The book of Revelation

Revelation (the Book of)

Somewhat to my surprise, the objective here is to recommend a commentary, Revelation by GK Beale. There are two versions, a full length one and ‘A Shorter Commentary’; it is the latter that I can recommend, the full length book being 500 pages longer and, evidently, a complete scholarly work. The shorter version is still 500 pages itself, but readable and one of the more impactful books I have read. First, a little background.

In common with many people, my initial exposure to things connected with Revelation, broadly, the whole issue of Eschatology, the ‘end times’ or ‘last days’, came in popular books which related the book of Revelation as referring mainly to future events, things that very immediately precede the Second Coming of Christ. Such books enjoyed a great vogue 30 years ago and I suppose that in renewed forms they still do; there has been a series called ‘Left Behind’ that pursued the same line. (Very, very poor books.) I read books by Hal Lindsay and by a NZ evangelist type man named Barry Smith. A good man, Barry, no doubt, but history has not proven his idea that Henry Kissinger was the Antichrist.

To briefly summarize, we are said to be living in the days immediately prior to Christ’s return, as indicated by the restoration of the state of Israel. When in Revelation, John is told, “Come up hither, and see the things that must be revealed shortly hereafter”, this is taken in the popular reading as meaning the end of the Church age, the Church being raptured (“come up hither”) and the inauguration of a 7 year period prior to Jesus’ return; the book of Revelation is therefore seen to be mostly concerned with these future events. Further, a huge range of prophetic type scriptures are then seconded to provide details of events; Russians, Chinese, the British are found to be in view in the Bible.

There are some reasons to support some aspects of this outlook, though not when it comes to a close reading of Revelation. I have myself taught this stuff, basing what was said on the chronology of Daniel; given that there are perhaps more people alive today than in the rest of human history put together, the Bible might well be more concerned with our generation than any other. However, the big problem to me has always been the lack of spirituality in the outlook fed by this understanding; it fails to feed personal faith in Christ, reducing ‘prophecy’ to prediction. A witty take on this was a cartoon called ‘Armageddon Bingo’. The idea was that you went to church with a sort of bingo card and when the preacher said ‘antichrist’ or ‘Gog, Magog’ or… you crossed out that square on your card, and when your card was full you called out “Armaggedon”, “Ah’m a’ geddin out o’ here”. The teaching was and is commonly found in conservative charismatic churches; when I encountered it from a supposed expert from Texas, I experienced it as distinctly unspiritual and, in its effects on the church I attended, divisive.

Given the lack of much apparent spiritual input, ie help in getting closer to Christ, I largely ignored eschatology and Revelation in particular until I came firstly to The Eclipse of Christ in Eschatology by Adrio Konig and then to the commentary by Beale.

Konig brought home to me that when the Bible talks about ‘the last days’, it is talking about the church age, starting with the life of Jesus. The scriptures are so obvious when you get started looking at them. Heb 1.2 – God has ‘in these last days spoken to us by his Son’. A major aspect to ‘these last days’ is that they are the days in which Satan has been defeated and we are now participants in Jesus’ kingdom. Here, we are talking about spiritual things; this builds faith. When we read that Jesus is the ‘First and the Last’, ‘the Last’ is in fact the eschaton; Jesus is the eschaton, we might say the embodiment of eschatology – eschatology has to do with the present ministry of Jesus, for us, in us and with us. As with Beale, this book is deeply informed by the Bible and a godly spirit, so throughout it is uplifting, though it should be said that it is not a light read but theological in nature.

Reading the commentary by GK Beale is uplifting too, comforting, pointing to God, so there is an a priori assumption for me that what is said is likely to be correct. In short, Revelation is seen as being concerned far less with the end times immediately prior to Jesus’ Second Coming than with the end times as beginning with the resurrection of Jesus and continuing until the present day and how the Church is to experience persecution and hardship; Revelation is seen as full, replete with Old Testament allusions and therefore much of what is interpreted somewhat literally elsewhere is seen as symbolic. An example here would be the view taken of Rev. 9.13-21. The literal futuristic reading might go so far as to see the ‘200 million’ horsemen as a vast Chinese army sweeping into the Middle-East, and the plagues as physical. Beale sees the 200 million as myriads of myriads, ie an indeterminate number; he sees the fire etc coming out of the horses’ mouths as deceptive words, providing in the shorter commentary some documentation from the OT, and the Judaism current to John’s time, of the serpents and scorpions as again indicative of teaching, false ideas propagated by false teachers or just, generally, ideas that deny God. Again, when Jesus is depicted as having a sharp two-edged sword coming out of his mouth, clearly this is setting the whole combative side of Revelation as being to do with words, teaching etc, rather than the physical. This is so much more relevant than the futuristic viewpoint.

Throughout the book the stress is on the reality of suffering for the Church. (In many ways the populist, futurist reading seems to be an attempt to escape from this.) This is an absolute constant; as such, the commentary consistently has the devotional appeal to ‘love not our lives unto the death’, but to follow Jesus. The fact that the book has this devotional aspect is actually explicit as well because the author concludes his discussion of each section with ‘Suggestions for reflection’; the devotional aspect means the book does not pall. (I am reading it very slowly, over a period of months.) Another very important area which helps maintain interest is the constant pointing up of references to the Old Testament; this is highly illuminating as to what is going on in John’s mind, and I certainly find that Revelation has become of absorbing interest whereas previously it had seemed a phantasmagoria – ‘a fantastic sequence of haphazardly associative imagery…’ (American Heritage dict.)That is not what it is ; it is the Revelation of Jesus Christ which God gave to him . . .’ . .