Scot McKnight with Cody Matchett, Revelation for the Rest of Us

McKnight, Scot with Cody Matchett. Revelation for the Rest of Us: A Prophetic Call to Follow Jesus as a Dissident Disciple. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2023. xiii+3412 pp. Hb; $26.99   Link to Zondervan

In the introduction to this new book on Revelation, Scot McKnight describes his early encounters with Revelation in the early 70s. This was all eerily familiar to me. Like McKnight, in my teens, I read The Late Great Planet Earth, listened to Larry Norman warn us about being left behind, and watched the Thief in the Night movies many times. Conspiracy-laced interpretations of Revelation did not end in the 1970s and have only become more paranoid since the Left Behind series (and the freedom of the internet to publish anything and everything).Revelation

McKnight says he believed in a pre-tribulation rapture and premillennialism well into his academic career until one day he stopped believing it. The predictions were always wrong, and these writers seriously misread the Book of Revelation. For McKnight, premillennial and especially dispensational interpretations represented by the Left Behind series interpretations result in escapism. “Escapism is as far from Revelation as Babylon is from New Jerusalem” (xiii).  Instead, this book intends to read Revelation as dissident literature. “The Book of Revelation is for modern-day disciples who have eyes to see the power of the empire in our world and in our churches and in our lives (13). As a result, there is no speculation of how Revelation will be fulfilled in this book. But there is a prophetic call for evangelical Christianity to repent of its association with Babylon. For McKnight and Matchett, Revelation “is an apocalyptic-prophetic book revealing the evils of the empire and summoning readers to discerning discipleship as we live into the new Jerusalem” (143).

The authors specifically reject classic dispensationalism. It is too “prediction heavy…looking for signs of Revelation on your Twitter feed” (94). McKnight and Matchett do not think Revelation predicts literal events and the book does not have a chronological plot. “Prophetic does not mean prediction” (95). This is almost true. They are correct that most prophetic books speak to the people of their day, calling them back to covenant faithfulness. However, Old Testament prophets do predict future events such as the fall of Jerusalem, the exile, the return from exile, etc. These were all chronological events and literal predictions.

The first two chapters deal with introductory issues. Revelation was written by someone named John, who likely wrote the book after Rome destroyed Jerusalem in A. D. 70 and likely after Nero’s Great Fire and subsequent persecution of Christiana. He wrote to encourage Christians in Asia Minor to “follow the lamb” by being disciples of Jesus in this world. John was a dissident imprisoned because of the word of God. His critique of Rome was in many ways like the prophets of the Hebrew Bible. But he used a different strategy: he wrote an apocalypse. An apocalypse reveals that what people think is real is not actually real at all. (Interested readers should read Appendix 2, “What is an Apocalypse?”)

Rather than a chapter-by-chapter commentary on Revelation, the next two sections of the book describe the “Playbill of Revelation” and the “Dramatic Narrative” of the book. In the first five chapters, McKnight and Matchett introduce the various characters of the book (Babylon, the Lamb, and the Faithful Witnesses). Babylon is Rome. Commenting on the Great Whore, “it would have taken very little imagination in John’s day to recognize this so-called great city is Rome. Babylon is a natural name for an anti-God empire, so it is a useful metaphor for all empires throughout history. “Babylon is a timeless trope” (47). The Book of Revelation essentially contrasts “Team Babylon” against “Team Lamb,” with faithful witnesses (“allegiant witnesses”) caught between. Although they do not focus on this in the book, one could also describe an unfaithful group of witnesses (“un-allegiant witnesses”?) who worship the beast and do not follow the Lamb.

This is “the drama of Revelation.” But this plot is not for spectators. It is for dissidents and requires “reading with imagination in order to locate the characters in the dramatic narrative” (94). Revelation is about the Lamb’s final and complete defeat of the dragon and its Babylons and the establishment of a new Jerusalem (97). To understand this, the reader needs to know the back story of Israel in the Old Testament. John retells Israel’s story “with some adjustments” (99). Those adjustments can be summed up as “Jesus.” McKnight acknowledges that, in some ways, the Kingdom of God is already here, but it is not yet completely here (already/not yet). The seven churches, for example, have a foot in the Kingdom of God but the other in Babylon. Revelation, therefore, calls Christians to reject radical secularism, Christian nationalism, and civil religion.

The fourth section of the book, “Living in Babylon,” surveys the seven churches (Rev 2-3). These churches have disordered love, distorted teachings, corrupted worship, and inconsistent behaviors. “Babylon is creeping into the seven churches” (181). After Constantine, this becomes more intense. When the state became the power of the church, “the state does what the state states do. Aligning the church with Babylon was “the most tragic mistake in church history” (183). Chapter 18 discussions “worshiping in Babylon.” Certainly, worship is the key theme of Revelation. There are frequent worship scenes throughout the book, and the beast demands alternative worship. The authors discuss what they call “nine songs for dissident disciples of the Lamb” (190). Worship is a witness of the works of God and the Lamb and a way to signal allegiance (202). “The aim of all worship is Christoformity” (205).

In the fifth section of the book, McKnight and Matchett “turn up the heat” and look at the relevance of Revelation for today. “It’s not pretty.” They begin by outlining the four marks of Babylon: arrogance, economic exploitation, militarism, and oppression (racism and a caste system). Each of these is easily illustrated by the Roman Empire of John’s day (or, I would add, by any empire and culture in history). However, McKnight directs this application to modern America. Christians are always called to be dissidents from the system of Babylon. The call of revelation is “come out of Babylon,” not “jump in bed with the Great Whore” (my words, but it catches the spirit of McKnight’s chapter).

So how do we live in Babylon? McKnight says, “American evangelicalism has lost its way, and it’s suffocating on its own urp” (220). The rest of the chapter illustrates this evocative phrase. He refers to the politics of hate, specifically the insurrection on January 6 and the “embarrassing use of Christian symbolism among the rioters” (227). “Evangelicalism is no longer identified by its theology or mission, but by its politics” (223). “What is happening today among evangelicals is a perversion of biblical Christianity” (227). He names names and calls out many of the leaders of the right wing of the Republican Party who claimed to be evangelical Christians.

He suggests that eschatology, particularly dispensationalism, has shaped the evangelical world toward becoming increasingly Republican. Sadly, this may be true. McKnight points out (rightly) that there is a high correlation between a belief in Armageddon, the rapture, and pre-millennialism and the extremists among the January 6 insurrectionists. He suggests that this “homegrown eschatology” was more American than biblical. Although I am a premillennialist, I agree that “Left Behind” eschatology has led to paranoid conspiracy thinking among people self-identifying as evangelicals. I have two responses to McKnight’s claim.

First, McKnight is correct, “Evangelicalism is no longer identified by its theology or mission, but by its politics,” but that identification comes from the media, who mistakenly think of people like Jerry Falwell Jr. or Paula White as representatives of evangelicalism. The word “evangelical” has become distorted. It no longer refers to a conservative theology and gospel-oriented mission but rather a hate-filled fundamentalism that is “more American than biblical.” It’s not biblical at all! I agree with McKnight that this is a “mutant form of evangelicalism,” and a radical form of premillennialism may have fueled that mutation, but that does not mean premillennialism is wrong. Imagine rejecting Calvinism because Calvinists in South Africa created apartheid. I can reject apartheid (or Calvinism), but those are separate issues. Same with premillennialism. Reject the ultra-whacky conspiracy interpretations of Revelation because they are absolute garbage. Reject premillennialism for biblical reasons if you want. But do not reject premillennialism because some idiots have made a mess of it.

Second, people who used to consider themselves evangelicals (before everything turned political) are in many ways to blame for bad interpretations of Revelation. Many academic dispensational scholars avoid working in Revelation. There are only a handful of premillennialist scholars who have written on Revelation. For example, Buist Fanning’s commentary on Revelation (ZECNT, 2020; reviewed here) is premillennial and treats many of the details in Revelation much like McKnight does in this book. Dispensationalist Alan Kurschner published A Linguistic Approach to Revelation 19:11–20:6 and the Millennium Binding of Satan (Brill, 2022) and recently co-edited a volume with Stanley Porter, The Future Restoration of Israel: A Response to Supersessionism (Pickwick, 2023). Kurschner recently started an online Revelation commentary. But to be honest, it is not much!

Third, I see several differences between my approach to Revelation and McKnight’s. I think one can approach the book within a premillennialist framework and still fully embrace the book as dissident literature in the first century and every time and place throughout church history. This is not an either/or decision; most recent commentaries on Revelation ignore the old preterist, futurist, or idealist categories because a good commentary sees the application of the book to the first century and every generation of the church. But there is a future orientation in Revelation as well. The book does really look forward to some victory over evil and restoration in the future, even if there is no “roadmap for the future.”

In a sidebar on millennial positions, McKnight states that the millennium is a “sideshow at best in Revelation” (143). He points out that there are only three verses in the entire book that mention the millennium. “Revelation should never be read through the framework of the millennium,” and “it is a colossal example of missing the point of the whole book” (143). For McKnight, a better question is, “Ignoring the millennium entirely, what would be your view of the Book of Revelation?”  Indeed, the 1000 years are only mentioned in Revelation 20 (six times, not three). But if that 1000-year period is the “kingdom of God,” then it is a more pervasive theme in Revelation than McKnight acknowledges. Imagine saying the “kingdom of God” is a “sideshow at best” in Revelation.

The book’s final chapter is a “Manifesto for Dissident Disciples.” If Revelation is a call to public discipleship, then pastors will preach a gospel that subverts Babylon. Christian leaders should follow the Lamb, not Babylon! American Christians are worshipping false gods and bowing before the dragon (236). McKnight suggests that American evangelicals need to learn a lesson from the Barman Declaration, Karl Barth’s statement of resistance to national socialism in 1934.

Conclusion.  My reservations aside, this is an important book addressing evangelicalism with the message of the book of Revelation. I fully agree with McKnight and Matchett: Revelation is a condemnation of the power of Rome and a lens to evaluate the empire in any historical and cultural context. You must read this book even if you disagree with McKnight and Matchett’s premises. This book should be required reading for all conservative Americans since it is a powerful challenge to reject Babylon and follow the Lamb. To the one who has an ear, let them hear.


NB: Thanks to Zondervan for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.


5 thoughts on “Scot McKnight with Cody Matchett, Revelation for the Rest of Us

  1. Thanks so much for this review. I have been reading Scot McKnight for many years. His opinions are always interesting and thoughtful.
    I wasn’t going to buy the book until I saw the kindle version was only $3.99. I don’t usually pay over $20.00 for a book that I know I will have disagreements. I, too, am premill, though not dispensational.

  2. Thank God thinking Christians are beginning to reject dispensationalism. I started off reading the Scofield Bible and had my head in a wringer for years before I realized in 1987 that forty years after Israel became a nation again the timeclock was ticking. But it came and went and I started reading the Bible for myself, letting the Holy Spirit to guide me into truth. Keep up the good work, Philip.

    Woodrow Nichols

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