There is perhaps no book of the Bible that offers as many interpretive challenges as the book of Revelation. I sometimes debate whether the book is actually perfectly clear while we are pathetically thick or whether the book is extremely difficult to understand because God intended it to be. Either way, though the intent and general message of Revelation is clear enough, the details present a challenge worthy of the most eminent theologian.
Speaking of which, Thomas Schreiner has recently taken on that challenge in three forms: a general-level commentary in the ESV Expository Commentary series; a major academic commentary in the Baker Exegetical Commentary series (which is still forthcoming); and The Joy of Hearing, a short book on the theology of Revelation. The latter work represents the debut volume in a new series titled New Testament Theology, co-edited by Schreiner and Brian Rosner. Each volume will examine the big ideas one of the books of the New Testament and do so in a readable and relatively concise format. (The second volume, The Mission of the Triune God: A Theology of Acts, will release in January.)
The Joy of Hearing, then, offers a theology of Revelation, which means it approaches the book thematically rather than chapter-by-chapter and verse-by-verse. Schreiner begins by telling why it is so important that contemporary Christians read the book of Revelation carefully and know it well. And, of course, this means he needs to address what the book is and is not. “The book of Revelation is not a prophecy chart about the future but a call to be a disciple of Jesus. John tells us to be faithful and fruitful, and we should not give in to despair, for in the end, all will be well.”
My contention is that we desperately need the message of Revelation for today’s world. There is a great conflict between good and evil in our world, and the Christian faith is under attack, as it was in the first century. John reminds us in this book that God rules, even in an evil day; that God has not forsaken his people; and that goodness will finally triumph and prevail. In the midst of evil, in a world in which the Christian faith is under attack, we need hope and assurance that evil will not have the last word, and Revelation teaches us that a new world is coming, that a new creation is coming, and that all will be well. God is just and holy and righteous, and those who turn against God and his Christ will suffer judgment. At the same time, we see in the book that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ are the center of history, or the fulcrum of history. Evil has been defeated because of what Christ has accomplished. The triumph over wickedness was realized not by an act of judgment but through the suffering of the Lion of the tribe of Judah, through the Lamb who was slain. What do believers do as they live in Babylon, as they live in a world in which the governments of the world are like ravenous beasts tearing apart the church? John tells us that we are to stay close to Christ, that we must not compromise with evil, that we must endure to the end, and that we must look to the final reward.
Schreiner then advances to a brief examination of the book’s setting, date, and genre, suggesting that the best evidence is that it was written during the reign of Domitian, which would date it somewhere between AD 81-96.—a time when the churches in Asia Minor were experiencing state-sanctioned persecution. Yet he insists that “no interpretation should be accepted that demands a particular date—an important hermeneutical conclusion that we can draw from the imprecision of the historical situation.” As for the genre, while Revelation is clearly apocalyptic, Schreiner also emphasizes that it was a personal letter. “The epistolary genre in the book reminds us that we should not indulge in what I call ‘newspaper eschatology’ in reading the book. The book was written to readers who occupied a particular social location, and presumably they understood, at least mainly, what was written to them. The hermeneutical significance of this fact is massively important, for it eliminates the popular conception that modern readers interpret Revelation better than the original readers.”
With all this groundwork in place, Schreiner begins the study proper and, through seven chapters, picks up on the major themes of the book:
- The deafness of those living on earth
- The saints hear and heed
- The declaration that God rules on his throne
- The good news of the Lion and the Lamb
- The testimony of the Holy Spirit
- The promise of blessing and the New Creation
- Reigning with Christ for one thousand years
Many will want to read this book to know where the author lands on the question of the millennium (and, therefore, which of the three major positions he advocates—postmillennialism, premillennialism, and amillennialism). He treads carefully and writes charitably without advocating one position far ahead of the others. That said, he is clearly most sympathetic toward historic premillennialism and amillennialism while fairly easily setting aside both postmillennialism and dispensationalism.
As he concludes his study, Schreiner says “In a world full of evil, selfishness, materialism, and sexual exploitation, John proclaims a message of hope, although it is an apocalyptic message that is hidden from the world. Thus believers must attune their ears to hear a transcendent message, to hear the words of the Son of Man and the Holy Spirit.” This wonderful little book, which is equally appropriate for pastors, academics, and general readers, will help accomplish just that—it will better equip us all to hear, understand, and apply that transcendent, hope-filled, life-giving, soul-sustaining message.
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