As I write this post, in my Sunday School class, we will be finishing up our study of the The Book of Revelation. Without question, for the modern reader this book is one of the most difficult books for us to comprehend. So, below, I have compiled a list of good books that will help you read Revelation well beginning with its historical context. I list them in order of their relative difficulty. They are all linked to Amazon. So, you can read the descriptions and reviews there.
As modern readers, we find understanding this book particularly challenging for two good reasons, on the one hand, we are simply unfamiliar with the genre which scholars refer to as the genre of “apocalypse” (yes, there were other books like Revelation around before and after John wrote his book). On the other hand, the book is fascinating, so our culture whether through movies, books or the church has already shaped how we approach the book and as the history of interpretation suggest much of what we think we know about the book is wrong and much interpretation is based on faulty presuppositions. If you do not understand the genre, you will very likely not understand the work you are reading. As my professor Rikk Watts said, if you watch The Simpsons and mistake its genre, then you will be concerned about serious liver problems in Springfield. (Think about it.) D’oh.
Even though I did not grow up in a Christian home, although my mother did have “bouts of Christianity” or at least churchgoing, I was still taught by my culture and through my Grandfather’s charts and timelines that Revelation was coded book that when interpreted correctly could tell us what “time” it is in God’s plan of salvation. Or more simply put, when the rapture was likely to take place and when Jesus would return. Yet, the very name of the book suggests that the opposite is true. Revelation comes from the verb to reveal. The greek work apocalypse that we translate revelation and from which we derive the name of the genre literally means “unveiling”. I sat in on Gordon Fee’s Revelation course at Regent College twice to get the timeline approach out of my head. Another Regent prof, Darrel Johnson, offered this helpful word of advice. “Stop asking, ‘What happens next?’ Instead ask, ‘What does John see next?'” There is an important difference.
In addition to the “title” of the book, there are a few other indications in the text that suggest that John expected and intended its first recipients to understand what they were hearing. Such as, the repeated phrase “letter the hearer understand.” There is also the fact John uses his own name rather than a pseudonym which was a literary device used by other authors of apocalypses to give the book a hoary authority (like the book of Enoch). Similarly, while other apocalypses have their visions sealed up for the appointed time, John is expressly told not to seal up what he has heard. There is a part in Revelation where John is told to seal something up but we are only told he heard rumblings of thunder. There is also the appearance of the seraphim in Revelation. In Revelation the Seraphim is covered in eyes, in Isaiah 6 to which this text alludes, the Seraphim cover their eyes. I, and other interpreters, take this to be symbolic of the fact that, in Christ, the great mystery of God’s redemptive plan has been unveiled. It is no longer hidden. When we look upon Christ, we look upon God. Remember, the seraphim on the ark of the covenant? Anyway, here is the list.
Welcome to Regent College, Paul. He was just appointed.
Revelation and the End of All Things by Craig R. Koester
When I worked in the Regent College bookstore, if a customer came in looking for a book on Revelation, I would lead them right to this one. Not only is it a nice concise commentary on Revelation that includes and summarizes the most relevant data from the more comprehensive commentaries, Koester also includes an introductory chapter on the history of interpretation. So, Koester helps us see why we read Revelation the way we do before he turns to reading the book in its historical context. When teaching at Baylor, I have my students read this chapter. In teaching this summer, this book was my primary preperation and was supplemented by Gordon Fee’s commentary.
Revelation for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone) by N.T (Tom) Wright
If you have never read a commentary before, this series is written one of the top New Testament scholars alive today but in an almost devotional style. Tom Wright in addition to being an amazing scholar is also a regular preacher which helps him bridge this gap. Wright is one of those rare scholars who can both play at the pro level and still finds time to coach little league. You can often tell whether he is writing to an academic audience or a more popular audience. Most of the time, if he is writing for a popular audience, his name will appears as Tom Wright. If it is a bit more academic (i.e. lots of footnotes and impressive big words), then it will appear as N. T. Wright. This is a general rule of thumb. There may be exceptions.
Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination by Eugene Peterson
As always Peterson is able to combine sound scholarship with a pastoral concern. There will likely be plenty of Peterson related posts on this blog. Eugene keeps me grounded and helps breathe life into the sometimes dry and arid world of academia.
Discipleship on the Edge: An Expository Journey Through the Book of RevelationEdit by Darrel Johnson
While accessible to anyone, this book is especially helpful if you are preaching on or though the book of Revelation. Darrel Johnson is himself a pasor and a wonderful preacher (perhaps, the best I have ever had the privilege of hearing) and wrote this book with preachers in mind as the subtitle suggests.
The Theology of the Book of Revelation (New Testament Theology)Edit by Richard Bauckham
This book is not a commentary on Revelation but it is the best single monograph on Revelation that I have read. If you want to get a better handle on the symbolism and the theological presuppositions and implications of Revelation, this is your book.
Revelation: (New Covenant Commentary) by Gordon D. Fee
Like Darrel, Gordon was one of my professors at Regent College. After sitting in one lecture in his Romans class, I walked over to the registrar’s office and switched my major from MDiv to MCS Biblical Studies. I was already taking Hebrew. So, I did Old Testament. But as Gordon Fee and his equally able student Rikk Watts have taught me: If you want to understand the New Testament, then you need to know the Old Testament
Climax of Prophecy: Studies on the Book of Revelation by Richard Bauckham
Indeed, this book will be a more difficult read than anything else listed here. Nevertheless, I include it because it goes into so much more depth concerning some of the key symbols and other interpretive aspects related to this book. For instance, there is an amazing chapter on Nero and the Beast that really illuminates this likely connection for John’s readers. Unfortunately, this book is prohibitely expensive. So, you may need to find it in a library or used, if you can get it.
For basic introductory material on How To Read the Bible see my suggestions by following this link to How To Read the Bible For All Its Worth.
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