We had a very interesting session on the Book of Revelation in Harlesden last Tuesday evening. The big hermeneutical question it raised, in my view, is whether we live in the story it tells or after the story it tells. Barney suggested that we live in it and compared its complex allusive discourse cleverly and engagingly to the Meatrix. In many respects the analogy works well: it certainly helps us to understand the coded nature of the Book of Revelation better. But there is a critical point, I think, at which the analogy breaks down. Factory farming is a contemporary issue for us. Is that true of the issues addressed in the Book of Revelation? I don’t think so. We live in the Meatrix allegory. We do not live in the main story of that is being told in largely Revelation. We live after it and have to learn from it in rather different ways.
So what is the main story that is being told here? One way to make sense of the Book of Revelation is to see it as a rampant extemporization on the judgment scene in Daniel 7, in a heightened apocalyptic key. It has the same sort of meaning and frame of reference as Daniel 7, but Daniel’s motif has been gloriously elaborated upon, richly embroidered, with evocative, elusive snatches of melodies from other Old Testament compositions, and perhaps from more obscure Jewish pieces, woven into it. What follows is based on the two chapters on Revelation in my book The Coming of the Son of Man. It is no more than an outline. It leaves a lot of questions unanswered and a lot of answers unquestioned. That can’t be helped.
The defeat of pagan empire in Daniel 7
Daniel 7 is a critical Old Testament text for interpretation of the New Testament. It is not a difficult passage to understand—at least, not if we take its historical setting seriously. The four symbolic beasts which emerge from the sea of chaos are four successive empires. The fourth beast is especially vicious and destructive. For Daniel it represents the Hellenistic empire of Alexander the Great, and the little horn which appears among ten others on the beast’s head is the Syrian king Antiochus Epiphanes, whose violent campaign to suppress Jewish worship and identity in the second century BC led to the Maccabean revolt. This context can be readily demonstrated from later chapters of the book.
The little horn, shrieking its outrageous blasphemies, makes war against the saints of the Most High, but thrones are set up on the earth and judgment is passed. The fourth beast is destroyed, and the faithful saints of the Most High, represented in Daniel’s vision as a figure in human rather than beastly form—”one like a son of man”—are brought before the throne of God. They are given authority to rule over the nations. As Tom Wright says in How God Became King:
This is not… simply about the rescue, or salvation, of God’s people from their present plight. It is about their being rescued in order to be enthroned. (192)
This is what I have been saying all along. The Bible is not primarily about salvation. It is primarily about kingdom. But Israel could not get to kingdom other than by a narrow and difficult way of salvation.
Daniel’s story of faithfulness, suffering, judgment, eventual vindication, and the defeat of empire is retold in the New Testament. It is retold by Jesus with particular reference to God’s judgment against Jerusalem. In the later chapters of Daniel it becomes apparent that the crisis provoked by Antiochus Epiphanes caused a division in Israel between the apostate and the faithful. Jesus’ disciples were to be vindicated, therefore, by the catastrophe of AD 70. The same story is retold by Paul in order to encourage the churches in the Greek-Roman world as they encountered sometimes violent opposition from paganism. John tells both stories, I think, in Revelation.
Chapter 1: John’s vision of Jesus as “one like a son of man”
The importance of Daniel’s motif for the Book of Revelation is immediately apparent from the description of Jesus as “one like a son of man”, the “faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth” in Revelation 1. Jesus suffered, died, overcame death and was vindicated first, and therefore holds the “keys of Death and Hades” (1:18). John identifies himself as one who shares with his readers “in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus” (1:9). He reassures them that Jesus is “coming with the clouds”, and that as a result both Jews and Gentiles will “see” that God has given “kingdom”—the right to judge and rule—to his Son Jesus Christ (1:7). That is, they are participating directly in the suffering and vindication of the Son of Man who represents them.
Chapters 2-3: Letters to struggling communities of the Son of Man
The letters to the seven churches (Rev. 2-3) are an exhortation to communities that are having in different ways to go through “tribulation” to remain faithful in the hope of finally conquering or overcoming death, just as Jesus overcame death. Those who do “conquer” will share in the vindication and rule of Jesus as Son of Man: they will eat of the tree of life, they will not be hurt by the second death, they will rule over the nations, and they will sit with Christ on his throne. So the relation between Jesus and the churches to which he dictates these letters corresponds to the relation between the symbolic “son of man” figure and the saints of the Most High against whom the little horn makes war in Daniel 7.
Chapters 4-5: Only Jesus is worthy to open the scroll of divine judgment
In chapters 4-5 we have, first, a vision of the worship of God in heaven. In the right hand of the God who “created all things” is a scroll, sealed with seven seals, and an angel proclaims loudly, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” At first no one is found who is worthy, and John weeps because his own fate at this time of tribulation is bound up with the opening of the scroll. But then we learn that Jesus is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll because by his death he “ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation”, who will come to “reign on the earth”.
Chapters 6-9: The opening of the seals sets the stage for the coming judgment against Israel
As the seals on the scroll are opened the conditions for judgment against Israel are set in place: the four horsemen of judgment are unleashed, the righteous Jewish dead are assured of eventual vindication, righteous Jews in Judea are sealed against the coming destruction, the multinational church that will emerge from this period of tribulation praises God for his salvation. The opening of the final seal introduces half an hour of calm before storm. The prayers of the persecuted saints for vindication are about to be answered. The seven trumpets in chapter 9 present in symbolic Old Testament language the coming of the armies of Rome as the means by which God will judge his unjust, immoral and idolatrous people.
Chapters 10-14: Jesus as “Son of Man” will judge the nations
The opened scroll is now given to John as the period of judgment against Jerusalem gets under way, and he is told that he “must again prophesy about many peoples and nations and languages and kings” (10:11). What he will say, essentially, is that the pagan power which destroys the land of Israel will also be destroyed by God (11:18). The allegory of Revelation 12-13 narrates the beginning of the conflict between the Jewish-Christian community in Judea and churches of the Greek-Roman world and the destructive and blasphemous beasts that represented hostile pagan imperialism.
The narrative of judgment against Rome begins, however, with a vision of the faithful martyrs who have overcome the beast and who, therefore, stand alongside the Lamb as “firstfruits for God and the Lamb”. Three angels then proclaim the coming judgment against “Babylon the great”, the city which has corrupted the nations of the earth with the “wine of the passion of her sexual immorality” (14:8); and in view of the coming eschatological turmoil John calls for the “endurance of the saints” (14:12). We are then explicitly reminded again of the connection with Daniel 7:
Then I looked, and behold, a white cloud, and seated on the cloud one like a son of man, with a golden crown on his head, and a sharp sickle in his hand. And another angel came out of the temple, calling with a loud voice to him who sat on the cloud, “Put in your sickle, and reap, for the hour to reap has come, for the harvest of the earth is fully ripe.” So he who sat on the cloud swung his sickle across the earth, and the earth was reaped. (14:14-16)
Chapters 15-19: Beastly Rome is destroyed and kingdom is given to the martyrs
Jesus has not only proved himself worthy to open the scrolls of judgment against Israel; he has also been given authority as the “one like a son of man” to judge the nations. The seven plagues then depict, again in fitting Old Testament language, the coming judgment against both the beast of aggressive Roman imperialism and the prostitute of Rome’s debased culture, culminating in the exultant declarations of God’s victory over the supreme enemy of his people in Revelation 18-19. At this point the satanic power behind Rome is confined to the abyss. The martyrs are raised to life and reign with Christ throughout the coming ages. The kingdom of God and of his Christ has finally come.
Chapters 20-22: And last but not least…
John is not greatly interested in what happens in the history of the world—in the thousand years—following the overthrow of pagan Rome. But it is important to him that the immediate historical crisis faced by the churches is set in the larger context of the renewal of all things. Israel’s God will have the last word. There will be a final judgment. All that is evil and immoral will be thrown into the lake of fire, which is an image of final destruction, not of eternal conscious torment; and God will dwell in the midst of his new creation.