Converting our Imagination 2

What kind of book is the Book of Revelation?

We perhaps need to make something clear: The decision of what kind of book Revelation is determines how we read it, what we see in it, and what it means for our world today.

Michael Gorman’s new book, Reading Revelation Responsibly: Uncivil Worship and Witness: Following the Lamb into the New Creation., says the book is a hybrid book: it is apocalyptic, it is prophetic, and it is a letter.

What are the top three mistakes made in reading Revelation? Why are we so tempted to make the images so literal? Why the lack of poetic imagination on our part?

How can this book speak to us in the next two years as we get bombarded by political rhetoric, political rhetoric vested with the promise that a party can save the country? How does Revelation teach us to respond to such rhetoric?

The function of Revelation is “to sustain the people of God, especially in times of crisis, particularly evil and oppression.”  He sees the following (and he’s right):

A scathing critique of the oppressors
Passionate exhortations to defiance
Unfailing confidence in God’s ultimate defeat of the present evil.

There are dualisms here: cosmic (two opposing forces at work; think Star Wars), historical (children of God, children of darkness), ethical (choose sides), temporal (now and the Age to Come), and a dispositional dualism: pessimism and optimism.

It is filled with colors (which are images) and numbers (which are adjectives)!

Yet, this book is filled with non-literal images of the real world, and the problem in interpreting is that too many think of the images as real and therefore literal. It depicts real world things with utterly unreal images. It draws on the prophetic literature of the Old Testament in order to comfort and challenge the people of God — at that time.

It’s goal is not speculative foresight but theological insight. It reveals that the Empire will come down, the Lamb will be exalted, and the people of God are to be faithful.

Ultimately, it is resistance literature and it is a pastoral letter to real churches who needed to have their imaginations converted from fear of the Empire to the Victory of the Lamb who will guide us into the Age to Come.

Here is a great text to sample this sort of reading of the book, from Revelation 18:

18:1 After these things I saw another angel, who possessed great authority, coming down out of heaven, and the earth was lit up by his radiance. 18:2 He shouted with a powerful voice:

“Fallen, fallen, is Babylon the great!
She has become a lair for demons,
a haunt for every unclean spirit,
a haunt for every unclean bird,
a haunt for every unclean and detested beast.

18:3 For all the nations have fallen from
the wine of her immoral passion,
and the kings of the earth have committed sexual immorality with her,
and the merchants of the earth have gotten rich from the power of her sensual behavior.”

18:4 Then I heard another voice from heaven saying, “Come out of her, my people, so you will not take part in her sins and so you will not receive her plagues, 18:5 because her sins have piled up all the way to heaven and God has remembered her crimes. 18:6 Repay her the same way she repaid others; pay her back double corresponding to her deeds. In the cup she mixed, mix double the amount for her. 18:7 As much as she exalted herself and lived in sensual luxury, to this extent give her torment and grief because she said to herself, ‘I rule as queen and am no widow; I will never experience grief!’ 18:8 For this reason, she will experience her plagues in a single day: disease, mourning, and famine, and she will be burned down with fire, because the Lord God who judges her is powerful!”

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • normbv

    What kind of book is Revelation? May I suggest that it was written to the first century saints of the Nero persecution during the AD60’s before Jerusalem fell? Instead of applying it to our times as a historical preview it would be good to understand who primarily the great Harlot was in the OT which is the focus here [may I suggest Jerusalem in which was found the blood of the prophets and saints]? There are plenty of good commentaries that place it historically correct and then I believe we are in position to look for the eternal truths that come from it. Otherwise we have the baggage of folks historically applying it to every Pope or leader that comes along in history and completely out of the context of its times.

    The context and application for us is that the Nations have no power over the Saints in Christ Spiritual Kingdom. Jesus told Pilate that if His Kingdom was of this world then His followers would fight for Him but it was not. The Gospel of Christ freed us eternally from the powers and rulers of the darkness.

  • Bob Smallman

    God Wins!

    Apparently two words is too short for Patheos. It rejected my first comment. So I’ll try again:

    The theme of Revelation that transcends every age is, “God Wins!”

  • http://www.ill-legalism.com Rick Presley

    It was written post 70 A.D. to the diaspora of Jews and Christians using motifs common to the plagues of Egypt prior to the Exodus. It also draws heavily from Ezekiel, Daniel, and Zechariah who are Exilic and post-Exilic prophets.

    A strictly futurist view of the book makes it null and void for the nearly 2,000 years of its existence. It was written to the First/Second Century churches and has been a true picture of the cosmic conflict around us since then, including the linch pin of the book, Revelation 11:15 describing the triumph of Christ’s Kingdom over that of this world.

  • Samuel

    Is there any consensus on the dating of this book? There seems to be scholars on both sides (pre AD70 and post AD70). Is it fair to say that the dating of the book is critical in its interpretation? I was reading Stott’s, The Cross of Christ (a classic btw) and he points to a later dating (AD 90ish). He also suggests that a preterist and futurist view of the book are both incorrect.

  • scotmcknight

    Samuel, if there is a consensus it would be a later than 70AD date. One might have a hard time arguing for a preterist view if one dates it later. I find the preterist argument weak at precisely this point: it assumes an early date and knows if a later date is right, the whole thing falls apart.

  • BradK

    “How can this book speak to us in the next two years as we get bombarded by political rhetoric, political rhetoric vested with the promise that a party can save the country? How does Revelation teach us to respond to such rhetoric?”

    What is special about the next two years? Haven’t the last two years been filled with rhetoric vested with the promise that a party can save the country? Haven’t we been bombarded by political rhetoric for the last two years? The last two hundred? Has Revelation been used before in the history of this country to respond to political rhetoric?

  • smcknight

    OK, BradK, you’re being picky. The last two years are past; the next two years, where election campaigning may get even more intense than ever before, is what’s ahead.

    My question is fair enough. What do you think: Does Revelation speak to our involvement in politics?

  • JoeyS

    @ #5 Scot,

    What is frustrating is that there is consensus on a post 70AD date when the evidence isn’t that strong. A vague quote by Irenaeus is hardly enough to go on especially since, from my understanding, a solid textual critique makes the later date difficult to reconcile.

    It is true that the preterist and partial-preterist view falls apart if the later date is true but that isn’t evidence against the earlier date. The same is true for views that rely on the later date, if the earlier one is true then the view falls apart.

    Is there evidence for a later date beyond an isolated quote by Irenaeus? I read recently that Irenaeus may have referred to Revelation as an “ancient text” which would indicate an earlier date – unless he was instead referring to Daniel.

  • JoeyS

    “What do you think: Does Revelation speak to our involvement in politics?”

    I like Darrell Johnson’s response: There is a throne and it is occupied.

    It might be that a Christians involvement in politics/political rhetoric is directly proportional to her understanding of Jesus’ Lordship. I don’t want to prescribe too much about what that means for specific people but I imagine that it should make us all a little hesitant to put all of our eggs (or even most of them) in the basket of politics when we know very well who is King. Is passionate political rhetoric a sign of doubting Jesus as Lord?

  • smcknight

    JoeyS, perhaps the best way to put this is that the date for Revelation is anything but clear. One can poke as many holes in an early date as a late date — leading me to some historical agnosticism on date. Once I admit we can’t be sure of date, we have to be as ambiguous about an interpretation that requires either dating. That fair?

  • JoeyS

    Scot,

    Yeah that is fair. So, providing agnosticism on the date is the best way forward, is our only honest engagement with the text relegated to propositions for church life and politics?

    I guess the reason I want to know the date is because of how our understanding of Revelation impacts the way we view God’s Kingdom – either we wait on it, or we participate in it, or we participate in it while we wait on it. At least one of these seems inadequate, yet is widely accepted.

  • normbv

    It doesn’t seem to make much sense of what is being spoken in Revelation if the Temple and Jerusalem had already been destroyed just a few years earlier than 90AD as indeed transpired. This is especially true since Christ prophesied this occurrence in all three gospels except John who seems to reserve Revelation for his account. Talking about measuring the Temple and the altar but not the outer court of the Gentiles would have little relevance well after the earlier destruction. Rev 11:8 speaks specifically of the city where the Lord was crucified.

    Rev 11:1-2 … “Rise and measure the temple of God and the altar and those who worship there, (2) but do not measure the court outside the temple; leave that out, for it is given over to the nations, and they will trample the holy city for forty-two months.
    8 and their dead bodies will lie in the street of the great city that symbolically is called Sodom and Egypt, where their Lord was crucified.

    Both sides can’t be right so I go with pre AD70 because of the strong internal evidence and the fact that AD70 was the Date of significance to the first century Christians as a fulfillment of Christ prophecy. There are plenty of good books out there that lay out strongly the AD70 dating. Gentry’s book “Before Jerusalem Fell: Dating the Book of Revelation” is a good start for those interested.

  • Richard

    And though we cannot be certain of the date, we can be a little less agnostic in saying that it is a pastoral letter that utilizes apocalyptic language to remind its hearers/readers in that day and this (and everyday in between) that the powers that be and the imperial cult are impostors and that the true king is enthroned and always will be. And it did this rooted in a historic context (I lean towards judgment on Jerusalem and anticipating judgment on Rome) that still allows principles and narratives for today, just like the rest of Scripture.

  • http://www.TheFaithLog.com Jeff Doles

    I’m not sure that the best, or fairest, reading of Revelation is the one that does not require any dating, as if it can be divorced from its historical setting.

    There is a popular case to be made for a later date, but I think there is a very good and extensive case to be made for an early date. Kenneth Gentry does so in Before Jerusalem Fell. I am persuaded by it.

    My position is postmillenial and I see Revelation in a partial-preterist way. I see it coinciding with what Jesus prophecied in Matthew 24 about the great tribulation in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple ~ which happened within a generation of His ministry.

    Revelation reveals the behind-the-scenes warfare and victory of King Jesus in the events that were soon to take place.

    In the final chapters, we see what the end result will be, the completion of God’s purpose all along ~ heaven on earth. It is the ultimate fulfillment of that which Jesus taught us to pray, “Your kingdom, come! Your will, be done on earth as it is in heaven!” Jesus has begun His rule and reign (and we are seated there with Him), and His kingdom has broken into the world. It is forcefully advancing and forceful men lay hold of it, and it affects every area of life. Imagine that.

  • smcknight

    OK, let’s not make this a post about the date of Revelation. Leave that for another day, but one response to Jeff: the text can’t be divorced from its historical setting, but that doesn’t mean we can know that historical setting, including its date.

    Whether we accept a pre70 or post70 date doesn’t alter the substance of the empire language.

  • David DeJong

    It should be noted that Rev 17:10 is important for the date of the book:

    “They are also seven kings. Five have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come; but when he does come, he must remain for only a little while.”

    Whether you start with Julius Caesar or Caesar Augustus, you end up in the 60s. To get around this conclusion you will scholars perform all sorts of magic tricks, such as leaving various emperors out of their reckoning.

  • David DeJong

    Sorry. Didn’t see #15.

  • http://jmsmith.org JM

    I think Revelation is like a Christian version of Qumran’s War Scroll. But instead of calling believers to be ready to take up weapons, it calls them to be ready to take the brunt of weapons. That is how the victory is won; that is what it takes to be part of the faithful 144,000 followers of the Lamb, the true “army” of true “Israel.”

    Great posts, Scot!

  • http://www.elementalcm.com Henry Zonio

    This is giving me a whole new set of lenses to read these passages! I can’t wait for more of this series.

  • Jim H.

    This is fantastic. My wife and I read Revelation during the Advent season (along with the birth narratives) to help us worship. This gives us plenty of great stuff to think about and discuss together.

    BTW: my wife was brought up an extreme Plymouth Brethern and I’m a radical orthodox Believer – so we have lots to plow through.

    Thank you Scott for starting this and thanks to all for contributing. Happy Thanksgiving!

  • http://abisomeone.blogspot.com Peggy

    Hmmm…I am wondering whether there is another way to look at this without the precise date hindering.

    JoeyS in #11 says this:

    “I guess the reason I want to know the date is because of how our understanding of Revelation impacts the way we view God’s Kingdom – either we wait on it, or we participate in it, or we participate in it while we wait on it. At least one of these seems inadequate, yet is widely accepted.”

    One of the themes in scripture that is consistent throughout is that of the tension of the “already/not yet”. There is a real sense in which God has already done something … but has not yet completed his purpose. I’m not going to list them….

    If the date is pre 70, then the sense of “already” must goes all the way back to Babylon and the Exile and the prophets which speak to those times. The “not yet” looks forward to what is yet to be completed. But it is hard to determine what that is.

    If the date is post 70, then perhaps the sense of “already” can actually be seen as Jerusalem reaping the whirlwind and being destroyed — along with a focus on the Jews and the Temple and the city of Jerusalem. This gives a perspective of resolution to the Old Covenant that Jesus brought as he ushered in the New Covenant. And then looks forward confidently to Jesus, the Victorious Lord. The one who is done with a single “nation” on earth and has moved to Lord of Lords and King of Kings — in the spiritual realm among the nations … in and through those who know him as Lord and King.

    Revelation is just that … the revelation of Jesus Christ as more than Messiah to the Jews, but Lord of ALL already, even though everyone does not yet recognize that fact.

    If that is so, then Revelation does speak to our involvement in politics: we are to live the already reality of Jesus as Lord every day as we love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength … and our neighbor as our self. We struggle with what that means in the various circumstances in which we find ourselves … because the “not yet” ambiguities speak to the fact that God’s work in restoring/remaking heaven and earth is not finished.

    And so we have to ask the question: God, what are you doing in this world, as you reconcile and restore and remake … and how do you want me to join you in that work?

    …it reminds me of the struggle around the One Ring in Tolkien’s masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings: the one ring of power caused the downfall of men who lusted after the tool of the Enemy: coersion and domination.

    And we hear the words of Gandalf — who was resurrected from the dead (after his defeat of the balrog at Moria) and sent back by Eru Illuvitar to finish the task of guiding Middle Earth into the Fourth Age. A task that stood on the edge of knife, in the hands of a small, frightened Hobbit and his faithful servant.

    Gandalf said, at the Council of Elrond, when Boromir saw the Ring as a gift to the enemies of Mordor: we cannot use the weapon of the enemy — for its power is too great and it will corrupt any who try to wield it … setting up a different Lord … but still a coersive and dominating one.

    Politics is about power and it’s use. When we use power it must be for others and not for self. It must be done in the utmost humility with a true servant-leader’s hand.

    Whether the politics are in the home, in religious institutions, at school, in the workplace, at the playground (in the park or in the stadium) or in government at the city, state, or federal level … it is about the proper use of power to make life better for ALL.

    And, if you’re paying attention, we have a BULLYING problem in each and every one of those areas of life.

    Whatever we’re going to do as we do our best to follow our Victorious Lord … we cannot use the tools of the enemy and expect a different outcome. We must stand firm in God power of love, living in right relationships, having put on God’s armor (read Ephesians 5 and 6) and watch his deliverance. Already/not yet tensions abound … the the cHesed (faithful lovingkindness) of our God is sure.

    Sorry for the length … I don’t post here often anymore — only when I have something I feel compelled to say.

    Shalom to you all.

  • D. Foster

    The primarmy evidence for the late date of Revelation is Irenaeus’s “Against Heresies” 5.30.3 where Ireneaus says at the end of the section:

    “…if it were necessary that [the Antichrist's] name should be distinctly revealed in this present time, it would have been announced by him who beheld the apocalyptic vision. For [IT/HE/THAT] was seen no very long time since, but almost in our day, towards the end of Domitian’s reign (late 90s A.D.).”

    The trouble is that, in the original Greek of the last sentence here, there is no pronoun after the word “for.” The pronoun is implied in the conjugation of the verb in the words “was seen.” Most people have inserted the word “IT” and taken it to mean that Irenaeus is saying the “apocalyptic vision” was seen toward the end of Domitian’s reign. But others have taken the ponoun to be “HIM,” so that Irenaeus is saying that John was seeing toward the end of Domitian’s reign.

    How you translate here makes a tremendous difference. If Irenaeus is saying that Revelation was seen during Domitian’s reign, then it’s evidence in favor of a late date for the book. But if he’s saying that John was seen during Domitian’s reign, then he’s not making a comment on Revelation’s date.

    In my personal opinion, I think the late date untenable. Even if Irenaeus meant that the book was written in the 90s, his reliability on specifics in Church history is dubious. He teaches in the same work that Jesus ministered for over a decade and died in his fifties. And the only reason it seems the subsequent Church fathers hold to this this late date is from their (erroneous?) reliance on Irenaeus.

    That coupled with various features in Revelation tell of a pre-70 A.D. origin. The Temple is still standing in chapter 11, the strong anti-Jewish tone of the first couple of chapters (“synagogue of Satan”) favors a date shortly before Jerusalem’s fall when revolutionary zeal was high among the Jews during the rebellions against Rome.

    Then there is the play off of Nero (666/616, depending on the Greek manuscripts, both of which numbers work with Nero) and the Nero Redivivus legend (Rev. 13:3-4), a widely known but short-lived phenomenon where three separate impersonators pretended to be Nero after his death and the rumor began to spread that he had come back to life.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    I hope this is not off topic with all the dating talk, but Rev 18 that Scot quotes makes a very daunting assertion regarding our involvement with the politics for the next couple of years.

    I am a lot like the pope (bear with me here people), I feel that you can use a tool that is not inherently bad to lessen something that is bad (like condoms for …). I feel it is OK to use a corrupt government and process to help people.

    But Rev 18 seems to be saying that we are not to participate in the corrupt process, period. A tough lesson and it has made me examine a lot today.

  • Matt

    I’m suspicious of the “crisis” interpretation of Revelation–or at least a crisis writ large. Who’s to say that Revelation isn’t trying to create the crisis–or at least get those who are quite comfortable and NOT in crisis mode to see their present reality as a crisis?

    If so, this takes a bit of wind out of reading through the text to the crisis. It is possible that the actual number Christians suffering was small-scale, but lifted up for demonstration. Just a hypothesis.

  • Watchman

    The dispensationalism that arose during the late 19th century promulgated by John Nelson Darby influenced the way many evangelicals view the Book of Revelation today. It has since become a spectacle of cheesy Christian escapist films and multi-million dollar book series.

    The Book of Revelation isn’t to be taken literally although in some cases it certainly can. Most of it is allegorical, poetic, apocalyptic, and symbolic giving us a brief glimpse into what lies ahead while at the same time affording the honor of seeing the same thing that John of Patmos was offered, a glimpse into Heaven with the Lamb of God at center stage.

    It should give us all great hope in knowing that our future is contained within the hands of a sovereign God where evil will someday no longer exist and the Lamb of God will prevail and reign upon the world, both literally and spiritually.

    Peace.

  • normbv

    DRT,

    If the context of Rev 18 is about the pending judgment on Jerusalem then the idea that the faithful were to have no part in her adulteries was also about self preservation. Jerusalem would not be the place to be trapped in during the year 70AD when Titus arrives at passover. Also the idea that Christ had warned the faithful of this event is tied to their tendency toward the old ways which were being changed. Old Judaism is the corrupting influence here and the faithful were always warned to resist it. He told them not to be like Lots wife and look back fondly on the old.

    Rev 18:4 … “Come out of her, my people, lest you take part in her sins, lest you share in her plagues;

    Luk 21:20-21 ESV “But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. (21) Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, and let those who are inside the city depart, and let not those who are out in the country enter it,

    IMO I don’t’ think we can use Rev 18 as instructions to remove ourselves from Government interaction.

  • http://craigbenno1.wordpress.com craig bennett

    I think revelation needs to be understood within the historical sense for us to draw encouragement within the modern era.

    It seems to me those with a pre trib / dispensationalist approach are coming dangerously close to gnosticism; in the sense of escapism from the reality of the world.


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