Ian Paul, adjunct professor of New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary, offers a succinct, though substantial, read of Revelation. He provides a 56-page introduction, covering topics such as: Revelation’s genre, how do we read Revelation, did John actually have a vision?, how do we understand Revelations use of imagery, numbers, and the OT. He ends the introduction with a look at John’s structure, key themes, and the different approaches to Revelation.
Paul briefly explains the four main approaches commentators use to read Revelation: idealist, futurist, historical and preterist, as well as explaining the four eschatological positions: premillennialism, amillennialism, postmillennialism, and dispensational premillennialism. Paul notes that these eight possible positions are actually conclusions (p51) about how the book should be interpreted. Paul reads Revelation closely to understand what it actually says rather than him being driven by theological assumptions. Instead of reading and thinking, “This text must mean this because of course everything is amillennial,” he takes each text as it is and tries to read Revelation as its own book. The commentator or pastor reads their eschatological idea into the book rather than letting John speak for himself.
Though it is uncommon for pastors to preach from something in Revelation outside of chapters 1-5 (and even fewer do it well), Paul shows us how important it is to understand Revelation well by showing us how Revelation and the gospel interacts with culture at any stage in history. Revelation is difficult because it tests one’s ability to comprehend Scripture because it draws from both the OT and the NT (or at least has many parallels with NT texts).
Throughout his commentary, Paul is concerned with how John’s original audience would have understood his letter. This is important, especially for dispensationalists who think that basically everything after Revelation 3 has to do with the post-rapture end-times. If so, how would anything John wrote apply to his audience or the rest of church history? “All this wild stuff is going to happen… one day… so.. be thankful you won’t be a part of it!” Understanding how John’s culture would understand his letter helps us to know how to bring Revelation into our own culture and make connections with it.
Paul believes Revelation was written during the reign of Domitian, 85-95 AD, possibly by the Apostle John. Many have said that Revelation could not have been written during Domitian’s reign because there was no systematic persecution under his reign. But Paul writes,
Although John is clear that martyrdom might well be a possibility and that faithfulness even to the point of death is the test of whether we follow the example of Jesus, the seven messages in Revelation 2–3 do not suggest systematic persecution. Although there are comforts and encouragements, the messages also contain a good level of rebuke, some of it quite severe, suggesting that complacency and compromise with an accommodating culture was at least as much a problem as conflict and opposition. They are not messages that would have been sent to Christians under persecution! (22).
Each chapter contains three sections:
- Context—Paul shows how this section fits with the rest of the letter.
- Comment—Paul comments on all the verses in a typical commentary style, looking at one or two verses at a time.
- Theology—Paul tells us here how these chapters are important and how they can be applied to us today.
An Example—Revelation 12
- Revelation 12 is a “central and pivotal chapter” (213). Although “the plot” of this story “is strange to us… it would not have been strange to John nor to his audience” (214). As Paul writes, “It has clear connections to a myth that was widely circulated from the third century bc to the second century ad in a variety of forms, the best known being the story of Leto, Python and Apollo” (214). The story “was used as imperial propaganda, particularly by Domitian, to portray the emperor as Apollo, the son of the gods and defeater of the chaos monster.” John gives us a “political cartoon,” where he takes characters from the Bible and places them into the plot line of this Roman myth. “John’s vision report inverts the story, displacing imperial power from the role of Apollo by the Davidic Messiah, and instead associating the empire with the chaos monster, the dragon.”
- The woman in v. 2 represents God’s people. She “is pregnant… and cried out in labour pains, in the agonies of giving birth (AT)” (216). The terms “exactly match those in Isaiah 26:17, where God’s people in distress are likened to a woman giving birth.” We find similar language in Isaiah 66:7–9, “where Jerusalem is the woman as a metonym for God’s people.”
- The 1,260 days in v. 6 “connects this period back to the time of trampling and testimony in 11:2–3, which is now depicted as a time of nurture and protection. This symbolizes the time from Jesus’ resurrection and ascension until his return, which John has characterized as a time of ‘suffering and kingdom and patient endurance’ (1:9)” (218).
- In v. 9, with the description of the great dragon [Satan] being thrown down, “there is a twin focus on Jesus’ death and his exaltation, expressed earlier by the presence of the ‘slain’ lamb on the throne in Revelation 5” (221). Believers live in between the time of Jesus’ resurrection and his return; it is a time “of testimony and victory.” Yet we also “experience suffering and apparent defeat”
“In spatial terms, [we] are heaven-dwellers who are before the throne in heaven and constitute the temple of God, and so are protected from the power of Satan who has no place there. And yet [we] continue as members of many tribes, languages, peoples and nations, living in their various cities on earth where Satan, for a short time (12:12), wields his limited power.”
- In vv. 13-14, the woman’s flight on “the two wings of a great eagle” should remind us of how God carried his people out of Egypt “on eagles’ wings” (Ex 19:4; see also Isa 40:31). Though “the woman” is nourished and protected by God, “it is also a time when the oppressor appears to triumph.” In vv. 15-16, the dragon spews water at the woman to try to kill her, but she is aided by the earth, which is “part of the positive view throughout Revelation of the creation as serving God’s purposes.”
- The claims and demands of Jesus rival that of the Roman Empire. Rome is no longer the defeater of the wicked chaos monster. Rome is the wicked chaos monster who persecutes God’s people! The poor man Jesus who was crucified as a criminal is “the true bringer of victory and peace” (226). John is pushing his audience to make a “critical decision.” That is, “to ally oneself with the empire is to ally oneself with the spiritual adversary to both God and his people” (226).
- Satan roams the earth with power, “though he has no authority in the heavenly realm” (226). Therefore God’s people will experience God’s presence and protection, but we will “also experience suffering (tribulation) and opposition, because Satan continues to be at large for a ‘short time’ until he is finally locked up and then destroyed in the final judgment.”
- This strange, paradoxical pattern we experience is the same Jesus experienced—both the closeness of God’s presence and his comfort in the midst of suffering. As we live today, “the hardships of being a disciple are not a mistake, nor a sign of the failure of God, but are part and parcel of what it means to be a faithful witness,” something we share with Christ himself.
What I enjoy about the Tyndale series is that the authors rarely interact with other scholarship (there just isn’t room!). So what we get is the authors’ own thoughts on the book, not his and everybody else’s. This is refreshing since many commentaries today seem to be a compendium of everyone else’s thoughts, as well as their own (usually). Of course no one will agree with every interpretation, but one downside with the series layout is there is no subject or verse index. Which, for many, isn’t a big deal.
Buy this! Whether you are a pastor, a student, a biblical scholar, or simply a layperson who would just like to understand Revelation, pick up this book. Paul writes clearly and succinctly. Not every point can be explained, but for that you can move on to larger works. If you wanted to pair Paul’s volume with a larger, exegetical commentary, there are a plethora you could choose from: Beale (NIGTC), Koester (AYB), Keener (NIVAC), Aune (WBC—a massive three-volume set), or Schreiner (ESV Expository Comm.—this one’s actually not longer, but it’s still helpful).
- Series: Tyndale New Testament Commentary
- Author: Ian Paul
- Paperback : 387 pages
- Publisher : IVP Academic (July 31, 2018)
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