους … καθημένους (4:4); τῷ καθημένῳ ἐπὶ τῷ θρόνῳ (4:9); τοῦ καθημένου ἐπὶ τοῦ θρόνου (4:10).

There are a number of exceptions. With the nominative (ὁ) καθήμενος we find both ἐπὶ τῷ θρόνῳ (21:5) and ἐπὶ τὸν θρόνον (4:2) and with other combinations of κάθημαι ἐπί (e.g. with αὐτός) it doesn’t apply as much. It would be nice if someone could give a good linguistic explanation of this phenomenon.

You can read, and perhaps interact with, the whole post here.