“And though St. John saw many strange monsters in his vision, he saw no creature so wild as one of his own commentators.” — G.K. Chesterton
In many of my posts, I focus on Genesis. So, why not turn my attention to another controversial and misunderstood book at the back end of the Scriptures, The Revelation of Jesus Christ to John of Patmos? If one is allowed to have a favorite book in the Bible, then this book has become mine thanks in large part to my beloved professor Gordon Fee. In the year of our Lord two-thousand, Fee taught a course at Regent College on The Book of Revelation. When we asked him if all the Y2K talk and the year itself influenced his decision to teach this course at this time, he smiled, laughed at himself, and said, “You know. I never even thought of that.” That answer is an indication of how free he was from the dispensationalist background of his youth. How could that be?
Well, the good Doctor was no longer beholden to the “timeline: future written in advance” view of his Pentecostal and dispensationalist upbringing. Yes, the focus of the text is who Jesus is and who we are in relation to Jesus but not about figuring out when Jesus will come back or who the antichrist is (as if there is only one).
If the following image confuses you, then join the club and try reading Revelation anew in its late first century context and with the aid of excellent contemporary scholarship.
As with so-called literalist approaches to Genesis, the Dispensationalist approach which has filtered into the popular imagination involves a great deal of reading into the text (or eisegesis). Indeed, the Dispensationalist approach involves incredible effort and research but this effort and research is based on the wrong kinds of questions. It is as if they are attempting to assemble a Mustang with the instructions for a Prius. Many of the parts look the same but some seem to missing. So, they borrow a bit from Daniel, a bit from Isaiah, a bit from Thessalonians, and duct tape it together with current events, etc. In the end, they have neither a Mustang or a Prius. They have Johnny Cash’s “One Piece at a Time” Cadillac.
The following authors take seriously Revelation‘s first century context. The books each have their strengths one of those strengths is being relatively concise. Another strength is that they ask the right kinds of questions such as “how would this book have been understood by its first readers?”, “how would they have understood John’s use of symbols and numbers?”, “how would they understand John’s many Old Testament allusions?”, etc. Tapping or clicking on the image or title will take you to Amazon where you can add these excellent resources to your library.
Except for Craig R. Koester’s book, the other books are not listed in any particular order.
Craig R. Koester’s Revelation and the End of All Things
In my opinion, Koester’s concise (and, I mean concise) commentary is the best place to begin, if one is seeking to understand Revelation anew. In addition to walking the reader through the text, explaining the key symbols and the historical context, Koester provides an excellent introductory chapter which outlines the history of interpretation. In doing so, he will make the case that an alternate approach is needed. His analogy to music is also apt as John uses cycles of seven, riffs on themes, and makes allusions. When I worked at the Regent College Bookstore, Koester’s book was my go to book when a customer wanted a book about Revelation.
Eugene Peterson’s Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination
Any book by Eugene Peterson, the translator of The Message, is worth reading. His name will likely appear in many of my posts. As a pastor, Eugene Peterson’s approach to most texts moves toward the “Okay, now how do I live in light of this understanding?” In this book, Peterson shows how reading Revelation well can radically transform our prayer life and see the world from the perspective of God’s throne room. As always, Peterson’s writings are grounded in solid research and a rich understanding of Christian history and theology.
This book is written as an aid for pastors who want to preach through the book of Revelation (it might make a good gift for your pastor or your church library). However, Johnson’s book also serves as an excellent commentary and devotional book in its own right. Darrell Johnson is one of the best preachers that I have had the pleasure of hearing. His years of experience as a pastor and as a teacher of homiletics shines through this text.
P.S. My recommendation of this book has nothing to do with the fact that my name appears in the acknowledgments but doesn’t that make you want it even more. 😉
Gordon D. Fee’s Revelation: A Commentary
Gordon Fee’s book is a traditional commentary. Yet, as with Fee’s other commentaries (and unlike many commentaries), this commentary is an enjoyable read. It is also one of the more concise commentaries on this book. You can also download Gordon Fee’s course from Regent Audio. The paperback version of this book is a bit pricey but fortunately it can be purchased for significantly less as an e-book for Kindle.
Richard Bauckham’s The Theology of the Book of Revelation
As the title suggests, this book is organized thematically to illuminate significant theological themes in John’s visions. Bauckham is able to weave together much of the research from his longer work The Climax of Prophecy. Bauckham’s book will guide you into a richer understanding of the symbolism and their significance and literary art of John’s prophetic imagination.
Paul Spilsbury’s book is a close runner-up for my go to book for an introduction to Revelation. Like Koester, Spilsbury walks you through John’s Revelation. It too would make a good companion volume as you read this challenging book. It may simply be that I read Koester first and I really like Koester’s introductory chapter. 😉 Read some snippets on Amazon and see whose style you prefer.
Much to my delight, Paul Spilsbury joined the faculty at Regent College.
In contrast to those who focus on images of power in current events such as natural disasters and political powers, Marva Dawn shows us that the true message of Revelation is that “victory lies in receiving divine grace for our weakness.” As a diabetic with many of the complications that arise from this disease, Marva Dawn writes this book out personal experience. As with all the books I have recommended here, Dawn’s book is grounded in solid research and exegesis. As the chapter titles indicate, this book will guide you through the text and draw out the themes of suffering and weakness that permeate this text. The reviews on Amazon may be more helpful than this little recommendation here.
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