What did the Book of Revelation ever do for us?

I am very pleased to announce that my commentary on the Book of Revelation has been published by IVP, and to celebrate there will be a book launch and public lecture on Thursday April 19th at Christ Church, Chilwell, with discounted signed copies of the commentary available for purchase. To whet your appetite, I include below an extract from the very end of the commentary.


We live in challenging times, where both the church and historic Christian faith feel increasingly marginalised in our culture. Outside the church, the rise of extremism encourages a suspicion of all religious traditions. Within the church, there seems to be a loss of confidence and a loss of understanding of our own traditions and an increasing illiteracy of our own Scriptures.

But the challenge of reading Revelation well tackles many of the challenges that we face. The book itself is the most developed example of a scriptural writer wrestling with the ideological implications of the gospel, engaging with an opposing system in the light of what God has done in Jesus. As an apocalypse (revelation), a prophecy and a letter it offers unique insights into what it means to be God’s pilgrim people. And the challenge of reading it well forces us to address questions of violence, justice, extremism, and our own understanding of the Christian Scriptures.

This evening event will include a public lecture by Ian Paul on why Revelation is the book for our times, followed by a question and answer session and the launch of Ian’s new commentary on Revelation published by IVP.

Signed copies of the book will be available at a discount of £3.00 (£12.99 compared with the published price of £15.99).


Schedule

7.30 pm Welcome

7.35 pm Public lecture: Why Revelation is the book for our times

8.20 pm Question and answer session on the Book of Revelation

8.45 pm Book signing


Entrance to the event is free, but in order to know numbers it would help me if you could register on the booking page here.


Introduction to 22.6–21

Although the chapter division falls five verses earlier, it is clear that the first five verses of Rev. 22 belong to the vision formed the bulk of Rev. 21, not least because of the repetition of ‘and he showed me’ in 22:1. The final words of 22:5 draw this final vision together with a series of affirmations and negations (‘no longer…they will see him…no more night…’) reaching a climax in promise that ‘they will reign for ever and ever’.

The focus now turns from the content of what John has seen and heard to what he has written to communicate this to others. There is a fascinating shift of emphasis: what matters is not John’s revelatory experience, nor the content of his visions and auditions themselves, but the words he has used to describe them. It is these very words that are the prophetic gift from Jesus, suggesting to John’s audience that it is to the words themselves that they must attend. Repeated focus on the importance of these words is interweaved with repeated promises and warnings – warnings to those who tamper with these words, and who fail to heed the call to repentance, and promises both to those keep (that is, both preserve and act on) the words John has written, and to those who accept the invitation of the free offer of life. In this way, John is closely identifying what he has written with the very words of Jesus himself; to receive this book (rightly understood) is to receive the good news.


The shape of verses 16 to 21 bear a remarkable resemblance to the final verses in Paul’s first letter to Corinth, where he appears to take the pen from his amanuensis to add final greetings in his own hand (which seems to be his habit), 1 Cor. 16:21–23:

I, Paul write this greeting I, Jesus…bear witness…
Let anyone be accursed… If anyone adds…God will add to the plagues…
Our Lord, come! Come, Lord Jesus!
The grace of the lord Jesus be with you The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all

In terms of the narrative form of the text, John is claiming that Jesus is the real author, not just of the visions that John has seen, but in his prophetic testimony to all he has ‘heard and seen’. It is not just the vision and auditions themselves, but John’s record of them which have the apostolic authority that comes from being an eyewitness to Jesus. The solemn warnings in vv. 18–19 confirm the importance of the exact words which John has written.

The articulation of Jesus’ name, his affirmation of his testimony and the confirmation of his titles all conform to the usual practice of witnesses confirming the reliability of the account they are authenticating. The you to whom the message is sent is plural; this is unlikely to be the ‘angels of the assemblies’ in Rev. 2–3, since they do not feature again, nor the members of the assemblies themselves, since the message is to be passed on to them. It perhaps refers to John’s ‘fellow prophets’ alluded to in 11:8; 16:6; 22:6, and those who ‘read aloud’ the message (1:3). The title root of David, repeated from 5:5, affirms his identity as the David messiah, and being the morning star suggests both Jewish messianic hope and Roman ideas of a divine ruler (see comment on 2:28).

John’s prophetic, visionary letter concludes with multiple affirmations which echo the rhetorical effect of the pattern of the praise and acclamation of all creation. John’s audience are not a small and insignificant group surviving within the crushing power of a human empire, but are joined by the Spirit of God in their longing to see Jesus come take up his just and holy rule. Despite the seriousness of the consequences of those outside the city, the generous invitation remains open, for all who are thirsty to come and take the free gift of the water of life. Whatever else the Book of Revelation says, it remains essentially a book that communicates a message of grace for those who will receive it. Amen.

Theology

And so John ends where he has begun—signing off using epistolary features that match the epistolary features in chapter 1. His emphasis is not on his own revelatory experience, but the very words he has used to describe them—and, surprisingly, it is not just his visions that come from Jesus, but the words themselves. John is claiming that it is Jesus himself—the origin and the subject of this ‘revelation’ in 1:1—who is the real author of this message, and that John is merely his visionary-prophetic amanunensis, passing on to others what has been passed on to him.

What more can we add as we reach the end of this extraordinary prophetic-revelatory letter? The vividness of its images, the power of its rhetoric, the depth of its theological reflection and the continued relevance of its message has made it the most influential text in all human history.

Like the tracks coming into a central railway station in a capital city, all the lines of theological thought from earlier in the book converge in these last chapters and the climactic vision of the eschatological presence of God with his people. Because John has been drawing on the whole range of the Old Testament canon, there is a powerful sense in which the end of Revelation also draws together all the hopes and aspirations of the people of God from the long history of his dealings with his people – and in doing so, all the hopes and aspirations of humanity itself. It is a fitting end to the canon of Scripture. Here we find the rediscovery of the idyll of Eden, though transformed from a garden into a city; here are realized both the promise to Noah for the renewal of the earth and the promise to Abraham that his offspring will be beyond counting. We enter here the final freedom from the slavery of sin, a city that fulfils every promise of the Promised Land. It is occupied by a holy people under the rule of a just and holy God, free from threat and danger. The exile of sin and rebellion which led to estrangement from God has finally come to an end, and all God’s people have found their home. All this has come about because of the sacrifice of the lamb on the throne – the faithful witness of the man Jesus in whom the fullness of the Godhead dwelled bodily (Col. 2:9).

Yet the final verses remind us of the beginning – that this message does not float free from human history but was given to a particular person, at a particular time and in a particular place, and was given to transform the particular lives of those who first read it and heard it read. And we need to read it, the message of Jesus to the assemblies in Asia conveyed through John, knowing something about their own particular circumstances, so that we can understand how this transcendent vision of hope and faith might transform the particulars of our time, place and culture as we wait with them for God’s promises finally to be fulfilled.


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12 thoughts on “What did the Book of Revelation ever do for us?”

  1. I do so agree. He set no limits on the specific hopes and prophecies that were now (within the programme he lays out) to be fulfilled. The entire Word of God was his scope. To my mind this suggests that the magnitude of the events and times he lived through encouraged that thought. This was ”*the* time” when the threads were to be drawn together. (Besides, he would not have been the only one keen to see the big unified picture of how the different prophetic hopes and expectations fitted together.) He was, in any case, an irredeemably holistic thinker: a very good thing to be.

    • I am not sure about Kindle editions; if IVP publish in Kindle, then I guess so (and I’d be surprised if they didn’t).

      I have not written at all in response to Morris, but I think there will be substantial differences. Morris was not a Revelation specialist, and in particular was not attuned (as far as I can tell) to issues of the use of language, which I have argued are really key to understanding Revelation.

      Moreover, there have been huge changes and developments in Revelation scholarship since then. Other than questions of language, the two big developments are the attention to structure and wording, influenced by the work of Richard Bauckham, and the massive growth in interest in ‘material culture’ influenced by Steven Friesen and others. There has also been a big growth in interest and understanding of the imperial cult and the way it shaped perceptions of those living in the first century.

      These mean that we have a much better idea of the text itself and its complexity, but also the rhetorical impact it would have had for those first reading it. Does that all make sense?

  2. Thanks, Ian. I appreciate your comparison with Morris.

    It looks like, if Amazon/US is a reliable guide, IVP published Morris’ volume in Kindle format only in 2015, which isn’t too long ago. Your work on the blog is important, and Kindle makes it a great way to gain access to your work.

  3. Very many congratulations on the publication of your new work on the book of Revelation. I look forward to reading it and using it in my teaching and studies.

  4. “John is closely identifying what he has written with the very words of Jesus himself; to receive this book (rightly understood) is to receive the good news.”

    Which bit is the “good news”, that all the good guys escape or that God kills everyone he doesn’t like, violence being the only answer in the end, as terrorists everywhere agree? Please don’t take this question as flippant, I assure you it is most serious and the answer to it of deep theological significance. If God is violence then that seems to mandate violence (the “right kind,” of course).

    I wonder how this squares with a Jesus quoted as saying, “When someone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other as well”? The Jesus that appears in John’s visions is, to my mind, utterly incompatible with the one of the synoptic gospels. And so I wonder if your book makes any attempt to square that circle or if it just assumes they are the same person. I shall be interested to find out. The persecuted Christian, as many Roman Christians were, does say some very strange things, such as imagining God as a rampaging warlord killing to left and right. Its not a very good look, is it?

    I wonder, have you read “Revolting Revelations”, an essay by my own teacher in biblical studies, Stephen D. Moore, or the book by his Irish compatriot, John Dominic Crossan, “How to Read the Bible and Still Be a Christian: Struggling with Divine Violence from Genesis Through Revelation”? Neither, I think, are so keen on the notion of a violent God and both ask what it means for us to authenticate such an idea. I hope you have too.

    • Andrew, thanks for this interesting question, which I have thought about long and hard. (I hope to get to responding to your other, longer, comments in due course).

      I am familiar with Stephen Moore’s writings, and have in front of me his collection of essays ‘Untold Tales’ which includes the essay you mention. The difficulty I have with Stephen’s approach, as with others who come to the text with a strong ideological agenda, is that the ideological lens with which he reads the text distorts it and (ironically) often literalises it in the process. So, in his chapter on ‘Raping Rome’ I don’t think he notes the fact that that is not what the text itself actually describes. I don’t question some of his acute observations about the text, such as Jesus having ‘mastoi’ or breasts in chapter 1 (p 149) but it is a literalising reading to then suggest that Jesus is ‘gender-bending’. Of course Jesus is an ‘anthropos’ here rather than an ‘aner’ since, as elsewhere in the NT he is the ideal human being, rather than the ideal male man.

      (As with other ideological readers, Stephen comes with a seriously antagonistic ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’ without a corresponding ‘hermeneutic of retrieval’. He does not appear to have any empathy for the text, and texts, like people (since texts are written by people) will be misunderstood without a degree of empathy in their readers.)

      On the particular question of violence, there has been much academic ink spilt, including at one end of the spectrum Mark Bredin’s non-violent reading, and more questioning Steve Moyise’ ‘Does the Lion lie down with the lamb?’ To answer the question, there are several things to explore about Revelation’s imagery.

      First, there is no doubt that violent imagery is used as the vehicles for Revelation’s metaphorical symbolisation. But a primary question here is: to what extent do violent vehicles in metaphor carry over into violent tenors? If I say ‘England thumped New Zealand in the test match’ is that a violent claim? There is no doubt that ‘thump’ is a violent term used as a vehicle to describe a clear victory—but is there any actual violence implied?

      Secondly, taking seriously Revelation’s use of time, the violence expressed in the series of seals and trumpets would be understood by John’s readers as violence in the world they lived, not a series of violent judgements to be unleashed by God in an end-times orgy of destruction. God is clearly identified as sovereign over this violent world—but the alternative to this is not a non-violent world, but a violent world which was *not* under God’s sovereignty. This does not solve the problem of violence.

      Thirdly, it is rather important to notice that much of the violence is done to God’s people, and to the lamb (‘standing as though slain’). Moyise argues that this does not undo all the violence in the text—but it must be allowed to bear its full weight. This is connected to perhaps the most important observation about the effect of the text: most commentators would agree that Revelation (like Daniel) is pressing for a quietist ethic, in which violence is met with non-violent resistance. Some modern readings deny this, but only by ignoring key parts of the text.

      Fourth, the response encouraged is therefore: ‘In the face of violent opposition, resist to the point of death knowing that God is your true judge and judgment over your opponents belongs to him, and not you’. You might not like this message, but it is in significant continuity with both the gospels and epistles in the NT. The Jesus who turned the other cheek also spoke frequently of judgement, catastrophe, outer darkness and wailing and gnashing of teeth, so Revelation doesn’t actually look much different from the Jesus of the gospels.

      Fifthly, at its point of sharpest violence, Revelation actually averts its gaze in a way that I think Stephen Moore fails to attend to. So in Rev 19, there is no actual account of the battle that is given such a great build up—which from a narrative point of view is rather surprising. Likewise, the text of Revelation supports none of the gloating of hell and punishment which developed in mediaeval thinking—such spectacle simply isn’t there.

      There is more to be said—but without at least these five things noted (and many critics of Revelation fail to note them) the question of Revelation’s violent imagery cannot be explored properly.

      • Thank you for your answer Ian which I shall mull over. I would just like to make one point though about Stephen Moore and what you, I think idiosyncratically, refer to as his “ideological” readings. I sat in classes given by Moore in Sheffield in the late 90s over three years. He is why I retain an interest in the bible 20 years later, although I have no external reason for such an interest anymore, and why I did PhD studies on the subject of the historical Jesus even after he left Sheffield in 1999 and went back to work in the USA. In those years, and in his work both before and since, I never got the sense that he was reading the bible in a way any more “ideological” than you have in any of the many blog articles I have read here on your site written by your good self. It seems to me that your use of this term more encompasses biblical readings (which were many more when the Sheffield Department of Biblical Studies existed) which you regard as contrary to either some imagined original intention or faith-based imperative. In which case Moore is of course guilty. And I would be too. The question is whether we are mandated (by what?) to read “with empathy” for the text or even “in sympathy” with it. My own formation in biblical studies, which began with extension studies courses through St John’s College in Nottingham (reading several Grove Booklets) and continued in undergraduate and postgraduate work in Sheffield, has taught me that that is definitely NOT the case and, often but not always, that it would actually be immoral to do. Revelation, it could be argued, is a prime example of the latter.

        What I think Moore does, as did many of the Sheffield faculty over many years, is regard the bible is an in-print book in the modern world and thus as texts to use in interacting with that world and to be read in relationship with its issues and concerns. (David Clines, the former head of department, was very hot on this.) In a world of faith-based violence, for example, it thus becomes very important what we go along with and what we oppose. And, for avoidance of doubt, yes I do think we readers can take up a stance of opposition to biblical texts or their contents. It is people like Moore, who do such things from given stand points such as the postcolonial or from gendered positions, who can then argue for things other than a “falling into line” with whatever you think the specific given text wants you to think. The case has not been made that the bible is always right in whatever it thinks (or, worse, is said to think) and its certainly not a case that I as a biblical reader of over 40 years standing would endorse. I cannot but help that think it is a very important thing to actually critique and criticise the text rather than merely (and as an accomplice to it) claim to merely be explaining it. Such, I think, is the legacy of Moore and Moore power to his elbow I say.

        • Derrida, despite his fame, was turned down for an honorary degree by Cambridge for a reason. The reason cited in the dons’ letter was not that he was difficult to understand, but the lack of substance found by those who did understand. Moore was influenced by Derrida, and came up with things like associating the Greek word ‘gar’ with the idea of a ‘gap’ because a rho looks like a p. The separation from the Christ of his youth which Moore speaks about sounds like the splitting of Siamese twins, something that would run extraordinarily deep psychologically. His oeuvre often concentrates on mocking culture-bound ideas of God and Christ. I am sure that the separation was intensely painful, and as intense as was the pain, so great was the wrongness or mistakenness of this step. My recommendation for anyone would be to return to Christ (the real Christ, not any cultural parodies), since that is the path of peace itself (including peace within oneself).

          • Christopher, thank you for your reply which has only just come to my attention. I searched in vain for where I had mentioned Derrida but then I saw you introduced him merely as a means to attack my former teacher, who I have met and discussed the bible with on many occasions, and whom, I am sure, you have not. Neither Stephen Moore nor Jacques Derrida need me to defend them, however, and so I won’t bother to. I would note in passing though that when Cambridge voted on Derrida’s honorary degree the motion was passed by 336 votes to 204 with only a few shrill conservatives vociferously putting their name to objections which amounted to “I don’t understand what he is saying or why it is important.” As to my former teacher, I always found him to be a genuinely interesting and sincere thinker who encouraged all his students to be the same regardless of if he agreed with them or not. Would that more who discussed the bible were of the same ilk.

            PS One takeaway from a serious engagement with Derrida is the realisation that the fiction “real Christ” is philosophically silly.

            Peace be upon you.

  5. Ian. Another ground-breaking perspective on eschatology in general with huge implications for understanding the book of Revelation is Adrio Konig’s ‘The Eclipse
    Of Christ in Eschatology’
    Do you know this? It lays to rest all “millennial” theories (permanently I hope) and in my view answers many other arguable questions which studies of this book seem unnecessarily to generate.
    The best comment I know – relatively short, very readable, and most important places the person of Christ at the very centre of the book about him!

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