It’s the end of 2020, a year many have suggested looked just a little like the end of the world. So how appropriate for John Dickson to have spoken with eminent professor and theologian Richard Bauckham about the end of the Bible – the Book of Revelation – which gives a biblical understanding of end times.
In episode 34 of this season of Undeceptions, a podcast in the Eternity Podcast Network, Dickson and Bauckham talk through how to read the book of Revelation, and how not to.
“It is a kind of revelation of the future, but it’s not done in any kind of straightforward prediction. To a large extent, it is done in terms of symbolic images. And you have to learn how to read them, which is not always easy.” — Richard Bauckham
The word ‘Apocalypse’ comes from the Bible. ‘Apokalupsis’ in Greek means “an unveiling”, “a revelation”.
The Book of Revelation, says Dickson, is “the original western apocalypse – it unveils the meaning and direction of history”.
Bauckham says that the style of apocalyptic literature is foreign to modern audiences, but would have been quite familiar to readers in the period in which it was written – around the 1st century AD.
“It means that people find the Book of Revelation very hard to read if they’re coming to it fresh.
“It is a kind of revelation of the future, but it’s not done in any kind of straightforward prediction. To a large extent, it is done in terms of symbolic images. And you have to learn how to read them, which is not always easy.”
So, here are three things to keep in mind when reading the Bible’s “weirdest book”.
1. The Book of Revelation is a critique of Roman power
In his book, A Theology of the Book of Revelation, Bauckham writes that Revelation “advances a thorough-going prophetic critique of the system of Roman power. It is a critique which makes Revelation the most powerful piece of political resistance literature from the period of the early Empire.”
One of the reasons why the Book of Revelation is so full of vivid images is because it’s a kind of counter to the Imperial propaganda. John is trying to get his readers to see the world as it looks from God’s perspective, not through the eyes of Rome.
“Rome was a propaganda machine,” Bauckham tells Dickson.
“They boasted of the pax romana – the ‘Great Peace’ – that Rome had brought to the world, in which all its people should be grateful. But the peace of the empire was maintained by constant warfare on the borders of the Empire. It was a peace maintained by the military. But Rome’s image came to be of an ‘eternal city’ that could not fall. And these things were conveyed in propaganda materials that were laden with images – visual representations of Rome’s power.
“One of the reasons why the Book of Revelation is so full of vivid images is because it’s a kind of counter to the Imperial propaganda. John (the writer of Revelation) is trying to get his readers to see the world as it looks from God’s perspective, not through the eyes of Rome.
“So, instead of Rome depicted as a glorious figure – the goddess Roma – Revelation makes Rome the harlot who seduces the nations with promises of wealth.”
The ‘whore of Babylon’ in the Book of Revelation represents the city of Rome, says Bauckham. The harlot rides on “The Beast of the Sea”, which symbolises Rome’s military power.
2. The Book of Revelation is like an extension of the apocalyptic literature in the Old Testament.
“John’s revelation is full of allusion to the Old Testament,” says Bauckham. “John puts himself in the succession to the Old Testament prophets. He’s very much taking up parts of their message, and understanding it within his own fresh context – the Christian context [of Jesus]”.
3. The Book of Revelation is written as a circular letter.
The Book of Revelation begins with letters to seven different communities in Roman Asia Minor.
“These letters are like the introduction to the rest of the book, a specific message to each of these seven churches. So, for example, the church in Ephesus had their own message to enter the rest of the Book that was anchored in their particular situation,” says Bauckham.
“And these seven communities were in quite different situations: some of them are rather sternly rebuked for compromising their faith with the idolatry of their contexts. Others are commended for holding out under persecution.”
Bauckham says it’s important to read the Book of Revelation as addressed to specific people in a specific time.
“We’ve got to look at the symbolic images and ask what they would have meant in that time and place — and in the light of the Old Testament.”