Richard Bauckham’s book, The Theology of the Book of Revelation, presents a different interpretation of the book of Revelation. From the Amazon sales page,
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, contextualized in the late first-century world dominated by Roman power and ideology. It calls on Christians to confront the political idolatries of [their] 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.
Bauckham summarizes his own thesis on pages 159 – 164. He presents them as eleven “theological directions for contemporary reflection.” The following is a concise restatement of these points,
(1) Revelation reveals that, in every age, world rulers adopt ideologies by which they maintain their power. It directs “the one who hears” to resist and challenge these ideologies. The worldview it presents shows that all earthly powers, structures, and ideals are relative and contingent, only God and his truth is absolute and sure.
(2) Refurbishing the Christian imagination, Revelation uses images that witness to the one true God and His righteousness and grace. Revelation confronts both totalitarian ideologies which claim to be absolute truth while suppressing the gospel and nihilistic ideologies of relativistic despair that disregard the gospel through consumerism.
(3) The worship of the true God confronts and resists the deification of military and political power (i.e., the beast) and economic prosperity (i.e., Babylon.) Both are sources of oppression, injustice, and inhumanity. Confronting these apart from God’s true worship risks deification of resistance itself.
(4) Revelation resists the dominant ideology by proclamation of God’s transcendence and his coming alternative future (i.e., the new creation and the New Jerusalem.) These enable the hearer (or reader) to recognize the earthly ideology’s injustice and oppression and to relativize the seemingly powerful, absolute structures which maintain them.
(5) Revelation speaks from the viewpoint of the victims of history calling for their acknowledgment and solidarity with them. It achieves this by standing for God and his kingdom against the idolatries of the powerful.
(6) Revelation does not promote withdrawal of Christians into sectarian enclaves leaving the world to its judgment while consoling themselves with millennial dreams. This is the opposite of Revelation’s outlook, which is directed toward the coming of God’s kingdom in the whole world and calls Christians to active participation in this coming of the kingdom. Christians are to witness to the truth of God’s coming kingdom in the public, political world. Worship of the true God resists the worlds idolatries and points to the universal worship of the true God for which the whole creation is destined.
(7) Revelation emphasizes future eschatology to point toward God’s universal kingdom. The church is the “first fruit” of the nations as the direct result of Jesus Christ’s conquest on the cross. Though the Messiah’s victory is the decisive eschatological event, its ultimate goal is not realized until all evil is abolished from God’s world and all the nations are gathered into the Messiah’s kingdom. This uniquely Jewish apocalyptic perspective is a necessary counterweight to an already realized eschatology which so spiritualizes the kingdom of God as to forget the unredeemed nature of the world.
(8) Revelation prophetically criticizes the churches as much as it does the world. It identifies false religion not only in the blatant idolatries of power and prosperity, but also in the churches compromise with these idolatries and the betrayal of God’s truth. To resist idolatry in the world by faithful witness to the truth, the church must continually purify its own vision of the utterly Holy One, the sovereign Creator, who shares his throne with the slaughtered Lamb.
(9) Christians participate in the establishment of God’s kingdom through verbal witness to God’s truth that is substantiated by lives which conform to that truth. The Revelation does not envision using Christianized power and influence to change society into God’s kingdom. The essential form of Christian witness, which cannot be replaced by any other, is consistent loyalty to God’s kingdom. In this powerless witness, the power of truth to defeat lies comes into its own. The temptations of power are best resisted by maintaining our faithful witness.
(10) Revelation portrays the linkage of the doctrines of creation, redemption, and eschatology to the realization of God’s universal kingdom. It is God the Creator of all reality who, in faithfulness to his creation, acts in Christ to reclaim and renew his whole creation. It is as Creator that he can renew his creation, taking it beyond the threat of evil and nothingness into the eternity of his own presence. Revelation puts the New Testament’s central theme of salvation in Christ clearly into its total biblical–theological context of the Creator’s purpose for his whole creation. This is a perspective that needs recovering today.
(11) Revelation has the most developed trinitarian theology in the New Testament, apart from the Gospel of John. By placing the Lamb on the throne and the seven Spirits before the throne it gives priority to sacrificial love and witness to truth in the coming of God’s kingdom in the world.
(12) God’s rule does not contradict human freedom, as the coercive tyranny of the beast does, but finds its fulfilment in the participation of people in God’s rule; that is, in the coincidence of theonomy and autonomy. The divine transcendence does not prevent but makes possible the eschatological destiny of creation to exist in immediate relation to God, his immanent presence is its glory and its eternal life.
I urge everyone to read this different, countercultural perspective on a much-studied book. Tracing John’s masterful references to Old Testament imagery is amazing. To discover how he weaves these images together to speak to every church generation is eye opening. Revelation is a book just as relevant today as it was two thousand years ago. It speaks to everyone in simple, easy to understand images. I fear we do not like what it says.