The Theology of the Book of Revelation, Paperback

The Theology of the Book of Revelation Paperback

Part of the New Testament Theology series

4.5 out of 5 (1 rating)


The Book of Revelation is a work of profound theology.

But its literary form makes it impenetrable to many modern readers and open to all kinds of misinterpretations.

Richard Bauckham explains how the book's imagery conveyed meaning in its original context and how the book's theology is inseparable from its literary structure and composition.

Revelation is seen to offer not an esoteric and encoded forecast of historical events but rather a theocentric vision of the coming of God's universal kingdom, contextualised in the late first-century world dominated by Roman power and ideology.

It calls on Christians to confront the political idolatries of the time and to participate in God's purpose of gathering all the nations into his kingdom.

Once Revelation is properly grounded in its original context it is seen to transcend that context and speak to the contemporary church.

This study concludes by highlighting Revelation's continuing relevance for today.




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A key misconception needs to be put aside before a reader can maximise benefit from an encounter with Bauckham's theological journey through the Book of Revelation. That is that there is going to be some sort of superficial and sensational exposé of the chronology of end-times: a person knowing Bauckham's writings or indeed the editorial prudence of James D.G. Dunn (series editor) would know this is not Hal Lindsey (who, like the clichéd elephant, is finally removed from the room, along with Rudolf Bultmann, in the closing pages). Nevertheless, apocalyptic in general and Revelation in particular seems to manage to manouvre many otherwise quite functional brains into stultified neutral: a mistake not to be made when engaging with Bauckham. Bauckham, in my experience, is never a light read. It is no coincidence that he wrote a fine but absolutely saturant (to coin, perhaps, a word) analysis of Moltmann. He shares Moltmann's density of sentence structure (insofar as one can tell reading Moltmann's main works in translation), and shares too Moltmann's deeply profound prioritising of eschatology. In 164 complex pages Bauckham takes us deeply into the literary and theological brilliance of John of Patmos. To do that in the twentieth century (for this was published in 1993) is to engage with huge questions of divine purpose, of holiness and justice and eschatological hope, of incarnational theology and soteriology, of sin and redemption: this was never going to be a light read.Bauckham holds these demands together magnificently. He begins, wisely, with the reminder from John's opening sentences, that Revelation is a) revelation/apocalypse, b) prophesy, and c) a (circular) letter. These factors define any attempt to understand the vision of the book. Beyond this it is also important to understand John's integrity as a literary and theological craftsman: 'We should certainly not doubt that John had remarkable visionary experiences, but he has transmuted them through what must have been a lengthy process of reflection and writing into a thoroughly literary creation which is designed not to reproduce the experience so much as to communicate the meaning of the revelation that had been given to him' (3-4). John was not Nostradamus (and well we might thank God for that!).John creates a narrative reality utterly alternative to that being experienced by his suffering audiences (in a recent sermon I drew parallels between apocalyptic methodology and Roberto Benigni's 1997 film <i>Life is Beautiful</i> : go figure!). He draws on the deep pools of apocalyptic symbolism available to him and to his readers (listeners) to inspire them to hope in the face of tumultuous darkness and suffering. Bauckham's brilliance is in demonstrating the manner in which John weaves together ancient narrative symbols and events and experiences contemporary to his writing - weaves them together so well that they have continued to speak to readers of his work for two millennia: John's images 'cannot be read either as literal descriptions or as encoded literal descriptions, but must be read for their theological meaning and their power to evoke response' (20). The visionary's prophesy is timeless because it is Biblical prophesy which 'always both addressed the prophet’s contemporaries about their own present and the future immediately impending for them and raised hopes which proved able to transcend their immediate relevance to the prophet’s contemporaries and to continue to direct later readers to God’s purpose for their future' (152). Bauckham emphasizes that John's apocalyptic vision is always deeply grounded in the resurrection of Christ: 'All that is opposed to God’s rule, we are to understand, has been defeated by the Lamb' (74). Fundamental to Revelation’s whole understanding of the way in which Christ establishes God’s kingdom on earth is the conviction that in his death and resurrection Christ has already won his decisive victory over evil' (73). Revelation's eschatological hope is also inseparably grounded in God's authority as Creator: 'The eschatological hope of Revelation actually has its basis, not only in the understanding of God as Creator, but also in the belief in the Creator’s faithfulness to his creation' (51).Bauckham's analysis is profound and powerful. His writing style, however, is sometimes all but impenetrable. A sentence will sometime lose clarity as a pronoun or other variable loses its referent or as he creates a sort of subjunctive voice: 'God’s kingdom is to come not simply by saving an elect people who acknowledge his rule from a rebellious world over which his kingdom prevails merely by extinguishing the rebels. It is to come as the sacrificial witness of the elect people who already acknowledge God’s rule brings the rebellious nations also to acknowledge his rule' (84). In this dense sentence it is hard to realize that 'the sacrificial witness of the elect people who already acknowledge God’s rule brings' is simply a noun - a nominal phrase - defining the meaning of the whole sentence. This stylistic quirk makes the Baukham's work harder to understand than it needs to be.That aside, though, it is a masterful analysis of a complex topic. He summarizes John's vision eloquently: 'Because God’s will is the moral truth of our own being as his creatures, we shall find our fulfilment only when, through our own free obedience, his will becomes the spontaneous desire of our hearts' (142). That fusion of human and divine wills dwells in a radically other Creation, that which is yet to come, but to which present Creation is being led through tumult and even despair. Baukham magnificently captures and interprets the eschatological vision of John for a people called to proclaim hope, justice and Christ-compassion in yet another century and millennia.