Introduction to Revelation
This is a quite incredible book, fascinating but very challenging.
It will be no surprise that I try and steer away from interpreting the imagery in the book as some kind of future prophecies speaking into the last few years of history. To try to interpret the symbols in some literalistic way is to miss the timelessness of the book. I also consider that John saw things, the implications of which were beyond his understanding. This is another example of the trajectory of the NT taking us beyond the text – or at least beyond the expectation of the writer.
Books on Revelation abound a good succinct book in is by
- David Barr Tales of the End. He suggests that the book takes us to the end three times. Each time the literature gets a little more out there.
- Richard Bauckham The Theology of Revelation is full of insight and I would love for him to write a full blown commentary on the book.
- Big commentaries are by David Aune in the word series and by Greg Beale on the Greek text.
- Unveiling Empire by Wes Howard-Brooke and Anthony Gwyther.
Given that the book was read: blessed is the one who reads the book, and was listened to: blessed are those who hear the words, I think it is safe to assume that the book was meant to touch the imagination far more than the intellect. It was designed to impact and call for a response far more than to inform of facts.
It describes itself as an unveiling – it is revealing things as they are. The style used is apocalyptic… We have covered this before – a reminder it is using over the top imagery to inject meaning into events. The satirical political cartoons we find in newspapers is a good current example. We might have a world ruler, for example, drawn as a ventriloquist puppet sitting on the knee of a bank governor. We do not interpret the cartoon literally… We might say such things as ‘He gave to the puppet the power to speak so that all who heard marvelled at his voice and the power to cause laws to be changed…’
We would not be suggesting this is literal and when perhaps the puppet ruler sought to exert his own will later the cartoon imagery might change – we would not be trying to make it all fit together.
The unveiling is of realities. It pulls back the veil to show us the powers within this world, and also the powers in the heavens – how the two interact. Finally, of course, we see how the heavens and the earth are renewed and the distance and contrast between the two are reconciled.
Robert Peston’s book, Who runs Britain?, is not a commentary on revelation, but given the focus on money in the book (we could call both books: ‘Who can buy and sell?’), it makes interesting reading in the light of Revelation. The battle for justice and equity, for self-serving systems to come down are enormous. Our battles truly are not against flesh and blood, but neither are they spiritual in the sense of having nothing to do with the world we live. Both books are an unveiling:
I give some excerpts from Peston:
- At least 150 hedge fund earners earning $40m per annum
- One earned $1.7bn in a year: enough to pay the annual wages of 40,000 US people on typical earnings… or put it another way – earned in one year enough money to see him through the next 40,000 years. Talk about earning enough for the rest of one’s life!
We are in the era of the super-rich… the power that is generated through these people, the ability to shape governments, to strongly influence… the book makes eye-opening reading as to how the super-wealthy shape policies. It is suggested that at least 32 of the billionaire dynasties in the UK have not paid any personal taxes on their wealth. Legal: perhaps. Right? That is another issue all-together. Certainly governments are fearful about seeking to exercise too much authority… indeed the point being raised in both books is: who rules?
So I suggest that both books are involved in an unveiling. One time and geographic bound – today’s situation in the UK. The other timeless and unbounded geographically. One uses facts, names and figures – the other imagery and language that equally tells a story. The type of literature is so different – and we make a mistake to try and make Revelation into something it is not; and we greatly disempower it if we do. By making 666 something future to be avoided makes it almost irrelevant to me today… but to leave it as a powerful imagery challenges my discipleship over that key issue of money.
Some quotes re. money:
Whoever controls the volume of money in our country is absolute master of all industry and commerce…and when you realize that the entire system is very easily controlled, one way or another, by a few powerful men at the top, you will not have to be told how periods of inflation and depression originate. (James A. Garfield, assassinated president of the United States.)
Banking was conceived in iniquity and was born in sin. The bankers own the earth. Take it away from them, but leave them the power to create money, and with the flick of the pen they will create enough deposits to buy it back again. However, take it away from them, and all the great fortunes like mine will disappear and they ought to disappear, for this would be a happier and better world to live in. But, if you wish to remain the slaves of bankers and pay the cost of your own slavery, let them continue to create money. (Sir Josiah Stamp, Director of the Bank of England (appointed 1928), reputed to be the 2nd wealthiest man in England at that time.)
So Revelation is about world government… not just the theory of this, but an unveiling of the battle we are in. Will the throne of God be established on earth, or will the kings of the world, the beasts and Satan establish the throne of darkness.
In ‘good times’ we need Revelation – to give us sight and to help us avoid being deceived; in ‘bad times’ we need Revelation to encourage us so that even if we cannot buy and sell, or even lose our lives that we know this is of eternal significance.
The book of Revelation is complex, full of imagery. The imagery is drawn from two main backgrounds: the Old Testament and contemporary imagery. The extent of the imagery suggests that it is a book intended to grip the imagination. In addressing the imagination the book is intended to shape us rather than we shape the book and dictate what it means. As the book was read out loud it was intended to create for the reader and hearers alike (Rev. 1:3) a rich, meaningful and at times disorienting symbolic world, into which they would enter. The effect of this was to impact their understanding of reality so that it would change their perception of the world they were living in, and how they related to it. My contention is that if we try to understand all the individual parts we will miss out – rather the purpose is to grasp the message as a whole and work from there.
The end times?
We must understand that the term ‘last days’ is a term to describe the era in which we are living in, for ever since Pentecost and the outpouring of the Spirit we are in the last days or end times. We should not then try and make Revelation become a tight prediction of events to happen before the end of the world for if we do we will be in grave danger of missing the message of the book. Further, the problem with that approach is deciding when do the supposed-predictive prophecies begin? Whenever the approach of making the book predictive and chronological is taken we fall foul of ‘this event recorded in this text is about to happen now, and so we are definitely living in the end-times’. We are in the end-times but so were the original readers. They would have heard allusions to their time, as we might to ours, but this does not mean that John was predicting certain specific events.
[There is a way round the problem that is to do what Dispensationalism does and make chapter 4 onward all part of the future: when the church is no longer on the earth having been raptured from it to safety. A primary aspect of the book is that what was written would have made made sense to the hearers, and it would have impacted them. If it made sense to them it can be relevant for us and impact us in our setting.]
I maintain that it is not primarily a predictive book, it is a book that both challenges and provokes faith. It challenges and provokes faith as it is set in the context of following Jesus in a hostile environment: that of first century Roman Imperial life.
It is called a revelation (of Jesus). It is meant to reveal or unveil things not confuse. The unveiling is both by Jesus and of him in the sense that it unveils the reality that has come to birth through his death and resurrection. The implication is then for us to work out: are we living in the light of that unveiling or in the light (perhaps better to suggest, darkness) of the veil that the Empire has cast?
We will enter a world of signs and symbols, for even in 1:1 the angel came to John to make the revelation known. The word used here is signified – to use sign language.