Paul, Ian. Revelation. Tyndale New Testament Commentary. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2018. 371 pp. Pb. $25.00 Link to IVP Academic
This new volume in the Tyndale New Testament Commentary series replaces the 1969 commentary by Leon Morris, originally published by Eerdmans. Ian Paul is described as “a freelance theologian” as well as an adjunct professor at Fuller Theological Seminary and associate minister at St Nicholas’ Church in Nottingham, England. These three roles are reflected in this commentary. Paul certainly pays attention to the exegetical and theological details of the text, but he is also interested in accurately communicating the book of Revelation in a pastoral context.
The fifty-six page introduction begins with the observation that Revelation has been an influential book on both culture and worship, but it is also one of the most neglected books of the New Testament. Outside of the first three chapters, few preach from the book of Revelation. For Paul, Revelation is an important book because it tests an exegete’s ability to read Scripture well. Perhaps the proof of this is the wide range of bad interpretations of Revelation over the long history of the church. But Revelation also has significant implications for how the Gospel interacts with culture.
Paul’s approach in the commentary is first to pay disciplined attention to the text. This close reading of what Revelation actually says is not always evident as commentators are often driven by theological assumptions. Second, Paul pays attention to how John draws on the Old Testament and parallel texts in the New Testament. This is more than a search for allusions to the Old Testament in Revelation, since how John uses the Old Testament may tell us quite about his theological agenda. Third, Paul wants to understand how John’s message would have been understood by the original audience. Again, this is often set aside by some commentators who are only interested in the eschatology of the book. This attention to the original historical and social context will inform the fourth element of Paul’s approach, to make connections to the real world. How does Revelation preach in the contemporary world? In order to bridge the gap between the culture of first century Asia Minor and make appropriate applications to modern issues, the exegete hear the text as it was intended by the author in the first century.
With respect to other introductory details, Paul dates the book to the reign of Domitian, A.D. 85-95. Although this date certainly allows for the apostle John to be the author (the traditional view), the authority of book comes from what has been written rather than apostolic authorship. Paul does provide an argument that the Gospel of John and Revelation could be written by the same person, he admits the evidence is not conclusive.
Based on this date, Paul’s introduction surveys the historical, social and economic context of late first century Asia Minor. This necessarily includes a short section on the pervasiveness of the imperial cult in the seven churches addressed in Revelation 2-3. Although he only has space for a short introduction to the issue, Paul emphasizes the importance of the imperial cult for understanding some of the imagery in the book. He also responds to recent discussions of the non-persecution of Christians during the reign of Domitian. Paul agrees there was no systemic, empire wide persecution of Christians, they nevertheless faces varying degrees of pressure, often economic, for their resistance to local gods and the imperial cult.
The introduction also includes a short section on the genre of Revelation. On the one hand, Revelation claims to be a vision, but on the other the book is constructed with extraordinary attention to details and remarkable subtly with respect to its allusions to the Hebrew Bible. Is the book “revelation or research”? For Paul, it is more important to attend carefully the text regardless of how John wrote the book. The book is apocalyptic, but it claims to be prophecy and it has some features of a letter. As such, the book makes claims about reality, even if those claims are made using complex metaphors.
Most commentaries on Revelation must deal with how the book relates to the future (or not). Paul offers short descriptions of idealist, futurist, historical and preterist approaches along with four theological positions on the kingdom, premillennialism, amillennialism, postmillennialism, and dispensational premillennialism. Paul observes that although these eight possible positions are often presented as strategies for interpreting Revelation they are in fact conclusions about how the book should be interpreted. The interpreter brings their preterism or dispensationalism to Revelation rather than letting the book speak for itself. The book does speak to the Christians to whom it was addressed but it also has something to say about the future destiny of the world. In many ways the categories attempt to force Revelation into a theological slot which is not fully suited to the book. This blending of past, present and future is a healthy way to approach Revelation, although Paul does not always embrace the future aspects in the commentary.
The body of the commentary treats the English text (usually TNIV) in a verse-by-verse fashion. He divides each section into context, comment, and theology, although the first and last sections are usually just a short paragraph. When Paul deals with Greek or Hebrew words they appear in transliteration. Although this is certainly a scholarly commentary, in keeping with the style of the Tyndale series Paul does not often interact with other scholarship. This is refreshing since recent commentaries have become collections of views from other commentaries. Paul’s comments are intended to illuminate the text of Revelation and enable a reader to make sense of some difficult problems.
Two examples will suffice to illustrate Paul’s method. In commenting on the first four seals, the four horsemen, Paul rightly dismisses the possibility the white rider is Jesus and suggests it is an allusion to Apollo and refers to pagan religions. The next four horsemen clearly refer to war, famine and death, the conditions of Asia Minor in the late first century. He suggests a parallel to Jesus’s teaching in the Olivet Discourse (using Matthew 24:5-29 and summarized in a simple chart, p. 148). The theological point John makes with this imagery is that the imperial myth of peace and prosperity is actually a myth. The Empire is full of chaos and suffering, only the sovereign God has power over this world. Certainly this is a message each generation of the church needs to embrace, no empire brings real peace and prosperity to this world. But Paul does not address any possible future hope in the first six seals despite the coming of the “great and terrible day of the Lord” in 6:16-17. Some scholars have suggested each of the seals, trumpets and bowls culminate in the return of Jesus. It is certainly possible understand the seals as pointing toward a future hope in the return of Jesus without embracing any complicated dispensational timeline drawn from Revelation 6.
With respect to the “number of the beast” in Revelation 13:16-18, Paul briefly explains the practice of Gematria and suggests the number refers to Nero Caesar in Hebrew. Both Nero Caesar and beast have a numerical value of 666 and identifying the number of the beast with Nero makes sense of some other elements of the chapter, such as the Nero Redivivus myth. Ultimately Revelation 13 is about human totalitarian rule which defies the sovereignty of God. The contemporary example for John is Nero and the Roman Empire, a message which will resonate in every generation of the church. Where Paul stops short is suggesting a future application of this defiant totalitarian rule to the ultimate enemy of God who will be defeated by God in the future.
Conclusion. Ian Paul’s commentary is an excellent guide to reading the text of Revelation. In keeping with the format of the Tyndale series, this is not an exhaustive commentary which delves into every nuance of the text. Compared to the commentaries by David Aune (WBC, now Zondervan, 1998; three volumes and 1600+ pages) or Greg Beale (NIGTC, Eerdmans, 1998, 800 pages), this book is a brief. But other than scholars, few people have time to wade through the depths of such massive commentaries. This short commentary in the Tyndale series is a joy to read, both pastors and laypeople will appreciate Paul’s lucid style.
NB: Thanks to IVP Academic for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.