Book Review: Ian Paul, Revelation. Tyndale New Testament Commentary

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.

Ian Paul RevelationThe 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.

 

The Rider and the White Horse – Revelation 19:11-16

AragornVirtually everyone agrees this passage describes the triumphal return of Christ.  But as Aune notes, the imagery used is not derived from other early Christian traditions concerning the return of the Lord (Revelation, 3:1046). The various descriptions in this paragraph of the return of Jesus as conquering king are drawn from a wide variety of Second Temple literature. In fact, this Rider is the culmination Jewish expectations for a restoration of the kingdom.

The Rider is described in somewhat familiar terms to those who read apocalyptic literature. His eyes are like a fiery flame (v 12).  Eyes like flaming torches are associated with heavenly beings, as in Dan 10:6 (Theodotian LXX). He has many crowns (diadems) on his head (12).   In the Greco Roman world, multiple crowns is an indication of sovereignty over territories.

Just as the dragon had seven crowns and the kings to come had crowns, so the rider has “many” crowns, perhaps so many that they are not counted. He wears a robe dipped in blood (13).  Normally blood is associated with the atonement, but this is not the case here.  The blood is that of the enemies of God, and is likely an allusion to Is 63:1-3. Finally, a sharp sword comes out of his mouth (15a).  This is a reference to the power of his word (Rev 1:16; 2:12, 16; 19:15, 21).

4QIsaiah Peshera 8-10 iii 15-19 (tr. García Martínez, Dead Sea Scrolls, 186): [He will destroy the land with the rod of his mouth and with the breath of his lips he will execute the evil] ? [The interpretation of the word concerns the shoot] of David which will sprout [in the final days, since with the breath of his lips he will execute] his enemies.

The rider has several names. First, he is named “Faithful and True,” titles used for Jesus in Rev 1:5 and 3:14. Second, he has another name inscribed which he alone knows (12b).  Divine beings sometimes have a “secret name” or are not willing to give their true names. In Gen 32:29, for example, God does not give his name when asked.  Third, His name is “the Word of God” (13b), reminiscent of John 1:1 where Jesus is called the Word.  Finally, on his robe and on his thigh he has a name inscribed: “King of kings and Lord of lords” (16).   There are a number of ancient references to names being inscribed on the thigh of statues,

The Rider has come in order to judge in righteousness (11b).  That the messiah will be God’s righteous judge is a theme of several texts in the Hebrew Bible (Ps 98, 72:2, 96:13, Isa 11:4). He will wage war in righteousness (11b) and smites the nations with the sharp sword (15a).  He will rule the nations with a rod of iron (15b).  That the Messiah will be something of a true shepherd is common in the Hebrew Bible (Ps 2:9) as well as Psalms of Solomon 17:21-25.

Psalms of Solomon 17:21-25 See, Lord, and raise up for them their king, the son of David, to rule over your servant Israel in the time known to you, O God.  Undergird him with the strength to destroy the unrighteous rulers, to purge Jerusalem from gentiles who trample her to destruction; in wisdom and in righteousness to drive out the sinners from the inheritance; to smash the arrogance of sinners like a potter’s jar; To shatter all their substance with an iron rod; to destroy the unlawful nations with the word of his mouth; At his warning the nations will flee from his presence; and he will condemn sinners by the thoughts of their hearts.

John describes this judgment as treading “the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty.” This is yet another familiar metaphor for the anger of God in Revelation and the est of the prophets. John has already used this metaphor in Rev 14:19.

The Rider on the White horse therefore represents the culmination Jewish expectations for a restoration of the kingdom. God intervenes in history by means of a mighty warrior who renders justice. He will punish the enemies of Israel, destroying them utterly. But he will also vindicate those who have suffered on behalf of their testimony for Jesus: they are raised to new life in Rev 20.

 

 

 

“God’s Wrath is Completed” – Revelation 15:1-8

John says he sees another “great and marvelous sign,” the third such description in the book (cf. 12:1 and 12:3).  The sign, in this case, is the last set of seven angels. These are the last because “God’s wrath is completed.” God’s wrath is associated with Israel’s rebelliousness, but the prophets extend that wrath to the eschatological events (Isa 26:20, Ezek 7:19, 22:24, for example).

In Revelation, God’s wrath is a featured attribute of God.  This is a righteous wrath, and is to a large extent anthropomorphic.  God’s anger is not at all like human wrath, he is justly punishing those who have offended his law. The wrath of God is nearly completed.  This can be translated “has been accomplished,” meaning that with these final judgments the wrath which was begun in chapter 6 has run its course.

MosesThe doors to the heavenly temple are opened and seven angels appear with the final seven plagues. The description of this location is as the temple and the tent / tabernacle.  The reference to the tent is likely to the tent of meeting, the place where Moses spoke face to face with the Lord, yet another allusion to events of the Exodus.

Temples with open doors were considered a “bad sign” in the ancient world. David Aune lists several sources indicating a temple door opening by themselves was a sign of God’s wrath (Revelation, 2:878). The whole temple is filled with the smoke of the glory of God.  This is a theophany: God’s presence is about to come to earth to finish his wrath.

After announcing that the final wrath of God has begun, John witnesses yet another worship scene in heaven (15:2-4).  This worship scene has elements from chapter 4-5, now familiar scenes of heavenly worship (sea of glass, martyrs worshiping, harps and singing).  In this case the martyrs are identified as those who have overcome the beast and the number of his name.  Presumably they have been martyred because they refused to take the mark of the beast.

The song they are singing is identified as the Song of Moses and the Song of the Lamb. The Song of Moses is found in Exodus 15:1-18, Deut. 31:30-32:43; and Psalm 90. The problem with the Song of Moses in this context is that there is no literary relationship between the song recorded in Revelation and the various versions of the Song of Moses in the Old Testament.  Perhaps what follows is only the Song of the Lamb and the reader is assumed to know what the song of Moses is. More likely is that the context of the original song is what John wants to evoke. If you head someone hum a few notes of a famous song, the whole song comes to mind.

The Song of Moses is worship of God because he has overcome the enemies of Israel. In Exodus, God rescued his people out of Egypt and overcame the Egyptians and their gods.  There are obvious connections between the following bowl judgments and Exodus. Just as he has done in the past, God is once again working to redeem his people from an oppressive and evil empire.

Book Review: Grant R. Osborne, Revelation: Verse by Verse

Osborne, Grant R.  Revelation: Verse by Verse. Osborne New Testament Commentaries; Bellingham, Wash.: Lexham Press, 2017. 417 pp.; Pb.  $19.99  Link to Lexham Press

This short commentary on Revelation by Osborne is part of his series published by Lexham Press in both print and Logos Library editions. As of December 2017, six of the commentaries have been published. I have also reviewed Osborne’s Romans, Galatians, and Prison Epistle commentaries.

Osborne wrote the Baker Exegetical Commentary on Revelation (Baker 2002) and his interpretive methodology to Revelation is similar in this shorter commentary. In the 2002 commentary he stated on the first page of the introduction his approach would use elements of both preterism and futurism. Preterism takes the symbols of Revelation as referring to events in the recent past or present of the original readers. Futurism takes most of the symbols in Revelation as predictions of events in a coming tribulation period just prior to the return of Jesus. Idealism interprets the symbols as referring to the general struggle between good and evil and the ongoing challenge for the church in society.

For example, Revelation is talking about the Roman Empire, but it is also talking about the future judgment the ultimate Roman Empire. In his exegetical commentary, Osborne defined apocalyptic as “the present is addressed through parallels with the future” (p. 22). But Osborne also sees value in a third approach to Revelation which interprets the symbols generally as referring to the ongoing struggle of Christians in an evil world (usually called “idealism”). By combining all three of these interpretive strategies to Revelation Osborne demonstrates Revelation had a clear application to the original readers as well as readers who live closer to the Second Coming of Christ, but also to all Christians in any historical and cultural context.

With respect to other often debated issues in Revelation, Osborne accepts the traditional view that the John of Revelation is the apostle, John the son of Zebedee. He dates the book to the reign of Domitian (A.D. 81-96) rather than to the reign of Nero. The earlier date has become more popular in recent years, especially among preterists who argue Revelation refers to the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. During the reign of Domitian the province of Asia Minor experienced a surge of pro-Roman sentiment as well as further development of the imperial cult. As with his earlier commentary, Osborne sees this as background for many of the symbols in Revelation.

As with the other volumes in this Verse-by-Verse Commentary series, Osborne provides an outline in the introduction which becomes the chapters for the rest of the book. In general, this works out to one short chapter of commentary for each chapter of Revelation. He then works through the chapter commenting briefly on each verse. Although his comments certainly reflect an understanding of the Greek text, he limits his comments to the English text of Revelation. Likewise, he has certainly read secondary literature, but there are no footnotes to other commentaries on Revelation. When he contrasts several views he does so generally. For example, commenting on the 1000-year kingdom in Revelation 20, he contrasts premillennialism with post- and a- millennialism. His brief explanation is clear and does not need to be supplemented with citations of representatives of each view. This makes for a very readable commentary for the layperson using the book as a supplement to personal Bible study or in a small group context.

There are many symbols in Revelation which generate extensive discussion and debate. For the sake of this review, I will use an example drawn from Revelation 13, the mark of the beast. Osborne explains the practice of using letters for numbers and offers four possibilities for interpreting the number 666. In the 2002 exegetical commentary he offered five options, in the shorter he omits taking the number as chronological, linked to some future empire. He suggests the number refers to a world leader, likely Nero Caesar in Hebrew, but he is not dogmatic in the issue since there is merit to the view 666 is a repetition of a number symbolizing man’s failure. With respect to interpretation, Osborne points out John’s original readers would have seen the name and number of the beast as an allusion to the imperial cult (a preterist view), but all Christians ought to be warned against false teachers (“antichrists”) are remain vigilant as the world turns against the church (an idealist view). But he also says this will “culminate in a final ‘great tribulation’ (7:14) at the close of human history when the antichrist appears and establishes an ‘unholy Roman Empire’ with the false prophet the head of a ‘one-world religion’” (p. 236). This is a clear statement of a futurist interpretation of the mark of the beast.

This blending of approaches will not satisfy everyone. Interpreters of Revelation who are entrenched preterists will reject Osborne’s futurism, but futurists (especially classic dispensationalists) may find Osborne’s references to the Roman Empire or Imperial Cult distracting. In the end I think Osborne balances the three approaches to Revelation in a way which grounds the book in the real world of first century Asia Minor with clear application to the present experience of the church. This avoids dangers of a thoroughgoing futurism which makes the book irrelevant for the church today.

Conclusion. As with the other commentaries in this series, Osborne’s Verse-by-Verse Commentary will serve pastors and teachers as they prepare sermons on the text of the Bible. Osborne’s goal for this book is “to help pastors faithfully exposit the text in a sermon.” Osborne achieves his goal of providing a scholarly yet readable commentary on Revelation.

 

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

Revelation as Resistance Literature

Despite the fact the book of Revelation is usually mined for what it has to say about future events, it is not a “roadmap for the future.” It is, rather, an exhortation written to very real churches to encourage them to live a different kind of life in the shadow of the Second Coming. This life means enduring persecution for their belief in Jesus and their non-belief in an imperial system that was becoming increasingly hostile to that faith. In Revelation the church is called to resist the culture, not through underground military action, but by being faithful witnesses to Jesus despite persecution.

There are many examples of this in Revelation, but I will offer one from the letter to Pergamum (Rev 2:12-17). In Rev 2:13 the church is commended for not renouncing their faith even though one faithful witness was put to death.  The city is described as the place where Satan has his throne (v. 13) and “where Satan lives” (v. 14). There are several suggestions for what is meant by “Satan’s Throne” (in fact, David Aune lists eight major possibilities). The Temple of Zeus Soter overlooked the city, and this throne was well known in the ancient world. On the other hand, this may refer to the Imperial cult represented by two temples to emperors Augustus and (later) to Trajan.

In support of this view, it is observed that the term “throne” is used as an “official seat or chair of state” in the New Testament, Pergamum was the center of Satan’s activities in the province of Asia much the way Rome becomes the center for Satan’s activities in the west. The Temple of Augustus in Pergamum was built in 29 B.C., and was the first of the imperial cults in Asia Minor.  In TJob 3:5b pagan temples are called “the temple of Satan.”

Antipas of PergamumEven though the imperial cult is strong in their city, the church of Pergamum remains true to the Lord’s name, even to the point of death. Nothing is known from scripture about the martyr Antipas, which is a shortened form of Antipater.  The title given him is “faithful witness,” title given to Jesus in Revelation 1. Eventually Pergamum will become known for several important martyrs.  The fact that the city was the center of the imperial cult would make the Christian refusal to accept the cult a serious crime.

There is a principle running through several of the letters in Rev 2-3 that the witnessing church will be a persecuted church (Beale, Revelation, 427).  Since the church has had a reputation for being a strong witness in the community, the church has had to face persecution, perhaps in the form of financial hardship and other social complications; but more importantly, members of their community have been killed for their faith.

Let me draw this back to the application of Revelation to the present church. How should the modern church “resist” the culture of this world? In western, “first world” countries this would look different than in some parts of Africa or Asia where the church is illegal and being persecuted for their faith. It is possible that the lack of persecution in the west is an indication that we have embraced culture and are no longer “faithful witnesses” like Antipas?

Reading Revelation – Does Genre Matter?

Reading Revelation

Revelation is a “prophetic account in letter form of the ultimate end of this age in apocalyptic terms that are culturally foreign to most of us.” Walt Russell, Playing with Fire: How the Bible Ignites Change in Your Soul (Colorado Springs: Navpress, 2000), 254.

The book of Revelation claims to be prophetic (1:3; 22:7, 10, 18, 19; 22:18-19). If it is prophecy, it is a specific form known as apocalyptic. Yet the book has a number of features which imply it is also a letter, including seven letters in the chapters 2-3. This blending of genres is somewhat unique in the New Testament, although 2 Thess 2 has some apocalyptic elements, and the Olivet Discourse has prophetic and apocalyptic elements

In his commentary on Revelation, dispensationalist Robert Thomas rejects the possibility of blending two or more genres. He argues strongly for Revelation as prophecy in the tradition of the Old Testament. For Thomas, the book claims to be “prophecy” and no other genre. His motivation for this rejection is likely some of the baggage that normally comes with the genre “apocalyptic.” Frequently apocalyptic literature is described as history re-written as prophecy – not really prophecy. Since he is committed to futurism and literal interpretation o the symbols of the book, he is resistant to allow the genre of apocalyptic to whittle away at his futurist interpretation.

Thomas seems to protest too much the idea of blending genres. This is a common phenomenon in the epistles (Paul makes use of hymn material in Phil 2, for example.) One might argue that Isaiah “blends” the prophetic and apocalyptic genres in 24-27, Ezekiel in 37-39, etc. As Grant Osborne says, “it is impossible to distinguish between prophecy and apocalyptic….” (Revelation, 13).

Similar to Osborne, Gordon Fee uses this blending of genre to distance Revelation from some of the conventions of apocalyptic literature (Revelation, xii). Since John is writing prophecy as well as apocalyptic, he does not select a name from antiquity and create his apocalypse in his name. John has experienced the new age of the Spirit and is creating a book which applies to the present experience of the readers. Fee points out that most apocalyptic literature is “sealed up” for a future time when the Spirit of God will make the symbolism clear, But in Rev 22:10 John is specifically told not to seal up the prophecy!

Does the literary genre of Revelation matter? How do we take all three genre into account? How would the book be interpreted differently if it is only prophecy, as opposed to apocalyptic? How does the appearance of a letter effect the way we might read the book?